i've been plugging away at this chapter for awhile and i finally did what i wanted to do with it - except it's longer by itself than the entire fic thus far. so it's a long one. it all needed to go together, though, so i couldn't really split it. i think you'll like what's inside, though! let's just say our favorite boys are emotionally incompetent.
about 90% of this chapter was beta edited by the lovely Mara, or tumblr user feels-everywhere. snaps to her!
i'm updating this quick before work, so the format might be a little weird until i get to fix it. it's all set to go otherwise, though.
"So, Serah... tell us what you've been up to for all this time."
Alyssa's smile was wry, curling like a smug cat, obviously a little pleased and self-satisfied to utter her next few words. "It has been three hundred and ninety years since the Yaschas Massif, after all."
Serah smiled back at the blonde scientist, not commenting on her tone; it seemed she felt as if it wasn't something that ought to be addressed. Of course she's entitled to a little bit of gloating, she thought to herself. She and Hope did the impossible. Time travel without a Gate – who'd have thought?
Her companions were not as serene, however. Hope's face maintained a careful mask of apparent indifference, but there was an ever-so-slight creak of leather as his gloves tightened around the handle of the coffee mug. Across from him, Noel's mouth pressed together in a thin line.
He couldn't explain why, but an oddly chill feeling passed down his spine at her words. As if someone had "walked over his grave", his grandmother would have said.
The hunter decided he needed a good night's sleep, with a nice soft bed, and – what had Serah called it – a shower? That thing he had experienced in Bresha and immediately fallen in love with? Something like that.
Noel tried to remember when they had last slept. The Void Beyond seemed like several lifetimes ago to him. Behind his eyelids, when he blinked, he saw neon strips and screaming people.
Serah noticed her companion begin to doze off slightly, and nudged his calf with her foot as she answered her friend's question. "Well," she began, "we saw my fiancé."
Periwinkle eyes flicked to the side, judging Hope's (lack of) response before continuing.
"Snow's safe and sound like always. He helped us resolve a paradox in the Sunleth Waterscape... and then he..."
The pink-haired woman cleared her throat. "Then we ended up here. But not really here – it was an Academia where the Proto-fal'Cie Project had been completed."
Both of the scientists sat up a little straighter. Though the project had been cancelled before any headway had truly been made, Hope had always wondered what if? Apparently, that possibility was one Serah and Noel had dealt with. Against his better judgment, he was interested in the tale for more than one reason.
"As soon as we touched down, the thing went rogue," Noel cut in, not liking the glint in Hope's or Alyssa's eyes. I hope they learned their lesson about fooling around with things like that, he thought to himself quietly. I don't want to have to drag Hope out of the clutches of some lesser god again. "It started making Cie'th out of everyone in sight, blocked off escape routes, stuff like that."
The statement gave the silver-haired scientist pause. Something hard settled into the pit of his stomach.
He hadn't known how that project had ended. Only that it had been bent on killing Noel and Serah in the vision recorded in the Oracle Drive. But turning innocents into Cie'th...
"Like Eden," Hope said quietly, and Serah nodded solemnly.
"Yes," she agreed. "That was one of –" Noel's foot tapped her own suddenly, and she glanced to her left, looking into her companion's unreadable blue eyes.
"- Er, the reason we knew we had to keep you from building the proto-fal'Cie," she trailed off, the awkwardly truncated clause hanging in midair between the four of them.
Alyssa must not have sensed the pause, for she powered through the silence that ensued, clapping her hands onto the table and rising out of her seat slightly. "So? So?" she inquired. "What did you do?"
Serah told the story of Academia and Augusta Tower, deliberately leaving out the part in which they had learned of Hope's and Alyssa's deaths in that timeline, as her companion wordlessly beseeched her with the applied pressure on her left foot. She described the Alyssa duplicate in full, as the young woman wanted to know which was the more attractive of the two (to which they both responded hurriedly "you, of course").
And finally, she explained the fight against the proto-fal'Cie, and how, in a moment of epiphany, she had yelled out to Hope in anger.
"But," she said, staring down into her caramel cappuccino, which was steadily going cold between her palms, "I don't really know how it worked. It just did."
Hope smiled at her knowingly. "That's our part of the story," he began.
"That moment had been seen by a Yeul in the past. The vision was recorded in the Oracle Drive, and we witnessed the vision soon after we had drawn up the plans for the Proto-fal'Cie Project. I managed to convince the researchers and the Academy to abandon it."
His voice dipped.
"Team Alpha was especially displeased."
"Hope..." The younger Farron felt a small bit of guilt for that, but she could not articulate her thoughts into words.
Nonetheless, Hope seemed to understand what she had been trying to say, and shook his head slightly, taking a sip of his coffee before responding.
"It was a flawed project," he said sincerely, failing to notice Noel suddenly relaxing and leaning back against the plastic booth. "I know that now. I tried to ignore everything I had learned as a Pulse l'Cie of the nature of fal'Cie," and Alyssa stirred slightly (it was unusual to hear the Director speak of events before the Fall, however vaguely; even history books were left wondering as to what his role had been with any real certainty), "and that caused millions to experience a fate worse than death." His shoulders heaved in a silent sigh. "It was a mistake that shouldn't have been made."
The silver-haired man smiled without much humor.
"A paradox, if you will."
Against the mood of the conversation, Serah giggled quietly.
"Looks like we can't avoid them, no matter where we go," she joked slightly, glancing to the left to look at the hunter critically for not entering the discussion. But, at the sight that met her eyes, her gaze softened. She turned back to Hope. "You'll have to excuse him. We're both a little worn out..."
The adviser quirked an eyebrow at the sight of Noel passed out against the back of the booth, a marginally peaceful expression present on his countenance. "It appears so," he said mildly, seeming to fade off into his own little world for a moment or two.
However, he returned to the conversation abruptly. "Feel free to use my lodgings to rest until you've fully recovered. You've earned it – both of you."
Serah nudged Noel awake as Hope gave them directions to his apartment, and the hunter blinked groggily, raising a hand to his head.
It wasn't very like him to just fall asleep without warning. But, he supposed, he'd pushed his body beyond its limits these past few... days? Years? He didn't even know what to call it anymore.
And it wasn't his fault the silver-haired man across the table from him had such a soothing voice. Definitely not his fault. At all.
"Director," Alyssa said to Hope, bumping her shoulder against his, "it's rude to expect Serah and Noel to want to share a room. They're probably sick of each other by now, you know." She flashed a knowing smile at Serah. "You can use mine and hog the entire bed to yourself, how's that sound?"
The blonde woman pulled the access card key out of her pocket and handed it to the younger Farron across the table, who reached to take it, careful not to jar the sleeping Mog in her lap.
"Thanks, Alyssa," the young woman said with a gentle smile.
Noel was mostly conscious by now, and so Hope stood with the cold mug in his hands, experiencing a strange sense of déjà vu as he glanced out of the large window. I suppose I was off by a few hours. Four hundred years asleep will do that to a person.
Shaking his head to relieve himself of his thoughts, he turned back to his companions. "When you've had your fill of resting, come by my headquarters."
"After all, you're guests of the Academy."
The walk gave him shivers. Not due to the temperature, but because, leading a three-quarters-conscious Noel through the busy streets of Academia stirred a buried memory in Hope. One of ducked heads and empty alleys, the roar of military machinery and the shouts of confused people – a memory of Palumpolum – and of fear.
But he shoved the thought away before it could claim him like so many others had been doing as of late, the only evidence of its passage being a slight falter in the scientist's steps.
He glanced back to make sure the hunter was still following him; Noel had been mostly asleep for the part in which directions had been discussed, and Alyssa wisely suggested that they just show the weary time-travelers to their rooms instead of forcing them out into the crowded city to fend for themselves. The hunter did not meet his eyes; he was looking around the city with much curiosity, and it was only a moment later that he glanced forward and saw Hope looking at him inquisitively.
"Never seen this many people so close together before," he said by way of explanation. "We..." Noel paused to clear his throat – "didn't get much time to take in the scenery in the… other Academia."
The silver-haired man made a noise of understanding.
"Bringing so many humans together in such a small place introduces an entirely different set of problems than those you might be familiar with in a hunter-gatherer society," he said, before descending into a full-fledged lecture on the pros and cons of cities, weaving his way through alleys in New Town, Noel trailing behind.
The hunter was barely even listening, interested less in what Hope was saying and more in the tone of his voice and the way he moved. There was a certain set to the older man's shoulders that made it obvious he was talking about something he enjoyed studying, and he could see a hand or two as Hope emphatically gestured, apparently ignoring the fact that his audience was behind him.
It was a strange thought, but he was enamored by Hope's interest – if that was the way to put it. When he was caught up in explaining something that piqued his interest, his intellect and personality veritably shone.
A faint heat rose to Noel's face as he considered that, though he wasn't certain of its source.
The Director abruptly fell silent after mentioning something about aquifers. He glanced back at Noel somewhat apologetically. "I spent a while researching cities and civilizations while studying the ruins of Paddra. Sometimes I get a little ahead of myself –"
Hope cut himself off with a sudden question.
"Ah – huh?" He had been poised to respond generically, having not minded the other man waxing educational much at all, but was caught off-guard by the inquiry. Belatedly, he realized Hope had stopped walking, and he paused as well to avoid bumping into him.
"You're blushing," the silver-haired man pointed out.
"Uh –" The brunette coughed slightly, as if to hide it. Or his embarrassment. It could really be a toss-up, at this point. "Sorry. Just... tired," he lied.
"Oh." Hope blinked once. "I see."
"It's a first-floor flat," the Director said, turning and striding off to the left. They had come to a halt just five steps from the building. Noel followed him, jogging just slightly to keep up with his guide's pace. "There's some food in the pantry if you'd like, to tide you over while I figure out what to do about dinner tonight."
He continued explaining as he unlocked the door, handing the key card to Noel after the sensor had flashed green and he had stepped inside.
"There's a shower, as well. You can borrow some of my clothes for the time being; yours will be taken care of tonight, and I'll see to it that they get repaired if need be."
"Don't worry about it," Noel cut in to respond at the first opportunity. "There's not much damage, and what there is, I can –"
The brunette paused, mid-step and mid-speech, turning to Hope to address him fully.
"Actually," he said haltingly, "that is – if you can find some…"
Hope waited patiently for the hunter to collect his thoughts.
"…would I be able to get a needle and thread somewhere?" The request was made with a slight tinge of hesitance and – curiously enough – embarrassment. "A smaller needle, and some kind of strong thread. The strongest you've got, actually. Doesn't have to be of any particular quality, just durable."
The silver-haired man considered the question seriously. A moment later, he had an answer.
"I'm sure that can be arranged," he responded.
"Thanks, Hope," the hunter said sincerely. He hesitated a moment, as if thinking about adding something else, but apparently thought better of it as he instead turned and ventured into the apartment, looking around curiously.
Hope took the half-invitation to follow him, letting the automatic door slide closed and seal itself as he walked away from the entrance.
Noel was standing where the synthetic solid flooring of the kitchen met and turned into the sterile carpeting, his bare toes curling over the almost-invisible seam between the two.
Stepping lightly over his discarded sandals, the Director slipped past him and towards the shades that hung darkly, keeping the light and the noise and the bustle of the city at bay. With a wide gesture, he threw them open, and was slightly amused at the audible almost-a-gasp that escaped Noel's lips behind him.
The building dropped out into open space. Hidden from the street leading to the front door by a row of dwellings, the view of this section of New Town was unexpected; there was nothing for a hundred yards up, down, or out from the windows, only a street several floors below that hung a right and meandered away from them. The pale ants below could pass for people, and the toy cars and trees were vividly detailed and lifelike.
He didn't notice Noel creeping up next to him until the hunter swayed.
Hope grasped the younger man's shoulder, looking at him with an expression of concern. The hunter's pallid complexion was several shades lighter than his usual wild tan, and his voice was weak.
"I...think I need to sit down."
The adviser managed to support Noel for long enough to lead him to the bed in the other room; at that point, the brunette pitched forward, landing spread-eagled on the mattress with a little bounce. He let out a low moan of pleasure as he stretched out on the cushioned surface, and Hope chuckled, ignoring the shiver that ran down his spine at Noel's utterance.
The inarticulate grunt of vague bliss was answer enough.
Hope laughed again, and turned for the door. "We'll see you soon."
"Nngh," Noel grumbled in response. Though the accompanying "Hope, wait," was quiet enough and late enough for the silver-haired man to almost miss it, he halted and turned back at the call, hesitating at the door but striding forward confidently after the brief moment.
The brunette had maneuvered himself into a slightly more comfortable position, laying half on his side and with his arms wrapped around the spare pillow, facing away from the door. Nonetheless, he seemed to know that Hope had returned as he'd asked, because he cleared his throat softly.
"Will you -" he tried to say, but was cut off by a yawn. "Will you...stay? For a minute?"
Hope stirred slightly at the question. He had never seen his friend like this...what should he call it? It wasn't quite peaceful.
"It's...weird without Serah."
Lonely? That might be it.
Hope's expression softened. "Of course," he responded, oddly honored by the occurrence. It was obvious that the hunter tried his best to hide his weaknesses when he was at his prime, so to willingly display his softer side, even a bit, was a show of trust that wasn't lost on Hope.
"Operation Nora...didn't work out."
The evening sun is blocked out by a head of blush pink locks dyed orange, and his arms hang awkwardly to his sides as Lightning wraps her arms around him and pulls him tight to her. She is the older sister he never had, and the embrace - while unprecedented - helps him feel as if he might be able to glue his insides together into a recognizable shape after all.
"You'll be okay. I'll keep you safe."
Her words make him feel less broken.
"I..." he says, trying to respond appropriately. "Me too." He does not know how to deal with Lightning being affectionate at all, much less to him, much less when he is still trying to sort out his mixed feelings.
"I mean... I'll try to watch out for you, too."
He left his boots next to the bed, padding to the side opposite Noel in his socks. The dull olive of his trousers clashed oddly with Noel's blue pants as he sat next to him on the large bed, half-crossing his legs and leaning back against the headboard.
From this angle he could see Noel's face; the way the space around his eyes tightened even as the rest of his face relaxed. The youthful cast to his countenance, even though any trace of baby fat had long been worn away by hardship.
The way his blue eyes made his breath catch in his throat when they blinked open and caught him staring.
Even as he flushed and hurriedly glanced away, he heard Noel shift beside him. There was a sudden warmth seeping through the glove on his hand - the hunter had taken one in both of his, pulling his attention back to his drowsy companion.
"Hope... thanks," the brunette said quietly, and with remarkable clarity, considering he was barely conscious. His gaze was sharp; pointed.
There was a sudden lurch in Hope's stomach, and he had to glance away once more to collect his thoughts, feeling as if his internal organs were trying to rearrange themselves. He could not explain what had elicited the feeling, nor why he had felt as if Noel had been thanking him for more than just the bed.
Though, when he turned back to the younger man, poised to respond with his mouth half-open, he hesitated a moment, one silver arch delicately raised.
A light snore, reminiscent of a kitten's purr, escaped the hunter.
Having to restrain an inappropriate bubble of laughter at the sound, Hope slid off the opposite side of the bed once he had ascertained that Noel was not going to be waking up again this time. Gently, he pried his hand out of the grip of the sleeping man, and did not notice whatsoever the soft smile that graced the unknowing brunette's face at the action.
Of course not. Not at all.
Treading lightly as he made his way over to the door, clad in boots once again, Hope Estheim paused for just a second at the doorway; he glanced back, suddenly not keen on returning to the Academy, but shook the hesitation off as somewhat understandable worry as to whether or not Noel would be able to fend for himself for a few hours. After all, Serah was the one who knew her way around a modern kitchen.
Reassuring himself that Noel was a bright young man and that he was being paranoid, Hope ignored the faint urging that he ought to stay behind, straightening his tie in the mirror on the wall and slipping soundlessly out the front door.
Noel tugged at the white sleeves somewhat irritably. The cuffs extended down over his wrists and were distracting as they brushed against the sides of his hands, and the feather-light feeling kept distracting him from the conversation.
Well, one couldn't properly call it a conversation. In fact, it was more of a one-sided argument.
"Look," Serah growled, her round face and petite figure belying the fury she was capable of riling up whenever it suited her. "I promise, if you just call Hope and tell him Serah and Noel are here to see him, we can get this all straightened out."
"I'm sorry," the male secretary droned, clearly not apologetic. He looked down his nose disapprovingly, first at Noel, then at Serah, his gaze sliding apathetically over Mog, who was bobbing in the air behind the Farron woman's shoulder, looking around in what was probably awe and interest at the lavish foyer of the Academy building.
And it was awe-inspiring. All shiny metal and glass, the vaulted ceiling of the chamber caught and threw back the voices of the people in the room (who were largely children, Noel noted with surprise). The silver quality of the alloy was familiar in a way that made him blink a few times, until the secretary's flat response drew his attention back.
"The Lead Adviser is a busy man, and he won't be taking unannounced visitors," he said in his droll voice, shuffling the papers in front of him in order to appear as if he had something better to do than be insufferable. "Especially not...rabble like yourselves."
Serah frowned. "But-"
"Make an appointment," the man said snidely. "Perhaps in a year or two, you might have the fortune to catch a glimpse of the esteemed Mr. Estheim across a large room that's crowded with people. Until then..."
Noel stepped closer, next to Serah. He was tired of sitting on the sidelines, even if he didn't know exactly what was going on. In light of the fact that Serah had asked him to let her handle it, he glanced at her apologetically, to which she responded with a gentle smile.
"All right," he growled, looking down at the man who stared back up at him impassively, unflinching. "I'll put it in simple terms for you. She," he jerked his head back towards his companion for emphasis, "has known Hope for longer than the Academy's even existed. In fact, she met 'the esteemed Mr. Estheim' when he was just a kid - before the Fall."
Those three words especially seemed to cause the color to drain out of the blond-haired man's face, the hunter noted with a tiny bit of vindictive pleasure.
"In addition, her sister and her fiancé were both l'Cie right along with him." Bending down to the flustered-looking clerk's level, his voice dropped dangerously low. "And so was she. So you see, I think she's a hell of a lot more important than you are. Letting us through is probably the wisest option."
He knew Serah was fidgeting, but he couldn't stand being held up by nothing more than a stubborn idiot. If it had been a series of battles, he wouldn't have minded as much (though he still would have, mind), but this distraction was wholly unnecessary. He wanted to talk to Hope, dammit, and he'd be a behemoth's uncle before some guy who spent half of his time sitting in front of a desk with nothing to do would keep him from doing exactly what he wanted.
And she out of everyone ought to understand the importance of giving a good tongue-lashing where and when it was due.
"Do you," the pallid man asked, reaching up to card a hand through his straw-colored locks, "have an appointment?"
Grumbling, Noel abruptly straightened up. He knew he didn't cut quite as impressive of an image without his normal clothes and without a weapon, but he was pretty good with his bare hands if he wanted to be. But before he could do something decidedly regrettable...
"Serah Farron?" a voice resounded. "Noel Kreiss?"
The young woman jerked up from the desk, almost clipping Mog with her shoulder. The moogle let out a startled "kupo!" as he regained his balance. "Yes!" she responded, hunting for the source of the voice. "Yes, that's us!"
Standing in front of the large metal door at the head of the room was a young man with a set of binders in his arms. His untidy brown hair spilled out from under his beret, giving him a haphazard appearance, as if he had woken rather suddenly.
"D-Director Belhart, s-sir," the man behind the desk stuttered, rising to his feet as the young man hurried over. He adjusted his tie nervously, clearing his throat.
"Whatever seems to be the problem, Freeman?" Director Belhart inquired briskly, dropping the binders on the desk. The sound made Freeman flinch backwards, something that Noel noted silently. "Mr. Estheim requested that these two -"
Mog piping up loudly and peeking out from behind Serah's head caused Belhart to falter just a hair, but he recovered with extreme poise. "Ah, three, that is, be shown to his office the moment they arrived. And if I'm not mistaken, that was around fifteen minutes ago, wasn't it?"
"Yes, sir, but -"
"He said we needed to make an appointment," Noel cut in, having been able to stifle the majority of his irritation. "And he called us... uh, rabble, was it?" Folding his arms, ignoring the way the fabric dragged on them, he looked pointedly at the current Director and spectacularly failed to notice the way Freeman's face steadily began to resemble a miniflan. "Hope told us to drop by when we were ready. Didn't realize it would be a problem."
Belhart's mouth had fallen open slightly as Noel spoke, and he flushed marginally as well, his ice-blue eyes venomous when he glanced at Freeman. "Well, that's just silliness," he said faintly.
"We didn't mean to cause a commotion," Serah put in hurriedly, having been toying with the hem of her shirt and hoping Noel wouldn't do something drastic. Yes, the man was an idiot, and yes, they wanted to talk to Hope sooner rather than later, but he couldn't really be blamed for doing his job...albeit quite zealously. "Could you just take us to see Hope, please?"
Mog nodded, as if to punctuate her statement. "It's kind of important, kupo," he added, waving his clock-staff to and fro as he flew over closer to Director Belhart, peering at him curiously. He prodded the man's beret with the tool. "Hello there, kupo!"
Far from Freeman's cold, slightly fearful response, Mr. Belhart broke out into a wide smile at Mog's antics, raising a hand to poke the moogle in his round stomach. He squeaked indignantly and made to bonk the young man on the head, but he dodged with a laugh.
Serah found herself grinning at the sight, and Noel couldn't resist a small chuckle at Mog's excitement.
Freeman, however, grumbled to himself and went back to his work with a sigh. The noise seemed to bring the Academy official back to his senses, and he picked up his binders again, nodding to the pair (and a half) of time travelers. "If you'll follow me, then?"
"Oh, you definitely have the complexion for yellow!"
Alyssa veritably chirped this, tugging experimentally at the hem of the summery shirt Serah had picked from the stash of designer clothes tucked away in the scientist's closet. "It complements your hair a lot better than I thought it would, actually."
"You think so?" Serah was somewhat nervous, unsure as to how to act as Alyssa's impromptu dress-up doll. She shifted her weight. "I wasn't sure - I kind of closed my eyes and picked -"
She quailed as the young scientist rounded on her.
Pausing just as she was about to unleash what was sure to be a strong remark in the vein of "that's not how outfits work, you know!", she pressed two fingers to her cheek and sighed. "Well," she said, looking over Serah's outfit critically again. "I guess there's only one thing that can be done."
The bubblegum-haired woman glanced to the side, looking to Hope or Noel for assistance. But neither of the men were paying attention; at the opposite end of the room, they sat around a small portable computer, discussing something avidly, as far as she could tell.
Alyssa had dragged her over to ask her a question or two about their endeavors in the Augusta Tower, wanting to cross-reference some data with files they had on record. It was difficult to tiptoe around the subject of their deaths in that timeline, as many of her questions had revolved around the importance of human Academy employees.
That was, until the blonde woman had interrupted herself by clucking her tongue, pacing around her friend slowly as she observed her choice of borrowed clothes.
"I'll have to take you shopping!" she declared, stepping backward and nodding, the pen tucked behind her ear bobbing somewhat where it stuck out from her curly hair.
Serah blinked in surprise, round bluish eyes obscured by the flutter of long eyelashes.
There was a long moment.
"O-okay," she stuttered, feeling as if she was agreeing to something she would regret; however, Alyssa's excitability was infectious. The bag of gil tucked into the pocket of her white capri pants was heftier than it needed to be, after all, even considering that she and Noel ought to buy some weapon upgrades, if they could find Chocolina amidst the millions of people who lived and worked in the humongous city.
"Then it's decided!" Alyssa declared. "As soon as we get the two of you briefed, we can - oh, no, I hope they didn't start without us!" Her cheeks puffed out like a blowfish. "Directooor! You didn't start the briefing yet, did you?!"
"The...what?" Serah cocked her head to the side, the curls of her side-ponytail spilling over her shoulder. Did we miss something important?
"You'll see," the assistant told her cryptically, seizing her by the wrist and dragging her over to Hope's desk, leaving her notebook and tidy notes piled on the floor.
The late evening light appeared reddish-gold as it shone through the large window behind the two men, gilding their faces even as it cast the rest of them in shadow. Noel's legs were crossed at the ankles and propped up on the desk, his arms folded behind his head - lounging, as he peered at the laptop on Hope's lap, who was sitting two feet away, angled so the brunette and he could both see the backlit display.
Noel was saying something as the two women drew close, and Hope was laughing slightly as Serah and Alyssa each slid into a folding chair across from them.
"Welcome back, Serah, Alyssa," the silver-haired man said, unable to remove a gentle upturn to his lips even as he tried to be serious. "Noel and I were just discussing legends," he elaborated, upon noting his assistant's raised eyebrow. "Apparently there's an old wives' tale that the number of sons a man will have depends on how many times his wife can best him in combat."
Serah glanced at Noel in surprise and amusement, asking "really?" at the same moment that Alyssa waved her hand dismissively and said "fascinating, Director, but we really ought to get started, don't you think?"
Three pairs of eyes snapped to her, two incredulous and one challenging, but at the flicker of playfulness in Alyssa Zaidelle's visage, Serah hid a smile behind her hand.
Hope's lips came together in a thin line. "So eager," he deadpanned with fake reproach, but there was no animosity; in fact, the exchange reminded Serah of one thing in particular.
She turned to face Noel, and pantomimed sliding a wedding band onto her own finger when she was sure neither of the scientists was looking. She was unsure as to whether or not he would understand the joke, as she realized she knew absolutely nothing about Farseer marriage traditions, but she was relieved when he laughed quietly.
Therefore, she failed to see the flash of some unreadable expression cross his face for a shadow of an instant.
Hope cleared his throat. "Alyssa does have a point," he concurred, the very image of serious as he ignored his assistant's teasing. Setting the laptop down on the desk in favor of a rather thick manila folder, he moved his office chair closer to the table, opening the file and spreading out some of the top files. "We have a few things to talk about.
"The reason we picked this time period in particular as our destination is because of a certain structure that the two of you may have seen today, if you looked up." He would have twisted in his chair to point it out through the window, but his office was, unfortunately, on the wrong side of the Academy headquarters. As a substitute, he pulled out of the back of the folder a large photograph; the resolution left much to be desired, but depicted on the page was an amorphous edifice suspended in a sea of blue.
Noel took his sandals off of the desk and rearranged his posture to join the conversation, leaning slightly forward. He peered at the image even as Serah examined it as well.
"That," Alyssa said, "is the Thirteenth Ark."
"The Thirteenth Ark?" Serah parroted, looking up to glance between Hope and his assistant. Where have I heard the word Ark before...?
"We don't know much about it at all, except that it looks like it's endemic to this time period, for some reason. And also..."
"The structure has also attained sustained levitation." Hope finished Alyssa's thought. "It's our only lead in solving the main problem that we face in the development of the new Cocoon."
His gaze flicked swiftly to Noel. "The visions of the future that the Oracle Drive has provided us with have been instrumental in helping us to determine the correct path forward. More than that, your work in resolving paradoxes has made the route to the future we strive for that much more clear." Folding his hands in his lap, Hope regarded Noel and Serah both. "We really can't thank either of you enough."
Serah blushed slightly, looking almost sheepish. However, Noel was the one to respond, careful not to knock Mog off-balance as he turned his head. "We're in this together, Hope. You know that."
The scientist's eyes dropped into his lap for a moment. His hair obscured his face to the two young women, but Noel caught a glimpse of his lips moving; the words were clearly not meant for him, but the hunter could not help but strain to deduce his mutterings.
He failed, glancing away quickly in order to hide the fact that he had been staring; Mog squeaked and tumbled off Noel's head, cutting Hope's thought off as he angrily brandished his staff and whacked Noel upside the head.
The blow didn't sting as much as he expected it to, but he still recoiled with a bark of laughter, belatedly raising an arm to defend himself; pouting, instead of beating up the hunter further, the fluffy creature fluttered over to Serah, dropping into her lap with a muttered "Noel's a meanie, kupo..."
The four humans were all smiling as Hope cleared his throat, shifting in his seat as if restless. "At this stage in our research," he began - and Noel felt the mood grow quickly somber, yet oddly expectant - "there is good news, and there is bad news."
"Good news first?" Noel suggested, casting a look to Serah for confirmation. She nodded in response, exactly at the same time that Hope and Alyssa shared a look.
The blonde woman took over from there. "We managed to pinpoint the exact source of the Thirteenth Ark's levitation - it's a quantitative material, an ore cluster that we dubbed -"
"- the Graviton Core," Hope picked up the thread of conversation. "That's the good news. The Thirteenth Ark contains one of these such ore clusters; from our calculations, the new Cocoon will require five to compensate for the difference in mass, if we calculate based on the population of the old Cocoon just before the Fall. However, there is one catch. The bad news -"
"- is that we can't find any of these Graviton Cores on our own, no matter where we look." Alyssa frowned. "That's where you two come in. We found -"
"- the locations of seven of these ore clusters, the majority of which are in different time periods. We hardly have a right to ask you to do this for us, but - what?" Hope blinked, having just witnessed Noel and Serah exchanging a look and beginning to laugh. "Is there something wrong?"
"No!" Serah responded hurriedly. "No, no, it's just..."
"I think what she means to say," Noel began, still laughing a bit, "is that it's hard to keep up with you two when you do that thing."
Serah nodded, trying to stifle the sudden bout of hiccups that had come about from the small incident.
Hope glanced between the two of them with confusion, then at Alyssa, trading a light shrug with his assistant.
Two pairs of raised eyebrows answered his question, one brown and one rose. Hope's blank stare convinced Noel of his apparent blindness, once he had turned his chrysoprase eyes on the younger man, and he leaned backwards in his chair.
"You and Alyssa were finishing each other's thoughts faster than we could think," he said dryly. He couldn't fathom that Hope had simply not noticed that he and his assistant had been explaining the same point in tandem. That takes a special brand of teamwork.
A beat later, Hope flushed a bright scarlet, which Noel barely glimpsed in the millisecond before his face dropped into his hands; he massaged his temples as Alyssa and Serah exchanged another laugh.
"What can I say?" Alyssa queried rhetorically, addressing Noel as she too rested her elbow on the table, cupping her cheek with one hand as she raised an eyebrow at him. "I guess the Director and I are on the same wavelength."
Her tone was of amusement, on the surface; however, below, Noel caught an eddy of something that sounded like... possessiveness.
Like a challenge.
He went cold all the way to his toes when the observation clicked. It felt as if she had looked right through him and picked the exact words that would set him on edge, make him grit his teeth.
In that moment, he knew it to be true. It was no accident that she had said what she had, in that tone.
Of course she and Hope were on the same wavelength. The statement was truer and sharper than the blade of any sword, and it pained him, in a way that was difficult to express - even in his own thoughts.
The understanding he and the silver-haired man to his right shared was superfluous at best, while still remaining a connection; yet this did not satisfy the hunter. There was a strange desire, a yearning even, to get to know Hope better; to be close to him in that way.
It was a desire that he could barely admit to himself even now.
But Alyssa seemed to sense that deep-held longing in him - and knew that she had exactly what he wanted. She had the guts to tell him as much, in such a veiled manner that no one but the two of them would understand.
Clever, he had to admit.
But the vague admiration of her tact did not stifle the rise of resentment (and possessiveness) of his own. He knew that he was incredibly outmatched by her in the brains department - a trait which Hope evidently valued - but if it came down to a contest, so be it.
He didn't quite stop to realize the implications of his own thoughts - he would try to sort out the strange jumble of feelings later, when he wasn't so agitated.
Now, however - now Noel stared Alyssa down, answering the challenging gleam in her eye with one of his own.
Hope remained blissfully oblivious to the entire exchange, looking up at Serah wryly once he had regained control of himself. "I suppose we've bounced ideas off of each other a few too many times," he said, hearing her giggle and glancing at his assistant (only to follow her line of sight to Noel who (for some reason unknown to Hope) looked as if he was about to snarl and bite her head off, from the way his lip was twitching).
He reshuffled his papers, signaling a return to the discussion. Alyssa and Noel glanced away from each other, the former holding herself with an air of confidence and the latter almost palpably irritated. The Director paid them little attention as he pulled out the largest packet, sliding it across the desk towards Serah. "Alyssa compiled a comprehensive list of all of the Graviton Cores we've managed to locate throughout the timeline." He looked sheepish. "I don't know how to ask this, but..."
"We'll do it." Noel's answer surprised everyone, including himself; seeing Hope's look of hesitance (why? Noel wondered), he hurriedly backpedaled, explaining. "It sounds like the job for us. No one else can do what we do. And remember what I said, Hope? We're in this together. Right, Serah?" She nodded in agreement as asked. "So...we'll do it."
Hope's smile was small, but no less radiant for that. And, belatedly noting that he hadn't split it between himself and Serah as per usual, but rather reserved the entirety for Noel, the hunter felt something warm coil in his stomach.
He couldn't resist a surreptitious glance at Alyssa; she sniffed and looked away, leaving him feeling even more pleased.
"Director Belhart had nothing but the highest of praises for this restaurant."
Serah was paging through the menu curiously, giggling at the afterthought of the tagline - what was it, that it will tickle your intellect as well as your palate? The phrase went something like that, she thought, but what struck her funny bone was not the concept of this restaurant, sitting at the peak of the Academy building like a gourmet crown jewel, but Hope's delivery of the following joke.
He had the most impressive deadpan she had ever seen. The statement wasn't altogether funny - ("I'm not certain tickling is the desired sensation," he had said flatly) - just very unexpected, especially from her normally stoic friend.
Goodness, Serah thought to herself, surprised. Was I that starved of human contact, besides Noel?
As she regained herself, staring intensely at the pages of entrées as if they would yield to her some great secret, she glimpsed out of the corner of her eye a flash of movement as the ex-Director glanced at her.
Serah looked up, meeting his eyes. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but the flash of mischievous amusement that was almost-not-quite masked by seriousness certainly wasn't it. The look made her go hot and cold, filled her with a want to laugh and cry and - she knew exactly whom he'd learned that deadpan from.
And she yelled at herself internally before she could so much as take another step down the line of that thought process. Even the scant glimpse of her sister was as painful as it was relieving, without the agonizing thoughts of whys and what ifs that always seemed to accompany those reminders of Lightning, like moths to a flame.
The other two occupants of the table tucked away in the corner were completely unaware of Serah's emotional turmoil, much to her pleasure. However, it was easy to determine why that was so. It didn't take a soothsayer to sense the tension between Noel and Alyssa, the edginess that seemed thick enough to cut with a knife, roast on a seasoned range and be served on a silver platter out to the waiting companions.
She always came up with outlandish food metaphors when she was hungry.
Shaking her head and leaving the matter for later speculation, she returned to attempting to decipher the portfolio of pages in her hands. The incredibly messy handwriting perplexed her - and why would a restaurant run by the Academy have handwritten menus anyway? And more importantly, how were Alyssa and Hope not having any problems at all? The woman across from her was pondering the wine list with the same intensity with which one would tackle a mathematical equation (which might be more accurate than she had thought, as she caught a vague mutter that sounded an awful lot like "Merlot and Gorgonopsid? Mmm, not the best choice...").
Noel may have been pretending to read the items' descriptions, but she knew with absolute certainty that he was looking only at the pictures - from the way his eyes moved when she glanced at him, in flicks and stares and not lines, it was easy to see.
A few moments later, the younger Farron sighed loudly and set her menu down. "I give up!" she declared. "Hope, what's with this terrible handwriting? I feel like I'm deciphering my students' writing assignments through dirty glasses!" She answered his questioning look with an accusing finger brandished at a line in the folder. "Is that an E or a G? I can't even tell anymore. If this is a prank," she growled, folding her arms, "it is so not funny."
Taken aback, Hope gaped at her for a moment, much in the manner of a fish. Alyssa hid a snicker behind one half-gloved hand.
Then the man did something strange, indeed, as Serah huffed at him. He leaned back into the padding of the booth and laughed quietly at himself, saying something along the lines of "I should have known" before he asked his assistant for a scrap of paper and a pen.
On the loose sheet, the pink-haired young woman (and her brunette companion, who leaned forward to watch what was going on) watched Hope scribe two lines of twenty-six glyphs each. The top line Serah recognized as the Cocoonian alphabet that she knew, and had known since she was a child, all tidy lines and dots (and a lot easier to read than whatever mess was in that stupid menu). Beneath it, the second line of symbols looked like chocobo scratch in comparison, the lines meandering and of varying thickness, and rarely bearing any similarity to the Cocoonian glyphs he had written first.
He started talking as his borrowed pen scratched across the paper, rendering each small image almost perfectly. "These are the alphabets of the civilizations that existed on Cocoon and Gran Pulse, respectively." The man glanced up at Serah as he set the utensil down. "Serah, do you remember when you met Vanille on the beach in Bodhum?"
Taken aback, it was a second before she nodded. How does he know about that? "Yeah, I do. Why do you ask?"
"The two of you were able to communicate because you both spoke the same oral language," he said. At Serah's confused look, he elaborated. "The language of Gran Pulse is the same as the language of Cocoon, apart from a few slight differences in pronunciation. That is..."
Hope broke eye contact with Serah in order to return to his sheet of paper, drawing a line connecting each Cocoonian letter to a corresponding Pulsian letter. "The only difference between the two is which symbol represents what letter."
"Okay," Noel said, startling both the Cocoon natives. (Alyssa was still frowning between the menu and the drinks list, as if waiting for a solution to her predicament to present itself.) "But what does that have to do with this weird menu? It doesn't look like either of those – well," he amended himself, "it actually looks like..."
"Both of them." It clicked for Serah as if she had been looking at the puzzle from the wrong angle, as she compared the menu to the example scripts. It's like the two of them fused!
The ex-Director looked pleased. "Precisely," he said. "In the first months and years following the Fall, the Academy was a research foundation – one that focused the majority of its attentions on the ruins and writings of Gran Pulse. It became pivotal that every researcher know the Pulsian alphabet for his research. Some, instead of writing in two different languages and constantly translating their notes back and forth, worked out a style that combined both alphabets and was vaguely recognizable from either end. When the institution later fused with the government, the intermediate alphabet was introduced to the public; it gained ground and, well," he gestured vaguely at the menus, "here we are."
Able to use the "cipher" to begin to understand the words she was looking at, Serah ignored the following conversation that ensued between Noel and Hope comparing a third alphabet (which Noel scribed with the borrowed pen), and attacked the list with renewed vigor. As the language barrier fell away, she was drawn into the strange but delicious-sounding foods, meals that made NORA's house special look like a slab of burnt meat in comparison.
However, her excitement was short-lived. When the waitress finally came around to ask if they were ready (after having been sent away the first time), and the perfect order rolled off of Serah's tongue, her face fell when the young woman with curly red hair shifted slightly... and tapped her nails against the small handheld computer that recorded their orders... and worried her lower lip between white teeth.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice steady even as she quivered a bit like a string drawn too tight. Her eyes flicked to Hope for a shadow of an instant, as if afraid of disappointment. "It looks like we're all out of Shaolong Gui for the evening, Miss Farron."
"Oh," Serah said simply, staring back down at her menu. Nothing else had jumped out at her as much as the soufflé had.
"May I recommend the -" The woman's voice petered out as Alyssa talked over her, saving the day by shouldering the plans.
She listed off entrée after entrée, and the waitress struggled to keep up, to the point where Hope glanced over at Alyssa pointedly. She looked back at him and flushed brightly, apparently not realizing she had been hell-bent on ordering half the menu a moment ago.
"Ah," she groaned, "I'm sorry. I suppose just the first four, then."
The waitress' face stayed perfectly schooled as she crossed out eight items. "Anything else for your party tonight, Miss Zaidelle?"
"One more thing." She confirmed the statement with a nod and the flash of a sharp smile. "A round of the strongest liquor you've got, please."
Her wink to the waitress went almost unseen as three pairs of eyes snapped abruptly to hers. Alyssa fielded the complaints expertly, the majority of them being from Hope; Serah protested weakly, but was quickly overridden by the scientists' heated discussion.
"Director," Alyssa sighed, "it's just one night! You can loosen up and celebrate!"
His frown was met with her disapproving look as she folded her arms, wagging a finger at him. The assistant looked to Serah and Noel for help, though they only glanced at each other; seeing that she wasn't going to be getting any assistance from her friends with the obdurate man, she focused the full intensity of her glare at him. "Director Hope, it isn't every day that the four of us meet again in 400 AF. You take all of your work very seriously, but if you don't take a break every now and then, you'll drive yourself nuts!"
He was poised to respond, but her pent-up tirade continued. "Everyone will understand if you take a few hours to yourself. Today's the best day you'll get to relax. Serah and Noel are back and we're on our way to getting the Graviton Cores! There's no better time than now to live a little."
She grabbed his arm. "Come on, Director. Trust me. Just one night. Please?"
Hope stared at Alyssa, weighing the pros and cons in his head. His thoughts led him to looking blankly into Alyssa's eyes, who, unknowingly to him, smiled charmingly back.
Serah sighed in a manner that gave Noel the impression that Snow was on her mind. The hunter himself... looking down at his lap, he began to recite in his mind a short scrap of a story that some Farseers had used to drive off worries and distraction before a hunt, to focus his emotions before they got the better of him. (Perhaps when he had crushed them down to a manageable intensity, he could take a while and figure out why he was feeling what he was, and what those feelings were anyway. Emotions were not his strong suit, but it frightened and irritated Noel to know he didn't understand his mind as perfectly as he did his body.)
His knuckles whitened as his fists clenched.
There was a man outside of Tueline,
who thought himself quite good at fooling
His heart and also those of women
Until he found himself one morning
Beset by love's own arrow'd longing.
Noel sighed to himself. There was a man outside of Tueline...
"Just this once." Hope's quiet and hesitant agreement drew Noel from his calming activities, and Serah from her own thoughts. The beam that spread across Alyssa's face was dazzling.
The hunter closed his eyes, failing to notice the tightness in Hope's face in answer to Alyssa's glee. The fragment of doggerel failed to calm him down; something like hurt and anger rose in him, choking him. What a fool I am.
He was on his feet before he could comprehend what he was doing, but relinquished his control to his fight-or-flight survival instincts. He turned and strode off, sidling around tables, ignoring Serah's confused cry of "Noel-?", and with as much dignity as he could muster, he fled from the situation. From the infuriating assistant, and her equally but wonderfully frustrating superior.
But most of all, from himself, and his own convoluted feelings.
He stared into the mirror at himself, examining a hairline scar that extended from the corner of his left nostril to his left ear. It felt nice to be able to breathe again; the atmosphere in that booth had been suffocating, even though he had seemed to be the only one who felt it.
The footsteps might have startled him, if he hadn't been expecting them. Still, he ignored Hope as his impromptu companion leaned against the far wall. The silver-haired man didn't try to meet Noel's eyes in the large mirror either, folding his arms and focusing his gaze on the tiles beneath his feet.
"Serah's worried," he said.
The hunter didn't respond, deliberately not turning around to face Hope even though he flinched just a bit at the statement. (He hated that she cared so much about him, sometimes. He had vowed to do his damnedest to keep her safe - it was kind of hard to do that if she had eight people's worth of concern for him. If he hurt her by protecting her, well, then he had to be pretty damn careful.)
He noticed a flicker of movement; Hope was looking at himself in the mirror too. "She said she'd never seen you storm off like that," he continued, though judging from his tone it seemed he expected Noel not to respond.
The hunter was surprised, too. "Yeah, well," he found himself muttering.
"Noel," Hope spoke, stepping up next to his friend at the counter, abandoning all pretenses. "What's going on between you and Alyssa?" His eyebrows furrowed, as Noel saw in the glass. "I don't know what's gotten into her - either of you, honestly."
Noel sighed and dropped his eyes to his hands on the granite countertop. "It's hard to explain."
He shook his head. "I would if I knew myself." That was an honest statement. If he had words to describe the situation, he would say them. As it was, he could only hope that Hope would be able to put two and two together in a way that he couldn't seem to.
And maybe explain it to him. That would be nice.
Hope hummed in what Noel assumed was thought, and only then did the hunter turn to face his friend. "Perhaps we ought to ask Alyssa what her issue is."
"No," Noel said, sharply enough that Hope's eyebrows jumped up. "I just -" he tried to start, but struggled with finding the right words. "Don't worry about it, Hope," he concluded faintly. "We're just not seeing eye-to-eye on something. That's all."
Actually, he thought he might have an inkling of an idea as to what was really at the base of all of this. And if he was right, then his subconscious had probably been trying its level best to get his conscious attention for a while. Because things like that did not just creep up on people.
Hope looked at him searchingly, his pale face unreadable as the incandescent light of the bathroom spilled over his skin. Chrysoprase eyes roved over the hunter, trying to deduce some way in which to help his friend; his expression was flat and schooled, but Noel saw it when he looked up – the confusion (and was that hurt?) that was all but swallowing him whole. It was all there in his eyes… he saw this when their gazes locked.
A full-body shiver shook Noel's system as every single one of the pieces fell into place. The force of it left his mouth dry. It was infuriating how mockingly simple the entire situation was to understand when one looked at it correctly.
"I think I need to go," he blurted. The adrenaline that always seemed to be on tap now flooded through him in response to the realization and his need for some time to sort things out. (His body was out of whack enough as it was, what with all of the constant fighting. Traveling through time probably had not helped at all, especially considering he couldn't remember whether or not Caius had ever lectured him on how it dragged on one's body – he highly doubted he had – and, to top it all off, he still had yet to catch up on all of his missed sleep. It stood to reason that one little shock would topple a series of dominoes just waiting to fall, he thought bitterly.)
Nevertheless, the way Hope almost jolted at the statement made Noel feel extremely guilty. I really hope he doesn't think he offended me or anything. He was just trying to help. Not his fault that I…
He was almost gone, but the broken sigh that escaped his friend when the brunette disappeared from sight caused him to pause around the corner. He knew that listening in was really the wrong thing to do, but he could not stifle his curiosity, especially when he could begin to hear Hope's voice.
"Light…" he heard the Director sigh to himself. "I don't understand what's going on." There was a beat of pause. "Noel and Alyssa are both hiding something from me. And on top of that…"
Noel strained to hear what Hope said next, but he couldn't – not from this far away.
"I feel like – like I'm losing my mind," the man continued, and Noel thought he could tell from the odd quality of his voice that he seemed to be holding in a sob. "I wish you were here to smack some sense into me, Light. You gave me the best advice I could ever ask for, but – I really don't know how to handle this.
"Please… come home safe and sound. We need you."
His heart heavy with the words he wasn't meant to hear, Noel slipped quietly out the door.
There was a light knock on the wall.
"Noel?" Hope tried, sliding his boots off near the door. The hallway was dark, but he saw a light in what might be the living room. There was no response to his call, but he wasn't surprised; after today he figured Noel would be passed out on the couch, or something.
He stepped over Noel's sandals, sprawled in what was quickly becoming their usual spot, as he entered the living room quietly so as not to disturb the brunette.
Except he was met with a sight quite unexpected.
Noel's bright blue eyes were sharp like metal, cleaving through Hope as they flicked to him. "Hope," he responded, with only scarce inflection. His attention returned to the shirt in his lap. "How'd it go?"
The scientist stood still for a moment, taking in the scene of Noel lounging on the couch and fixing up his shirt with the needle and thread Hope had given him. He swallowed and moved to sit down on the other end of the piece of furniture. "Fine," he said dismissively.
He had left soon after Noel, feeling too uncomfortable to sit through dinner proper. He had no idea what Alyssa would drag Serah into next; didn't really have a desire to be a part of it either.
The hunter grunted noncommittally, but looked up at the silver-haired man in surprise when the latter rose to his feet again. The older man in question disappeared into the kitchen, banging around a few cupboards and the refrigerator for a moment or three before he returned with a bottle and two glasses.
In response to his curiosity, as he set them down on the coffee table near to Noel's feet, the corner of his mouth quirked up.
"She's right," he said. "I don't relax enough. And it's only one night, after all. But -" He looked up from what he was doing, drawing Noel's attention. His expression was hesitantly pleading.
The brunette caught on immediately. "Sure, why not. After all," he said with a smirk, "I'd be honored to have a drink or two with the esteemed Mr. Estheim himself!"
Hope's lips pursed in a severe way, but he still laughed quietly. "I heard about that," he said, as he poured two glasses of what might be rum. "Director Belhart was a nervous wreck."
"Wasn't his fault," the brunette declared, making another stitch. "Freeman's an idiot, but that can't be helped either."
Hope hummed noncommittally. He remembered working with someone very similar to this Freeman on site in the Massif all those years ago, a female soldier who would sooner spit in her superior's face than disobey what her job duties entailed, even if instructed otherwise. There were always a few who held their job descriptions as the gospel truth, he figured.
"If it hadn't been for Serah, I'd have been out there, too. Hunting l'Cie. They'd have been nothing but targets to me."
Hope paused. He was sure Lightning had never said anything of the like to him. So why was he remembering that?
"Hope," Noel said suddenly, looking at him oddly.
The silver-haired man stirred and looked up, realizing he had been lost in thought. "Yes?"
"You spaced out at the bottle. Aren't you gonna sit down?"
"Ah - yes." Shaking the unusual thought off, he circled the table and took a seat a few feet from Noel on the small couch. He tossed a glance at the project sprawled over the brunette's thighs, intrigued in the way that only a scientist could be. I wonder what gender roles consisted of in his time.
"Hope," Noel said again. "What's wrong?"
"You keep zoning." Tying off the line of stitches and setting the fabric to the side, he leaned forward to grab the glasses. He handed one of them to Hope, making doubly sure that the older man had a firm grip on the glass - just in case. "Let's talk about something."
Seeing that Hope was staring at the liquor now, Noel clicked their glasses together himself, ignoring the startled glance upward that the sound elicited. "Cheers," he announced, hoping against hope that the alcohol might help the Director concentrate. Wildest dreams, Noel. Doesn't work that way.
He was still concerned, though.
His friend's face at the taste of what he was very sure, by now, was rum almost caused Noel to laugh. Almost. He himself had never had anything of the like - the Farseers weren't big on alcohol - but Lebreau (was that her name?) sure had a good time lecturing him on all the multicolored bottles behind the NORA house counter. He probably would have preferred something a little more bitter, but he countered that thought with the assurance that he was pretty much pretending to know what he was talking about.
He paused. That sentence didn't make any sense. Shrugging it off, he nearly jumped when Hope was the first one to break the relative silence.
"What would you like to talk about?" He wasn't conceding the decision to Noel out of politeness, it seemed; he was honestly curious. At that, a generic response without commitment fell stone-dead before he could say it, and instead he actually considered a conversational topic.
"How about..." he drawled slowly, "...the Fall?"
Hope held his gaze for only two beats before he looked away. "I'm sure Serah told you everything," he said, avoiding the topic.
"Some stuff here and there. Relevant things, things she heard from Snow." His eyes bored into Hope. "I don't know anything about your side of it, though."
"Snow had all of it right."
Noel leaned forward and grasped Hope by the wrist, forcing the silver-haired man to look at him. "I know it's a lot to ask." He swallowed. "I'll tell you about my childhood. Everything I remember. We'll trade."
"Noel -" He knew he was trying to make Hope feel better about sharing, but the hunter had mostly succeeded in backing him into a corner. On the one hand, he had never related the story to anyone before. At least, not in full. Everyone that mattered knew what had happened without needing to be told (besides his father, who knew the first half anyway). Others...he let them be content with the history books he had contributed to, however minor. The information contained was as accurate as anyone would need; the Academy, under his father and Rygdea, had seen to that.
On the other...he was immensely curious as to Noel's past. Not only for the informational knowledge, but also because...well, he really wanted to know things about Noel. Understand him. He knew Alyssa like he knew himself, because they were so similar, and while he hadn't been particularly close to Serah, they were also of a like breed - had been tied by the commonality of their former Focus, and by Lightning and Snow. But there was nothing to connect Hope and Noel besides their goal (and Serah herself, as well); yet this did not satisfy the scientist. There was a strange desire, a yearning even, to get to know Noel better; to be close to him in that way.
It was a desire that he could barely admit to himself even now.
Looking into those pleading blue eyes was the last straw to orchestrate his downfall. However, he was still pleased by the sudden series of surprised blinks as he conceded with an "All right".
"The story's a long one," he warned at the outset. "I suggest you get comfortable." As such, he didn't protest when Noel refilled his glass as well as his own, knowing the intoxicant might help him get past some of the more difficult chapters.
When the hunter had rearranged himself comfortably a few feet away, Hope cleared his throat. "I should start by describing Cocoon. Many of our hurdles and much of the fault of our mental states can be traced back to the environment and culture that we had been raised in.
"It was relatively small compared to Gran Pulse, but to the people, it was perfect. When you looked up, you saw the lights of other cities dotting the night sky. We wanted for very little; our every need was provided-for by the fal'Cie, our benefactors - and our dictators.
"We didn't know it then, but we, every single one of us, were pawns in the fal'Cie plan. Sheep to a shepherd. They took good care of us, and we remained diligently obedient, never questioning their decisions, never doubting the tales of the hell of Pulse. To us, they were the guardians that protected us from the barbarians below.
"This tale starts with the awakening of two such 'barbarians', and the subsequent branding of a young woman you call a friend. But you asked for my story, so here it is.
"I was born to two loving parents, raised in a well-off family, and attended a typical public school. My father was distant and occupied with work; my mother," for the first time, Hope's neutral lecture-voice broke, and he took a moment to swallow a swig of rum before continuing, "stayed at home to raise me. I think she might have published a book when I was younger. I don't remember all that accurately anymore.
"I grew to resent my father for not being around more. At that time, I didn't understand that it was possible to show your love for your family by spending your time ensuring they were well-fed and well-clothed. I thought he was grasping at straws for reasons to be away from me, and I did the same to him.
"There was a vacation to Bodhum," he noted Noel's stir of recognition, "New Bodhum's namesake and, yes, the hometown of Lightning, Serah, and Snow. It was also the place where Vanille and Fang awoke, inside the Pulse Vestige. I didn't know that then.
"My father was called into work. Mom and I went without him. She dragged me shopping, and to the beach, and eventually the annual fireworks celebration." His smile was nostalgic, though slightly bitter. "We were all there for those fireworks. Vanille. Fang. Lightning. Sazh. Serah and Snow. And myself.
"The following day was when the Purge began.
"We were visitors. We should have been exempt. But they threw us onto the train. I still don't know if I would wish for it to have been any different. It's strange." He frowned. "I can't imagine what would have happened if we hadn't been on that train.
"Snow and Team NORA crashed the train. Rounded us up and armed us against the soldiers, kept most of us alive through bravado and luck. He asked for volunteers."
Noel sensed his need before the scientist even realized it; he slid closer, as if to remind his friend that he was here, and the events of which he speaking were not.
"Mom went with him. He also gave the crazy girl a gun. That," he said, "was Vanille.
"She dragged me with her. It was because I followed her that I saw my mother - protecting Snow. Then -" Again, his voice failed him. (Noel looked at him with concern, but he ignored it.)
"They fell," he finally managed to whisper, his voice deceptively calm.
"I saw it. All of it. I was in shock; Vanille slapped me, brought me back to my wits. I probably would have been dead if not for her, even if I thought she was insane at first. I latched onto her; her crazy was less crazy than my life had become. The government that protected me and provided for me was now trying to kill me, was telling everyone else that we were just being moved to Pulse. And on top of that, Mom just -"
He accepted the soothing hand on his calf.
"I blamed Snow. Thought that if not for him, she might still be around. We chased him, Vanille and I, even as he chased Serah in the Vestige; even as Sazh chased Light, who chased Serah as well. It was all very parallel." The smile was wan. "We all ended up inside. Serah crystallized in front of us. The Vestige started coming down on top of us. And they decided to... attack the fal'Cie. Attack it! As if that would make things better!" He knew he must sound hysterical, but he couldn't help it; the emotions he had forced down at that time had never been properly released until now. Hope was only thankful that Noel seemed to understand; he didn't move except for the almost imperceptible nod that he gave as aquamarine eyes gazed at gentle azure.
You can do it.
"Serah had been a l'Cie. Sazh's son Dajh had been as well. And Vanille was already one at the time, unbeknownst to us. I was the only one that didn't know the truth. That l'Cie were just unfortunate people, not evil monsters. Therefore - I was the most scared. I tried to run. But I was branded with the rest."
Lake Bresha was easier for him to explain; besides being scared out of his mind at his new abilities, it was more of the same - resenting each and every one of them for putting him in this mess. Even Vanille. And especially Snow. The Vile Peaks were also easy; leaving Sazh and Vanille, being left for dead in return, Odin, and finally being of some use to Lightning, his idol. (When he told Noel of his admiration for Light, the hunter snorted. Hope couldn't figure out why.) The Gapra Whitewood took only four sentences, being the lowest point of the tale.
"Palumpolum was a fortress," he said softly. "It was unreal seeing the city I grew up in filled with so many people who wanted me dead. We sneaked in through the underground nutriculture - food production," he added for the brunette's benefit, "plant, and saw Carbuncle on the way. As we passed it, Light told me that Operation Nora was over."
The calming hand had by now migrated to his knee, which it squeezed gently at the news. He was rather thankful that Noel had refrained from commenting; the nonverbal support was exactly what he needed.
"I accused her of abandoning me. She promised that she wouldn't, and I held her to that. But soon after, when we reached the other end and returned topside...
"They knew we were coming. There must have been hundreds of soldiers just waiting for us to stumble into their ambush. The two of us against a battalion? We were done for." He cleared his throat, taking another swig of liquor as he gave his voice a momentary rest. The pause stretched out a few moments longer.
"She told me to start running. 'You survive.' And maybe I would have, if not for her promise. I couldn't believe that she would be ready to lay her life on the line for me; to abandon me to keep me alive." He shook his head. "I wouldn't have made it anyway.
"Snow busted in at just the right time, with Fang in tow. He took out a few soldiers, summoned Shiva, his Eidolon; the two of them provided enough distraction that Light grabbed me and ran, loosing as many shots as she could to clear us a way out. He was a hero." His lip quirked ironically. "If he had been a second late, we'd have been executed.
"Light all but threw me at him. I guess she knew the idiot well enough to know that he'd keep me safe. At the time, though, it was a really bad decision." Hope frowned. "I was so full of anger. I was a ticking time bomb, and putting me close to Snow only aggravated that. Fang tagged along with Light to watch her back, so it was just the two of us.
"We scared the living daylights out of a few citizens to get them to run away. We knew if they had stuck around, the army would have killed all of them in order to get a shot at us. Snow threatened them – I knew what he was doing, and why, but it still hit me the wrong way. I don't know if I thought there might have been a better way; maybe I was just in a dark enough place that I didn't care about them anymore.
"At least, that's what I thought. They came after us with pitchforks. I have a vivid memory of a little girl," he paused to clear his throat, feeling it go raspy with overuse, "hiding in an alley with a Carbuncle doll. She threw it at me and ran. Snow brought down an overhanging sign to blockade us from the citizens, but I couldn't just leave. I picked up the doll and left it for her on top of the sign."
He thought Noel's expression might have softened, but he couldn't be sure, as he took the natural break to refill their glasses. He didn't want to admit it to himself, but he was thankful for the buzz of the alcohol. It gave him something else to concentrate upon, besides his tale.
When he had settled back down, he continued, talking about their flight over the rooftops of Palumpolum, on his way home. At a certain point, after fending off the Ushumgal Subjugator with Snow, he found himself unable to go on; the words died in his throat, and he made a few false starts.
The hand that wrapped around his took him by surprise, but while just a few hours ago he would have jerked away at the sudden contact, now he relaxed into it, almost but not quite welcoming the gesture. It was a lot harder than he had thought it would be, to relive these experiences; Noel's fingers twining with his helped him to breathe again.
And if he was a mite flushed, then it was obviously the alcohol's fault. Indisputably.
"I grilled him," he began finally. "On what he wanted. What he felt because of the Purge, because of us being l'Cie - because of people whose lives I accused him of ruining. What he said just fueled my anger. 'Keep fighting and surviving until I find the answers I need.'
"I told him there weren't any answers. That he was running from what he deserved.
"Somehow I knocked him off the ledge. A spell, maybe. Instead of helping him up, I pulled Light's knife." Noel's hand squeezed, as if he was surprised by the statement. Hope wondered idly if Snow had ever told Serah about that. "A battleship was circling overhead, watching us, but I didn't care. I spat Mom's name at him. Was vindicated when he recognized it.
"The battleship fired as I readied the knife. The explosions behind me threw off my balance, and I fell clean off the roof. And Snow dropped right after me. Always the hero, he caught me and broke my fall. Even after I had just tried to kill him." His breath hitched.
"I would have done it, too. Noel, I wanted to kill Snow. I almost -" His voice fully broke that time. Hope took a few seconds to fight back the telltale heat behind his eyes that bespoke of tears. He was twenty-seven years old, for Etro's sake. Grown men did not cry telling stories.
There was a clink as Noel set his glass down on the table, slinging his free arm around the silver-haired man's shoulders without warning. He was taken aback at how natural the gesture felt; being inexorably pulled flush to the hunter's side would have agitated him had it been anyone else. The man caused his irritation to evaporate like shallow water in the sun.
"But you didn't," he said, the first thing he had uttered in a long while - so quietly Hope was almost certain he had misheard, despite their proximity.
"No," he agreed with a sigh. "I didn't."
The rest of the tale went by surprisingly quickly, once he had passed the most difficult part. (Notably, Noel stared at him for a while after the part about falling out of the airship and later fighting his Eidolon. Eventually he just shook his head and chuckled, amused to no end by some private joke he didn't share with Hope.) Drawing near the end of his story, the hunter's mouth fell further and further open; for the sake of brevity, the silver-haired man glossed over the period of time in which he might have been a Cie'th. The hunter looked at him critically nonetheless, as if silently wondering "how in the hells..?"
"Waking up from crystal stasis was a lot like walking straight out of bed without having to get up. That is, it was...strange, to say the least." He laughed gently. "We saw Cocoon hanging above us, supported by a crystal pillar. Sazh, Snow, and I - and if what Serah remembers is true, Light was there as well." His good humor dimmed. "I remember looking down and seeing her knife by my foot - giving it to Serah after Snow had put her down, and watching her face fall." He thought that if he pushed hard enough at the edges of that memory, though, he might remember the feeling of someone's arms around his shoulder. But he wasn't certain if it was just wishful thinking. "Sazh and Snow had Dajh and Serah back. Someone from the Cavalry found my father for me, as well.
"We had all lost more than we could replace, but we gained a future out of it. We fought our Focus... and we won."
There was a long silence as the steady stream of words that had occupied the air for at least two hours rang to nothing. Only the twin sounds of breathing broke the quietude.
Noel swore suddenly, quietly; however, the sound was sharp enough that Hope started.
"The old stories don't do the truth any justice at all," the hunter said disapprovingly. "Some of them even left out the Cocoon-born l'Cie entirely."
At Hope's laugh, the brunette looked down at him. "What?"
"It makes sense," the silver-haired man elaborated. "Fang and Vanille were the ones that really mattered, in the end. Lightning, too. The rest of us were...the supporting cast, in a sense." He chuckled again, but the action was more cathartic than out of any sort of humor.
"That's not true, Hope," Noel argued, apparently intent on making his case. "You kept the morale up. If not for you, none of you would have made it to Oerba, right? You're just as important as they were."
"Mm," the ex-l'Cie hummed noncommittally.
The break stretched peacefully between them. Hope was aware that he and Noel were too close to be entirely decent - they were practically cuddling - but he found himself to be enjoying it all the same, and thus he ignored his doubts.
"I wasn't really anything special."
The hunter was beginning his story.
"I only remember bits and pieces, because the timeline hasn't been certain for a while. But I'll tell you what I do remember.
"My parents died three years after I was born. That year, sickness was rampant; a lot of our most able-bodied hunters died. There weren't many who wanted to or could take care of me. My grandmother taught me a lot, but she couldn't hunt. So, I was taken in.
"He took me on as his apprentice, taught me the ways of the Guardian. Yeul was born again later that year. She had fallen victim to the plague as well... I suppose that technically makes her the last human born.
"She was Yeul, though. Which to me meant something more than human, I guess.
"We were practically siblings, we were that close. And as we grew up, more and more people died around us. Death was the only constant. And after long..." Noel swallowed.
"It was just us.
"My memory gets fuzzy here. I don't remember how old I was when my grandmother died, or when Caius left, or when Yeul -"
Hope returned the favor by squeezing the hunter's hand gently. The brunette squeezed back, but it was still a few seconds before he could continue.
"However it happened, at some point, I was alone. Everyone was gone; they left their hopes and dreams on my shoulders. That weight," he sighed, "was too much.
"I wandered, looking for Valhalla. Trusted the tales Caius told me of the timeline and the Unseen Realm. I prayed to Etro for some way to fix things. I didn't care if I ceased to exist; I couldn't let humanity end like that.
"I walked until I couldn't walk anymore. Then I was brought to Valhalla; I fell through the air, and Lightning caught me, riding Bahamut."
Hope stirred at that. Fang's Bahamut? It couldn't have been. But still.
Noel mistook the movement as being elicited by Lightning's name. "She was probably the fiercest woman I'd ever met," he said softly. "She told me about Serah, gave me Mog, and sent me off before Caius could intervene.
"They were matched so well it was scary. Their conflict tore Valhalla apart; I leaped for a Gate only a second before a falling piece of shrapnel squashed me flat." His laugh was just as lifeless as the image. "Then I ended up in New Bodhum. And... I guess you know the story from there, huh."
They lapsed into a comfortable silence again, each lost in his own thoughts. It was a minute or two before Hope found himself needing to shift, the leg tucked beneath him erupting into pins and needles.
"Thank you," they both said in unison. Surprised, their gazes snapped to each other's, perplexed aquamarine and amused azure.
They stared at each other for a beat, before Hope flushed slightly and looked away first with a little nervous laugh. "Thank you for trusting me with that, Noel."
"You had faith in me first," the brunette countered. Their hands were still clasped, and Noel's fingers rubbing against his caused him to glance up again. "So...thanks, Hope."
His intense gaze trapped the silver-haired man, captured his attention firmly and pinned him down. Moments stretched into tens of seconds, neither of them able to break the tension that exploded to life between them.
Hope swallowed as Noel leaned forward; his eyes slipped closed.
Strong fingers carded through his soft locks - Noel ruffled his hair with a smirk, an amused glint to his eyes. "Time for bed, I think, Director," he said. "It's two in the morning and you're spacing out again."
The scientist stared at Noel blankly, waiting for his mind to catch up. What just happened?
At the hunter's questioning look, he nodded bonelessly. His stomach struggled to untangle itself and flip itself right side up once again - he uttered something along the lines of a vague agreement, stumbling through a haze of alcohol and reeling thoughts as he retreated to his room.
The door closed under his hand, and he leaned against it, fiddling with his tie as a nervous tic.
His breaths came in short gasps, as if he were drowning; feeling an episode of some kind coming on, he forced it down, deeper and darker than he had forced anything since he was fourteen. (The storytelling made him feel lighter, as if he had let some of those buried feelings out of himself – and in a way, he had.) With each forcefully lengthened breath he took, he calmed himself, forcing the confusion back.
He was really – he had really been expecting Noel to kiss him, he realized. And he didn't mind it; in fact, he had wanted it.
He slid down the door until he was on the floor, leaning his head back with a sigh.
Well. It was about time he faced the facts, the ones he had been half ignoring and half failing to recognize. It was time to analyze the situation objectively (if that was even possible, which he doubted).
In his own professional experience, which counted to a resounding nothing in matters like this, it seemed – given all the evidence – that he had a condition.
And by condition, what he really meant was that – oh, Etro - he was incredibly and intensely attracted to Noel Kreiss.
Then again, that one conclusion led to an avalanche of other realizations. Suddenly, in a form, it was clear as to what had been going on between Noel and Alyssa – and a few of his own erratic responses made sense in context, as well. For example, the tension that was still thrumming through him seemed to be one of those such responses.
Determining the cause was only one step to attempting to deduce a possible plan of action, however. Now that he understood his feelings, more or less, he needed to decide what he wanted to do about them.
He had continued pondering as he dressed for bed, and he now stared up at the ceiling in the dark, knowing he was laying where Noel had been sleeping just hours ago. His thoughts whirled around his head, spitting at sleep whenever it tried to claim him.
Hope resigned himself to a long night – and not just a long night, but a long period of wondering what it was that he wanted. He hadn't known what he had hoped to do with his future, besides fix what of the past he could – save Vanille and Fang and Light and his mother. If he even still wanted to do that, knowing what he did now. Did he wish for a happy future in which everyone he had ever cared about was safe and smiling? Of course. But… perhaps that was no longer possible, at least not in the way he wanted. Perhaps saving his mother would bend the timeline further beyond repair… the same to Vanille, Fang, and Lightning.
But then, wouldn't any future involving Noel also do irreparable damage to the timeline? He was a boy from a distant, impossible, desolate future – one that was a very real outcome, if they didn't devote all of their efforts and more to keeping this world safe.
He knew it was selfish, but just for a moment, he wished fervently that fate would allow him the chance to be happy. And perhaps he hoped things would look better in the morning light. That perhaps there was some solution that he was overlooking. Who could say?
His last thought before succumbing to a much-needed rest was one of question; he wondered if he was the only one of the two of them who felt this way.
And soon, he felt himself begin to regret that question, as his dreams swelled with half-formed phantasms and fears born of loss, regret, fear, guilt, and something that might have been the pain of an unrequited affection; he wouldn't know, as the notions faded in the dawn as if shadows before a candle.