They could explore the wilds of Gran Pulse for the rest of their lives and still have a lot of territory left that nobody knew anything about. The idea is a little intimidating sometimes—but mostly, Hope thinks it's pretty cool. There's so much to discover, so much to see, so much to learn. And it's all useful knowledge, too, especially now that Cocoon's systems are failing: there are still some people living in the shell, insisting that they'll figure out how to fix things without migrating, but most of Cocoon's survivors have realized by now that without Barthandelus, without Orphan, they can't go back to the old ways.
The braver people who lived there are starting to come down to the surface of Gran Pulse to try to make new lives for themselves. There's a settlement at the base of the crystal tower that Fang and Vanille summoned to save everyone, small houses and experiments in gardening and an electrified perimeter fence to keep Pulse's wildlife at bay. Their team of, well, ex-l'Cie now, have another little village started up further out, with help from NORA and Hope's dad and one or two people Sazh knows. (At first Hope felt sort of funny about how close they'd all gotten, about wanting to stick with them even now that he didn't have to anymore, but Light said you saw that happen a lot with soldiers who'd been through really dangerous campaigns together, and after that it didn't feel like a bad thing at all.)
The four of them take turns going out on exploration missions, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. The settlers from Cocoon—the new people of Gran Pulse—will need any resources they can come up with, from ruins with useful building supplies to protected sources of clean water. Whoever is going out takes supplies and a com link, and they all know better than to pick solitary fights with any of the biggest uglies on the plains. Gadot was pretty skeptical about Hope taking missions at first, but Snow and Light both stood up for him, and even his dad didn't try to tell him no.
He's glad. Hope loves it out there, weird as that is. The light of the sun on his face feels different than the light from Phoenix, and there's something just...bright and vivid and exciting about the colors, the sounds, the smells of damp earth and wild flowers—even the shudder of the ground underfoot when an oretoise passes by. He can remember being scared, being sure that this wilderness would see them all just turn Cie'th and die if the monsters didn't get them first, but the fear is a distant memory by now.
The morning is clear and not-quite-warm-yet, dew still glistening on the grass, when Hope swings up onto the back of a chocobo—a Pulse chocobo, still only half-tame, though Sazh is talking about trying to breed Cocoon and Pulse varieties together, to get a breed that's both sturdy and docile—and waves goodbye to the others as he starts on his mission.
"Don't forget to check in," Light says.
"I won't," Hope promises. "And I'll stick to the route." That way, if anything happens, the others will know where to start looking when they come after him. He has a pack of supplies that should hold him for a day or two of exploring, and a com link to let the others know how he's doing. They've gotten relatively comfortable on the surface of Gran Pulse, but none of them have forgotten that comfort comes mostly from knowing how to be prepared for the wilderness's dangers.
His chocobo seems happy for the encouragement to run, and Hope balances his weight forward, leaning into the bird's rocking, long-legged gait. The grass sings beneath them with the chirping of insects, and somewhere in the distance a few of Pulse's odd little wild sheep are bleating to each other. Off to Hope's right, a pack of gorgonopsids are having another territory argument with a behemoth. Hope grins to himself: business as usual on the steppe.
He steers the chocobo past the grazing fields for the oretoise herds, over to a set of cliffs where they haven't really explored in depth. Snow found the way up the cliffs on his last adventure, and got just far enough down the path beyond to note that there it went on for a while. Sazh did a flyover—risky, when the wildlife is aggressive and sturdier than their salvaged airship—and confirmed the existence of another city out there.
The huge, lurching leaps the chocobos take are always a little jarring, but Hope hangs on. They scale the cliff face and there's the path, a narrow opening between two higher slopes, stretching off into the distance. Hope stops his chocobo for a minute, looking out over the steppe, and digs out his com link.
Reception is crackly, but clear. "Hey, kiddo."
Hope rolls his eyes. "Hi, Snow," he says. "You would feel bad about being so casual if I was in trouble, wouldn't you?"
"But you're not in trouble," Snow says. "Right?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," Hope says. "I've just gotten to the head of the trail. Nothing new to report yet, but I'll check in again when I get to the city."
"Sounds good," Snow says. "Keep an eye out for trouble and don't let the man-eating petunias get you."
Hope laughs. "Yeah, you either," he says. "Talk to you soon."
His chocobo looks back over its shoulder at him as he shuts the com link and stows it, so Hope reaches up to dig his fingers into the fluffy feathers of its neck and give it a good skritch. The chocobo coos, shaking its head happily.
"You ready to keep going?" he says. "Let's see what we can find down there."
The path snakes between high sheer walls, moss clinging to the exposed stone on either side. Hope's chocobo lopes along through the shadowy trail. There are some old, broken-up fragments of pavement in a few spots, and once a knocked-down, rusted sign with writing he can't make out anymore—he'd get closer to try to study it, but the rustle of the vivid red flowers beside it makes him think there might be a triffid lying in wait.
Further up, there's a little glen where the path widens, and they surprise a clan of goblins, blue ones, a different kind than they had down at lower elevations. The goblins clatter up out of their little circle, skating around in agitated circles, windmilling their arms. One of them swipes at Hope's chocobo and it squawks in alarm, sprinting further down the path.
"Whoa!" Hope says, clinging to the chocobo's neck, trying not to let it throw him. "Take it easy, we're going to be okay."
In another dozen panicky strides or so, the chocobo is finally willing to slow down, then come to a fluttering halt. Hope strokes its feathers soothingly, murmuring reassurances until its crest settles down and it stops shifting nervously. Then he looks up, peering ahead. In the distance, the light seems brighter, like the narrow ravine must open out and let the sunlight in. Maybe from there he'll be able to see the city he's looking for. He nudges his chocobo forward.
Jackpot. The sunlit area is the end of the ravine, where a pile of grassy rubble tumbles down to a broad valley. Spreading, gnarled trees dot the edges of the valley, and in the center the city sprawls, buildings crumbling and broken-backed highways fallen to earth. "Wow," Hope breathes.
His chocobo doesn't need a lot of urging to pick its way down the slope—well, more like bounce its way down the slope—and into the tall grass. There don't seem to be many animals prowling around here, maybe because the steep slopes on either side of the valley have kept it mostly cut off. Hope steers his chocobo up to the edge of the city and stops there. He'll want to go into the ruins on foot.
He dismounts, pulling down his pack of supplies and stashing his tent and rations in a crevice in the ruins where it'll be reasonably safe. "Don't wander off too far, huh?" he says to the chocobo. It coos at him, and ambles off toward a patch of the thick, pulpy rushes they like to eat.
The sun's pretty high in the sky by now, so it's probably a good time to check in again. Hope pulls out his com link and opens it up.
For a second it sounds like the line is just dead, but then there's a distant crackly noise and a voice says, "Hello?"
"Hey," Hope says. "Sazh?"
"Got it in one," Sazh answers. "Can barely hear you, though."
"Yeah, here, too. I'm at the city now. Going to go in and look around. It's pretty awesome."
"Just take care of yourself," Sazh says. "If you," static breaks up the signal for a minute, "your dad would," static, "back to," static again.
"I'll be careful," Hope says loudly, hoping he's coming through more clearly than Sazh is. "Tell dad not to worry, and I'll call back at sundown."
The com link squawks at him, but he can't make out any words. Hope frowns at it and hangs up. Maybe being down in the valley like this, with the ridge between him and the village, is messing with the signal.
Still, it would be a waste to come all the way out here and then just turn around. The others know how to find him if they need to. He has some potions, his boomerang, and a manadrive cuff on one arm. He's prepared for some exploration, and he wants to look around.
He comes into the city on what used to be a highway, cracked pavement now studded with tiny flowers and tufts of grass. The darkened windows of old buildings are mostly empty, glass broken long ago, but in a few spots the jagged fragments of a windowpane still glint in the light. Roofs are caved in, and walls jut unevenly toward the sky. Hope wonders what it was that did so much damage: the war with Cocoon? a destructive rampage from one of the fal'Cie?
It's quiet in the ruins. The sounds of the plains, insects chirping and animals rustling through grass, grow distant as Hope makes his way further inward. There's nothing left in the city for animals to eat, he supposes. He climbs over a cracked stone column that's fallen across the road, listening to the huff of his own breathing and the paff of his feet hitting the pavement on the other side. There's a spot up ahead where the ground seems to buckle, sinking down and making a hollow beneath the skewed fragments of fallen walls. Hope approaches carefully, in case something has decided to make a den out of that space—and there is movement under there, but it doesn't look like an animal.
He stops, peering into the shadow of the ruins. Is that a Cie'th stone?
Hope pulls out his map. They've been marking the locations of any Cie'th stones they find, both to be able to use them as landmarks and because they all feel a kind of obligation to help when they can. This area is pretty poorly sketched in, with just Sazh's flyover notes to give them the basic shape of the landscape, so Hope draws a few more lines to give a better picture of the ruins and adds the incomplete circle that marks a fallen Cie'th. Once it's recorded, it's time to investigate, so Hope stows his map, checks his boomerang, and hops down into the shadow of fallen concrete.
It's chilly here, beneath the wreckage of the city, where the sun can't reach to warm the pavement. The Cie'th stone glows gently, blue-white, definitely active. "Hi," Hope says softly. He doesn't know if the transformed Cie'th can actually hear or not, but he always treats them like they can, just in case. If things had gone just a little differently, that could have been all of them, too, and who would have come to put them to rest? "What do you need? I'll help you if I can." He'll come back with the others if the Cie'th needs something really difficult taken care of, but it'll be better to have the information at least. He raises his hand to the stone, closing his eyes and opening his mind the way Vanille showed them.
Leave me, the Cie'th says into his mind, clear and immediate, with an edge of desperation. I won't go back. I won't be used by him again. Hope flinches. It's always harder to listen to the ones who were struggling against the fal'Cie. He tries to project calm and reassurance. I wanted to die as a human, the Cie'th says, but he denied me even that. Twice I have been Barthandelus's puppet. No more.
"Barthandelus?" Hope echoes in surprise. All of the other Cie'th stones they've run into were from Pulse l'Cie—the names of the fal'Cie who made them were strange ones, not familiar ones. "We defeated Barthandelus! In our final confrontation with Orphan, we—" And then he realizes what, who, this Cie'th could be. "Cid?"
The Cie'th stone reacts with a flood of violent emotion, panic so sharp and intense that it knocks Hope backward. He drops to one knee, holding up one arm to shield his eyes as a sudden wind howls into the ruin, stinging his skin with dust and grit. The swirling wind curls tighter, becomes a tight-spiraled miniature storm, and then births a monster from its center, a shining crystalline winged shape. It spreads all six of its wings in a threat, and shrieks a sound that's halfway human.
So much for waiting and bringing the others. Hope climbs to his feet, the first defensive synergy incantations already on his lips. He speeds his movements, gets his shields in place, then staggers under the monster's first attack before he can cast the spell to boost his own magic skills. Distantly, with the strange clarity that comes with Haste, he notes that the monster is beautiful: crystal usually means Cie'th, and they tend to be awkward, unbalanced, but this one is graceful and...noble, almost.
With his power boosted as much as he can manage, he fires off a quick series of elemental spells, fire-thunder-blizzard, to see if the Cie'th has a weakness, but he isn't surprised when none of them really seem more effective than the others. He switches to straight thunder for the next round—he likes the way the crackle of it feels along his fingertips, and besides, it reminds him of Light, and she's awesome.
They trade attacks for a few minutes, Hope's manadrive snapping and the Cie'th's wings thrashing as it strikes out. This is nothing compared to the battles they fought as a group of l'Cie, but manadrive isn't nearly as strong as l'Cie magic, so that's a relief. "Cid," Hope tries as he changes stances, readying the best Curasa he can throw right now. "Stop this!"
"I won't go back," the Cie'th answers, "I won't fight for the fal'Cie again!"
The healing spell washes over him, giving Hope a little more energy. He has to make Cid listen, he thinks. There has to be a way.
Somewhere, distant as an echo, he hears a familiar voice, a soft Pulse accent: You have to talk to him.
"You don't have to," he says. He switches into the defensive stance Snow has been showing him, bracing himself to guard against the Cie'th's—Cid's—attacks. "You don't have to fight anymore. Barthandelus is dead. Orphan is dead! They can't use you anymore."
Cid stops, wings beating slowly behind him. The shapes of his face are strange and crystal, still, catching light and reflecting, but Hope thinks he can see recognition there.
He keeps his arms braced in front of him, just in case. "The fighting is over, Cid," he says. "We're free. We're—all of Cocoon's survivors are free now."
"Free," Cid says, softly. "And there are survivors."
"Yeah," Hope says. He lets his guard down, reaching out slowly. "Thousands. We're starting over. Building new lives for ourselves."
Cid reaches out one clawed, crystalline hand, and Hope takes it as carefully as he can. There we go, another voice says, maybe only in Hope's head. Knew you'd come around, Raines. Here. Then the crystal starts to shine, and Hope has to close his eyes as it brightens, too intense to look at. There's a shivering chiming sound, then a deep, surprised breath, and then Cid's hand tightens on Hope's.
Hope opens his eyes.
Cid is shivering, swaying on his feet, human again and wearing only the tatters of his uniform trousers. Hope stares at him for a second, stunned, then has to rush to catch him as he starts to collapse. "Hang in there," Hope says, slinging one of Cid's arms over his shoulders. "Let's get out of here."
He leads the way, steering Cid up out of the little hollow where they fought, supporting him as they climb back out onto the street. Cid flinches from the light a little, at first, but he doesn't protest when Hope sits him down on a sun-warmed block of concrete at the street's edge. He takes slow, deep breaths, looking at his hands, turning them over slowly. "How?" he says at last. His voice is dry, rough.
Hope thinks of the voices he heard, that he'd swear were Fang and Vanille. It seems impossible, but here they are. "I'm...not totally sure," he admits. "I think we might have just gotten a miracle."
Cid makes a soft, harsh sound that Hope realizes is an attempt at laughter. "You believe in miracles, after all this?"
"Well," Hope says. "We're still alive, after all this. So yeah, I guess so."
"Fair enough," Cid says, and he manages a little bit of a smile then.
Hope unstraps his canteen from his back and hands it over. "Here," he says. "How are you doing, anyway?"
Cid takes the canteen with one shaking hand, then just holds it for a minute, frowning like he has to think about that question. "Tired," he says after a minute. "Hungry. Weak." He looks up, and his eyes are still crystal-pale and strange. "Where are the others?"
"About half a day's chocobo ride from here," Hope says. He glances up to catch the position of the sun—it's riding about halfway down in the west, so they still have some time before nightfall. "We can't make it back today, but I have camping supplies at the edge of the city. And some field rations, too."
"You're well prepared," Cid says, and Hope feels a little burst of pride at the admiration in his tone, even though the others did help coming up with this sytem. "Lead the way."
He still seems a little shaky on his feet, so Hope sticks close to him, giving him a steadying hand now and then. They go pretty slowly, since Cid is both weakened and barefoot, but that's okay. Hope figures they probably shouldn't really try to go anywhere today anyway, since the valley seems safer than the ravine, and they'll need to make camp before too long.
When they get back to his pack of supplies, Hope digs out the food he's brought with him—some processed stuff from Cocoon's stores, but also some of their first attempts at making jerky and drying slices of the round, yellow fruits that grow in the wetter areas near home. Cid devours the food as if he's been starving for...wow, Hope doesn't really want to think about how long it would have been.
He has one of the processed nutriculture bars himself, but leaves most of it for Cid. He perches on a pile of rubble, sort of keeping an eye out for trouble but mostly, really, just watching Cid eat. Now that they're more or less out of danger, and he's not busy getting things done, he has time to really look at Cid. And...wow.
It really shows that Cid was military. Like Light, he's all muscle, and he moves with this kind of...efficiency, maybe, like he's not wasting any of his energy. Really smooth. And Hope admires that about Light, but he's never felt like this about her, this kind of dry-mouthed fluttery-stomached nervousness. Cid is just...he's really handsome. And he's a good guy, that much is pretty clear. And...yeah.
He finishes his food now and looks up at Hope, dark hair a little askew and falling in front of his crystal-pale eyes. "Thank you," he says warmly, and Hope's stomach flutters again. "I'm feeling much better now. Should we look around for a suitable place to make camp?"
"Yeah," Hope says, trying to shake off how suddenly really conscious he is of the fact that Cid is shirtless. This is a bad time to get distracted by stuff like that. He hops down from the rubble and dusts himself off. Time to focus on the mission. "Okay. All I have is a light tent with a really thin mat, so we probably don't want to set up inside the city on pavement."
"Sounds reasonable," Cid says, and Hope feels ridiculously pleased again at having Cid's good opinion. "Lead the way."
They scout around outside the city, exploring the gentle hills and small hollows, and eventually they find a spot that looks pretty good: a solid slab of fallen highway provides cover along the north side, the ground is pretty flat, and there's just enough grass cover to give them a bit of a cushion. Cid lets Hope take the lead in making their camp, even though he must have a lot of experience with this—the tent was salvage from Guardian Corps supplies and everything. Probably it's partly just that he's still tired, but it's nice to feel like he trusts Hope's judgment all the same.
The sun is starting to go down by the time they get their tent set up and secured, and Hope realizes with a guilty start that he hasn't called home yet with the news. He pulls the com link out of his pocket and frowns at it. "I'm going to try to get some high ground," he tells Cid, holding it up. "I need to check in with the others, but the reception's bad down here."
Cid nods. "Shall I wait here?"
"Might as well," Hope says. "I'll be right back." He hunts around a little bit to find a spot where he can climb the ruins easily enough, missing the easy, almost-weightless jumps they could make as l'Cie. Still, it's better to work for things and be free, right? He doesn't think any of them miss having a Focus hanging over their heads.
He climbs as high as he can and then calls home, watching the sun sink in the west, the tiny, distant shapes of wyverns soaring over the plains on the far side of the ridge. This time it's Light who answers when he calls in, and she sounds a little bit wary but mostly impressed that Cid is alive and Hope is taking care of him. She tells him to be careful coming home, and promises to have lookouts on duty when they're on the way back. She sounds proud of him.
Hope gets back to the camp site feeling warm inside, pleased with himself, accomplished in a really deep, satisfying way. Making Gran Pulse their home is hard work, but they're doing it, and that means something. And now they'll have Cid to help with that, too—Cid, who's waiting for him at the camp site, crouched outside the tent and wrapped in their survival blanket. Cid, who looks up at him and smiles, this soft and sort of breathtaking smile like he's glad to be alive, glad to be here. Hope smiles back, because yeah, he knows exactly how that feels. They've got a future ahead of them now, and it's theirs, not the fal'Cie's, and they're going to make it great.