The next morning, it was Fang who showed up at his door bright and early. She even forewent the doorbell in order to just pound at his door until Hope forced himself out of bed and dragged his cold feet across the floor until he could let her in.
“What took you so long?” She demanded, staying in the doorway so that Hope couldn’t move to close the door and stop the cold air from getting into the house and permeating the thin layer of his pajamas.
“I stayed up late.” He told her groggily, and then cleared his throat at how thick his voice sounded. He glanced at the sun behind her and winced. From how bright it already was, it meant that his father had left for work already and hadn’t the heart to wake Hope. “...We were going over the interview last night.”
“That’s what I heard.” Fang told him, and then reached to tug on one of the shorter strands of his hair, raising an eyebrow. “But I’ve got plans for you today, so you’ve got ten minutes to get yourself going. Go! Change, wash, eat, go do whatever it is you take your time doing in the mornings!”
Her sudden urging startled Hope into complying, and he raced for the bathroom as he heard her laughing at the doorway. It took him stumbling around for nearly five minutes with a toothbrush in one hand and trying to tug on his pants with the other before he realized it would likely have been easier to do one task at a time rather than attempt to get everything done all at once, although from the sounds of it Fang was certainly finding his situation a hilarious one.
Ten minutes later, he hadn’t managed to get breakfast, but instead dressed himself in a lighter version of his winter clothes, a light blue jacket zipped to the very top of his neck over his now normal shirt, yellow cardigan, and dark pants. He barely managed to quickly gulp down a glass of juice before hopping into his boots and turning to face a snickering Fang, was still leaning against his doorway.
“Eight minutes. Not bad.” She conceded with a grin, before reaching into a pouch she had at her side and tossing him a small wrapped package, which Hope fumbled to catch. “Eat on the way.”
Fang turned to leave as Hope unwrapped the package (which was mostly large dried leaves) to find Vanille’s breakfast recipe she used to make for everyone, mostly consisting of dried meats that had been re-tenderized and softened, cooked with local mushrooms and edible roots and then compacted with large, dried leaves. The aroma was a soft, subtle savory one that reminded him distinctively of Gran Pulse as a whole, and he wrapped the package up again quickly to run along after Fang, only stopping to close and lock the door behind himself.
“Where are we going?” He asked, having to jog to catch up with her longer strides. It was only after he caught up again did he dare to start unwrap that package once more, using the leaves as a wrap so that he could eat while walking.
“You’ve spent far too long cooped up in that tiny place of yours.” Fang responded, which didn’t answer his question at all. She didn’t look back as she went along. “Gotta see if you remember any of those lesson I tried to drill into your head a few months ago. Think you can still make it out in the wild?”
“Of course.” Hope responded confidently, feeling himself stand up straighter. This, at least, was something he had familiarity with. And it was a far easier subject to think about rather than linger on the thought that the interview would be released to the public today, just a day before the famed trial was to happen. He had done his best in the past week to not pay any attention to media, but even then he could hear bits of conversation while walking down the streets about this trial.
Too many people were talking about it, and he wasn’t confident enough to want to hear their opinion on it.
The discomfort was almost familiar, in a way, because Hope had gotten used to withstanding the stares when he first came to attention in the Academy. He spent years ignoring it, trying not to listen to the whispers, and eventually… maybe he had gotten used to the different tone back in 400AF, because the atmosphere the past several days was far different than what he remembered. Hope had never been in the spotlight before he turned eighteen the last time around — both his father and Rygdea made sure of that.
This time around, it was almost the same thing. It felt like they were still trying their best to clear the road for him and ensure that he wouldn’t encounter the weight of everyone’s ill will. They were still trying to do that, he knew, from the way they kept trying to prevent his appearance in the trial.
Hope was determined the face the public if that was what he had to do, but…
For today, it was comforting to slip back into the routine where Fang would laugh at his mistakes and then teach him the correct method of doing things… rather than dwell upon just how many people were currently gossiping about him and the trial in general.
“You sure about that, little guy?” Fang quipped, sounding amused. “I may have a bit of a surprise for you, then. You think you’re up for a challenge?”
“I know I am.” He told her between bites, glad now that Vanille had the foresight to make food for him and that Fang had brought it with her knowing he wouldn’t have time for breakfast. If this was anything like the previous times, then it would be most of the day before he could find something to eat again.
“Good.” She told him, and it was easier to ignore the blatant stares while he was walking down the street with her, because at least then maybe no one would recognize her and some of that would rub off on him as well. Fang pointed a finger over to a building next to the edge of the settlement, close to the perimeter fences that had been set up more to let people know they were getting to the edge and that there would be danger beyond those buildings. Hope could see someone leaning against the buildings, bundled up just like he was and waiting with arms crossed. “Because we’re going to have a little competition between you two today.”
Noel gave a small wave in greeting, and Hope suddenly didn’t feel so confident about the day anymore.
“I thought you were testing me.” Hope gasped out as the three of them made their way out into the wilderness, pushing aside dead and frozen over brambles in his way. He would have walked behind either Noel or Fang, except Fang specifically stated that they were all to make their own paths. Instead, she was the one walking leisurely in the path that Noel had already beaten down. “Test implies pass or fail. It can be about… how good I am at something! Like, if you give a seven out of ten, or whatever—” He paused a moment to break one of the smaller, but thicker, branches in front of him, “—you want to grade it on. You never said anything about one on one survival competition!”
“Well, I’m say it now, then.” Fang continued to sound amused as the two made their way through the tense and untouched wilderness in front of them. “Think of it as a game: you guys will each get a different area, and Vanille and I will each watch one of you and judge if you do something that would kill, or disqualify, you. Your goal is to survive to the end and find a way to hunt down the other.”
“Yeah, it’s that last bit I’m worried about.” Hope murmured darkly under his breath, taking a large step forward and then nearly falling as the ground gave way underneath him in a muddy trap that made him sink down nearly to the ankle. Mud? He thought the land would still be frozen over, but… well, it had been raining a lot more lately.
Noel outright laughed at him. “Hey, you might have the advantage here! I don’t know anything about the plant and animal life around here. And you know the area, don’t you?”
“You both have an advantage and disadvantage.” Fang informed them. “I already taught the kid what can and can’t kill him around him, and Noel has the hunting advantage.”
“So basically, all he has to do is survive long enough to theoretically kill me.” Hope sniped back, entirely missing the way the other teen froze slightly at the statement. “Oh, yeah. This is going to be great.”
“You told me you could make it.” Fang reminded him. “Not giving up before you start, are you?”
“Absolutely not.” Hope said with far more confidence than he felt, and yanked his foot out of the mud.
“And what, you’re going to let him get away with saying he’d win against you in a hunting competition?” Fang turned that question on Noel, who had the audacity to snort at that. “This kid’s a full head shorter than you, Noel.”
“I will grow taller, you know!” Hope snapped, already irritated by the prospect of this competition and the landscape around them. (He could admit to himself that it was still better than dwelling on the idea of the interview, however.)
“Yeah, but Hope knows how to think his way out of stuff.” Noel responded, not sounding too concerned. “He’s got a fair shot at this.”
Hope wasn’t sure how to respond to that— whether he should be pleased or upset that Noel thought he had a chance, of that the other might not even think of him as a challenge at all. He continued along, listening as Fang laughed and agreed with Noel’s statement.
That was fine, he thought. That just meant he would have to come up with a different way of winning, because there was no way he could go up against Noel like this in a one on one competition. He knew his own limits. He was far clumsier this young as well, and hadn’t yet figured out how to step quietly. It felt like most of what he learned physically as an adult had been negated due to gangly limbs and a body that sometimes just wouldn’t listen to him at all. It was a chore actually having to remind himself of little things like making sure not to slouch while sitting not to swing his legs in chairs because his feet didn’t quite touch the floor anymore.
Those were all mannerisms he learned to deal with when he grew up, and the physical ticks hadn’t exactly carried over back to this age. He could remember to do those things, but if he didn’t actively enforce it, then his physical body would go back to doing as he did before he remembered his adult life.
Some times, that was the very worst thing of being this young again.
As they cleared the bramble, Hope could see the brightly colored pink fabrics as Vanille waved at them from a clearing, looking as cheerful as she usually did and covered up with new furs on her boots and layers of bright material around her torso and limbs. There were gentle tinkling noises as she moved and the beads that were laced around the collar and sleeves of her outfit clinked together in time with her movements.
“You’re here!” She greeted them happily, and changed her stance to put both hands on her hips and pout when Fang finally cleared the last of the wilderness as well. “Did you have to take the long way around? There’s a perfectly good path right here, you know!”
There was? Hope looked in the direction where Vanille indicated and, sure enough, there was a nicely cleared foot trail through the area of dead shrubberies looking like it had been walked through by quite a few people. He turned back to give Fang a baleful look.
“I’m just getting them used to what today’s going to be like.” Fang told her, looking entirely unrepentant. “You ready to be a guide?”
“Yup!” Vanille agreed chipperly, already forgetting about Fang’s discretion. “How did you want to start this?”
“That would depend on the boys.” Fang whistled at them, and Hope nearly sighed in despair at the idea of being treated like pets to be called for. “Alright kids, what will it be? You get to choose a direction to start. This is going to be the mid-point. Vanille and I both know the area well enough that we can lead you back here if you ever get lost, but that’s as much help as you’re getting from us. Slip on a dangerous surface, and you’re out of the running. Attempt to eat something poisonous, and you’re out of the running. Run into a creature you can’t defeat on your own… you’re bright enough to get the picture.”
“We’ll be helping you if you really need the help.” Vanille added, looking excited. “So if I stop you from eating something, don’t eat it, okay? But that also means you’ll be declared ‘dead’ for the day!”
“Run into monsters you can’t handle on your own, we’ll help you defeat it.” Fang agreed. “Still means you’re ‘dead’.”
“How long is this going to go on for?” Noel asked them.
“Until the sun sets!” Vanille answered happily, pointing up at the sky. “So you have a long while to go!”
“Or until one of you is ‘dead’.” Fang added. “You’re not allowed to hunt each other until the sun reaches midway in the sky. Need to see if you can survive before if you can hunt down a predator. If you can’t do the former, there’s no use in doing the later.”
Hope narrowed his eyes in thought.
“I’ll go with Hope.” Vanille volunteered as Fang turned to her. “And contact you if something happens!”
Hope eyed Noel, who only shrugged at that in confusion.
Fang hummed thoughtfully before bringing a hand to her mouth and saying, “....No. That won’t do. Don’t think I don’t know you, missy. You’d just start giving him hints when you feel bad for him being at a disadvantage. No.” She paused, and nodded to herself. “I’ll go with the squirt. You go bond with newbie over there.”
“Newbie?” Noel echoed, sounding a little offended.
Hope just watched as Vanille pouted, and then turned to smile at Noel. “Oh, she doesn’t mean it in a bad way! We just haven’t fought together before, that’s all. I’m sure she won’t call you that once you guys actually go on a hunt together.”
“I will keep calling you that.” Fang contradicted the younger girl.
“—And I’m sure we’re going to get along just great.” Vanille continued as if the other hadn’t spoken, skipping over to link arms with a suddenly very nervous looking Noel who didn’t seem to know what to do with Vanille’s particular brand of physical affection.
At least, Hope thought, Vanille was much gentler with her hugs than Alyssa ever was.
“Looks like it’s going to be you and me, kid.” Fang told him, and Hope could only hmm quietly and nod in agreement as he laced his fingers in front of himself to think, unaware that he was rocking on the heels of his feet while he pondered just where to start the survival stint. “So… who’s ready to fight for first pick of locations?”
“I can go second.” Noel spoke up, still looking vaguely embarrassed. “I can fight from anywhere.”
“And you, Hope?” Fang turned her attention to him.
Hope thought for a long moment, and eventually pointed down at the ground.
“Here.” He said, and then nodded to reaffirm his choice. “I’ll stay in the middle of the field.”
It must not have been what Fang was expecting, because she ended up snorting at him and reaching to lay a heavy hand on his head and pressing down hard enough that Hope felt he might sink down into the earth.
“You sure about that?” She asked him, tone suddenly serious.
He only nodded in response.
“Alright!” Vanille exclaimed, and then turned to ask Noel, “So where would you go now that Hope’s basically taken home base?”
“Pick a direction.” Noel said, and grinned at her. “Which way do you think will be easiest!”
“No cheating, missy!” Fang called out in warning.
Vanille pouted, and then reached out to grab at Noel’s wrist in a manner she tended to do for Hope as well, and the declared, “Fine! We’re just going to go…..” She spun in a circle, dragging Noel along with her, “This way!”
As the two Pulsians disappeared into the thick forest again, Fang turned her attention back to Hope and dropped the mockingly cheerful demeanor, expression now as serious as he’d ever seen before.
“So?” She asked him. “I’m guessing you have a plan, if you’re going to pick this spot.”
Hope nodded slowly, and then amended that by tilting his head to the side and shrugging, unable to hide the uncertainty he felt.
The center of the field would be a large strategical advantage when it came to gaining the lay of the land, but with the amount of experience that Noel had in fighting in all sorts of scenarios, that strategical advantage could easily be negated entirely, and that set up a string of disadvantages. Being in the center meant he had the weakest grasp of the situation. Had he chosen one side— any side, then Hope would have been able to put more distance between himself and Noel, therefore giving him a slight advantage in distance because it would at least take the other teen a longer time to get to him if Hope wanted to hole up in one area.
It would have allowed for Hope to have a tighter command on the area around himself, and perhaps also find a place to hide.
The center, where Vanille had been waiting for them, was entirely barron. Flat. Devoid of hiding spots, and easily spotted from a ways away. Where as someone could look for the center from any direction, the only way Hope would be able to look to would be the one slightly downtrodden path. An attack on the center could come from any direction outside of that one, and Hope wouldn’t be able to see it coming.
Especially since he knew for a fact that Noel could be just as silent a hunter as Fang and Lightning.
...It really didn’t seem fair.
Or maybe, he tried to think optimistically, it really wasn’t fair for Noel. Hope did have the home field advantage in this scenario despite not really knowing the area surrounding him. While Hope wasn't an expert of Gran Pulse, definitely nowhere near what Fang and Vanille knew, he had lived on this world for over a decade in the previous timeline. He had been taught on and off by Fang regarding survival on this planet in a hostile situation for months now, coupled with academic knowledge of changing landscape.
Granted, it would be nothing compared to Noel's intuitive knowledge of fighting and hunting, and the fact that the other teen had been born and raised on Gran Pulse (but Hope was assuming that the Pulse Noel came from must have been different than the Pulse of now).
Assuming that both of them survived the first portion of the competition (which was really a no-brainer-- Hope knew enough by now that there was no way he'd fail that, and Noel could just hunt animals if he couldn't identify the plant life), Hope would be at an overwhelming disadvantage. He really only had one thing going for him: that Noel didn't seem to be taking this competition seriously, possibly because the older teen also acknowledged the overwhelming difference between them in this subject.
But that didn't mean Noel was going to let his guard down.
"Okay." He told Fang brightly, watching as the woman blinked at his sudden change in attitude. "Should we start with the survival test, then?"