Fandom: Final Fantasy XIII/-2
Character/Pairing(s): Hope and Noel, hurhur
Warning: Yes, Hope is fourteen. No, they're not getting physical. So there.
Summary: Yeul's memories span all of human history. Caius and Noel are looking for a way to save her, and that means finding where history was changed. Their biggest guess is the days before the Fall of Cocoon.
“Do I need to inform you again?”
Noel looked away from the group and scowled at nothing in particular. He hated hearing Caius’s voice in his head; wanted nothing more than to have Yeul talk to him instead. She would have been much better at this than he was, and much better at keeping him on track instead of Caius. Instead, the older man felt the need to nudge Noel’s every movement and thought at least once a minute, giving him no time at all to adjust to his surroundings.
“No need.” He snapped back, glad not for the first time that the people around couldn’t actually see him. He crossed his arms and leaned against the rough edges of a boulder that was currently keeping the group safe from predators while they acclimated to the world of Gran Pulse. “They’re not going anywhere yet.”
It felt like a solid week of this already when in reality it must have only been a day or two for Noel, following the group of errant l’Cie as they went through their journey. He had been there from the very beginning and Fang and Vanille woke up, to when Serah had been branded, to the engagement between Serah and Snow.
He rang along to ramparts during the Purge and jumped when Lightning jumped. Noel had even forgotten himself several times during that first period, jumping to the defense of several civilians before hearing Caius’s mocking laughter between his ears, sneering at him for attempting to influence a world that he didn’t exist in.
This was, after all, contained entirely within Yeul’s memories. The Seeress could see the future, but very few knew that it meant she could see the important events of the past as well. Noel and Caius had been searching for years for that key turning point in history that would lead to humanity’s demise, for that period where the Gates to Valhalla had been opened and irrevocably changed the future. Years of research, of hunting through old technology, led them to this era, to this brief frame right before the Fall of Cocoon.
“Keep an eye on them nevertheless. All of them, Noel.”
Noel rolled his eyes, and then tensed and scowled when he remembered that Caius could see everything he could see. It was infuriating knowing that the man could now see just how much he stared at the strange landscape, at the amount of people, at the lights and cities and technologies of the past. He might have been able to hide it before, but not when Caius could tell exactly how long he stared at each interesting object and sight, and how he darted his attention to the dangers around himself despite the world around him not being real.
It was an old machine they came across originally, one that Caius had recognized. Something to do with what Yeul used to work with, something akin to Oracle Drives that allowed what Yeul saw to the recorded down and replayed for all to see. Except this machine was different. It was one that allowed someone to walk amongst the dreams of another, to see what the other saw.
Yeul was asleep right now. The strain of recreating these distant memories had put her in a deep sleep, and it was decided that Noel would be the one to walk amongst her memories, the past, while Caius observed from the outside and monitored Yeul’s situation at the same time. If their ventured proved too strenuous for her, then Caius would pull the plug that very moment.
The past, Noel found, was beautiful. It was hard to remind himself that he was merely a ghost here, unable to influence or change anything. That these events had already happened and that everyone he encountered he were long gone through the centuries. He had a mission here: locate Etro’s Gate. Pinpoint that exact moment everything went wrong.
He just… found himself distracted.
Sazh was laughing quietly at the edge of their makeshift camp, clapping Snow on the shoulder fondly despite the pain that still lingered in his eyes from what happened to this son. Snow was sitting next to him making a fool out of himself attempting to follow Fang’s instructions on how to cook down in the world under, while both Fang and Vanille were near doubled over laughing at his pathetic attempts at creating food.
Vanille’s hands shook sometimes, but she was careful to clench her fingers deep into the furs of her skirt when that happened and smile brightly at the people around, making sure to be louder in general to focus their attention on her face rather than her hands. Fang, of course, had noticed but hadn’t found a time to confront the other Pulsian girl about it. Snow would stare off into the distance sadly in moments when he thought no one else could see, and he actually managed to hide his anguish well enough. The reason Noel noticed was because no one even knew he was there in the first place.
And then… and then there was Lightning and Hope sitting at the front of their impromptu camp, the soldier on the lookout and the teenager attempting to learn vigilance from her. Noel had to admit that he stayed with them a good portion of the journey, sometimes unable to tear himself away for fear that something awful (worse than what was already done) might happen to them if he so much as looked away. It was a boggling thought, seeing as they must have all survived and even if they hadn’t, then Noel’s presence there wasn’t going to change a single thing.
Caius had reminded him of that far too many times already.
He should be on the lookout as well. He had no idea what form Etro’s Gate would take, or just what was irregular about the landscape that might clue him in to something. Everything looked strange and foreign to him, having grown up in a time when everything was already dead or dying, and the lush lands of Pulse he could see now was but nothing more than a barren wasteland.
“Think we’ll find some answers here?” Noel could hear Hope ask quietly, far too quietly for anyone other than Lightning to hear, given the others and their laughter right now. The teenager was sitting with his legs pulled up to his chest next to the soldier, looking to her for guidance. “About our Focus?”
Noel had acclimated himself early to Lightning acerbic tone and cutting remarks, having grit his teeth through them when Serah first ran off crying after revealing to her sister that she was a Pulse l’Cie and that she was also now engaged to Snow. It was merely her dedication to Serah which endeared her to him in the beginning, but he kept his distance following her and had never expected that her tone might actually soften for another person.
“We’ll see.” Was Lightning’s response, as curt as she ever was, but it was afterward when she turned her head to gaze in the teenager’s direction that her gaze softened noticeably. In a gesture that would have shocked him at the beginning, she reached out to lay a gentle hand atop his head. “We’ll make it through.”
“Somehow.” Hope agreed, looking a little cheered by her attention.
She managed a small smile in his direction, just a mere quirk of her lips, yet the result was something rather beautiful in its rarity. Noel found himself focusing on the two of them again, everything else seeming to fall into the background—
The words prompted another scowl, and Noel pushed himself from the side he was resting upon. Right. Caius was always there to throw his concentration somehow. It was so strange to him to see these group of strangers who managed to find each other in such an array of people. There were so many of them in Bodhum, and during the Purge. He had never seen that many people in his life before.
“Yeah, yeah,” he responded somewhat grumpily, wishing once more that it was Yeul in contact with him instead of sleeping to provide the memories they needed to examine. “I got it.”
The group of l’Cie disbanded soon enough, half of them leaving to scout the surrounding area while the other half stayed behind in the safety near camp to watch the area and gather food. Vanille happily volunteered to watch the camp, smiling brightly as she told the others that she wanted a moment to breathe in the Pulse air again. Every little thing now seemed to remind her of home, and while there were those moments where she would stare at the others with obvious guilt, there were also other moments when her laughter was genuine and Noel could seem that she very honestly adored having everyone with her.
In the end, he decided to go with scouting with the others, for the purpose of gathering more information about his surroundings and perhaps a much needed clue as to what he was looking for.
(And if by some happenstance, he could find something that might help the group of l’Cie, he’d— well, at the very least, he’d try his best to wave them toward it, no matter if he could change a thing or not.)
It was several hours of fruitless searching later that he came back with them, feeling rather grumpy from Caius’s running commentary about how Noel was allowing himself to get too attached to the ragged band of misfits who were already long dead whether or not they managed to survive their Focus. Unless they somehow succeeded and were hidden somewhere on their barren landscape as crystals never to be woken, that is.
He barely even noticed the little chocobo chick fluttering wildly and trying to get everyone’s attention, although his heart dropped when Vanille proclaimed that Hope’s brand had progressed.
Was this it? Was this the beginning of the end for that group who worked so hard against their terrible fate? Maybe Caius was right, maybe Noel really was too invested in this group, but… He didn’t understand how Caius wasn’t invested in them! After all, the other man had seen everything that Noel had seen.
After a rush of panic and frenzied fights that Noel had never wanted to join in so much until now, the group found their youngest member collapsed next to a stream. After making sure he was still alive (that he still had time), they made their way back towards camp much more sedately, previous carefree mood gone as as weight of their time limit settled heavily over all of them. Vanille provided a fire, while Fang made them a simple meal from various plants she gathered while scouting.
They kept the fire going long after the sunset, which made Noel bite back his protests regarding just how dangerous that was. Light that bright was a beacon to every predator for miles that there were people in that vicinity, yet the group didn’t even look like they cared.
And through all of it, Hope slept on.
“What do we do?” Vanille whispered once to Fang, who only shook her head sadly.
Noel could have left the group during that time, well aware that they would stay in one place until he returned to allow him more time to explore and find… whatever it was that Caius wanted him to find. It was rather irritating, really, seeing that if anyone could get to Valhalla, then it would likely be Caius, so why…?
He was the only one to notice the slightest twitch of the boy’s fingers, and Noel found himself startling forward from where he had been sitting next to the mat they placed Hope upon, nearly bumping heads with Vanille, who was still hovering protectively above the boy. She took up a moment later, almost as if noticing that Noel had taken over her vigil, although she couldn’t have known.
“So this is how it ends?” Snow spoke up, voice bitter. Noel could understand the sentiment, perhaps not as well as the group could, but… he didn’t want to see this journey end badly for any of them, either. If the Gate was set to appear here at this time, then it might mean that this group was important. Maybe important enough to witness something world-changing?
“Just wait.” Sazh cautioned, ever the voice of reason. But the man sounded tired as well, worn and stretched. “Now how long has it been since we left Cocoon? Hm?” He waved a hand, expression taking on a more bleak and anguished shift. “Not a single soul for miles around. Not a single clue about this whole l’Cie mess!”
Snow make a noise of protest, taking half a step before he pulled back yet again, looking uncertain.
“What I’m saying is, we did well just getting this far.” Sazh concluded, and the words felt like an ending somehow.
No, Noel wanted to tell them, there’s more out there than just this. There’s more to this journey, I know it.
“But…” and this time it was Vanille was stepped forward, looking demure and uncertain. “We could go a little further.”
“Meaning?” Sazh asked from his place on the ground.
“There’s still one place…”
Fang’s tone was harsh, and it made the girl flinch back slightly even as Noel narrowed his eyes at this conversation. Just what were they talking about? Perhaps it was the place that he and Caius had been looking for all along…?
“Are you getting this?” Noel asked quietly, and there was an affirmative buzz between his ears.
“Are you sure?” Fang asked, her tone now gentler seeing Vanille’s hesitation. It was the support that Vanille apparently needed as she murmured her approval, nodding to confirm it to herself.
Just what else had the two been hiding? Noel watched them closely from where he was crouched, feeling both sympathy for them and anger as well, because while they had been through so much together (even more than the others had), he thought that by now they would have stopped hiding what they knew.
“Anger will resolve nothing. They are but mere memories from an age past.”
“This again?” Noel murmured darkly. “Caius, they’re out here fighting for their lives!”
“Whether they survive or not is of no consequence to us. We cannot change their outcome, merely our own.”
“You know, if you don’t find anything this time, we won’t get another chance.” Lightning spoke up from where she had previously been brooding, and Noel wanted to tell her that no, they’d get more chances but the truth of the matter was that he didn’t know if they would, and didn’t know if this really was the end for them.
He was there to follow them, to see where they would go, but… He wanted them to make it through as well.
It was hard not to want them to win. Noel hadn’t gotten to know very many people in his life, and having spent the past bit of time with this group— this promising, bright, and persistent group who kept going no matter how awful they felt, and how terrible things were for them…
Maybe if they made it through, then it would be a sign that he and Caius would be able to save Yeul as well.
“Oerba.” The voice was unexpected and strong, and Noel jerked to look down. “The place it all began. The place where the Pulse fal’Cie lay dreaming. Vanille and Fang’s home….”
The others all came forward, and Vanille rushed to where Hope was, looking for relieved and more worried than ever.
“Just maybe…” Hope continued, raising a hand toward the stars for a brief moment before giving up, his gaze settling over the brand only partially covered up by the fabric around his wrist. “It will be the place where find the answers we’re looking for.”
“Oerba?” Noel mouthed, not daring to actually say anything to interrupt this moment. Why hadn’t they thought to look there before? It should have been one of the first places to go once they hit Pulse, and yet… he hadn’t thought about it either, caught up as he was in the wonders of this world.
“Perhaps that is where we seek.”
“Yeah, right.” Fang scoffed, shaking her head. “If we can get there.”
It would be a hard road then, Noel deduced from that. Harder than what they’ve encountered on Gran Pulse so far, which seemed a jump even from the dangers they faced previously on Cocoon. If that was the case, the entire journey would be difficult.
“Go on without me.” And once again, Noel found himself dumbstruck by Hope’s statement, as was everyone else. The boy let out an audible breath and attempted a shaky smile, sitting up with obvious difficulties. It was one thing to play it cool, Noel thought, but Hope was very obviously failing at pretending he was alright despite trying hard.
It was Vanille who came to his assistance first, although that might only be because she had been hovering over him even before he moved. “We can’t just leave you!”
“I’ll be fine,” Hope reassured her, still smiling in a thin and entirely false manner, “you’ve all taught me so much— showed me how to fight.”
He stood up, brushing aside Vanille’s gestures of worry and worked on showing how much how his words were true. It was too early, though, and Hope stumbled within a step, whatever having happened to him earlier still in full effect, exhaustion clear in his movements despite his words.
Noel got to his feet, intent on catching the boy, except Snow got there first.
“What did I tell you?” The man said gently, a hand pressing softly against Hope’s hair to let the boy lean against him. It was a strange juxtaposition for Noel, who followed them long enough to remember the various times Hope would push Snow away at the slightest hint the man was getting too close. “Leave the fighting to me.”
“...I’m scared.” Hope admitted quietly, bravado all but falling away in moments as he took comfort in the man’s presence. Noel wondered how much courage that must have taken, to pretend that everything was okay. He wonders more about the kid’s life before this, and about the lives of everyone in this group. He could never imagine losing Yeul and Caius, although he wonders what it would be like if they had grown up in an era like this one, surrounded by so many other people.
A part of him is envious. Another part, however… Well. He had seen how they had to run from the soldiers, and just how other people looked at the l’Cie.
“We understand.” It was Lightning who stepped forward this time, her voice softer than normal as she reached a reassuring hand to rest on Hope’s shoulder, and then moved to tilt his head up when he moved away. “You’re not going to go through this ordeal alone, you know.”
Her smile was rare and soft, meant to reassure, but Hope shook his head, refusing to look and take comfort. “But that’s what scares me! I don’t… I don’t want to see you get hurt because of me.” He covered his face with a gloved hand, voice cracking. “It would be better for everyone if I just stayed behind.”
“Noel. Keep your distance.”
“Why?” Noel whispered back, and then his eyes narrowed, “You don’t mean…?”
The light that appeared suddenly was brighter than what he had encountered before, and Noel raised an arm to block the glare, wincing even as he turned his head again. Eidolons. He didn’t expect it— he thought that if Hope were to receive an Eidolon, he would have back in Palumpolum during or after the confrontation with Snow. He understood very little of Etro’s Guardians, but they were able to travel freely between worlds with no obvious use of a Gate, or else…
Unless all the l’Cies had Gates within themselves.
He wasn’t willing to voice that loud to Caius, fearing the man would demand he find out personally.
The landscape around him fizzled out for a moment, revealing the lines and geometric shapes underneath the dream that reminded him that it was the use of a machine that allowed him to be here; that this place was not real. There was a static, and the landscape slowly fizzled back in, resolution starting low before slowly building up to realistic levels again, just like it happened every time an Eidolon appeared before him.
Noel could hear Fang’s voice in the background, and then Lightning respond to her, but couldn’t make out the words. The background would stay this way all through the fight, Noel knew by now, as if he weren’t allowed to see this properly. It always irritated Caius, which was why the man requested that Noel stay back during those fights, although it wasn’t as if it affected him at all.
“It seems there will only be one more after this one.”
“Yeah, here’s hoping.” Noel said with a frown as he backed up several steps and crossed his arms. It was unnerving when the world around him flashed in and out like that, reminding him that everything there— the air he breathed, the ground underneath his feet, and everything else, were nothing but images brought to a life via a machine from Yeul’s vast knowledge. “Once Vanille gets her Eidolon, they’d be a lot more powerful.”
“We are not here for them.”
Of course they weren’t. But Noel had to follow them, and that meant he wanted to see them through to a happier end. He wasn’t heartless. He doubted even Caius could actually stand here at this point and say that with a straight face. There was something about being in this simulation, something that he couldn’t transcribe even to Caius, who was there watching and hearing everything that he did.
From what he could tell, Hope’s Eidolon was a massive thing, but the details were blurred out for him, enough that if he tried to squint and concentrate on the figure, he’d feel an oncoming headache. He nearly made himself sick trying to make out the Shiva sisters before, and learned his lesson by now.
“You keep saying that.” Noel complained, looking away. “But we’re still following them.”
“On the chance they lead us to what we seek. Remember that.”
He wondered if this would save Yeul. He couldn’t see how, although that didn’t stop him from going on nevertheless. If what they could find in this simulation, if figuring out what happened here during this time period could lead to a single clue, anything at all, that might eventually lead to Yeul’s smiling face, then Noel was more than willing to go through a hundred days of this. A thousand.
They were running out of options.
He waited, hearing warped shouts and sounds of fighting before Noel finally decided to close his eyes to avoid the flickering of the world, only to hear Caius’s sharp reprimand to keep alert at all times.
What does it matter? He thought, although he opened his eyes with a scowl. It’s not like anything here can hurt me.
The fight was over within minutes, although each second left Noel more and more tense before the world around him finally started to stabilize again, and the light left entirely. He could see the others again now, standing in a circle and speaking to each other, although their voices were still muffled from the prior distortion. The words were too vague to make out, but he could hear the sheepishness and bemusement, and finally fondness.
“—all you like, but you’re stuck with us!”
Vanille was standing with her hands on Hope’s shoulders, expression warm even as the boy ducked his head sheepishly and nodded in agreement to her words.
“You’re never alone in hell!” Sazh quipped cheerfully, chuckling at his own words.
Fang didn’t seem to find that as funny as he did, from the way her hands ended up on her hips and she took two steps forward aggressively. “Listen, funny-man, don’t call this place hell, all right?”
Sazh backed up with a startled noise, raising his hands in surrender.
“So,” Lightning interrupted the potential fight, “we’re all decided then?”
Noel stepped forward again as the others nodded in agreement, some making murmurs of approval. The group looked dirtier than before, and he noted the slumped shoulders and bleary eyes. It had been a long day for all of them, but he watched a bit longer as they joked and laughed together once again, tension slowly fading from their shoulders.
“Looks like that’s it for today.” He said aloud, and heard Caius’s thoughtful hum. The group wasn’t going anywhere, and it didn’t look like anything was going to happen to them for a while. He raised a hand to rub at the back of his head, wincing at the feel of greasy hair. He needed to get out of this machine for a while: get some food, maybe take a bath. Sleep was also a priority, but somehow in this state he seemed to be able to stay aware for days at a time. Maybe because this was already a kind of dream-state? “Call it a day?”
There was a brief silence as Caius thought that over, but eventually agreed. “Get some nourishment. We will continue on an hour.”
“Slave driver,” Noel accused, although his tone lacked any malice as he cracked his neck and winced. “Alright. Get me out of here.”
Had he stayed for a bit longer and paid more attention to the group, Noel (and therefore Caius as well) might have seen the curious look Hope was giving in his direction.