Hope wasn't used to Gran Pulse, and didn't think he ever would be. And if traveling it during the day was nerve-wracking, this night voyage was downright terrifying. He kept fighting the urge to jump out of his skin at the slightest sound, and his fingers were clenched white-knuckled around his boomerang, as if he really thought it would do anything against the beasts in these highlands. As if there weren't monsters here that could swallow him whole and not even feel the feeble strikes he'd be able to muster against the inside of its stomach. And the way that Vanille ran out in front of him, practically skipping, like she wasn't afraid of anything... that made it even worse. He wanted to turn around and run like the devil. He wanted to go back to camp, where it might be a little bit safe. At least the others would be there, the ones who actually knew how to fight.
"Vanille," he managed when she stopped for a moment to peer ahead. But the rocks that they were moving over were covered in mist, and he couldn't see much. There was a cliff face up ahead, he could tell that much, but nothing else. The scary part, though, was the sound - like some giant beast breathing down his neck. Very bad thing to think about here on Pulse, but he couldn't help it. "Are we almost there?" His voice was as quiet as he knew how to make it, and his arms were shaking, both from the stress and from his bad case of nerves. Even when he'd been traveling with Light it had never been like this. He'd had something to drive him then, his anger; he'd known that even if he had been walking into danger - which, make no mistake, he had been - he had something he had to do, so it was okay, it was worth it. This felt utterly unnecessary, one of Vanille's whims, and if it had been anyone else - well, almost anyone else - he would've told her to go away and let her sleep.
Besides, it was freaking him out. What was that sound? And the air smelled odd, in a way he couldn't describe. What was Vanille leading him into?
"Yes, yes, we're not far now," she whispered back, and he could bearly hear the words over the sound of her breathing. "Will you please relax? I know this place. There's nothing here we can't handle."
"I'm trying." Light was going to kill him for leaving the camp if she found out about this. Maybe she'd do the same to Vanille too, if Fang let her try. Most likely Fang would think this whole thing was terribly funny and would be after the Cocoon-born l'Cie to lighten up, reassuring them that people from Gran Pulse had probably gone out on their own and risked certain death like this all the time. Or at least l'Cie had, anyway. Rationally he was fairly sure that there was nothing there they couldn't handle; the flora and fauna of the plateau had caused them trouble at first, but after several weeks of scouring the place for anything that might help them, they'd learned how to handle them. Still, Hope was used to having Light with them, or Fang, or really any of the others - someone tough enough to draw the things' attacks while he scoured them with his magic. Yes, Light was teaching him how to fight with his boomerang and actually do some damage, but he still had a long way to go.
They'd been walking for quite a while since the Waystone, and Hope was just about to try to grab Vanille's arm and convince her to please let them turn around - he'd given some thought to turning around himself and letting her go alone, but he couldn't bring himself to do that, and besides, then Fang would probably try to kill him and he was more afraid of her than he was of Light. But before his mind could go too far down that road, Vanille stopped short in front of him; he had to stop suddenly and scramble backwards on the rough trail to keep from running into her. "It's through here," she said to him, and he could see the gleam of her white teeth as she grinned in the moonlight.
"What is?" he asked, still whispering, even though she hadn't whispered at all. "Where are we going?"
"It's right through here," she said. "See for yourself." And she indicated a gap in the stones in front of him, something large enough to crawl through. "I'll follow you. Don't worry, there's nothing there. We don't have to be so quiet!"
Hoping that she was right, he sighed and went ahead, squeezing his way through the narrow entrance. He didn't really see anything else to do. Besides, he had to admit that he was curious. Vanille had never done this before, grabbed him by the shoulder and shushed him when he tried to jump, told him that they were going to go for a walk. All with that big, secretive smile on her face, and Hope figured that was what had made him agree to this insanity, more than anything else.
The gap was narrow, even for him. Someone like Snow never would've made it - for a few moments he'd thought HE wasn't going to make it. But that was ridiculous - he had survived for weeks on a planet like Gran Pulse, only to die when a pretty girl had told him that he could get through a gap that he couldn't? If he'd read a book with a plot like that, he would've thrown it across the room and declared the author to be a fool. Still, it had worried him for a second or two, before he'd felt Vanille's hands on his shoulders. "Not like that, silly," she said behind him, "like this!" And she'd guided him, pushing his shoulders down until he could make it, and soon enough he found himself on the other side of the gap.
"This is crazy," Hope said to himself, out loud - that was crazy too, he thought, after the fact, but one crazy thing made the rest of them easier to do. "Why would we need to -?"
Then he got a better look, and the question trailed off. He took a few steps forward, heard Vanille behind him as she wriggled her own way through the stones - she was fine, he thought, didn't need his help. And he was preoccupied.
Hope stood on a high cliff, and for the first time in his life he saw a real sea. He'd been by the sea in Cocoon, of course, but those had been artificial, like everything else up there, and built to be gentle with the people it had been created to house. But this... this was astonishing. The inlet was bordered by tall rock cliffs, and the waves crashed against them again - and that was the sound, he realized belatedly, and the smell was surely the spray of the sea mist into the air. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the dark, moonlit sea - the mist was all but gone, here - and the foamy caps that leaped into the air. For a little while, he even forgot to be nervous about the possibility of slipping from the edge of the narrow cliff and falling into the violent sea.
Before he could properly scare himself, Vanille took his arm. "What do you think?" she asked, her voice louder now. It had to be - the sound of the sea was magnified here.
"It's... really something," he managed, not sure exactly what to say. "I've never seen a place like this before!"
"I don't think Cocoon has places like this." She laughed beside him. "They were trying so hard to keep you safe, so why would they make somewhere on purpose that could really be dangerous?" She tugged at his arm. "C'mon, this way!"
At first he tried to follow her while watching the sea, but the first time he slipped on the stones taught him that it was a very, very bad idea to do that, so he took her arm and concentrated on following her. His bare wrist brushed her arm as he reached for it - it was still warm, somehow, despite the sea spray - and then her hand found his, and squeezed it tightly. "Careful," she called back. "Don't want you to fall, now! I'd have to jump in after you!"
"Hey, don't kid around like that!" He paused. "Um, you are joking, right?"
"Don't fall, and you won't have to find out," she said firmly. "Now, come on! We're almost there."
Hope nodded and kept his mouth shut, and let Vanille lead him. There turned out to be a small cave, little more than a recess in the side of the cliff. It was a cold place, but as they walked in Hope could see a firepit, full of driftwood. He touched it, expecting it to be damp, but it was dry.
"Stand back," Vanille warned him, and he moved just in time to see the wood burst into flames. Magic, of course. Hope tensed - he had never gotten used to using their magic that way, as if it were a tool. Fighting monsters with it, sure, that was what it was for, but just starting fires? That seemed too... natural. Had all of the l'Cie from Pulse been like that, he wondered, using their magic as if it were really a part of them?
"There!" she said, looking around. Now that they had more light, Hope could see that there was more to the cave, now. There was a place in the back that looked almost comfortable - he could see what looked like cut dried grasses there, and scraps of fabric. "This is weird," he said quietly.
"What's weird?" Vanille asked.
"It looks like someone's been staying here. I mean, the wood should've been too soggy to catch fire, being here. And that stuff back there, wouldn't it have been long gone by now?"
"Well, it's there, isn't it?" She walked back up to him and took him by the arm. "Come on, let's get some rest."
As much as Hope wanted to protest further, he found that he didn't have the energy; his body wanted that rest. He supposed that being woken up in the middle of the night and led off to a Waystone to who-knows-where would do that. Besides, Vanille was holding his hand, and he was having a hard time fighting as she led him to the makeshift bower in the back of the cave. The place smelled good, like flowers - were there flowers mixed in with the grasses, maybe? He didn't know. But whatever it was the smell was heady and relaxing at the same time, made him want to jump for joy. But he didn't really have room for that in the cave, and it was too dangerous out on the rocks, so he settled for sinking down onto the soft bedding. Vanille sat next to him, stretching out beside him, and he couldn't help but smile.
"This place is nice," he said, quietly. "But I still don't understand why you'd bring me here."
"I thought you'd appreciate it." She smiled slowly. "And, well... I wanted to spend my last night on Pulse here, and I didn't want to be alone."
"Last night?" he echoed, turning to her. "So the others want to leave tomorrow? They hadn't said anything!"
"Fang, Lightning and Sazh were talking about it. I overheard them. They wanted to suggest it tomorrow. Lightning said that we'd been here long enough, and if we didn't hurry Barthandelus might decide to destroy Cocoon just to spite us." She smiled sadly. "I know it's going to be tough... but I've had a chance to say goodbye. I wasn't ready before, but I think that I am, now."
Hope didn't say anything at first, just reached over and took Vanille's hand. She'd always tried to comfort him when he'd been upset - yeah, he hadn't always had the best reaction to it, but then, he hadn't been that good at dealing with being upset, back then. He hadn't had anything to do with all of his anger. And when he'd found something... well, he was lucky he'd failed, or else he really would've screwed things up.
He sighed at the memory. Sometimes he really was just a stupid kid. He could understand why Light hadn't wanted anything to do with him at first, now that he'd thought about it. He was glad that things had changed -
"You okay?" Vanille sounded worried. "You're scared too, aren't you?"
"A little," he admitted. "But I want to finish all of this. He's jerking us around, he's destroying my home... my mom's already dead because of him. We can't just keep running away from it. I just wish I knew what to do when we get there. We still don't know how to stop any of it."
"I know." She squeezed his hand, then pulled away. "I was wrong before, though. We can't just do nothing. If we do that, they'll just find ways to destroy Cocoon without us."
"Yeah. I know." He looked at her, saw the way her mouth was shaking. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," she said, a bit too quickly. "Just... scared."
Hope felt himself freeze, not knowing what to do, but only for a split second. He acted on instinct, sitting up and reaching for her, pulling her into his arms. She was warm, her body firmer and more muscular than he'd expected, and she smelled like sweat and flowers as she sank her head onto his shoulder. Hopefully he wasn't doing something stupid - he thought of what the others would say, what Fang or Light would say, and then realized that he had no real idea. And he couldn't just not do anything.
"Thank you," she whispered, holding him tightly. "I'm glad you're here, Hope. I'm glad that we met, I really am...."
"Me too," he answered. "I'm... I'm sorry for being such a jerk to you, back then."
"It's okay. I... I was lying to everyone. And I didn't understand anything. I thought that if I ran away everything would be fine, but...." She shook her head. "But that wasn't true at all. It just made everything my fault."
"No, it didn't." He would've agreed with her, once upon a time. He would've probably blamed her just as much as he had Snow, if he'd known everything about her earlier. He was glad he hadn't. "Light was right. This is too big to pin on one of us. We're all being used. I just hope that we're not still doing what they want us to do."
She pulled away and looked him in the face, smiling slightly. "At least we're choosing to do it, now," she said. "That's something, right?"
"Yeah." He tried to smile back. "I hope it is."
Hope didn't know exactly how it happened, when he thought about it later. One second, they'd been talking. The next, Vanille had leaned in, and her lips were pressing against Hope's, and then he was kissing her back. The smell of flowers and the warmth of the fire might've had something to do with it. For a second, it was easier just not to think about the others who were probably already looking for them, or what they might say.
It only lasted until the kiss ended; after Vanille pulled back, all of those worries rushed back into his head. "I'm sorry," he said, feeling himself on the edge of panic.
"Why?" she asked, looking confused.
"Well... you're... I'm...." He shook his head. "What about the others?" he tried again, hoping that made more sense.
"What do you mean? I'm sure they're fine!"
"But... this is...." He stopped, frustrated. How was he supposed to articulate any of this? He was fairly sure that this was a betrayal of, well, something - that Light would be upset, and probably Fang too - but he wasn't used to the idea that he actually had to explain any of that to her. "Won't they... won't they care?"
She shook her head. "It'll be all right. Don't worry. If we're not back by morning, Fang will calm them down."
"But you said -!"
"Did you really think I'd leave without telling her, Hope? She knows exactly where we are. She offered to come with us and make sure nothing nasty ambushed us, but I didn't think we'd need her help, so I said no." She smiled. "Don't worry. Everything will be fine. I promise."
He was worried. He was always worried... but it was hard to stay worried, not when Vanille seemed to have an answer for everything, not when the smell of flowers was all around them. And it was Vanille - she was so warm, so caring. There was no malice in her, never had been, and staying angry at her... well. He wasn't sure he could do it.
She kissed him again, and he kissed her back, and time got a little funny from there. Not that Hope minded. He hadn't realized how long he'd been hoping for it until then. He'd been so mixed up - losing his mother, hating Snow for so long and not knowing what to do about it, meeting Light and still not being sure what they were - and it was nice, in a way, knowing that Vanille really did like him. He'd liked her at first, hadn't known what to do about it then, and then... well, it was easier just to stop thinking about it.
Later, the two of them were lying on the bed, wrapped up in each other's arms, and the thing that had been nagging at the back of Hope's mind finally came to the fore. He wasn't angry, though, not then. In fact, he couldn't help but laugh.
"Hmm?" Vanille turned to look at him. "What's up?"
"You... you planned this, didn't you?" He didn't sit up, just stroked her face with his hand, carefully. "This wouldn't have been here if someone had made it a hundred years ago. You had to have done this while we were exploring."
She was quiet for a second, and looked embarrassed. "I... wanted to bring you here before you left," she said. "But I had to make sure we'd be comfortable, didn't I?"
"Good grief." He smiled. "When did you do it?"
"At night, when everyone was asleep. Fang helped me out, too. Said that if I really wanted to do this, then she was going to be okay with it. As long as I didn't forget her." She squeezed his hand. "No fear of that, but... well, it's like Anima always said. Love's endless, isn't it? It doesn't just... disappear from one person to the other."
Hope shook his head. "That's... strange," he admitted. "I mean, on Cocoon, that would be really weird."
"But it isn't here?"
"Hm." He sat up. "I don't know. Maybe it should be, but then a lot of things are like that here. I... I don't know." He might have been more upset about it, he thought, if he hadn't been so relaxed at that moment, so cheerful. But then, once upon a time he'd hated everything about Pulse and the things it had touched, including himself. A lot of things had changed.
He supposed it bore thinking about. Maybe later, when they were back with the others... maybe he'd be able to do it. "We should leave soon, shouldn't we?"
"Mmm-hmm." She yawned. "But let's rest a little while longer first, okay?"
"Sure," he said, smiling. "Whatever you say." He nestled down next to her and threw an arm around her waist. "And Vanille?"
She laughed. "You're welcome. But it's a bit silly to thank me, don't you think?"
"Is that bad?"
"Hmm. No, I guess not." She snuggled up close to him. "I'm just glad I got to make you smile."
"Yeah," he answered, feeling a warm glow in his gut. He'd be fine, tomorrow. He'd be ready to go. "Same here."