Disclaimer: Neither Final Fantasy XIII nor XIII-2 are mine, and then again, neither is the song "Alibi", which once again belongs to 30 Seconds to Mars.
A/N: As stated, this is a companion piece to my other fic, Hurricane. It's not necessary to read that one first (although, of course, you should, haha); I do make some references to events contained therein, but they're events you could probably assume happened in any case, and hopefully shouldn't get too lost if you haven't.
A/N the second: Spoiler warning for the XIII-2 trailers, but only the trailers, as I don't even have the game yet (as I haven't finished XIII yet, as I've been so distracted writing fanfics for it instead of actually playing it...but I've spoiled myself heartily, so yes, I know how it ends). I was watching the trailers and it seemed interesting to me that Serah's the only one who remembers the alternate, Lightning-filled timeline, and also interesting how she clings so desperately to the belief that her sister will return one day to save her. I wondered what could have prompted this, and began musing upon the possibility that it was some sort of guilt...
So this is probably horrendously inaccurate for the actual events of XIII-2, but since when have I cared about that? If you like, please review!
in the wake of the storm
(no warning sign, no alibi, we're fading faster than the speed of light)
Serah closed her eyes and basked in the happiness, suffused with joy and a cozy, slow desire for this moment to never end.
Everything was as it should be: Cocoon had not been destroyed (well, entirely); Snow was safe and here at her side; and Lightning was actually congratulating them on their engagement, seemed disinclined to deck the blond, and most of all was smiling the first real, warm, to-the-depths-of-the-eyes smile that Serah had seen on her face in years.
It was all perfect, so very perfect.
She drifted in the pleasant, reassuring, and safe sensations of Snow's arm draped around her shoulders, of Lightning's fingers on her arm. She didn't know what was going to happen next, but she did know that together, the three of them could survive anything.
So long as they were all together, nothing else mattered.
It was indeed a perfect moment.
But it was just a moment, so it ended.
Serah felt something…slip, as if for the most infinitesimal fraction of a nanosecond, the entire universe had shifted ever so slightly sideways, and when it shifted back again, things were not the same.
Snow's arm was not around her shoulders.
Lightning's fingers were not on her arm.
A sudden surge of conviction that everything had just gone horribly wrong jolting down her spine, Serah opened her eyes and looked around wildly. No, there was Snow, a few paces away, and he seemed to be watching Hope approach, but hadn't the boy been right there? When had he wandered off? And when had Snow left her side?
Her neck twisting, Serah fought the rush of outright panic rocketing up her throat as her desperate eyes could not locate what they most sought.
Where was her sister?
Trembling and unable to breathe, Serah stared at Hope in silent incomprehension as the boy approached her with a sad single-mindedness. He held out his hand, and she lowered her gaze disjointedly, and somewhere in the fog of her thoughts she recognized what he carried, but the rest of her mind couldn't manage to make the connection.
"It's her knife," he explained when she remained mute. "I found it near the base of the pillar."
She reached out shaking, hesitant fingers and grasped the knife, the very weapon she had bought her sister on that day that now seemed so impossibly long ago. Still unable to come to grips with this strange reality, she woodenly turned to the man who had, up until now, been able to make everything better. "Snow?"
He didn't meet her eyes, and after exhaling a sigh, reluctantly surmised, "Serah, I'm sorry: She must be inside the pillar."
A small, disbelieving sound escaped her, the only indication that she'd just been stabbed in the heart.
"Lightning's holding up Cocoon," he continued, facing the impressive yet tragic crystalline tower, "along with Vanille and Fang."
Her incredulity increasing tenfold, Serah reached out and forced her fiancé to face her. "Wait, what're you talking about?" she demanded, the gathering tears in her voice making it sound like a plea, but the hard glint in her watery eyes testified that it was nevertheless all demand. "She was right here a second ago!"
Snow regarded her. "What're you talking about?" he said, echoing her words as well as her confusion. "The last I saw of her was when we all were floating up…she didn't come with us, she went down with Fang and Vanille…" He looked round at Hope. "Right? You saw it, too, right?"
The white-haired boy bowed his head. "I wish I'd seen wrong," he mumbled. "I wish she'd been here, but she wasn't, Serah."
"No!" she yelled. "Why're you all lying? Stop it!" And she raced to the spot Lightning had been standing on and fell to her knees, nearly tearing up the grass as she searched for a telltale footprint or…or…or anything…
Snow, Hope, and Sazh all exchanged worried glances, and finally the blond approached her again. "I know it must be hard to hear," he said as gently as he could, "but she was never with—"
"She's not dead!" she screamed at the ground, tears flooding down her cheeks as she tapped into full-blown denial. "She's Lightning, for Eden's sake! She wouldn't have died! She couldn't have died!"
"I never said she had," Snow said, and he crouched beside his distraught fiancée and placed his hands bracingly on her shoulders in an attempt to placate her. "She completed her Focus and turned to crystal, just like you did, and you came back from that, didn't you? So never say never."
Serah hiccupped, her flash of rage transforming so quickly to pure sorrow. "But Snow, she…I swear, she was right here…I came running over with Dahj, and you came up and hugged me, but then you let me go and I came over here, where I hugged her…and then…and then…" She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, as if that could contain the tears, or perhaps as if that would clarify the memory, which was fuzzy and fading around the edges and slipping from her mental grasp like a handful of sunlight.
But Lightning's smile…it had been so long since she'd seen that, there was no way she could've imagined it…
"And then she was gone," Serah finally concluded, brokenly. "She was right here and then she was gone. That's the truth. It doesn't make sense, but it's true. Please, Snow…"
"I believe you," he said, leaning over so that he might engulf her small frame with his large one. "Shh, I believe you."
"She was right here…"
"I know, I know," he breathed, and he pressed a kiss into her hair. "I'm sorry, so sorry. After all this time, I had hoped we'd all be together, too. She even seemed to tolerate me near the end, so a happy future hadn't sounded so impossible," he added, a fleeting and pale attempt at lightening the atmosphere.
Serah collapsed into his reassuring bulk and buried her face in his chest, and she sobbed one last time in what was becoming a mantra for her, "She was right here."
(made our choice, trial by fire, to battle is the only way we feel alive)
Lieutenant Amodar stared blankly at the death certificate on his desk before raising his eyes to the younger Farron, and he ran a hand back through his short hair in a futile sort of gesture.
"I prayed so often that I'd never have to do this with you," he remarked eventually with a rueful bitterness. "Oh, I wish I didn't have to do this with you."
Serah glanced up with red-rimmed eyes but otherwise did not react.
Amodar's gaze softened with sympathy. "I am so sorry for your loss."
She nodded, a small dip of her head, and ventured, "I don't think it would be out of place if I said the same."
He smiled in an acknowledging manner, or at least one corner of his lips briefly pulled upwards. "The Corps won't be the same without her," he agreed gruffly. "I'd say she was a credit to the uniform, but, heh, that gives the uniform itself way too much credit. She was…an excellent soldier, and an even better human being. She will be greatly missed." He shook his head and muttered, as if to himself, "And to think that I sent in that recommendation for her officer's training. It won't come to any use now."
Serah studied him for a long while, and at length she asked sadly, "Why are they doing this, Lieutenant?"
He shifted his weight and sighed. "What with all that's happened, Cocoon's in an uproar and the Sanctum's in even worse chaos. They're just trying to tie off as many loose ends as quickly as possible. That's what it boils down to, basically."
She wrinkled her nose. "So that's it? That's all Lightning is anymore? A loose end?"
"I didn't mean it like that," Amodar hurried to deny. "I don't think it's just to declare her dead without a proper and thorough investigation, but—"
"She's not dead," Serah interrupted quietly. "She—she's not. It's that simple."
His brow furrowed in concern, but all he managed to say was, "I don't want her to be dead, either. I hope to hell you're right and she's out there somewhere, just biding her time. But until that day, orders are orders and this verdict technically will stand, no matter how much we believe otherwise." He paused, as if debating saying more, and decided to barrel onwards. "Y'know, like I said, I always hoped I'd never have to do this with you, but I'm grateful that if it had to happen, at least it happened now."
The pink-haired girl—so like her sister, Amodar thought, and maybe under kinder circumstances, this would've been what Lightning turned out like, too—absorbed that sentiment but did not know what to make of it. "I don't follow, sir," she confessed. "What about timing makes this at all better than…some other possibility?"
"Well, since you're eighteen and all," he explained.
Serah considered that obscure statement to be utterly unhelpful, and she told him as much.
Something wary and suspicious like half-dawned comprehension glinted in Amodar's eyes. "Did she never tell you?" he asked slowly, as if afraid that charging into this conversation would make it bolt.
Despite her growing irritation, she masked it well and prompted, "Tell me…what?"
"She never told you," he breathed, placing a hand over his mouth and holding it there, not to block further words but rather as a support, as he balanced the corresponding elbow on his desk.
She waited patiently for him to elaborate, but when he continued staring off glassily into space, she verbally prodded him again. "Tell me what, sir? Please, if you have information about my sister, share it. Please."
He lowered his hand, dragging at the skin around his mouth as he did so, and shook his head. "Ah, I don't know…if Lightning never did, I don't know if it's my place—"
"Lightning's not here," Serah said sharply, although she choked on the words a second later, and the saline burned her eyes anew. "Something's terribly wrong with…with everything, but she's not dead, but…she's not here now, either. Maybe it's time for secrets to come out, and, who knows, maybe she'd want me to know but that she just never got around to…to…" She trailed off, recalling her sister's apology beneath the newly crystal-supported Cocoon. That had happened, she told herself fiercely, because she had been so surprised that the first words out of her mouth had been ones of regret…and she had tried to ease her sister's mind, but then Snow had been there, and then Lightning just…hadn't.
Amodar inhaled deeply and held it for longer than usual, as if he couldn't breathe properly while contemplating this decision. Finally, though, he exhaled and admitted, "When your mother died and you and your sister became orphans, you should both have become wards of the state as well and transferred to foster care."
Her countenance crumpled in puzzlement. "What're you talking about? That never happened."
"You're right; it didn't," he confirmed, his gaze level and steady as he watched her for reactions. "Lightning made sure of that."
Serah opened her mouth to offer another rebuttal, but a memory called itself into being—strangers in suits approaching the house, her sister's solo meeting with them, the distant sounds of shouting that she'd heard even outside in her garden, and then Lightning's fierce hug, as if she'd been terrified someone would rip her little sister away…
"No," she breathed, her head shaking loosely. "That…no…"
His sympathy growing, he nevertheless added, "She needed a job in order to retain custody of you, so…" He left it hanging, but that part Serah knew, and all too well.
"So she joined the Corps," she concluded, her voice distant and barely audible. "But I…the blood…I got scared of her, not on purpose, but…it was enough to cause a…a rift between us, and we just…" She paused to sniff and wipe at least some of the tears from her cheeks before saying, "We just couldn't ever manage to close it again. I…oh, I…"
"Serah, you don't have to—" Amodar attempted to intervene, but she overrode him with a flash of strength and inward fury that reminded him so strongly of the other Farron.
"No! It's my fault, don't you see? I resented this place and—and I resented her! My own sister! And for what? For doing her damnedest to protect me? What—what has to be wrong with a person to think that way?" Teeth gritting, she bowed her head into her hands as fresh sobs wracked her petite frame.
"Hey! Hey!" he said loudly, and he smacked his open hand on his desk. The sound managed to catch Serah's attention, and she peered up at him, her irises even bluer now that they floated in pools of pinkish-red. "Nothing is wrong with you; nothing was wrong with either of you. You both suffered traumas of the acutest kind, and you both did your best to deal with them. It was always too much for you guys; hell, you were just kids! You still are kids," he added, more softly, more bitterly. "And I shouldn't be showing you her death certificate and handing over her effects, but at least you can take care of yourself on your own. At least you don't have to be uprooted and dumped in someone else's family like they'd ever do half as much for you as Lightning did."
She nodded, another weak and vague wobble, and said in a voice like a plea, as if the lieutenant had the power to change the past, "If she had just told me…I would've understood. Everything would've been…I would've understood, I promise!"
"Shh," he said, offering her a very belated box of tissues. "I don't think Lightning ever held it against you, if you don't mind my saying. She loved you too much for that."
Serah dabbed her eyes, but she might have smiled underneath all that self-castigation and sorrow. "Yeah, I…just…yeah."
He offered her an equally fleeting smile, and then he tapped his fingers on a small, leather-bound box that had been sitting on his desk the entire time. "Now then, I know this is a paltry comfort, but it's all she left behind here, so I have to give it to you."
She sniffled and regarded it curiously. "What's inside?"
He shoved it across the metal surface. "Open it and see."
Fingers tracing its contours, she studied its exterior a bit more—it was hardly larger than the tissue box, no more than eight inches across and four deep and wide—before she popped open the tiny clasp and lifted the lid. Inside, stacked with care but nevertheless resigned to a fate unseen on a shelf, were at least a dozen medals, rewarding their bearer for the highest honors of bravery and valor.
But Serah took almost no notice of them, her gaze fixed on the photograph taped to the underside of the lid.
A long time ago, before their mother had died and the Farron family was still a trio, they had gone often to the beach, as was common practice in the seaside town. Serah reached out slow but steady fingers to touch the young sisters' smiles, frozen forever in time. She remembered that day so clearly, even though it had to have been almost a decade ago by now: it appeared in her mind's eye, untarnished by the years, untouched by the tragedy that had inevitably followed. She recalled the refreshing tickle of the ocean's spray, the tantalizing heat of the bright sun, the cushion and warmth of the sand underfoot. Mostly, though, she recalled the oft-contradictory—but not in this moment, never this moment—feelings of freedom and safety that had filled her young soul when she had clambered onto Lightn—Claire's back and cheerfully demanded a ride.
And that was how it had always been, Serah realized dimly. Her clinging to her sister's back, her sister carrying her.
The guilt nearly overwhelmed her, and the photograph blurred as her eyes filled anew.
She had never carried her sister.
"She signed up as Lightning, right?" she whispered hoarsely, speaking to the lieutenant but never looking away from the picture. "She never told you her real name?"
"Yeah, she never did," he said, somewhat pensive. "Sometimes I forgot that Lightning wasn't her real one, y'know, and then sometimes I wondered if the day would ever come when she'd let me in on the secret."
Serah gazed sadly at the picture. It was a fairly candid shot—Claire had taken their piggyback ride over to their mother, who had seized the chance (and the camera), so only Serah had been looking directly at the lens. The elder Farron, laughing and grinning, had her head turned slightly to make sure her sister was still there, still happy.
"You told me one of Light's secrets today," she finally said. "A secret we agreed she would have liked me to know. So what if I share one with you that I think she would've wanted you to know as well?"
"Alright," he agreed gruffly.
"Claire," she murmured, wistful. "Her name wa—is Claire."
He swallowed, the sadness seeming to weigh heavier on his broad shoulders, but he managed a flickering smile.
"That's a pretty name."
(we both could see, crystal clear, that the inevitable end was near)
Serah and Snow walked back from the Corps' Bodhum office in silence; it wasn't until they'd reached the Farron residence that he broke that silence, and even then he sounded tentative, not a trait normally associated with the NORA leader.
"What's in the box?" he asked as he followed her inside.
Her arms tightened further, if that were possible, around the box, which she had hugged to her chest the entire walk home. She wanted to believe, rationality be damned, that if she held onto this tangible memory of her sister, then the less substantial ones would also remain, that they would cease fading until she was left with nothing but a bone-deep certainty that yes, Lightning had been there but had none of the details to prove it.
But then her arms relaxed, and she listlessly handed the box over, wandering into the hallway instead to stare at the absent soldier's closed bedroom door.
Snow accepted it, somewhat surprised at this sudden surrender, but set it down on the coffee table regardless of that and seated himself on the sofa across from it. He went to open it when he paused. "Er, I can look inside, right?" He sensed, and rightly so, that Serah wasn't entirely existing in the present; she seemed half lost to nostalgic reveries and might not have realized that she had even handed it over.
"Sure," she agreed, her voice as distant as her eyes, and she continued to stare at and through the door.
This used to be her room as well, she recalled. When she had been very young, she had been frightened of many things, as children often are, but proximity to her sister had been a source of comfort and safety. She had lived in this room until she was seven, and then she had moved on down the hall and felt very grown-up about it, but she had visited often to talk to Claire.
Until their mother died, that is. And then Lightning's door always seemed to be shut, and Serah didn't have the strength left to open it.
Snow's impressed whistle drifted into the fog of her thoughts. "This is some serious hardware!" he declared, sifting through the medals. "Look at all this—she must have earned every last one that the Corps even awards. Everything from marksmanship to rescuing comrades…" He trailed off with a shake of his head. "I knew Light was good; I mean, I witnessed most of it firsthand, but to have real evidence like this…wow. Crazy stuff."
Serah might have nodded, but she wasn't paying a great deal of attention to him in the first place, much less her own reactions.
He studied her, his mouth pulling into a frown, and ventured, "Hey, you alright? I know it's a dumb question, but still…are you?"
Her vision began to blur as unshed tears crowded her eyes, and she wondered vaguely how she remained hydrated enough to sustain this state of watery grief. "Did you see the photo? Under the lid?"
Snow scanned it again. "Yeah. I don't think I've ever seen Lightning look quite that happy before. Almost didn't recognize her."
"She was that happy," Serah insisted, a mere whisper. "Before she disappeared, down on Pulse, she was…"
The younger Farron finally managed to reach out and close her fingers around the doorknob. "I'll just be a minute," she mumbled, and she stepped inside.
Sunlight streamed in through the half-open blinds, lending the place a hazy golden warmth that made it seem even more like a memory from a dream, even more so than the fact that it hadn't really changed since she'd seen it last…or since she'd been here last.
There was still an empty place on the carpet where Serah's bed had been, as if Lightning were waiting for her sister to return, as if it weren't now entirely the other way around.
She walked in further, her hand slipping from the knob, and took it all in. Lightning had been neat but not intensely so; the place was clean, but things were askew, the bedclothes rumpled, the closet door half-open. Her desk was a little cluttered, the various oils and rags used for maintaining her gunblade scattered about the surface in what must have been some order, although Serah couldn't see it.
More photographs, these properly framed, were ranged about the desktop as well; Serah recognized one of them as being taken at Lightning's induction into the Corps, and another from the time their mother had taken them to Nautilus, and one so recent as to be from Serah's eighteenth birthday. Her tears spilled over as she realized that in every picture, some version of Lightning and some version of Serah smiled out at the future together, and the entire arrangement became a touching yet so very tragic tribute to sisterhood.
Lifting the one from her birthday, Serah cradled it as she walked over to slump on the edge of the bed. The mattress creaked quietly as it accepted her weight, and then it protested a little more as she tipped sideways until she lay curled into Lightning's pillow. She would have liked to believe that the sheets smelled like her, that there was some poignant and poetic reminder, but the sheets didn't smell like much of anything. This didn't come as a surprise, as Lightning wasn't the type to use scented soaps or perfumes, but…
Serah wished they did. It would have been nice to close her eyes and breathe in and be able to pretend that her sister was here.
But instead all she could do was close her eyes and suffocate—no matter how much oxygen she inhaled—and know that her sister was not.
It just couldn't be true, she said to herself in the ringing silence in her head. Lightning couldn't be gone. There was so much they had to say, so much they had to repair, so much that neither of them had ever seen in the other that had nevertheless always been there…
Was it too late to make amends? Could hurtful words never be unsaid?
She hated to think that were true, and the edges of the picture frame dug into her stomach as she hugged it fiercely to her chest.
It felt unbearably empty here now, and that above all else convinced her that her sister truly was gone. Even when they had been at their most dysfunctional, Lightning had always been there—perhaps behind a closed door or just shut away carefully behind her own eyes, but she'd still been there. They'd had a routine, and it had been comfortable: Serah would come home from school and do her work, and then Lightning would return an hour or two later and wash off the grime of the day in the shower, and that was when Serah would make dinner.
They'd always had dinner together. Even if neither of them said a word, they'd still always shared the meal.
And when Lightning had long, overnight missions, she would always call at the end of the day to check up on her little sister. The conversation had always been stilted—Did you do your homework? Don't stay up too late now—but Serah had always accepted it because it kept her from asking darker questions she didn't want to know the answers to. She had understood it for what it was: Lightning's way of reaching out, and while it wasn't elegant, it was something.
She appreciated that something. She longed for that something again.
What she got, though, alone in this abandoned room in this empty house, was nothing.
Half an hour later, she rose and shuffled to the doorway. Snow was still slouched on the sofa, but he straightened up when he saw her appear.
Eventually, she swallowed and remembered how to speak. It seemed so much more difficult than before. "I…I think I'm going to stay here tonight."
His brow quirked, the expression somewhat hard to discern with his bandanna pulled down to his eyes. "Well, I suspected as much. It is your house and all," he pointed out gently, uncertain if she were yet operating wholly in the present.
"No," she corrected, "I meant here, in Light's room."
His face creased further, the concern shining brightly in his eyes. "Oh."
She waited a heartbeat more, and then she murmured, "Goodnight."
"Goodnight?" he echoed, leaping to his feet. "But it's not even seven—"
The door clicked shut, and he bit his tongue and sat back down heavily. His gaze was caught anew by the still-open box, by the ancient photograph taped to its lid. He reached out to heft the box so that he might examine the picture more closely, and his eyes somberly traced the contours of their faces, their smiles. The scene glowed with happiness as much as it glowed with bright summer sunlight, and it pained him to admit that he didn't recognize either of them.
He had never seen Serah so happy, not even when he'd proposed to her.
Not this throw-caution-to-the-winds, devil-may-care, laugh-until-you-burst happy.
After a while, he became aware of the soft sounds of muffled crying on the edge of hearing, and his jaw tightened in helpless frustration. He could comfort her, but he knew it wouldn't be enough. She needed to be healed.
It wasn't that he didn't know how to do that, to fix her; he knew exactly how, but the knowledge made no difference, and in fact it made everything worse.
No matter what he did, he'd never be able to, and all because of one simple fact:
He wasn't the one she needed.
He wasn't Lightning.
(i fell apart but got back up again
and then i fell apart)