In retrospect, Hope should have known something was amiss the minute Snow showed up with Noel to request he join them on this mission. As attached to the hip as he’d engineered them to be, the fact that they were agreeing with each other should have been a major tip-off. The way Sazh had avoided Hope’s eyes and taken off at once after flying them here ought to have confirmed the matter for him once and for all.
As it is, hair dripping into his eyes and mouth foul with murky lake water, Hope decides he is going to put the blame where it actually belongs. He swipes at his forehead to clear his sight and glares at Snow and Noel.
Standing sidewise with his back straight and the muscles of his left arm tense, Noel looks right back at him. The watchfulness in his expression is telling, and Hope slides his glower down.
“S—S—Snow,” Hope says, and he’d meant it to come out scathing, except his teeth are chattering. He shuts his eyelids, concentrates on stopping his arms from shaking, then he takes aim and hurls his hand screen at Snow, crouching on the bank.
Snow catches it with ease and pockets it. “That the best you can do?” Snow grins at him, and Hope sees red.
“I don’t believe you,” Hope says, and he cannot hide the fury in his voice. “People are dying, every second is precious, and you’re pulling childish pranks?!”
“Go ahead, hit me all you want,” Snow smirks, and Hope should really unpack all the layers in both his words and his tone, except that he needs to punch Snow, and right now he is very fed up with always denying himself everything.
So he does not. He pulls himself up and launches himself at Snow, using his weight and momentum to try and knock him over.
Snow sees him coming, and slowly uncurls himself from his squat. He grunts when Hope’s fist connects with his gut, but otherwise makes no move to defend himself.
He doesn’t need to: it takes only the first hit to make Hope realise Snow is simply too massive. Hope feels like a kitten swiping at a tomcat, and it just makes him more murderous. He keeps snarling and lashing at Snow till he starts seeing black spots.
“Hmph,” Snow snorts, and puts his hands on Hope’s shoulders.
“When was the last time you slept?” Noel says, and Hope has been so caught up in Snow that he has no recollection of hearing Noel move behind him or feeling him get this close.
“I…” Hope says.
He needs to get a grip on himself: he’s already disgraced himself enough as it is without losing what little control he has over Noel to boot. Yet his ears keep ringing and his limbs feel so distant, his head so heavy, that all his struggles are futile and he slips into darkness.
When Hope comes to, a campfire is crackling in front of him. He is sitting against a rock, and he has a terrible crick in his neck. He flexes his head from side to side to ease the strain, and that’s when a delicious smell hits his nostrils. His stomach growls, and Hope flushes.
“Someone’s hungry!” Snow grins, biting off a chunk of what looks like a roasted wing.
“Did you actually kill that?!” Hope says, and the anxiety in his voice is too revealing.
“Oh, shove it!” Snow says. “It’s dead already, and it wanted us dead, so it was totally fair game. Pun intended, heh!”
Hope doesn’t trust his voice to remain level, so he settles for glaring at Snow.
“Come on! You can disapprove all you want, it’s not going to come back to life. What you gonna do, waste it? For what?” Snow asks, and it’s worded like one of his normal carefree teases, but Hope has known Snow long enough to recognise the underlying challenge.
Hope freezes. He’s been focusing so much on the inevitable confrontation from Noel, that he’s completely overlooked that Snow is sharper than most people give him credit for. Hope needs to make something up quickly, but his mind is still slow from sleep and stays terrifyingly blank.
A bird leg suddenly bobs in front of him, and Hope glances up to see Noel looking at him. “Eat up,” Noel says, pushing the leg at him, and his eyes are soft.
Hope makes a big show of concentrating on his food. He doesn’t even have to fake his enthusiasm: the meat is tender and cooked to perfection, and Hope is actually ravenous. He can ignore the expectant silence among them for a little longer.
Once they’ve all finished, Snow says: “So,” and Hope doesn’t like the bitter twist of Snow’s lips one bit. “You going to tell us what’s going on? Or did you think we’d just, what, lollygag around while you overwork yourself to death?”
Hope raises his head slowly, stares straight into Snow’s eyes, and says: “You want a bedtime story, Snow? All right.”
An eternity later, once Hope has told them a version of the facts as close to the truth as he possibly can, Snow says, for the third time: “And you really think we can take down a God.”
Since Snow doesn’t seem to want to add anything else this time, Hope can finally answer: “We can’t. But Lightning can.”
“Lightning’s dead,” Noel says, and it sounds so final that Hope replies: “Oh, I assure you: she won’t be.”
From the way both Snow and Noel gawk at him, Hope guesses it sounded far creepier than it should have.
“Anyhow, it’s getting late,” Hope says. “And since you won’t give me back my hand screen, Snow, and I can’t work, I think I’ll catch up on some sleep instead.”
And it’s weird, because Snow cannot seem to stop walking up and down and Noel is now coiled into a tight ball as he rocks himself, yet Hope hasn’t felt this buoyant since before Serah’s death.
It’s the heat that slowly alerts Hope that something’s not quite right, but it takes him a while to realise he’s resting on Snow’s chest, and that Noel is pressed to his back.
He tenses up, and that little motion is enough to wake both Snow and Noel.
“Hey, now, none of that,” Snow says. “It’s just, you always take care of us, you know? So we thought it was time we manned up and returned the favour.” He’s threaded his fingers through Hope’s hair and is looking questioningly at him. Hope suddenly notices that Noel’s lips are against his neck, very still.
The thought has never crossed his mind before. He simply doesn’t have time to even think of sex, and it also never occurred to him that they might wish from him the same things they have grown to want from each other.
Hope had a couple of boyfriends while he was attending classes at university, but after the novelty had worn off he’d seen no point in wasting time when the person he actually wanted was trapped elsewhere.
Yet he can suddenly see the appeal: having someone to actively care for might motivate both Snow and Noel, and getting off might have the side effect of helping with Hope’s research.
So Hope shrugs and says: “Why not?”
Hope wakes up, and the sun is already high enough on the horizon to make him wince. He exhales loudly through his nose, trying to hide himself again under what cannot be anything else but Snow’s coat, but his back is stiff from sleeping on uneven ground, and he cannot block out the chirping birds or the lapping waves anymore.
He sighs, then makes an effort to sit up, rubbing his eyes to prepare them for the blaring sunlight.
He hears a snort, and raises his eyelids just a tiny fraction to see Noel standing watch over him from his perch on a nearby rock.
“Looks like you needed that,” Noel says, and Hope cannot gauge from his tone whether he means sleep or sex. He buys himself some time with a huge yawn and a luxurious stretch. He feels Noel’s gaze on him, heavier in the light of day than his hands were in the dead of night.
“Snow?” Hope asks.
“Splashing in the lake,” Noel says, and his deadpan rendition startles a chuckle out of Hope. Snow does indeed appear to be enjoying himself pestering some kind of animal below the surface.
Hope pointedly keeps watching Snow without bothering to get up. When Noel never breaks the silence, Hope says: “Noel.”
Noel doesn’t answer, and he’s staring at his feet when Hope turns back towards him. “Noel,” Hope says again.
“It’s just…” Noel cuts him off. “I can never tell when you’re lying.”
“Sometimes,” Hope says, and hears the venom in his own voice, and pauses to curb it. “Sometimes you all forget I too have someone I want back.”
Noel snaps his head back up, and returns his glare. “You mean…Lightning,” Noel says, and he sounds so disbelieving Hope cannot stop his mouth from thinning.
Hope gets up, grateful that the previous night he’d had the presence of mind to put back on his underwear at least. He picks up his discarded clothing and gets dressed, his back to Noel. He ignores Noel’s half-hearted attempts to get his attention, and simply walks off towards Snow once he’s done.
Snow greets him with a huge grin, even wrestling as he is with a very large fish Hope cannot identify. “Can I keep it?!” Snow says.
“No,” Hope says, and it comes out so mean Hope can feel Noel cringing behind him.
“Man, you’re no fun at all!” Snow says, his face falling. But he lets go of the fish all the same, and Hope takes a grateful big breath.
“When is Sazh coming to get us?” Hope says later, once Snow has dried himself off and they’ve eaten breakfast (wild berries—those aren’t bound to get extinct anytime soon according to his team’s research).
“Noon,” Snow says. “We’ve still got some time.”
Hope glances at him, but Snow isn’t leering and looks serious all of a sudden.
“Listen,” Snow says. He’s darted up, and starts pacing. “These things you’ve told us. They’re pretty bad. And if they’re bad for us, when we’ve all seen much worse than any of the other people of this time? They aren’t going to cope,” Snow says, staring right at Hope.
Hope doesn’t blink when he meets Snow’s eyes. He feels the hairs at the back of his neck standing up, but does his best not to tense up under Noel’s scrutiny as he confirms: “They aren’t.”
“So we’re fixing that,” Snow says to him, and it’s not a question.
Hope cocks his head to the side and says nothing.
“You’re going to…keep doing your stuff,” Snow says, waving around. “Meanwhile, Noel and I? We’re going to sniff around. Find smart people who can help us organize this mess of a world. Build some villages. Schools! We can name one after Serah,” Snow says, and his voice is thick, so he clears his throat.
“We’re going to save this world, the three of us. Who’s with me?” Snow cries, extending his right arm with his hand splayed open.
Hope is light-headed, and fears his smile is as wistful as he feels. But it doesn’t deter him from reaching Snow, and putting his right hand above his.
Noel’s face is a discord, his eyes alight while his lips are wobbling. Snow seems inclined to wait for Noel’s decision, but Hope says: “Noel. Let’s survive together.”
And Noel crumbles, his lashes bright with tears even as he nods, and joins their hands together.
It feels natural this time when Snow kisses him, then kisses Noel. It’s a tighter seal than a promise made exclusively of words would have made, and they’re fighting a war with such slim chances of victory that they need every edge they can get.
If they take comfort in each other in the meantime, well. Hope’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. He’s got a saviour to save, after all.