The roster for who would be going to Paddra came out within the week, and Hope glanced over the names briefly in his lunch break as his father spoke sternly on the phone behind the door. He had a tablet in one arm, browsing the agenda and goals of the excavation and leaning against the wall as people rushed around beyond the glass hallway.
He recognized at least a third of the names, if only vaguely, and wondered where the rest of the team he had been so familiar with had gone. Perhaps they just weren’t ready yet, since this excavation takes place almost two years before the prior timeline’s. Hope was doing his best to push his father’s plans along faster this time around, but that would mean he would have to taken into account the possible changes — namely, people who wouldn’t be ready for things and those who would be pushed harder in order to accomplish more in a shorter period of time.
“You again.” The voice was surprised, and Hope looked up to see a woman dressed modestly for the cold weather staring at him, one arm holding onto her shoulderbag while the other had her phone out in mid-action.
Hope pushed away from the wall, attempting a polite smile. “I’m sorry, Miss, if you have an appointment with Mr. Estheim—” and wasn’t it strange to call his dad that, “he’s in the middle of a call right now. If you’d like to wait outside the hallway, I can tell you when he’s done—”
“No, I’m not here for that.” The woman interrupted him, this time sounding haughty and impatient and that was when the recognition sparked. It was a tone he knew, and not because of a previous timeline. No, the memory was much closer than that. He just couldn’t place it yet.
As if catching herself and her tone, the woman shifted on her feet and looked past the glass wall toward the rest of the busy office, and then back at him, although her expression was pensive this time. “I’m waiting on my husband. He’s in a meeting regarding his patent on the neutron cell.”
That sparked off another moment of recognition. Ahh, that was right. Dr. Pinnair invented the neutron cell in 3AF, which greatly boosted the Academy’s building thanks to cheaper and more powerful computers. He had freely given the newly established institution the plans and became a prominent engineer and inventor within the ranks of the Academy. He had also been one of the contacts that Hope recalled, and had anonymously sent off tips and hints for his breakthrough after his meeting with Yeul.
On the one hand, it was good to know the anonymous tips had worked. On the other, it didn’t help him recognize the woman standing in front of him any better.
“That’s fantastic,” Hope told her, earnest. He brought his tablet closer to himself. “I hope the patent goes through.”
The woman gave him another strange glance, and then looked like she was about to say something before thinking better of it. “...Yes. Yes, I suppose you would.”
Hope felt his smile strain as they both continued to stand there.
“Um…” He intoned, feeling flustered under her indescribable look. He hadn’t given the office next to his father’s any thought, but now this was just getting awkward. His father’s assistant had an area of her own, but that was locked and he didn’t have the key seeing as he didn’t need anything from the area. He had never minded before, since he tended to eat lunch with his father, but today had been an exception seeing as Bartholomew picked up the call and immediately motioned for Hope to leave the room for a bit.
He could move out of the way and allow the woman the hallway to wait for her husband in peace, but that would mean going around her, and then excusing himself and coming back when his father was done with the phone call.
The easiest solution was just to wait there. Hope squirmed slightly under her gaze.
“...You’re different than I thought you would be.” The woman admitted reluctantly after several seconds. She hadn’t changed her posture, still standing with her phone ready.
Hope wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Parden?”
She didn’t elaborate, however, and Hope couldn’t have been more relieved when his father’s office door opened again and Bartholomew look out. “Hope? You can come back in now.”
He tried not to show his relief even as he murmured a polite farewell to the woman and scrambled into the office after his father, closing the door behind her.
“I didn’t know you and Mrs. Pinnair were on speaking terms.”
Hope only shook his head in denial as his father asked about it. It would make sense that Bartholomew Estheim knew all about who came in and out of the building, but Hope certainly didn’t.
“Her husband has made some amazing discoveries in the recent weeks,” his father continued, shuffling through a stack of his paperwork. “He’s been coming in regularly for patents. I’ve spoken with him regarding his research before. He’s interested in the Academy.”
“That sounds great.” Hope finally said, although he had to swallow twice before he found his voice again. Perhaps he had been too out of touch with everything in the past several months, having gotten used to the safety and tranquility of this timeline, kidnapping or not. He was now used to speaking with his friends, and things were rarely awkward with them — not like that, anyway. He thought about how he could go about this carefully. “She said something about a neutron cell?”
“A new power source for technology here on Gran Pulse,” Bartholomew explained, pulling out a folder from the mess. “It’s quite the invention. I’ve spoken with Dr. Pinnair once; he claimed he had some help with the designs, but wouldn’t tell me more than that. We could use his help with the Academy.”
Hope made a quiet, choked noise. “Yeah, I guess so. Who… who is Mrs. Pinnair, though? She seems familiar, but…”
“I’m not surprised you don’t remember her.” His father commented. “She was your night shift nurse from — back when you were in the hospital.”
And suddenly, Hope could remember her with crystal clarity. She had been the one that caught him out of bed after hours, and the one Hope had automatically assumed to be who protested against his stay in the hospital with other, normal kids.
“Oh.” Was the only thing he managed to say, swallowing nervously. It had been months, but…
“We haven’t spoken much.” Bartholomew continued. “She tends to keep to herself even when she does visit. I’m surprised the two of you got along so well. She doesn’t usually speak to anyone here.”
Hope doubted the conversation had been going as well as his father thought it was. Instead, he gestured to the tablet for a subject change. “...There seems to be a lot of people interested in Paddra.”
His father made a curious noise, somewhat distracted, before adjusting his glasses and shifting his attention to his son. “That? Yes, I’m just as surprised. I thought it might still be a little too early to shift attention from reconstruction to other areas, but perhaps I was wrong.”
“Maybe people just want to think about something else after so long.” Hope commented quietly. There was far too much concentrated on grieving and survival, even after so long. He knew from experience that it was hard to move on unless someone was forced to. The group of them couldn’t exactly go confronting everyone who suffered a loss during those turbulent times. Likely, that wouldn’t even help.
It was better to throw up other subjects of interest now that they had some breathing room.
A warm hand rested firmly on his shoulder and Hope startled, looking up from where his gaze had fallen onto his tablet to see his father’s smiling face.
“Then let’s give them something else to think about.” Bartholomew told him, before releasing his grip and sitting back with a nod. “What do you think so far?”
“Of the list?” Hope asked.
His father gestured down to the scattering of tablets on his desk. “The list, the dig, the plans for the Academy in general.”
“I think everything seems to be going well.” He answered lightly, unsure whether he was supposed to think too much upon it in the first place. Hope didn’t know everything that was going on, after all, but he had a good idea of the happenings. Things were proceeding faster than in the previous timeline, which was a good thing. While the first time he lived through these years had been fine, per say, there were many improvements to be made. “I think it might take… time, but everyone’s going to approve of your idea eventually.”
His father didn’t respond for a long while, mulling over those words, and Hope started to get the sense that he might have said the wrong thing.
“Dad?” He ventured after a few tense seconds, squirming under his father’s thoughtful gaze.
“That’s a very mature thing to say.” Bartholomew finally said, voice low even as the man leaned back against his chair with an unreadable expression. “Very diplomatic. Optimistic, agreeable, and yet tells me nothing about what you actually think. Simple, as well. Makes it easy enough to believe that the phrasing is due to the fact that you haven’t formulated your complete opinion yet.”
Hope stilled, thoughts coming to a halt. Yes. That was true. He did have a tendency to phrase things as simplistically as possible, mostly to avoid conflicts and allow other people to keep talking and reveal what they intended in the first place. It was something he learned—
—From his father.
Bartholomew raised a hand up slowly to remove his glasses, looking tired.
“You know,” the older man said evenly, “you were always a good kid. Quiet, observant… your mom said you were just shy, but I thought it was because you listened too much. Always liked making sure no one got upset by whatever you said. It was a funny, but admirable, trait to see in a child. A good trait. But Nora— she… she said she’d be glad when you grew out of it. Said that you deserved to make waves and test things out for yourself. Personally, I think tact and observation skills are two very good traits to have, but… Hope. You don’t have to play peacekeeper here. If there’s anything you’d like to… point out or say, then I would welcome that input. More than welcome; I look forward to your thoughts.”
Hope ducked his head, unsure of his own expression to the words, although he tried to unclench his fingers from the tablet, feeling… a little too wound up. Was he glad to hear those words? It didn’t make sense that something so simple and honest could cause such a turbulence of emotions within him, but…
His father had said something akin to that once before, in a timeline now erased, looking so much older but with a gentler smile as he reminded his son not to compromise so much that he lost his own opinions in the process.
“There are better ways to provide happiness than to give people what they want over what you want.” His father had said. “I have always valued your input, and I’m certain that anyone you speak with will be of the same mind. Don’t hesitate to speak out if you have something to say. No matter how small a detail you may find it.”
Maybe it was that reminder rather than the mentions of his mother that had Hope struggling to push down the sudden wave of nostalgia and sadness, but he found that all he could do was nod in agreement. It was strange that he could remember so clearly what he felt after Bartholomew Estheim died: the hollow space within himself struggling with the despair and selfish pain that grieved for the last person who loved him unconditionally. He hadn’t understood it then, and still couldn’t understand it now.
“...I know.” He managed to say, still unable to look up. “I get that.”
He could hear his father sigh softly, perhaps despairing for how his words didn’t seem to reach his son. Perhaps for another reason altogether. There was a shift of clothing, and then a warm hand atop his head, sliding through his hair.
“Alright.” Bartholomew agreed. “I just wanted you to know that.”
“So is this where you’ve been holing up?” Vanille wrapped her arms around herself and frowned, green eyes glaring skeptically at the mostly barren hanger that had been unofficially designated as Hope’s. She didn’t seem impressed with the grey walls or threadbare comforts piled high with sharp pieces of electronics or with the tiny heater that Rygdea had set up after discovering just how many hours a day Hope tended to spend in that cold space. “It’s not well lit at all! And you’ll catch your death of cold here!”
“I don’t have all the lights on.” He explained, barely bothering to glance up from his work to ensure that she was fine and in one piece from having arrived earlier from using the Cie’th Stones to travel. “And it’s cold in the winter.”
Vanille made an irritated noise at how he brushed her off, and soon enough Hope felt a weight leaning against his back as he sat hunched over with his attention to a magnifying glass that let him see all the smallest connections of the microprocessor he was attempting to expand.
“You’ve been here too long.” She lamented, breath warm against the top of his head as her arms settled loosely around his shoulders in a familiar embrace. “All the snow’s melted in New Bodhum. It won’t stay winter for very long.”
He paused in his work, honestly surprised. “The snow’s gone?”
“All gone.” She agreed. “It’s been raining the past three days now. Might rain for another three days yet.”
It was still cold in the settlements, but the lower land received far less snow given the sporadic bits that barely clung to the ground before it was washed away by rain. Did that mean that spring was hurrying along? Time was passing faster than Hope had thought.
“Weren’t you busy with your own project?” He asked her, and felt Vanille huff into his hair, her arms tightening ever so slightly.
“I finished.” She told him, and leaned down to brush her cheek against his temple, gazing curiously at his work. “In fact, I brought him over just to show you.”
At that, Vanille’s warmth vanished from around his shoulders, and he turned slightly to watch as she put down the backpack she brought along with her, rummaging cheerfully through the small bag to bring out a small metal robot which seemed to be wiggling curiously within her grasp, metal optics scanning the vicinity.
“Say hello, Bhakti!” Vanille told the small robot enthusiastically, and Hope remembered how the thing from when they had been l’Cie and back in Oerba: how they had all hunted and scoured the village for extra parts in order to repair Vanille’s old and faithful pet.
The robot wiggled some more in what could possibly be a greeting, and then echoed Vanille’s words in a more masculine and metallic tone. “Hello, Bhakti.”
“Don’t mind him.” Vanille said over the old robot, her smile wide and genuine. “He’s always had a dry sense of humor. I think that could be Fang’s fault, actually.”
Hope didn’t doubt it. He leaned toward the robot, pulling his legs under him in his seat to give him more leverage as he reached out a hand to hesitantly pet the rusted robot, watching in amusement as the thing wiggled and then settled under his touch. “...I forgot about him last time.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Vanille told him, still smiling. “He wandered out of the village, did you know? Got himself lost near Taejin’s Tower. He’s lucky he wasn’t eaten!”
The robot seemed to think different, making whirring noises and rotating its eyes up to stare sadly at its owner like a drooping puppy.
“He’s still working from the last time we replaced his parts.” Vanille continued, “but there are a lot of things to fix still. Most of what I need’s been rusted through, and even his memory chips are just a skip away from breaking down completely. Just because he’s on now doesn’t mean he’s good as new!”
Hope pushed away slightly from his desk, the wheels on his chair rolling easily on the smooth concrete as he turned his attentions entirely away from the computer he was working on. “Would you like me to help?”
“If you’re not too busy,” Vanille demurred, although she was still smiling even as she brought Bhakti closer to herself in response to the robot’s mechanical pleading noises. “He has a good battery life still but if I don’t replace his memory soon, his personality might change entirely.”
Hope paused at that. Personality? While he was familiar with the concept of robotic pets (especially seeing how logically it made the most sense to use such machines to test whether children were truly ready to care for their first animal since the robots would not attack or be hurt by overenthusiastic hugs, and would not die from lack of feeding or walking), he hadn’t realized that there was an entire personality programmed into them… or that the personality could change.
“I also come with an invitation to Dajh’s birthday party next week.” Vanille told him, handing Bhakti over even as the robot beeped in protest at being treated like a package. It was heavier than Hope expected, and he held the robot at arms length away from himself as the machine made a strange whirring noise as it continued to scan the room. “Sazh said you weren’t picking up your phone when he tried to call, but I told him you never answered your phone during the mornings unless the calls are from Lightning.”
“Snow thinks it’s because you have a crush on her, by the way,” Vanille said cheerfully, looking rather amused as Hope cringed back and took Bhakti with him, his ears flushed pink. “I told him that he’d answer too if she were calling, but he said that was because he’d be afraid of her coming over just to hurt him if he didn’t.”
“And it wouldn’t be the same for me?” Hope murmured under his breath, eyes wide at seeing Vanille so chipper and talkative. It was a rare sight, especially as the girl was normally so reserved despite her cheerfulness.
“Dajh’s party is next Sunday, starting at noon.” She finished up, and then leaned over. “Bhakti seems to like you a lot.”
“I’ll be sure to remember.” Hope confirmed, and then turned his attention back to the robot, who did indeed seem to be settling into Hope’s grasp. “You’ll have to talk me through this. I’m afraid my familiarity with old Pulse equipment is still rather lacking. Most items uncovered by excavations were far too rusted for us to make out, and I wouldn’t want to accidentally damage him.”
When the Pulsian girl didn’t answer immediately, Hope glanced up to see her smiling gently at him, her hands clasped together behind herself in a familiar, yet a little sad, manner.
“I can help.” She told him after a moment of studying him. “You sound so grown up, Hope.”
He set the robot gently on the desk next to his work, and asked, “...Is that a bad thing?”
He was still acclimating himself to his own thought processes; to the feeling of being a teenager with his thoughts wandering all in different directions to the random aches in his body to being unable to sit still for long periods of time… there were times when he was restless and didn’t know why, and long moments when he found himself worked up over nothing at all, when his careful moments of study were disrupted by… just about anything.
And yet he wasn’t the same teenager, not when he now understood far more than he did previously at this physical age. There was a disparity between his thoughts and his actions at times, between the words he could remember and what actually came out of his mouth, between what he was supposed to do and what he wanted to do…
Had it always been so distracting? He didn’t feel fifteen, and he didn’t feel twenty-seven. He felt… something in-between, maybe.
Vanille shook her head. “It’s not. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
He wondered if she was disappointed. Hope wasn’t the same person that she must have remember, and he wasn’t the same person that anyone else would have remembered, either. He wondered if Serah and Noel, who had known him as an adult, were disappointed as well.
It might have been months since he woke up back in the timeline, but the disparity was still striking in his mind.
She must have noticed the expression on his face, because Vanille leaned over once again, although this time it was to tug lightly on a strand of his hair. “...You should start tying this back soon.”
The change in topic was a welcome one.
“I’ve been meaning to get it cut.” Hope admitted, blowing up against his bangs and then frowning as his hair settled right back in front of his eyes. The longer it got, the heavier it seemed to get as well. On the one hand, it was nice that his hair didn’t fluff up quite so much, but he wasn’t sure he liked that it stayed in front of his face. It was distracting, and tickled against the skin of his face.
“Hmm.” Vanille agreed with him, and then brightened again. “I can cut it for you.”
He peered up at her and caught her thoughtful expression. “Can you?”
“Mm-hmm.” Vanille agreed as she threaded her fingers through his hair. “I help Fang with her hair, and I cut my own as well. It’s easier with long hair since you don’t need to see the back of your neck. Would you like me to trim it?”
“Shorter than that.” Hope said, relaxing against her touch. “It’s been getting into my eyes.”
“That’s what hair clips are for, you know,” she teased him, and smiled. Bhakti made a curious whirring noise, and she pulled back again. “How about this: you help me with Bhakti, and I’ll take care of your hair?”
He didn’t need to tell her that he would have helped irregardless, and understood that it was also her way of telling him that she would have helped him irregardless as well.
“Sure.” Hope responded, and smiled at her.