It was a glorious day in the wilds of Gran Pulse. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and nothing had tried to kill them for at least five minutes. They'd defeated their first pack of scavengers and Fang was feeling all kinds of all right.
Then the kid had to go and muck things up by trying to put one over on her.
“Kid, what are you doing with that potion?”
“Nothing,” Hope said, all too quickly. He stuffed the potion bottle back in his satchel and tried to look as though he hadn't been taking sips out of it for no apparent reason. Unfortunately for him, he did a pretty poor job of it. For an enemy of all humanity his lying skills left a lot to be desired.
“Come on, now. You can tell nice Auntie Fang.” Fang sidled up beside Hope and put her arm around his shoulders, all big-sister-like. “You got the sniffles or something? All that time boxed up in Cocoon make you allergic to a little fresh air?”
Hope looked at her like she'd lost her mind. “I said it's nothing,” he said, his voice fading into a mumble, “I'm hungry, is all.”
“That's all? Why didn't you say so?”
Hope made his determined face, which was a lot like Lightning's determined face except soft with puppy fat around the edges.
“Those melons aren't very filling, and the vendor network will only sell us medicine and equipment.” Hope kept his back stiff and his eyes forward. “But it's okay. You guys are fine, and I am too. We've only been on Gran Pulse for two days. It'll get better.”
A sensitive person would have tried to assure Hope that no one expected him to have as much stamina as the adults around him. Fang wasn't a sensitive person, though, so she barked out a laugh before ruffling Hope's hair.
“Vendor network? You think we eat vat-grown junk down here, they way you do up in Cocoon? Awww, kid, you're adorable.”
“M'not a kid!” Hope flailed against her side. Fang ignored him in favour of flagging down Lightning, who had taken point in their three-person recon mission.
“Hey, Lightning!” She called out. “Get a fire together, yeah? I'm gonna show the kid a bit about haute cuisine.”
Lightning glanced down at the mangled carcass of one of the lupine monsters they'd just slain. The mutt's guts had spilled out onto the path and its rump was covered in electrical burns. Fang probably should have felt sorry for it, but there was no use getting worked up about another drop of blood in the ocean.
“You want us to eat this?” Lightning prodded the mutt's neck with the side of her boot.
Fang let Hope wriggle out of her clutches, then shrugged.
“You got a better idea? We won't get back to camp until late tonight. I dunno about you, but I can't keep this pace up on melons alone.”
“I take your point,” Lightning allowed.
Fang could see all the little gears in Hope's head spinning double-time, as he tried to reconcile Lightning's decision with his own disgust for fresh meat. It was hard to blame him for feeling disturbed. The poor kid had been caged in the dark all his life. Of course his eyes were going sting a little, before he got used to the light.
“Okay, Fang.” Hope brushed his hair back. Squared his shoulders. Adjusted his satchel. The poor little guy looked like he was heading off to duel an adamantoise.
“Please. Show me how it's done.”
So Fang did. Piece by piece, step by step. Lightning headed off to hunt for dry wood while the pair of them stripped skin from fat and lean from cartilage. Their knives flashed bright beneath the noonday sun. Eventually Hope forgot to worry about the gristle stuck beneath his fingernails.
It was better than Fang'd expected. Not that she'd expected much.
Fang couldn't remember whether she was prepping the meat right, exactly. It'd been ages since she'd hunted with her brothers in the backwoods. But the kid needed to learn some basic techniques in order to survive out here, and if Fang was honest with herself, then she had to admit that there was a part of her which needed to pass them on. Time wasn't kind to the great wide world. Fang didn't have many illusions about what was likely to be left of her hometown. Oerba only lived in the cadence of her accent, the strength of her guard, the way her wrist curved as she flattened a skinning blade against her palm.
When Lightning returned, they roasted the wolf meat. Fang glutted herself on drippings and marrow while her friends learned how to chew around bone.
She waited until they were looking slightly green around the gills before making another go of the little-miss-mentor racket.
“Hey, wanna see the best part?” Fang grinned, and pulled the mutt's head into her lap. They hadn't bothered to clean it. The meatier parts of the carcass had provided more than enough for their meal.
Hope and Lightning looked askance at her. She pulled her knife out of the folds of her wrap, carved one of the mutt's eyes out of its socket, and popped the thing whole into her mouth.
“Ugh! Gross!” Hope flinched back.
“Was that necessary?” Lighting grimaced.
“Gran Pulse delicacy,” Fang said, forming the words around her mouthful of cool, juicy jelly. She let a little bit dribble down her chin for effect. “Show some respect, huh? I just taught you a five-hundred year old culinary tradition.”
The kid was smart enough not to look like he entirely believed that.
“Really?” Hope asked.
“Maybe.” Fang's grin narrowed into a smirk. “Or maybe I'm just messing with ya. It's not like you'll ever know.”
“I don't think I'm hungry anymore.” Hope dropped the rest of his mutt leg back into the fire.
“Sure y'are,” Fang pressed. It was good to see the kid acting like a kid for once. “Close your eyes and think of all that nice, fresh eyeball jiggling down your throat. Mm mm yum.”
Hope waited by the clearing with a firearm in one hand and a satchel of potions in the other. This was a secure area, as far as the frontier went, but he wasn't cocky enough to go wandering around the wilds unarmed. You never knew when the bush you were sitting beside would turn out to be a hibernating marlboro.
Nearly half an hour passed before Hope caught sight of a two-person flyer hovering above the treeline. The old transport eased down onto the grass like it was fresh off the assembly line; the shabby condition of its rotors made up for by the quality of its pilot.
“Thanks for doing this, man.” Sazh spilled out of the cockpit, with a skinny, bushy-headed teenager in tow.
“No problem,” Hope said. “It's good to see you, Dahj.”
Dajh had had been taller than Hope ever since he hit his first growth spurt, but Hope wouldn't have known it from the way the boy slouched. Maybe Dajh thought that he could escape this job shadowing trip by collapsing in on himself. A less sanguine person might have been insulted.
Hope was himself, though, so he took it in stride.
“Hey, Hope,” Dajh grumbled into his scarf. “Can you tell me where to put my stuff?”
“That's Captain Estheim out here,” Hope corrected Dajh, not unkindly. “Or Doctor Estheim if you're bleeding. That's the trouble with being a medical officer. They throw titles at you to make up for the length of deployment.”
“Right. Sorry.” Dajh frowned down at his duffle bag. Sazh gave Hope a thumbs-up from behind Dajh's back.
“Camp's over that way,” Hope indicated, with a tilt of his head.
Dajh didn't make it more than a step towards the tents before his father caught his shoulder, spun him around, and reeled him into an enthusiastic bear hug.
“I'll miss you, son.”
“Daaaad,” Dajh whined into Sazh's shoulder. “We already did this at home. You're so embarrassing.”
“You remember your emergency blanket? What about your guide to edible plants? Don't think I don't know about that old comic book you--”
Hope cleared his throat.
“It's okay, Sazh. We've got things under control here. If anything happens, I'll patch him up.”
“I'm gonna hold you to that,” Sazh told Hope, not-quite-jokingy. He set Dajh loose from the killer hug, but only so that he could clap his hands on Dajh's shoulders. “Now, you take care, and remember that communicator I patched up for you. If anything happens, you call and I'll be over in a day. Half a day. As fast as the ship goes.”
"Goodbye, Dad." Dajh rolled his eyes, then shrugged out of his father's grip for good.
Sazh started waving and didn't stop until they were nearly out of sight.
“See you in a week!”
With the farewells over with, Dajh and Hope walked back to the camp in relative silence. Hope could have lied to himself and said that he was giving Dajh space, but mostly, he was trying to remember if he'd ever been that young. Barely ten years had passed since the coming of Ragnarok, but the former citizens of Cocoon had seen their share of hard, lean seasons in that time, and they'd needed all of the former Pulse l'Cie to help them survive their new home. Sometimes Hope's childhood in Palomporum felt like a song he'd forgotten the words to, or a fragment of someone else's dream.
“You must have had a long ride,” Hope said, once the tents were in sight. “Come on – I've got some stew simmering over my campfire. We can eat dinner before I introduce you to the squad.”
“And give your father a break. He's allowed to be worried. If he didn't believe in you, he wouldn't have let you come here at all.”
“Whatever.” Dajh's scarf was pretty big, but Hope was certain he saw the boy flush beneath his muffler. Dajh really was a good kid when he wasn't busy being fifteen and moody. He must be under a lot of pressure, trying to pick out an apprenticeship.
Dajh could do worse than taking up with the long patrol, the way Hope had. They did good, honest, vital work out here. Someone had to watch for major monster migrations and shepherd them clear of settled land. Yet Hope doubted that Dajh was headed towards the military life; he looked too sullen about the prospect of spending a week in the wilderness, to feel any joy in the freedom of the Veldt. This trip was probably more about proving a point to his father than anything else.
They got halfway through a stilted, uncomfortable dinner before Hope decided that drastic action was necessary to snap Dajh out of his funk. Hope thought his strategy over. Drank some water. Massaged the crick in his neck. Let his eyes leave the firelight, and watched the Ragnarok's crystal spire flash where it snagged against the shell of the moon.
And then he knew what to do.
Hope found the head of the mutt they'd been eating, and fished a scalpel out of his medical bag.
“What are you doing?” Dajh asked, in spite of himself.
Hope liberated an eyeball from the mutt's skull with a series of deft, surgical cuts. All of his spells were lost to him, now, along with his superhuman accuracy, but the Fal'Cie couldn't evoke any potential that wasn't there in the first place, and Hope was still damn good at what he did, if he said so himself.
“Gran Pulse delicacy,” Hope said, and popped the raw eyeball into his mouth.
“For real?” Dajh gaped.
Hope took a moment to chew. The veins in back of the eyeball were stringy, and coppery, and absolutely nothing like the processed algae products he'd been raised on. That was probably why he liked them so much. “Heard it from the lips of the Ragnarok herself. Well, half of her.”
“If you say so.” Dajh flailed -- his father's boy until the end. “Aw, man, what is wrong with you?”
“It's an acquired taste.”
Hope bit back a torrent of laughter, and thought of his friend.
Dajh wiped the sweat from his brow with a ratty old rag, and immediately regretted it. Now he was sweaty and there was engine grease smeared all over his forehead. What a triumph of planning.
Oh well. At least today couldn't get much worse. The transport that Dajh was working on was so clogged with sand that it would take a miracle to get the engine functioning again. His back ached, his ankles were covered in centipede bites, and his hair had been a limp shadow of itself ever since he'd dropped his comb back at Sulyya Springs. Dajh felt confident in thinking that his luck had hit rock bottom; so long as he wasn't attacked by monsters, there was nowhere for this situation to go but up.
As if on cue, a pair of tiny blonde horrors materialized in Dajh's workspace, their beady eyes alight with unholy mischief.
"What'cha doin'?" One of them tugged on his shirt.
"You look funny." The other added, before dipping her fingers into a canister of expensive mineral oil.
Ah, the youngest of the Villiers brats. Ever a joy to encounter. It was just Dajh's luck that he'd gotten stuck working the same caravan as Dad's old friends. Aunt Serah seemed to think that Dajh was offering a free babysitting service, just because his assignments kept him within the caravan's safety perimeter, and Uncle Snow had assured Dajh that he wouldn't regret helping out, because the ladies loved a guy who was good with kids.
If Dajh's last attempt at a dinner date was anything to go by, Uncle Snow was a filthy liar who should have stopped wearing that stupid bandanna when he hit thirty.
"Yeah, yeah." Dajh attempted to wave the kids off, which was about as effective as trying to swat the fleas off the back of a chocobo. "I'm a mechanic, remember? It's my job to fix this stuff. We only have so many of these old Cocoon machines left – we've got to take good care of them.”
The kids stared blankly up at him. Obviously they could see no reason why the job he was paid for should interfere with the higher purpose of entertaining them.
“Don't you two pests have chores or lessons or something?” Dajh sighed. “I thought you were reading that book your mom gave you."
"We're booored." The tugger tugged harder.
"You're boring." Her sister elaborated.
"We want a snack."
"We want candy!"
Dajh gave in to the inevitable and let the kids pull him away from his project. Normally he'd put up more of a fight, but that engine wasn't going anywhere, and the twins' complaining had given him one hell of a good idea.
He cracked a rare smile.
"Is that so,” Dajh said. "Okay. C'mon. I'm gonna show you a really great treat, so that you can make all your brothers and sisters jealous. The real Gran Pulse Delicacy.”
It would serve Uncle Snow right if they started demanding it for dinner every night.