Kinematics; n. The branch of mechanics dealing with the study of the motion of a body or a system of bodies without consideration given to its mass or the forces acting on it.
It was only a moment of nervousness before Maqui managed to raise his hand to push the doorbell.
He shifted from foot to foot while waiting for someone to answer, fidgeting with his goggles and making double sure that his hands were clean of all engine grease and dirt. Yuj had laughed when he had been frantically cleaning his hands, but even he agreed that taking extra steps to make a good impression on Lightning would be a plus. The woman was scary and the way she constantly beat Snow down didn't do anything for his frayed nerves.
Hearing the even staccato of footsteps coming toward him, Maqui nervously shoved his hands in his pockets (easier to hide his hands rather than risk having missed a spot in his frantic cleaning, right?) and forced a cheerful grin as the door opened, revealing a suspicious looking Lightning.
"Hi!" he said brightly, and then recalled his manners. "Good morning, Miss Lightning. Is Hope here?"
"Maqui," she greeted evenly, her eyes narrowed. She took a second to give him a look, making the teenager nearly twitch violently. "How is it that you manage to show up at my door every time Hope visits." The words were not a question, rather more a suspicious statement. Maqui laughed nervously, struggling not to scratch the back of his head and slump his shoulders like a scolded child.
"Just asking if he'd like to come out and play, ma'am," Maqui supplied in an careful tone, despite his cracking resolve. That's right. It's a play date. Surely Lightning wanted Hope to have more friends? He took his hands from his pockets to wipe his sweaty palms on his pants, rocking on his heels. He was a part of Team NORA, dammit! The army was no match for NORA... but then, the army was no match for Lightning, either. And despite his leader's protests, Maqui and the rest of NORA were pretty sure Lightning could single-handedly kick Snow's ass from Gran Pulse to Cocoon, and then back again. "I was going to show him around the garage, see if he wanted to help with the new airbike."
Lightning stayed silent a moment, although her eyes darted down. "Your hands are miraculously clean for a day in the garage."
"Slept in late today," Maqui scrambled to lie. "Haven't started on today's project yet."
Lightning didn't look convinced, but was interrupted as more footsteps resounded down the hall and Serah peeped out from behind her older sister. The younger Farron looked delighted when she saw him, letting out a, "Good morning, Maqui! What brings you here today?"
Maqui dared to breathe a sigh of relief as he thanked the Maker for Serah's presence. She was an absolute angel. An angel, and Snow was damned lucky she had agreed to marry him because Maqui was sure she had to be the prettiest girl in all of Cocoon (and now Gran Pulse as well) and the nicest and sweetest and kindest...
Serah's smile was infinitely sweet as she tugged on Lightning's arm. "You have such amazing timing, too! Hope just arrived a few hours ago to visit, and I'm sure he'd love to have someone closer to his age to talk to. Last I saw, he seemed a little tired of babysitting Dahj."
Maqui let out a grin. "Dahj is here, too? Does that mean Sazh is around?"
Of all the former l'Cie, Maqui was the most pleasantly surprised by Sazh, who had so much to teach the teenager. Maqui had never met anyone that knowledgeable about mechanics and flying before, but apparently Sazh had been flying as a Sanctum pilot for years before his wife had died. It was because of that experience that he was able to fly all the l'Cie away from danger so easily.
Serah nodded. "He's off talking with Snow about something. I'm not sure what it is, I'm afraid they lost me only a few words into the conversation." She had a guilty grin, but that only spurred Maqui's bravery. Serah tugged on Lightning's arm, grabbing her sister's attention. "Haven't you had Hope studying the past several hours before babysitting Dahj? I'm sure he should take a break now."
Maqui was nodding vigorously. "I'll look after him, I promise! Just thought he might want to do something other than... studying..." He shrank back from the older sister's glare, suddenly realizing he might have said the wrong thing. He backpedaled quickly. "Not that it's a bad thing, of course! Studying is good. It never hurts to study more."
Serah let out a light string of laughter, and then turned to look at her sister with a smile. "I'm sure you'll have more time with Hope later, sis." She patted her sister's arm reassuringly. "You could be spending more time with me right now while Snow's gone."
Lightning sighed at the combined pleading looks from both her younger sister and the youngest member of Team NORA, but then relented, opening the door further to allow Maqui entrance. The teenager gave a mental whoop before making sure to clean the bottom of his shoes against the mat, and then stepping into the house.
"Don't think I haven't noticed," Lightning said lowly as he passed, and Maqui gave a nervous laugh.
It wasn't that he had any ulterior motives, Maqui thought as he scrambled after Serah. It was just... nice to not be the baby of the group anymore. Yeah. At seventeen, Maqui had always been the youngest, the slowest, and the one to grumble the loudest in situations. It was expected of him, and he liked to think that he was voicing what the others wouldn't. So the first time Hope had darted in front of the group before Snow to speak to Team NORA in Eden, Maqui had been curious. It was obvious the silver-haired boy was years younger than himself, and more than a bit awkward with speaking to a crowd of people. But his voice had no hesitation and no complaints, and his awkward demeanor had surprisingly instilled confidence in Team NORA... even Snow had been smiling by the end of the short interruption, despite the hopeless situation.
When he had asked about Hope later on, he had been informed that the boy had been at the Hanging Edge, that he and the orange-haired girl had been the ones to steal the airbike from right under Gadot's nose. Maqui didn't even remember him. He certainly would have remembered someone with that air about them, especially within a group of confused, terrified citizens.
Serah knocked gently on a closed door before she turned the knob, and smiled brilliantly at the two boys in the room who looked up at her. Maqui peeked in to see Hope sitting next to Dahj on the couch, a pop-up book on Chocobos propped up in his lap.
"Hey, Dahj!" Maqui called out, making sure to greet the little boy first. His eyes wandered over and he slipped into an easy grin. "Hey, Hope."
Dahj gave a cheerful wave, swinging his legs off the edge of the couch excitedly, and Hope merely smiled in greeting. Maqui felt his grin grow a bit sillier when he saw the light green handkerchief Hope was still wearing around his neck. It was actually the first thing Maqui had noticed about him other than that air of confidence and optimism; not the bright orange cape-let or his unusually fair coloring or impossibly light green eyes, but the fact that the patterns on the handkerchief had a heart on the bottom. Maqui remembered thinking that was somewhat childish and... endearing.
"I was wondering if you wanted to see the new airbike!" Maqui said after he swallowed his hesitation, a hand on the back of his neck. It was a nervous habit he had managed to pick up from Snow, back when he had first joined Team NORA. Yuj had always told him it made him look ridiculously immature, but Maqui had never minded. "I managed to get some new parts for it, and it should run this time..."
Hope glanced over at Serah, who smiled and nodded, before looking back at Maqui. "Sure, if you don't mind me around..."
Maqui nearly jumped at how easy it was. The last several times he tried to ask Hope over, it was only with the accompaniment of either Lightning or Snow, and neither of them would ever allow either Hope or Maqui on an unfinished airbike. Maqui wasn't lying when he said that he had new parts and that the bike should work... it just hadn't been tested yet, that was all.
"Of course I don't mind!" he spoke up quickly. "It'd be awesome to have someone else around... Yuj refuses to get his clothes dirty and Lebreau doesn't like working with machines..." Maqui forced his mouth shut in a grin, as he realized he was rambling. "It'd be great to have you there."
Dahj patted Hope on the arm in a childish manner and drew the teenager's attention to him. "It's okay, big brother Hope, we can read another time, okay?"
Serah stepped into the room. "I can read with you if you'd like, Dahj! It's been a while since I read up on Chocobos!"
Dahj cheered as Hope transferred both his seat and the book over to Serah, who patted the teen on the head before snuggling closer to the six year old, flipping the pages of the book to start at the beginning again.
Maqui bounced on his heels as Hope walked over, the younger boy smiling excitedly now that he was off babysitting duty.
"You think it'll fly this time?" Hope asked as they stepped out of the room, glancing up at the older boy. Maqui grinned despite his own doubts and jerked a thumb toward himself in another mannerism that he had managed to learn from Snow.
"Of course it will! It's me we're talking about; I can make any machine work."
Honestly, the airbike had originally just been an old piece of junk that Maqui managed to find in Bodhum, and had never really bothered with because the original reason he had kept it was for spare parts for other bikes. When everything got relocated to Gran Pulse, Maqui had pleaded incessantly with both Gadot and Lebreau until they agreed to find all his toys and transport it over as well. They had taken the old thing because they thought he still wanted it... Maqui hadn't even thought about it, until he saw the old gaudy sea-foam green airbike again.
That was when he knew he just had to make it run again.
Maqui tried to tread quietly past the kitchen and tensed as Hope called out a loud goodbye to Lightning, saying he'd be back later. The younger boy gave him a confused look as he saw Maqui's panic, and the NORA member gave a nervous laugh before grabbing Hope's wrist and just making a run for it out the house.
He might have overreacted as they weren't chased by sounds of gunshots or broken glass, but Maqui thought it was better safe than sorry.
Maqui only stopped running after they were nearly an entire block away from the house, huffing to himself and leaning against the side of a building, not exactly breathless but his heart still racing. Lightning may be nicer now, but Maqui still remembered her before the whole l'Cie incident, and he had told himself back then that he never wanted to get on her bad side.
A tug on his arm made him realize that he still had Hope's wrist in his grasp. He dropped it reluctantly, belatedly wishing he hadn't been wearing a glove on that hand, and that Hope would stop wearing his gloves as well. He glanced up to Hope's amused eyes as the boy asked, "So why were we running?"
"Just wanted to stay alive." Maqui replied honestly. "Miss Lightning can be a scary lady sometimes."
Hope scuffed his shoe on the ground as the two of them continued on their way to the garage, this time at a more reasonable pace. "I'm pretty sure she's gotten over any grudges she might have had against Team NORA," he said. "Considering how often Snow is over now..."
Maqui shook his head. That wasn't what he meant. He was pretty sure that Lightning was starting to develop a grudge against him specifically, but he wasn't going to voice that suspicion aloud. It might have helped that most of the residents of Cocoon wanted to stay close to each other. The residential areas were all tightly-knit and close together, but Hope and his dad still lived an hour away by transport and the boy only visited a few times a week. All the former l'Cie were very close now, seemingly knowing without a word where they all were at all times.
Sometimes, Maqui felt... well, he didn't know how he felt about that. It was certainly strange, odd in a way that he was glad he wasn't a part of, but sometimes it felt as if Snow was drifting far away from Team NORA. That they had lost their leader.
But Snow was happy, and he was soon to be getting married to Serah, and he still managed to make time for them... Maqui cleared his head of those thoughts. It should be Team NORA's responsibility to get to know the former l'Cie as well, not Snow's responsibility to choose between them. And that's what Maqui was intent on doing. Making sure that he got to know everyone his leader was close to.
Well. He was still scared of Lightning. But Sazh was awesome, and Maqui looked up to the older man in a way he hadn't looked up to anyone before. Sazh was smart and brave, and while he wasn't the charismatic leader that Snow was, he was still an amazing mechanic and pilot. And wherever he went, Dahj was as well, although Lebreau seemed to have taken more of a liking to the little boy than anyone else, always volunteering to babysit if needed.
He had heard plenty of stories from both Sazh and Snow about the l'Cie who were not with them... stories about Fang and Vanille, the two Pulse l'Cie who had been alive hundreds of years ago. He marveled at the idea of being a crystal and being granted eternal life... sometimes Maqui looked at the former l'Cie and wondered if that gift was still with them... if in a few years, people would start to notice that Dahj and Hope weren't growing any older.
But that was a childish thought. Surely the immortality was only for when they were crystallized. And while Maqui was burning with questions on how it felt to be a crystal, he wisely refrained from asking any of that. Who knew what bad memories could be associated with it?
...And then there was Hope. What a strange name for a boy, but Maqui understood how aptly he was named from that very first meeting in Eden. Hope and his silly bandanna. Hope and his quiet optimism. Although Maqui admired Sazh the most and idolized Snow the most and feared Lightning the most... he always found himself coming back to Hope. Probably because he was the closest in age to Hope; Maqui was the second youngest now. It wasn't that he admired or idolized or feared Hope... it was something else entirely.
It wasn't long before they reached the bar and garage that housed Team NORA, and Maqui snapped out of his thoughts at Hope's questioning look, grinning at the younger boy. "Sorry, sorry. Just a bit distracted. What was that?"
"I was just asking if you were going to open the door any time soon," Hope said dryly, although there was an amused twitch to his lips. "Wasn't there an airbike you claimed to have finished?"
"Hey now," Maqui drawled in a tone akin to Snow's as he entered the code to the garage, slightly berated by the pause in his upper brain functions. "It's not a claim. I worked a while to have it all clean and shiny, you know!"
"Clean and shiny, but does it work?" Hope asked, peeking into the darkened garage. The strong smell of oil and machinery assaulted their senses the moment they took a step inside, and Maqui flicked on the lights to reveal the mess he had left his garage in, with its multiple airbikes and engines, spare parts and tools scattered on all of the tables that littered the edge of the room.
Maqui watched Hope closely as the other boy looked around, his eyes finally fixed on the antique airbike that he had picked up, refurbished and repainted to shiny chrome and green. He found himself holding his breath as the younger examined the machine carefully, and breathed out when Hope turned back to him with a grin.
The older teen grinned back in response, "What do you think?"
Hope took a while to hmm-haw over it, walking over to it with a contemplative look and then ran a gloved hand over the smooth surface. "I think it looks great... don't know if it looks like it would work, though."
Maqui wasn't very sure about that either, but seeing the challenging gleam in Hope's eye, he couldn't help but say, "Well, we could go for a test run if you're so doubtful. This one runs smooth as silk." He gave the airbike an affectionate pat.
Hope startled, clearly not expecting Maqui to be that confident about it. Truth was that Maqui wasn't that confident himself, but he wasn't going to back down now that he had put the offer on the table. There had been a few more things he wanted to tweak, and had hoped that the younger boy would be interested in helping, and that maybe he would think Maqui was kind of cool for knowing how to work the machines...
Maqui adjusted his goggles nervously and gave a confident grin to mask his doubts, and then stepped up closer to Hope. Lebreau wasn't expecting him to help out anytime soon, since he had informed both her and Yuj that morning that he would be spending the day with Hope, and Gadot had been busy with some secretive business for the past several days already, so he was sure that the older man wouldn't come looking for him just because.
"Anywhere you'd want to go?" Maqui offered brightly. "We're in Gran Pulse now, the area of the unexplored!"
Hope looked unsure now, probably wondering if Maqui was serious, probably thinking that a joyride was a terrible idea. But the blond wasn't about to give up, the idea of offering the younger boy a view of the new settlements, of the open sky and mountains sounding more and more appealing by the second. Most vehicles had been commandeered lately for the transferring of valuables and essentials between Cocoon and Pulse, with some people who wanted to stay on Cocoon despite the lack of help from the fal'Cie, and the people who had braved their fears and settled on Gran Pulse to start new lives in the sunshine.
He didn't really need to install the third converter or the particle generator. Those were just to make landing smoother, and Maqui wondered if Hope would be startled by the rough landing.
"You probably know the area better than me," Maqui admitted. He gave the airbike another pat and leaned closer to the other teen, feeling a rush in Hope's widened eyes. "You can test for yourself how smooth this bike rides." Making sure the silver-haired boy's attention was completely on him, Maqui climbed into the bike and cocked his head in question. "Well?"
The younger teen looked startled, but as he blinked, Maqui kept up that confident grin. Hope finally nodded, and climbed in behind him.
"...Lightning's not going to hear about this?"
Of course not. She would probably kill him if she knew that Maqui was taking Hope on a joyride. She'd never let him near Hope again.
"No way. Promise." Maqui nearly squeaked as pale arms wrapped around his middle and the blond felt his face heat up. He coughed nervously and started up the engines, taking relief in the steady rumble of the engine underneath him, dangerously aware of how warm Hope was behind him.
He pulled his goggles over his eyes and tightened his hands on the controls as he asked, his voice slightly higher than it had been a second ago, "Anywhere you want to go?"
The bike had already lifted off and was hovering gently in the air before Hope replied, "...There's this place we went when we first came down here. The settlements haven't gotten that far yet, probably because it's still dangerous, but it's a little beyond the Mah'habara underground and called the Sulyya Springs."
Kinematics; n. The branch of mechanics dealing with the study of the motion of a body or a system of bodies without consideration given to its mass or the forces acting on it.
Maqui made sure to take the long way towards where Hope had indicated, flying high to circle around the settlements and letting the younger teen catch a look, and feeling oddly pleased with himself as Hope's grip on him tightened when he pulled a sharp turn. So far the airbike was as smooth as he had promised, and the longer it stayed that way, the more Maqui relaxed, letting himself enjoy the warmth of Hope sitting behind him.
The younger teen was gazing intently at the landscape, not saying a word as Maqui flew them over the Yaschas Marris, high enough in the air to avoid all the remaining monsters, including the flying ones that stayed close to land to find their prey. The warm wind and sunlight gave Maqui extra confidence that the cool artificial light in Cocoon never managed to. He was content just gliding on the wind, feeling it in his hair as he watched Hope's expressions in the rear mirror.
They passed a fight between two Behemoth Kings, and Maqui just shook his head at the brutal sight. "I don't know how you guys managed to survive here."
"Don't know, either," Hope admitted. "I guess we did because that was just what we had to do."
In the distance was what looked like an opening between the mountains, and Maqui took a hand off the controls to point. "There?"
The blond guided the airbike over to the opening, pulling the machine lower the closer they got to the opening, distracted by his own internal musings as he saw a large tower come into view beyond the springs.
"That's Taejin's Tower," Hope offered, voice close to Maqui's ear. The blond felt shivers run down his arms, and he resolved to grab thicker material once they got back. "Had these great stone warriors last time we were there. They're gone now, though."
Maqui swallowed, and just opted to nod, not knowing what to say in response.
He pulled the airbike into the narrow crack between the mountains, starting the process for landing as the engine rumble grew more violent. A sudden shudder through the bike incited a squeak from Hope and a tightening of his arms, and Maqui cursed as the engine sputtered, much too conscious of the silver-haired boy who was now suddenly pressed much too close to him.
The bike already had two converters for the landing mechanism! They should be able to land with just that, even though it would be a bumpy ride.
"Hold on," Maqui ground out as he tried to pull the bike up from its too rapid descent. "This might get a bit shaky..."
'A bit' was more than an underestimate, as the airbike shuddered violently enough that even Maqui yelped as he was nearly jerked from his seat, only managing to stay on because Hope had grabbed tight to him. A rapid beeping noise started as they approached the ground of the springs, and Maqui cursed as he struggled to turn off the proximity alarms. He already knew they looked like they were going to crash, he didn't need the damned bike to remind him-
A spark, then another, and then the rumble of the engine stopped completely. Maqui's eyes widened and both he and Hope let out a yell as they dropped the last few feet onto the dirt, Maqui managing to twist around and grab Hope, kicking them both far away from the airbike before it crashed so that they wouldn't be trapped under its heavy weight and sharp machinery.
He wrapped an arm around Hope's head and the other around the boy's waist, and ducked his own head into silver hair as they hit the ground with a sharp thump and rolled the rest of the way, Maqui gritting his teeth as he felt his bones jerk and ache. It was lucky that the dirt was soft with grass and plants, and slightly damp as well.
He lay there for a few seconds, trying to access his aches and pains. Maqui's eyes were wide as he wondered at how it was that he was okay and could only feel what seemed like a few bruises rather than broken bones. After taking a moment to accessing his own injuries, he listened closely to Hope's rapid breathing, and felt the thick mud of the Springs seep through his shirt.
"That..." Hope's voice was shaky. "That wasn't a smooth landing at all!"
They looked at each other, still close enough to taste each other's breath and hearts thumping rapidly from their near-death experience, and then the both of them burst into slightly hysterical laughter.
Maqui withdrew his arms, face red as he watched Hope sit up, wincing as he rubbed the back of his head. Then he shifted his gaze to beyond the boy, and moaned pitifully as he saw the smoldering remains of his precious airbike, the one he had been working so hard on the past several weeks. While it was still in one piece, the smoke was more than enough indication that it wasn't going to run again any time soon without some TLC.
It was a sad thing. The bike was finally gaining some soul under Maqui's patient (or not so patient) care, developing its own quirks and individualizing itself. A bit more growing on the poor thing's part after he had completely fixed the bike, and he would have added some special customizations to it to give it some glamor and personality. All that work gone to waste... Maqui groaned at the thought, and rolled onto his back in the mud, pulling up his goggles so that he could rub at his eyes. He lay a dirty arm over his face, determined to wallow just a little longer.
"Maqui," Hope was shaking him now, and the older boy opened one eye, staring up at the pale boy questioningly. "We've got to move. We're drawing too much attention."
Attention? Whose attention did he manage to draw so far away from civilization? He had already humiliated himself in front of Hope, he wasn't up to seeing someone else point and whisper in their cell or something.
Still, he ignored the aches and skinned elbow as he sat up, groaning as his bones protested against the action. "What are you talking about-?" He shut up when he saw the groups of large frog-like creatures eying them suspiciously, all wet gleaming skin and sharp teeth, with a long whip-like tail with painful looking spikes.
Hope was already on his feet and trying to drag Maqui away as the older teen scrambled to his feet, this time completely ignoring any aches he might have.
Guns, guns... he didn't bring any weapons with him! Maqui panicked as he determinedly shoved Hope behind him, knowing that if anything, anything at all, happened to Hope, then he probably wasn't going to survive Lightning's wrath... or Snow's disappointed looks. He gave a sharp glance to the downed airbike which was too close to the monsters, and wondered if hurling bits of scrap metal at them would keep them away or just agitate them.
"It's okay," Hope told him, clutching to the back of Maqui's shirt. "We're far enough away that they won't actually wander over, but getting to the bike right now probably wouldn't be a good idea..."
True to his word, the monsters just kept a wary eye on them and didn't move any closer as Maqui continued to back up. He felt Hope stumble and turned around to catch the other boy before he fell off the patch of land into the springs. Maqui held on tightly as Hope cursed under his breath and then thanked him.
"Best not to disturb the water," Hope explained. "There's a fal'Cie here that guards the springs... won't do anything to you if you don't disturb the land, though. Although we may have agitated it by crash landing..."
Great. Not only were they surrounded by monsters, they were much too close to a fal'Cie for Maqui's liking. He didn't exactly have any intention of becoming a l'Cie, or to be eaten by either the Pulse fal'Cie or the frog-like monsters.
Maybe, Maqui swallowed thickly as his eyes remained on the water and his grabbed onto Hope's wrist, it was a bad idea to take that joyride. An even worse idea to venture somewhere that wasn't deemed safe yet because of numerous monsters. And without any weapons. Or telling Lebreau where he had gone.
"C'mon," Hope tugged his arm, jerking Maqui's attention away from the potential fal'Cie. "We should get to a safer spot, at least."
Yeah, a safer spot sounded like a great idea. Maqui swallowed through his insecurity and asked, "You know anywhere?"
Hope nodded, jerking his head to the left and Maqui looked over as the younger teen said, "There's a small cave area over there. We can sit in there for a moment until we come up with how we're going to get back."
Maqui eyed the dark cave suspiciously, but went along as Hope dragged him further away from the monsters and the fal'Cie. He wondered how he should be behaving right now, knowing that he had told Lightning he would protect Hope, but wanting nothing more than to have someone else of Team NORA there with him right now. Snow, preferably. Or even Gadot and Lebreau. He was sure that they would have kept a cool head and not be panicking inside like he was. It was easy to be brave when the others were brave.
But he was a part of Team NORA. There was nothing to be scared of- they were the heroes, after all.
With that in mind, Maqui stumbled forward so that he wasn't being dragged by Hope anymore. "Did you bring your cell?"
The silver-haired boy shook his head. "I left it at Light's. Dad kept telling me to keep it, but it's not like the reception on Gran Pulse is anything spectacular. Chances are it wouldn't work at all this far away, anyway."
Hmm. No transport, no weapons, no cell, no one knew where they were... Maqui pondered the situation, feeling just a bit distant. What would the others have done in their situation? Well, Yuj would have never gotten caught this far in the wilderness; he liked staying with people, people who could appreciate his sense of style so he could preen. Lebreau... well, she would never have taken a joyride, or be caught without a weapon. That went double for Gadot, although he could probably take on the monsters without any weapons.
And Snow... well, Snow would probably get caught in a situation like this while trying to impress Serah. Maqui kicked at a pebble, not sure how to feel that he could compare himself trying to impress Hope to Snow trying to impress Serah. He really didn't want to think about that. But Snow always knew what to do, and had Lady Luck on his side. No matter the situation, he always seemed to emerge victorious. Maqui wasn't sure how he did that, but he'd been trying to find out for months now.
A vicious snarl on his left caught him completely by surprise. He jerked his arm away from Hope as he spotted the lone monster creeping up toward them, teeth gleaming in its wide mouth, body hunched close to the earth as its tail swung back and forth in low arcs.
He was a part of Team NORA! He was a hero! Heroes didn't need plans, they charged in and protected everything. With that in mind, Maqui was ready when the creature lunged at Hope, and shoved the younger teen away as he hopped in the other direction, calling out to the monster, "Come on, you ugly mud frog!"
He bent low to the ground, picking up the smooth pebble that he had kicked earlier. He kept his centre of gravity low as he eyed the monster, willing his heartbeat to calm. The beast had turned its attention away from Hope now, and was baring its teeth at him, circling around.
Maqui waited, crouched low until the monster made a lunge for him, and he flung the pebble as hard as he could with deadly accuracy into the creature's eye, watching in satisfaction as he screeched in pain, falling back mid-air and hitting the ground hard, curling into itself.
If you don't have any weapons, the blond thought with grim satisfaction, then everything around you could be a weapon.
"Maqui, look out!"
Hope's warning came late as a vicious pain erupted through Maqui's arm, and he fell. He was stunned to see another one of the monsters, one that had snuck up on him, and currently it had a mouthful of razor sharp teeth in his arm.
Wait a minute, Maqui thought frantically as he felt waves of pain from every twitch of the creature, you can't assault a hero. Can't ambush them like that.
A stream of magic whizzed by his head to hit the creature dead on. It dropped Maqui's arm, screeching in pain and backing away as more Fira spells assaulted it, and the air was filled with the scent of burnt flesh.
The blond looked up in disbelief to see that Hope had already taken out the other monster, and was now flinging spell after spell at the creature curled up in pain beside him. Orbs of fire and water pushed the monster back until it finally gave a finally shrill scream and died.
The scream had drawn the attention of what seemed like all the monsters in Sulyya Springs, and a few were already making their way over to them, not sensing intruders yet but far too close for comfort.
Hope dropped into a crouch beside Maqui and placed a hand over the bleeding wound on his arm, gloves cool to the touch and glowing slightly from healing magic and the remnants of offensive magic from the last battle. The blond boy watched in fascination as the deep wounds started to close over with each cure spell, and the ache in his bones dissipated.
Before the wounds closed completely, though, Hope was already on his feet again and dragged Maqui up as well. His steps were more frantic and hurried as he pulled the two of them over to the dark cave. "We've disturbed the place. We should hide for a little while until their interest dies off."
Maqui let himself be dragged, this time not minding the look of the darkened cave at all, far too curious about the sudden onslaught of magic than scared of whatever lay in the darkness.
They entered the black of the cave and Hope urged Maqui to sit down, now rummaging through the pouch he kept with him at all times, pulling out rolls of white sterilized bandages before gingerly rolling up the bloodied sleeve.
"I didn't know you still kept your magic," Maqui said softly as he leaned against the hard stone of the cave, watching Hope wrap up his arm and trying not to wince as the bandages pulled tight. There was a smear of dirt against the younger boy's cheek and a frown on his face as he worked. Soothing green magic seeped out from his fingertips, making the wound numb.
"I didn't know either, at first," Hope admitted. "I thought we'd lose all our abilities once we lost our brands. But I guess that's the one gift that we were left with- being able to defend ourselves. Better than nothing, I suppose. Still, it would be nice..." his voice cut off as he tied the last of the bandages into a hard knot, Maqui yelping loudly as the pressure increased and then whimpering as Hope gave him an amused look.
"That smarts!" he whined, covering his arm with his other hand. But the deep wound was barely more than a scratch now, and for that Maqui was more than grateful. It was fine acting childish, if it got Hope to smile. He smoothed his hand over the injured arm, remembering the tingling of the healing touch racing into his bloodstream. "But that's awesome that you can do magic. Makes things so much easier, you know? I wish I could do magic. I'd blow up an old building or something, bam!" He hesitated at the odd look on Hope's face. "I mean, not one with people in it! I'd make sure there wasn't anyone in there first! Double check, triple check!"
Hope chuckled, but Maqui could tell it was a strained sound.
"I don't think you'd want to go through the process to get this magic," Hope stated lightly, and Maqui wondered just how insensitive he was being, and just how it was that Hope could have that much patience with him.
The older boy was silent for a moment to berate himself as Hope sat down beside him, pulling his knees up to his chest as he glanced out the cave.
"Was there anything you missed, though?" Maqui asked, wanting to make up for his earlier stupid comment. "I mean, it's got to be great not to be labeled as different anymore, but..." he trailed off. You look like you miss it. Being a l'Cie. Of course, Maqui had some semblance of tact and wasn't going to voice that aloud. He had learned through Snow that sometimes if the words didn't feel like it would help, then it was best not to say them at all.
"Not really," Hope said, arms around his knees as his eyes turned toward the darkening sky. "I miss Fang and Vanille, of course. I know they're watching over us. I hope that they'll wake up soon, that they'll be able to join us and we'd all grow up and grow old together, but... well, they did what they had to. We all just tried to do what we thought was right. And we made it through. It was scary back then. It's easier now."
Maqui thought back to the confident boy who had stood up to inspire them all in Eden, and couldn't associate that image with the Hope he saw now, green eyes glassy with heavy memories. The blond boy had never seen this side of Hope before, so melancholy and quiet and deeply troubled. The younger teen had always seemed quiet, yes, but it was more of a calming presence, reminding him quite a bit of Serah. Those times, Maqui could understand why Lightning had taken so well to Hope.
"Still." Hope turned back to look at Maqui, the sadness broken as he grinned a bit mischievously. "I really miss my Eidolon."
Maqui perked up out of his thoughts. That's right- he had forgotten about Eidolons, the summons that responded to l'Cie. He had seen through the holo-vids in school, of course, about the War of Transgression and the l'Cie who fought in it with their Eidolons. The summoned creatures were beings of awe to Maqui, and just about every other child who had grown up on Cocoon. He used to daydream all the time as a child of having an Eidolon; a fierce being who would fight for him and protect him. In fact, he was sure he still had his Carbuncle plushie around somewhere...
He had never seen it; Hope had never talked about it... but the younger boy once had an Eidolon? The idea was mind-boggling. Snow talked about his all the time, combined with the wistful looks and the fond tone he got whenever he mentioned the Shiva sisters, Maqui thought that Serah probably had every right to slap his head every time he got too into his memories. But two goddess creatures who transformed into a motorbike at his command? What man wouldn't miss that?
"An Eidolon?" Maqui was excited. "You never told me about your Eidolon!" He could imagine all sorts of things- a giant robotic warrior that would fight for the boy or a goddess like Shiva with fierce magical attacks. "What was it like? What was its name?"
Hope settled his chin on his knees, now looking less like a war-battered veteran and more like an excitable teenaged boy. "Alexander. He was... really big. Surprisingly big. Like a giant warrior. And different. Everyone else had these gestalt modes that..." his voice faded off in memory, and Maqui nudged the other boy to keep him talking. "Well, Snow talks about Shiva often enough. Alexander couldn't change like everyone else who wanted a quick get-away. He was... he was a castle." The younger boy gave a chuckle. "He really was."
Maqui wondered what kind of analogy that was... he couldn't fathom it. All the Eidolons he had seen (and heard from, thanks to Snow) were giant fighting beasts or quick, agile warriors who could change forms to carry their summoners to safety.
"Not a motorbike, then?" Maqui joked.
The silver-haired boy shook his head. "He was... safe. He couldn't get anyone to safety, but it was like when he was there, nothing could come close to hurting us. A... well, an ultimate defense rather than a quick get-away."
The blond nodded, not quite understanding, but glad that Hope was telling him this anyway. Eidolons were like a distant fantasy, a childhood dream of warmth and protection. He tried to remember how he felt in those childhood fantasies of being a summoner, of having a celestial warrior to fight for and defend him. He wondered if those feelings held even an inkling to have actually having an Eidolon was like.
He glanced out of the cave they were nestled in, and grimaced at the amount of monsters he could see distantly. He was sure that he could take on a few of them, and if Hope had retained his magic, then quite a few more... but those things were all huddled close together, and Maqui wasn't sure how he'd fare injured and trying to take down a dozen of those beasts while keeping Hope safe.
Keeping Hope safe. That was a new concept to him. Usually, the others of Team NORA were telling him to get out of the way, or keeping him at the very back of a battle. He was usually the one kept safe, and while he had experience defending others before (the Hanging Edge was certainly an experience), he had never actively looked out for anyone in specific before.
Maqui shifted, trying to ignore the remaining sparks of pain from his wound and the rest of the scrapes and bruises he had, finally allowing himself relief as he glanced the other boy over to make sure Hope wasn't hurt in any way. At least he had done that much, right? Kept Hope safe?
He slumped his shoulders in defeat. He really shouldn't have boasted about how the airbike would surely work. Why did he have to show off like that? It wasn't hard to figure out that the reason Hope wasn't hurt was not because of his amazing protective ability, but rather because the younger boy was quick and agile on his feet, knowing when the duck and when to feint. The sad truth was just that Maqui would have been worse off if Hope hadn't been there.
"That's really cool," Maqui said in all honesty. He flexed his injured arm, noting that even the dull ache was slowly fading away. Other than the Focus thing and the pariah thing (and the Cie'th and crystal and the whole no happy ending thing), being a l'Cie sounded a bit cool. To have magic powers? Enhanced strength and agility? An Eidolon?
Hope hmmed in agreement, eyes turned toward the cave entrance, but then he looked back at Maqui and the older boy caught his breath as he realized, in that instance, just how close they were sitting in the little cave... and how much Hope's silver-white hair stood out in the darkness.
"How," he asked, unable to stop himself. "Did any of you guys manage to hide from monsters in the dark?"
Just as he said it, he snapped his mouth shut. It wasn't as if he had any ground on that statement, seeing as he was just as blond as Snow and while nowhere as pale as Hope, still burned unbearably if he stayed outside for more than an hour a day under the hot sun of Gran Pulse.
Hope looked confused rather than insulted, though. "What?"
Maqui reddened. "Nothing, sorry, sorry. Just... something that caught my attention."
The blond boy let out a quiet, uneasy laugh as he rubbed at the back of his head with his uninjured arm, wincing slightly at the thought of how easily he had been injured. How was he supposed to protect Hope if he had to rely on the younger boy for cures like that?
"Stop thinking about it."
"Huh?" Maqui lowered his arm, staring at the silver-haired boy.
Hope poked him in the bicep. "Your arm. It only hurts because you won't stop thinking about how it hurt."
The older teen rubbed his arm gingerly. "It doesn't hurt," he lied.
"It shouldn't. It only does because you think it does- like phantom pains."
Maqui never understood the concept of phantom pains much. He figured that something either hurt or it didn't, and if there wasn't anything hurt, then nothing should actually hurt. Like machines. Things only went wrong when something was actually wrong, but if all the wiring was connected properly, then everything should be peachy-keen.
He winced. Should be.
Hope was glancing out the cave again, this time with a more wistful expression on his face. It made the older teen wonder why Hope had chosen this death trap in the first place. Sure he had heard that all of Gran Pulse was pretty dangerous in the unsettled areas, and NORA certainly had their hands full just dealing with the strays that wander just a little too close to the new cities. But those were the rare beasts that were dumb enough to venture close enough, thinking they could handle squadrons of soldiers with too many bullets and firepower and not enough brains.
But he hadn't been out to see the wilds before, at least not out of the lands close to the settlements. The beauty of Gran Pulse was intense and deadly, and the enormity of it all sometimes made Maqui want to hate Snow and the others for Cocoon's downfall in those rare moments before he tacked on the thought that without them, everyone in Cocoon would be dead. Their old lifestyles on Cocoon couldn't have been saved... at least the l'Cie had managed to save its people. Still, it was a lingering thought the blond knew was in everyone's heads. Cocoon had been a paradise. Gran Pulse, no matter how beautiful it was, was hell.
It was no wonder that some people still refused to leave Cocoon, even without fal'Cie power and having to live with the fear that it may someday come crashing out of the sky.
Still, sitting here with Hope, Maqui couldn't bring himself to hate the untempered world that made life so much harder with every twist and turn. Sitting in the dark cave with monsters waiting outside to slash them open, thinking about the absurdity of phantom pains and with the remains of his airbike smoldering away in the distance... it didn't feel as bad as it sounded.
Hope stretched out an arm to point to a distance, and Maqui followed the movement with his eyes. "See that flower there? It apparently used to grow lots of places, but now I've only ever seen it near the Mah'habara."
Maqui squinted to see small pink flowers covering an area of land near the exit of the Springs. "What's it called?"
Hope seemed to hesitate, and then responded quietly, "I never asked her."
Her. The wistful tone was enough for Maqui to figure out that it would be either Fang or Vanille.
Hope turned to him and scrambled up, a smile lingering on his lips despite the nostalgia before. "C'mon. We've got to get some of those flowers."
The blond sputtered and clambered up after the other teen, "Flowers? We're going to risk our butts outside with the monsters for flowers?"
"Yup. As long as we're careful, everything here looks like its lost interest in us already." Hope was already out of the cave and walking close to the water ledge, Maqui behind him half wanting to hold out his arms in case Hope lost his balance and half terrified for his own safety out in the open. "It's on the way out, anyway. We're going to have to leave sometime if we ever want to find our way back again."
Maqui wasn't so sure he was that ready to leave the relative safety of the cave at the moment, though. He had finally gotten comfortable with the idea of spending some time in the cold, damp, scary place as long as he was the one there with Hope, and to have that thought (which was slowly getting more and more appealing) change so suddenly was quite shocking.
"What good would it do us to get out of here, though?" Maqui muttered, mostly to himself as he navigated carefully around the slippery slopes of the water edge. He flailed his arms for a bit when his footing slipped, but managed to catch himself fast enough. The older teen chanced an embarrassed glance up, but Hope didn't seem to have noticed his blunder at all.
"What I don't understand," Maqui stated, his voice just a bit louder to be heard by Hope but not attract the attention of the creatures in the Springs, "Was how you guys managed to stay sane through this place. I mean, it's hard enough with the Guardian Corps clearing out the area and having to take care of the remnants, but to actually have to trudge through this place without help?" There were thousands of monsters on Gran Pulse, each one more dangerous than the previous. Realizing this made it so much more feasible for the former l'Cie to have taken down Orphan.
"But we had help," Hope didn't sound concerned with the blond's question. "We had each other. That's how we knew we would make it through." At this, the silver-haired boy gingerly climbed atop a taller ledge, and then turned around to reach a hand down to Maqui with a smile. "And it's going to be fine. We have each other here as well, right?"
The youngest member of Team NORA stopped dead in his tracks, eyes wide as he stared at the gloved hand offered to help him up. For a moment, he was completely lost as to what he should do- this wasn't something he had anticipated on- wasn't he the one there to protect Hope? Right now, at that moment, with Hope smiling down at him and extending his hand, telling him how everything was going to be okay... it really didn't seem that way. And for that, Maqui was lost.
The older teen swallowed thickly, and offered a hesitant smile, reaching out to grasp Hope's hand. "Yeah."
That was right. As long as he wasn't alone, there was a better chance of making it out just fine.
Kinematics; n. The branch of mechanics dealing with the study of the motion of a body or a system of bodies without consideration given to its mass or the forces acting on it.
There was a group of the frog-like creatures at the entrance of the Springs, three fanged monsters lounging in such a manner that there was no possible way to get around them without alerting them to the boys' presence. Maqui had stared long and hard at them, wishing once again that he had at least remembered to bring a gun with him, or some sort of weapon, but then remembered that his surroundings could be used as a weapon. He just had to draw their attention away from Hope so that younger teen would be able to get away- Maqui was fast; he prided himself in being fast, actually, and he was sure he would be able to outrun those slimy creatures after making sure that Hope had gotten away safely-
Hope's dark grin had other ideas, though, as he pulled out his collapse-able boomerang from his waist pouch, and whispered, "Pre-emptive strike. Ready?"
Maqui stared for a quick second, mind wandering as to how that boomerang managed to fit in the tiny pouch, and just why Hope would have it on him, before he centered himself and gave a quick nod. "Yeah. Attack the left?"
"Alright. Left to right." Hope sounded amused as he drew back and threw the boomerang with all his strength, hitting each of the monsters in succession and inciting indignant squawks from the creatures as they slowly turned to face them, teeth and claws bared. Within moments, Maqui had gathered a handful of rocks and was pelting them at the monsters in succession, even as Hope took the time to raise shields around them before summoning a maelstrom of lightning and water.
Maqui nearly dropped his handful of stones in shock as he watched, wide-eyed, as the frog-like monsters yelped and were all caught up in the twister of lightning and summoned water, suspending them in mid-air where they couldn't retaliate and electrocuting all of them almost immediately.
He had never seem a l'Cie in fight before, only heard stories. Stories of destruction and city-wide rampages. He had always dismissed the stories as exaggerations- obviously the destruction and rampages were caused by the Sanctum trying to hunt the l'Cie down, and even if they did have magic powers and Eidolons... the Eidolons could only be summoned for a small period of time and Maqui had only ever seen the magic that manadrives could imitate: healing, shields, haste, ruin orbs, poison... devastating, yes, but only on a person to person basis or to a small group of people.
Seeing Hope effortlessly summon elements to his bidding, the entire area crackling with electricity and dangerously controlled water to enhance the damaging effects, made Maqui realize that maybe, just maybe, the original stories had been right.
All three of the creatures were dead before they hit the ground again, with no time to call upon allies to help them.
The younger teen didn't bat an eye as he shoved the boomerang back into his pouch, and then climbed onto the last ledge, giving Maqui a smile as he successfully ignored the smoking and half disintegrated bodies. "C'mon."
Magic, Maqui was coming to realize as he waiting patiently for Hope to ponder over which flowers to pick, was a dangerous thing.
And Hope was very good at it. It was a stunning revelation to the blond boy, as he had always imagined the other to be a lot like him, always pushed to the back of the battle where the adults were willing to take over and not quite as powerful as everyone else. He had never seen this side of Hope before... it had always been the shy, quiet smile that drew Maqui close and made the older boy want to protect the youngest of the former l'Cie. It was that awkward, lopsided smile combined with the ridiculously childish scarf and the bright optimism that Hope generally exuded. Maqui had imagined that Hope would be squeamish with corpses, monsters or not, and hesitant in battle. He had imagined himself to be some kind of hero, the kind that Team NORA were supposed to represent.
He had never thought that Hope wouldn't really even need him in battle; that the younger boy really wasn't the slightest bit scared of their situation, and didn't care two wits about the fact that he had taken several monsters out and left their steaming corpses behind as they walked, or that he could be... that powerful.
Maqui was starting to realize that even the most powerful of manadrives equipped by the military didn't compare to the natural power that a l'Cie could generate.
It was a... stunning discovery. One he wasn't sure what to make of yet. On the one hand, he had a new admiration for the quiet and unassuming boy, but on the other... power like that was dangerous. Dangerous the surrounding people if it got out of hand, and dangerous to Hope if the wrong people found out that he could wield such power.
"Think those would go with these?" Hope was pointing at a patch of flowers just a few meters off, resting in a bush of what looked like Baby's Breath. The green-eyed boy was completely oblivious to Maqui's tsunami of thoughts, skin just the slightest tint of red from having been outside under the sun for too long. He had a fistful of pink flowers in his hands, different sizes and looking a bit mangled from where he had torn them from the stem.
Maqui squinted against the sunlight, a hand trying in vain to shield his eyes from the brightness. "Looks good. Don't know much about flowers, though."
"Yeah, me neither," Hope confided, stepping over to the bush. "Feels like something I should know, though. My mom used to tell me all about what different flowers meant, but I never really paid attention."
The blond boy didn't really remember his mother, only Lebreau struggling to wake him up in the mornings.
"Maybe we shouldn't touch it, then," Maqui commented, eying the flowers warily now. "What if they're poisonous?" Or tried to bite their faces off? That had happened to him once when he was out on a scouting trip with Gadot, where one of the pretty flowers had risen from the ground and chased after them when he had leaned in too close. It was Gran Pulse- he wouldn't put it past the land to have poisonous flowers everywhere.
All the prettier to kill you with, right?
"Unless they start emitting poison gas, I think I'm pretty safe," Hope said, amused, as he turned and wiggled his gloved fingers at Maqui. The older boy colored in realization, and then coughed to try and cover his lack of higher thinking. Well, it was always a possibility!
Maqui fidgeted from where he was seated atop a boulder, tapping his heels against the stone. He glanced up at the sky, noting that while it was still bright out, the sun would soon be setting. Give it another two hours, maybe. How long did it take for them to get there in the first place? He wasn't very sure, as the entire ride felt more like a dream to him now. "Think we'll have to spend the night here?"
It was safer than in the Springs, anyway. But more open. And that could be dangerous if something faster than them were to find the two boys. If they had to spend the night out, then maybe they should head back to the relative safety of the darkened cave.
"Not really." Hope was turned away, on his toes and carefully balancing his weight against another boulder to reach the higher flowers in the bush without falling in himself. Maqui watched him struggle for a while, trying to figure out whether he should offer his own help, before realizing that Hope was doing perfectly fine without him there. "I'm sure the others have already noticed that we're missing and are searching for us right now."
The older teen winced. Miss Lightning was going to kill him, and Yuj and Lebreau were probably going to stand back and shake their heads sadly, talking about how they would say something nice at his funeral. Unless he could plead to Serah first to shield him from her sister's wrath.
Maqui half debated running away and hiding out in the Mah'habara for a few days until the soldier calmed down a bit, but then realized he had a poor chance for survival there, and Lightning was likely to get angrier the longer he was missing. But honestly, he couldn't decide which was worse: facing a pissed off Lightning or having to fend for himself in a land full of monsters.
"They're going to kill me," Maqui moaned pitifully to himself, curling up on his seat to sink his face into his hands. "And I lost my bike!"
He spent a few moments feeling sorry for himself and wondering if there was any way to fake his death before they were found again when he heard Hope's footsteps in front of him. The blond peeked from behind his fingers and pouted miserably to see Hope smiling; that shy, lopsided smile that he had just been thinking about. The least the other teen could do was sympathize with him before he died! Or pretend to, anyway.
"Here." A large pink blossom was shoved in front of his face, and Maqui leaned back, his hands coming down to brace himself against the rock. "If I've learned anything, it's that people are much more forgiving when you convince them that you were thinking about them." Hope paused, looking a bit embarrassed. "Well. Girls, anyway."
Maqui reached out and accepted the blossom gingerly, closing his fingers over Hope's and feeling the rough texture of the stem digging through his glove and into the skin of his fingertips. "Thanks." He stared at the bright pink petals. "I'm not a girl, though."
Hope chuckled. "I meant, you could give it away if you think it'll help. Or you could keep it. To remember this trip."
Maqui didn't think that Lebreau would appreciate a flower that was so rough on the hands, and possibly poisonous. He did, however, like the idea of keeping that flower. It was a nice thought, to have gotten a flower from Hope.
Hope smiled again, and Maqui had to remind his rapid heartbeat that the younger boy really wasn't just the sweetness and innocence that he looked (and with a fallen heart, also had to remind himself that he wasn't as much the hero he wanted to be, either).
They pulled away, and Maqui twirled the flower between his fingers for a moment, feeling the rough texture and glad that he at least had a glove on that hand. His gaze was eventually drawn back to Hope, though, who was picking and discarding more flowers, littering the ground behind him in petals.
It had been a pretty disastrous day, overall. From his overconfidence concerning the airbike, the crash-landing, getting injured, stuck in a cave, battling monsters, and now out under the burning sun picking flowers of all things... It was hard to believe that it had probably barely been an hour or two ago when he had prepared himself to knock on Miss Lightning's door in order to hang out with Hope.
How had this happened? It was supposed to be a normal day in the garage, hopefully explaining things to the younger teen who had always been curious about... well, just about everything. Maqui had almost cleaned up the garage in his eagerness, until Yuj had started laughing at him. He had been so eager to see Hope's shy, slightly awkward smile that he had almost left the house without his headphones, which he always had on him.
But then he had learned that Hope had different smiles as well... the nostalgic one and the grin full of confidence, nothing awkward at all in his ability to fight and his belief in himself. He had learned about Eidolons and had an epiphany about magic.
And amongst that, he had discovered that the shy and awkward lopsided smile, although precious, wasn't the only smile he wanted to see.
And there was the fact that Hope wasn't in the least bothered by carnage. And he was really picky about flowers, but really couldn't make a bouquet. The fact that he didn't really need anyone to protect him.
Maqui froze on that thought as Hope cursed quite loudly as he stumbled, face-first against the bush, having lost his balance trying to pick the brightest flower facing the sun. It was almost instinct that had him off his seat and crossing the few meters almost instantly to help the younger teen back up, even if it meant pulling the back of his collar until Hope was flush against him, standing straight up again.
"Thank you." The silver-haired boy's face was flushed adorably, the red stain adding to the beginnings of sunburn. Maqui found himself grinning back, feeling extremely silly and developing a new appreciation for the sweet and shy side of Hope now that he knew the younger boy was also very much a warrior. "I just... kind of lost my balance."
"I noticed," the blond replied teasingly, and then reached out, still clasping the silver-haired boy to him, and pulled at the flower at the very top of the bush. "This the one you were going for?"
Hope looked mildly irritated that Maqui had no trouble reaching something he had struggled to even brush his fingers against, and Maqui felt his chest puff up in the certitude of knowing that at least he was still a good half head taller than the younger boy. Same height as Lebreau now, much to the woman's extreme consternation. Almost as tall as Yuj now, and he was still waiting for that last growth spurt to kick in.
A good tug got the flower off, and Maqui noticed that this one was much softer, the petals a brilliant white with a smooth stem and tiny budded leaves. He reached down and tucked the flower behind Hope's ear, laughing as the younger boy scowled and batted him away.
"Cut that out," Hope grumbled, a hand reaching up to tug the flower away, a few strands of his hair clinging to the soft budded leaves. "Now you're just showing off."
"It suits you," Maqui teased. And it really did. The flower blended almost perfectly with the fall of Hope's silver-white hair, and he could almost say he was saddened when Hope had taken it off.
Hope narrowed his eyes. "You're making fun of me."
"I'm not, I'm not!" Maqui's grin broke into a smile as he took the flower back from Hope's hands and tucked it back in the boy's hair. "I think you should really keep this one."
And it was at that moment, his hands twined in Hope's silvery hair and the younger boy glaring at him under his sunburn, arms crossed in consternation and looking so very cute in that sea-foam green scarf wrapped around his neck and a brilliant white flower in his hair, that Maqui had a very startling epiphany.
Despite the injury, despite the stress, the monsters, his broken airbike and the dread of facing everyone again, Maqui was very glad for today. He wanted nothing more than to be where he was at that moment, giving Hope a baffled stare as the boy glared up at him even as they were lost in the wilderness and could be ambushed by monsters and die at any moment. He was glad to have seen Hope's smile, to have heard him talk about his Eidolon, to be trusted with the secret that the former l'Cie had kept their magic. He was glad to have found out that the younger boy was a good fighter, an amazing magic user, and had so much more to him that the awkward optimism that had drawn Maqui in the first place. He wanted to know more about the teen who had been thoughtful enough to give him a flower so that he wouldn't get so thoroughly chewed out later, and had healed his injuries as though an everyday thing.
He hadn't been going to Miss Lightning's house on a regular basis because he wanted the younger boy to have more friends, or just to show off his mechanic skills to someone who might appreciate it, or even because Hope was curious about everything. He realized that he hadn't saved the old airbike just because he wanted it to work again, but because the gaudy sea-foam green had reminded him of someone.
He liked Hope.
Oh, Maqui thought as his hands lingered in Hope's hair, the shorter boy now giving him a puzzled expression. Miss Lightning's going to kill me.
"Maybe it is poisonous," Hope commented dryly, "If it can daze you like that."
"Huh?" The response was less than intelligent, but Maqui was quite proud he had managed to respond at all after that revelation.
"The flower." The younger teen brushed Maqui's hands away from his hair, much to the other's disappointment. "You said it could be poisonous, remember?"
The blond wondered if he could blame his epiphany on the flower, wondered if that startling clarity would disappear once he washed his hands again and realized that he was just... that he just liked Hope as a friend. He doubted it.
"Shouldn't you be affected as well, then?" He asked, catching his bearings. He was still reeling, trying to see all his own actions from a different point of view. Was this what Miss Lightning meant when she had said that she knew what was going on? When Yuj had been snickering at him for scrubbing his hands clean and frantically running around the garage? Lebreau's knowing look when he asked for the day off to spend with Hope?
"Maybe I'm immune." The teen's voice was smug and teasing, and drew Maqui back into the present. "Maybe you missed the last series of inoculation shots."
That drew up the image of the giant honking needles that doctors had loaded with various vaccines and immunizations. Cocoon had been completely protected from all the bacteria and diseases of Gran Pulse, and even pollen had been a pretty new experience for most of the citizens that had moved down. Maqui had been sick for a solid week after taking his shots, complaining about why they had to be subjected to the giant needles of pain if it was going to make them sick anyway. He knew for a fact that even Hope had to take the inoculations, as he had previously been protected because he was a l'Cie, but now needed to boost his immune system like everyone else.
He cringed slightly at the thought of having to face those needles again, and the subsequent week of nausea. "Those make you sick, not better."
"They prevent you from catching the full disease. That would make you feel worse than the shots." Hope stopped, and then looked toward the sky suddenly. Maqui followed his gaze, quiet as well now, suddenly anxious to know if they were about to be attacked or not. Now knowing what he did, Maqui wasn't surprised by the instinctive urge to push Hope behind him, to keep the other safe.
"What?" Maqui asked, although his voice was low as he surveyed for danger. Hope just shook his head and didn't respond, as if listening for something.
A moment of silence passed between them, their eyes to the sky, when a piercing shriek was heard in the distance.
"There!" Hope had that grin again, the same one he had right before their last fight (albeit sillier with a flower in his hair), and took off running into the open field, Maqui cursing loudly as he realized just a little too late and missed grabbing the younger teen's shirt to keep him behind.
"Hope- wait!" The blond took half a second to tuck the bright pink flower that Hope had given him into a back pocket before breaking into a run after the other boy, knowing that it was an extremely bad idea to be out in the open so defenseless like that (and a bad idea to place the flower in his back pocket, Maqui realized belatedly. The texture of it had been rough enough to pierce through his work gloves; his pants certainly wasn't offering much in terms of protection)... and people usually ran away from the creepy sounds, not towards it!
He stumbled over a pebble for a moment before he regained his bearings and ran full speed, surprised at how fast the younger teen was. It wasn't long (although it felt like an eternity on his lungs) before they broke into an area away from the Springs in sight of the tower that Hope had talked about earlier. The view was breath-taking with its cliffs and rugged landscapes, dire wolves prowling the lands and amphisbaena circling the skies...
Maqui did a double-take as he realized that the cry had come from one of the amphisbaena, who was struggling to stay in flight as it was attacked by a group of people in... airbikes?
He swallowed heavily as he recognized Snow, Lightning, and Lebreau. Great, now he was going to get chewed out by Snow for being reckless, by Lebreau for having to close to bar to come looking for him, and by Lightning for... well, everything, he supposed.
Hope was a bit closer to them (although he stayed a careful distance away from the wolves as to not draw their attention) a threw a spell towards the amphisbaena which seemed the last straw to stagger the beast, as it drew back with a shriek just as Lightning jumped off her airbike to attack the beast mid-air.
Another spell from Hope covered Lightning's blade with purple lightning, and the flying beast was given no time to defend itself before Lightning slashed its throat open and it fell to the earth, howling as its blood soaked the thirsty ground. Lightning landed gracefully next to the creature, managing to avoid the blood. By now the wolves in the vicinity were getting curious and, scenting the blood, was starting to wander toward the area of the battle.
Maqui watched as Lightning shook off the blood on her blade and sheathed it, giving directions up to Snow and Lebreau (who were still on their bikes), although he couldn't hear what she was saying. He did notice with heavy dread, though, when she started walking quite calmly over to him and Hope.
Hope must have noticed his dread, as the younger boy stepped over and patted him on the arm reassuringly. "Don't worry about it, okay? It's not your fault. I really wanted to come out here as well."
Easy for you to say, Maqui thought with fond exasperation, No one's going to kill you for this.
With a smile and a last pat, Hope turned and ran over to meet Lightning mid-way, stopping just a step away and not looking the least bit guilty at all for their trip. He said something to her that Maqui couldn't hear, although the soldier did not look amused as she responded. Maqui took a deep breath as he watched the airbikes approach, and decided it was probably best to face this head on. Better than prolonging his torture by waiting, right?
Trying to gather his courage and at least appear as confident as Hope, Maqui waved the airbikes over, sticking on an admonished grin to appear more disarming.
Surprisingly, it was Lebreau who landed first and stepped off her bike before it had even powered down properly, stomping over to Maqui to whap him over the head. The blond teen winced, although it was exaggerated to placate the other NORA member. He could tell by the strength of her hit that she had actually been more worried than mad, and that made him feel significantly more guilty.
"Ow!" Maqui whined, holding his head in both hands and ducking below her height so he could look up at her with widened puppy eyes. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! But that really hurt, Lebreau!"
"You!" The only female member of NORA ground out, hands clenched and by her sides to refrain from hitting him again, expression thunderous. "You could have at the very least told me that you were going to head out! And are you crazy? Civilians aren't allowed beyond the townships for a reason, brat! You of all people should know that!"
"I'm not exactly a civilian-" Maqui tried to interject, but Lebreau would hear nothing of it.
"And even soldiers are required to head out in groups and with the right equipment! You know that Gran Pulse is dangerous! Just what in the world were you thinking?"
Maqui cringed back, with half a thought to hand over the flower in his pocket and try to calm her down, but he had never been able to lie to Lebreau before, and he didn't think he would be able to start now. "I... I really thought that the airbike would work." His words grew meeker and meeker as she glared. He barely registered Snow jogging up as well, his large figure dwarfed by Lebreau's rage. "...I just wanted to take Hope out to see the skies," he mumbled weakly, eyes downward.
Lebreau huffed, but it was Snow's laughter that grew Maqui's gaze again.
"Sounds like something I did," Snow reminisced with a grin. "Did you crash just like I did?"
Maqui perked up. Snow had crashed before and he hadn't heard about it? He had speculated, of course, but to actually hear about that...
"That's nothing something you should be proud of," Lebreau snapped at Snow, and Maqui ducked his head again before she could turn her gaze to him. He peeked up, though, intrigued by the story. And it wasn't everyday that Lebreau got worked up about something. She was usually extremely calm and composed, never worked up about anything in general. She had laughed when he first asked about it years ago, complaining that all the girls he knew were moody and scary but she had always been so calm. She had explained then that it was what was expected for barkeeps, to be the calm and unbiased side while people spilled their life stories.
Snow didn't appear worried, though, and ruffled Maqui's hair. "Must have been that particle generator. I never thought it was very useful, really, but nothing seemed to work without it..."
"I'm really sorry?" Maqui offered up meekly under the weight of Snow's hand. "I won't do it again?"
"Was that supposed to be a question?" Lebreau asked dangerously, and Maqui ducked out from under Snow's hand and around the larger man to avoid another swipe from Lebreau.
"Not a question!" he amended, his voice pitched higher than he would have liked, "I mean, I won't do it again! I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
Lebreau still looked irritated, but not as furious as she had been before. "You are so lucky that you're okay. If you have the slightest scratch on you, I'll make sure the injury's bad enough to send you to the hospital. If Hope had gotten hurt... well, I won't be able to help you out there."
Maqui remembered the bite he got from the monsters in the Springs and gave a weak laugh, trying very discretely to hide the bandages that Hope had wrapped around his arm. At least it would take a while before the bruises he must have gotten in the crash to show up. He'd just have to remember to cover up more skin tomorrow.
"How was your little trip, then?" Snow asked, still with the grin on his face. "I'll assume you crashed your bike as well."
Maqui deflated. "Yeah. It's still in the Springs..."
"You flew into Sulyya Springs?" Snow sounded impressed. "Must have been some flying."
"Or some crashing." Lebreau offered dryly.
Footsteps resounded, and Lightning spoke, "We can worry about the bike later. What's important is getting these two back into town. We don't want to be stuck here after nightfall."
Maqui glanced up from where he had ducked behind Snow to avoid Lebreau, to see a similarly sheepish Hope behind Lightning, looking quite embarrassed. For a moment, he wondered how their conversation must have went, as Lightning still had a terse frown on her face, although she didn't look like she was going to lose her temper anytime soon.
Lebreau was glancing between the group (Maqui was hoping that she was keeping an eye out so Miss Lightning didn't kill him), but when her gaze finally settled on the youngest of NORA again, her expression was intrigued and curious. She gestured faintly to Hope, and then pointed to above her ear, and Maqui's gaze followed until he realized that Hope still had the large white flower stuck behind his ear. The younger teen had probably forgotten all about the fact that it was still there.
He couldn't help the wide grin on his face, seeing that.
"Now that Sis has given you that good talking to; good to see you're okay, too, kid!" Snow called to Hope, and reached to ruffle his hair in the same fashion as he had done to Maqui, but then stopped with a blink as he saw the flower.
"'m not a kid." Hope mumbled, batting Snow's hand away.
Lightning was giving Maqui a very pointed stare and the boy laughed nervously, trying to hide behind the female NORA member.
"No more joyrides," Lightning said, and Maqui and Hope both nodded vigorously. "Next time you feel a need to come out, make sure to talk to either Snow or me about it."
"Okay," Hope agreed meekly, and the group started over to the two functioning airbikes before Hope tugged on Lightning's shirt.
She stopped, and Maqui struggled to continue forward and pretend that he wasn't eavesdropping. He could tell that Lebreau and Snow were doing the same.
"This is for you," Hope's voice was quiet and slightly embarrassed, and Maqui could see the hint of sunburn on the boy's cheeks as he pulled out the hastily tied bouquet of flowers from his side pouch. It didn't look as pretty as it did several minutes ago straight off the bush- in fact, it was a bit wilted and crushed and bruised, but Lightning didn't seem to mind as she reached for it with a small smile on her lips. "I'm really sorry I made you worry, Light."
The rest of the conversation was lost as Lebreau fired up the engines of the airbike, and gestured Maqui over to sit with her. Maqui scrambled over quickly, hopping onto the bike with a sense of relief knowing that he was about to leave the dangerous wastelands he thought he was going to be trapped in.
"How come you don't bring me flowers, huh?" Lebreau grumbled, and Maqui grinned over her shoulder, feeling the comfortable weight of the one blossom in his pocket.
"If I got you flowers, you'd think I had just murdered someone or something," Maqui responded. "And that I needed you to bail me out of jail."
"...Yeah, I probably would."
By now, Snow had gotten his bike in the air, and Hope was seated behind Lightning as she started up the last bike, which had auto-landed during her battle. The silver-haired boy was talking with her about something, and she appeared more amused than anything else, the make-shift bundle of flowers sticking out of her red side pouch. He turned his face to the side as the bike lifted into the air and Maqui grinned at him, lifting a hand to wave, receiving that shy and lopsided smile in return.
The blond boy turned back to see Lebreau grinning wickedly at him. "Looks like the two of you had a good time."
"Playing a bit of a dangerous game, though," she continued, although she had turned away from him to drive the airbike. "We don't want Sergeant Farron hating us forever now. Sure about it?"
Maqui had half a mind to snap at her in annoyance for knowing before he did... but then he glanced over to where Hope was riding with Lightning, the younger teen talking animatedly with the soldier, words unheard due to the distance and the faint whir of the airbikes. He thought about the revelations he had in the previous few hours, about how he had been drawn to the younger boy even before that. He thought about Hope's smiles and the quiet admissions about his Eidolon, and the cool healing magic on his arm. He thought about the shock in realizing how powerful and destructive magic could be, and then understanding that Hope, shy and awkward Hope who would spend hours reading a book on Chocobos to Dahj, was able to control it effortlessly. Then he thought about Hope pressed against his back during the ride over, of the younger boy's breath in his ear, and the feel of his fingers under his when Hope had given him the pink blossom.
"I don't know," Maqui admitted softly, although he was smiling. "But I think I'm sure enough to try."
Lebreau hummed her acknowledgment and Maqui turned to see Hope already staring at him, still oblivious to the white flower in his hair. The younger teen grinned at him and Maqui knew that, yeah, he was willing to brave Miss Lightning to see that smile again.
Maqui just grinned back and leaned into Lebreau, already planning out the next time he would be waking up early in the morning to scrub his hands clean and (this time) ask if Hope wanted to help disassemble the new Velocycle he got instead.