A/N: In advance to assure people who are trying to remain spoiler free until February, no spoilers from Lightning Returns will be making their way into this story. If they should do so however, it'll be way after February, so rest easy, spoilers won't creeping their way into Adam & Eve any time soon.
Although it should be noted a brief moment in this chapter is striking similar to something that happens at one point in Lightning Returns, if you figure out what that little moment is for any who have seen/played it the game, know it's just a coincidence [a coincidence that had me laughing].
With that over and done with, this may sting a little…
Adam & Eve
Chapter 7 - Stranded
It had felt strange, sleeping in the same tent as Noel in the Bresha Ruins. They'd know each other only two days, the duration of their journey even less than that, hence spending their first night on the time travelling road inside the cramped tent that Alyssa offered them had made Serah a little nervous. It wasn't the same as sleeping in an inn or around a camp fire where they had plenty of room, for in that tent it was extremely small in comparison to the other, much spacious tents occupied around them by the Academy and the army. There was only enough room for the sleeping bags given to them to be rested side by side and enough height that would allow them to just barely sit up, meaning they would have to crawl in.
Sharing with Mog, it was okay. The moogle had slept in her room that first night in New Bodhum, having completely ignored the comfy kitty-set up Serah had gone to all the effort to, for Mog went straight for Snow's bed, tunneling under those sheets that had been neatly made for years and letting out the most content kupo to be sighed when his head hit that fluffy pillow.
Noel however, wasn't a cute moogle Serah could be as forgiving with. He was a grown man; the opposite sex, and the idea of crowding into that tent with Noel when the memory of walking in on him naked in the shower was still too fresh to her, had simply added to Serah's anxiety on sleeping next to a guy she still considered a stranger.
"It's quaint, I'll give you that," Noel said observantly from beside her, though Serah had been able to tell easy he wasn't impressed, and this had come from the man to have lived in the decrepit future who got astounded by rolls of toilet paper in the NORA house bathroom. Mog hadn't looked too amused either, probably having dreaded he would get sandwiched in between the two humans. Serah meanwhile, well, she'd been wishing they'd delayed defeating Atlas, so that the giant could have crushed that flimsy old tent like a bug.
"There's really nothing else available, Alyssa?"
"Sorry, but the Academy's short on sleeping quarters after the axed evacuation plans with Atlas. Half of the equipment is back at headquarters and the rest is still here, so, everywhere is a little crowded tonight. You know how it is," the young academy trainee briskly brushed Serah off with, just as briskly as she was to make her exit from the trio with a cheery wave to match her smile. "Well gotta run. Have a good night you three, sweet dreams!"
They had all really talked about leaving then. They had still needed to find the artefacts for the other gates in the ruins and continue on with their journey. The trio however was exhausted, having spent hours being interrogated by the army; hours running around in the rain and getting lost in the tunnels; too long solving those bizarre puzzles in the time labyrinth, and then having to go up against Atlas, twice. Serah didn't have to see the shadows under Noel's eyes to tell he too was beat, and after what'd happened on exiting the Time Gate last time, jumping into another gate to see what was ready to pounce on them from other side didn't sound too thrilling when Serah was missing Lebreau's specially brewed coffee.
So when it had inconveniently started raining again, they were unwillingly convinced into staying the night after all, with them piling into that tent one by one. It wasn't no better off inside, for as it had continued raining, they'd discovered there were a few leaks here and there where water was dripping in, and the zip used to close up the front of that tent was broken and wouldn't do up, giving them little protection from the wind. And then for tops to have to try and sleep in such proximities with one another, while Serah shared her sleeping bag with a moogle snoozing noisily near her ear...it was no wonder Serah had found it so hard to sleep.
Listening to the rain outside, it hadn't done a thing to relax her neither, not when it kept dripping down those corners of the tent, that if it weren't for the waterproof mats beneath them, all three of them would've been soaked.
Serah had expected they'd be sleeping rough, but this was ridiculous.
"Are you awake?"
Noel had been resting on his side, the violet wings on the back of his dark shirt visible no thanks to the large spotlight shining on their tent from somewhere outside. There hadn't enough room for them both to sleep on their backs without poor Mog getting squished, or having their elbows constantly knocking at each other whenever someone went to move. Though, Serah figured had Noel done this to give her some personal space too, given the faces she'd been making at the idea of sleeping in there in the first place, for that Noel would joke about in the weeks to come when they would reflect on that night.
Even back then, he could read her so well.
"Yep, sleeping like Tonberry over here," Serah wasn't used to Noel's nature then, to know for sure when he was joking or being serious. But on that occasion, there'd been something playful in that drowsy voice of his that assured her he wasn't the cranky kind when deprived of rest. And he had all too soon dropped his little game to be the ears she needed; to listen. "What's the matter?"
"I…I can't sleep," Serah had confessed, though that was clearly an obvious fact. Still Noel hadn't bothered humoring her that time, his head lifting up from where he'd laid.
Serah could hide nothing.
"Ah," she'd caught the sympathy on Noel's voice as he'd slowly settled himself down again. "You'll be fine, not now maybe, but a few days. You'll see."
"You know that for sure?" Serah had wriggled her feet from under the sleeping bag, the cold draft from the tent's entrance giving her nippy toes. "Somehow I feel like…like I won't ever stop feeling this way, not until I bring Lightning back with me, and Snow."
"I never said you wouldn't…you just, get used to it, more or less." Noel told her, no doubt referring to the days he'd spent wandering after being the last human left on the planet. Serah though, she hadn't connected it to that tale he'd told her outside the NORA house back then, not straight away. If she had, she might've asked about it.
"Probably, I guess…"
"But you still can't sleep?" Noel asked.
"Not a wink," She'd whined.
Noel almost chuckled. "Then, why don't you try closing your eyes and lay perfectly still? No mocking intended there."
"Oh, okay," further Serah had wiggled into the sleeping bag. "Just close my eyes…I can do that…"
They were quiet for several minutes, while the rain had fallen blissful outside from all around, muting out every sound as those ruins no longer bustled with curious academy students or cautious soldiers on duty. Everything had been still.
Just when Serah thought they were done for the night, that Noel would say no more, he had.
"…Or you know, if you want, you could do what I do."
Serah had glanced at him. "What's that?"
Noel had seemed reluctant on adding more, like they were delving into something personal that he wasn't used to sharing before, not with her. In time that had changed, but for then in those early days, that night was the first of many stepping stones forged between them, for what was the beginning of their friendship.
"Well I…you just…try imagining you're someplace else, somewhere familiar. It can be your home or your favorite lookout point maybe. It can be anywhere you want it to be, as long as you find peace there…it helps, I find."
Serah had diligently studied the back of the young man while he had spoken; trying to picture his face as he had done so, for what it would've looked like if she could see it then, but importantly, what he kept locked away inside him.
Noel had broken the silence with a semi-serious joke. "But I don't advise counting sheep. That game's overkill on your stomach when you haven't eaten in three days, believe me."
"Heh, okay I won't," she'd promised, settling back down as she'd shut her eyes. "No sheep…"
It had taken a while for Noel's advice to work, but in time, it did. With eyes closed, Serah listened to that rain, and began to picture her hometown, not New Bodhum, but Old Bodhum from how it used to be on Cocoon. She'd pretend that she wasn't really in a tent, but in her old bedroom upstairs. She'd pretended the draft making its way in from outside was from a window she'd left open, and had gotten too lazy to get up and close it when it started raining. The leak in the tent was really a leak in the ceiling that needed fixing, and the moogle cuddled up to her was really her old favorite carbuncle plushie.
And the person sleeping next to her, it wasn't Noel, Serah had…she'd pretended that it was Lightning, even creating the scenario in her head that Serah thought she'd heard thunder outside from far away, and that was why she'd crawled into bed with her sister, having often feared storms as a child.
She'd held onto that illusion in her mind, keeping the images crystal clear and her eyes firmly closed so it wouldn't fade away. And sure enough, the longer she had held it there, did a heaviness weigh down on her eyelids, her senses dulling as she'd both felt and heard sleep's call, beckoning her away.
Serah had been too dozy to say much else as she'd leaned her head gently against Mog's, last thing for her ears to hear that night being the soft downpour of that rain outside, and her own voice a tiny whisper.
Serah hadn't realized just how much she cherished their friendship in the months they travelled together, and as it had blossomed so too did it change how they functioned as a group as well.
Whenever they were hungry, they would all stop and eat for lunch, cooking and preparing the food in the ways they knew how and each doing their part to clean up afterwards. If they needed to shop for gear, they spent their gil wisely, often if always making sure they all agreed on their purchases before paying for anything. Whenever they got a tear in their clothes or their shoes damaged in battle, Serah would stitch the fabric back together perfectly, and Noel would fix up his or her boots so easily as if he'd done it a thousand times before. And at any time they'd escaped a monster infested area or found a place of safety, they would always assess each other injuries, help keeping a fractured wrist in place or apply pressure to a bleeding wound while a cure spell or two worked some magic.
They looked out for each other, took care of one another. Their loyalty and trust worth more to Serah than gold and more precious than diamonds. She felt happy in their company, in Noel's company, that even when Hope had offered them both separate rooms in Academy Headquarters, Serah declined straight away, without even giving time to discuss it with Noel, or have even considered that they were in the safest place on Pulse and had no need to share rooms with each other anymore, not there.
She never stopped missing home, missing her sister and Snow…but when she was with Noel and Mog, it wasn't so bad. They had become a part of each other's lives; travelling together; rarely straying from the other sight. Serah had gotten so used to Noel's presence by her side, that…that she couldn't stand being without Noel for too long before seeking him out, and that was the problem.
Serah didn't want to be without him.
"There's too much sadness in my world, your future. It'd be better if it never happened at all."
They remain in waiting beneath an overhanging tree, one of the last few remaining to still be growing with life, and the smallest of all those in the forest; its frail leafs a light emerald, with the buds of white flowers yet to bloom on its branches.
Innocent eyes peer out at the tiny meadow, nostrils taking in the fresh scented air as fingers stroke at the grass from where one sits. Eyes close, listening to the breeze gliding through the trees, when in a heartbeat any peace to be found is lost, as another sense awakens.
The person beside the one with innocent eyes acknowledges their words in silent agreement. A hand is held out, assisting the youngest who stands shorter than the eldest.
And in the blink of an eye, they vanished.
Serah wake up
The ferocious burning pain in Serah's lungs had her eyes snapping open, her entire body wide awake in an instance. Darkness was everywhere, a coldness seeping through into her veins. Everything was out of focus, her ears blocked by something. And above her, she saw a rippling surface from where sunlight shone through the darkness, a surface that looked like-
She was under water!
Legs brushing against the rocks and reeds of riverbed, Serah pushed herself up and swum out from the depths. She let out a huge gasp as she broke the surface, and immediately found herself fighting for her life as the immense pain from her dislocated arm made near impossible to swim, let alone get her breath back.
What had happened? Where was…
Serah whipped her head around, trying to figure out where exactly she was, though the answer to that Serah wasn't sure of, for all she could see was nothing but trees along the riverbank. And the river itself was huge; those powerful currents pulling her downstream faster than she could swim, so powerful Serah's effort to reach the shore fell flat.
This wasn't any ordinary river. She had woken right the middle of some rapids.
A yelp escaped her lips when an unexpected dip in the river send her reeling downwards, choking on more water as she was nearly dragged under. Nothing Serah did made any difference, the currents were just too strong, leaving her no choice but to endure the beatings of those rocks as the rushing water rammed her into each of them and down those wild rapids like a fast and brutal water ride.
Serah tried to move her body with the flow of the water in the hopes it would cushion the blows, but such acts were made near useless for every time her dislocated shoulder struck against one of those rocks, the pain would leave her screaming, taking in more water as she struggled more and more to stay afloat each time. There was no reprieve from it. The rapids just went on and on, while Serah was getting more bashed up with each crooked bend of the river. If this kept up, she'd be in worse trouble than she already was; the deadly kind.
"Help! Someone help!"
Out, she had to get out! Somehow Serah had to break free from the grip the waters had on her before she broke an arm or a leg, or worse. Fought she did, her wet hands slipping on every rock she tried to latch a hold onto; trying to slow herself down, but that all Serah could do, try.
She felt herself getting more tired, the pain of her shoulder dangerous close to making her go unconscious…
And just when Serah thought she could take no more, the waters of those rapids suddenly dropped off into nothingness. She cried out in surprise as she went falling down a waterfall, mere infant compared to the other waterfalls one Serah had come across in other parts of Sunleth. Sort the drop into that water was, the impact did her battered body no good, especially her bad shoulder.
On overcoming her final struggle to reach the surface, Serah found no more of rapids awaited her here, not as before. The worst it appeared was over, for the river opened out further, leaving the currents no longer so powerful, yet an issue they still were to Serah for she soon felt herself still being tugged along the instance she gasped for air into her lungs again.
She had to hurry.
Keeping the energy built up in her limbs, Serah gazed around for something she could grab onto, catching sight of some roots from a tree almost immediately. They whole grouping of roots, poking out from the water near to the riverbank, but they were just close enough that maybe if she was quick enough...
Like a wounded animal, Serah swam towards them, her dislocated arm a dead weight to her side as she reached out with her good arm, her fingers hooking into those mass of roots, getting a firm grip.
"Ack!" the sudden halt wreaked havoc on the right side of her body as she held on. Uncaring on suppressing the tears, Serah started kicking her legs, swimming against the currents the best she could, while keeping a grip on the roots of that tree with her good arm. And then, a little bit at a time, she grappled her way along the stretches of roots as she slowly pulled herself to shore and freed herself of the river's wrath at long last.
Body dripping from head to toe, she collapsed down on the dirt, regretting it instantly as the pain in her arm and shoulder throbbed, the cold sending shivers up and down her body. It took a long time to get her breath back, to get over the relief of feeling solid ground underneath her again after having been beaten up so badly. No, she couldn't get over it, not just yet. Even now, she still felt like she was in a nightmare.
Reality was the nightmare.
And things were much worse than she could imagine. The whole forest carried a misty blueness to it; near identical to the time she had spent in Sunleth 400AF with the schools of friendly miniflans, when the old trees were in their final years of life. But things were different here. The forest had deteriorated more since her last visit to that particular era, the foliage all but nonexistent with many trees looking as if they'd been dead for years.
How much closer were they to Cocoon collapsing?
Nobody answered, and Serah couldn't see them anywhere, not in the forest or in the water. It was quiet, much too quiet.
Her friends, what had happened to them? How long had she been unconscious in that water? It was brighter out now, brighter than before with sunlight shining down into that dank misty place, so it couldn't have been that long.
The memories of the Serpentress had Serah rising sooner than she was ready to, her dislocated shoulder doing little to stop her as she lifted her battered body up, cradling her aching arm to her chest.
The trees were on a smaller scale around here, not even the faint whisper or sight to be found of the far greater waterfall that she had fallen near when being separating from Noel…and then somehow, Mog too. She had been washed a long way down stream, but if she followed the river, maybe she stood a chance of finding them again.
Standing around wouldn't solve anything.
"I have to find them…arh!" Serah seized up as the pain shot through her, the slow stiff steps she had taken being too much for her take.
Her dislocated shoulder, she needed to do something about it first or she wouldn't be getting far. But how? She required someone else to help her, like how Gadot helped Yuji with his shoulder when he had dislocated it. Or maybe, she didn't. She had watched everything Gadot had done when fixing Yuji's arm that day on the beach. If Serah was careful, maybe she could do it. What other choice did she have?
Nursing her arm close to her prevent further discomfort, Serah waddled over to the nearest tree, whimpering as soon as she leaned her bad shoulder gently against the trunk. There, she tried to remember every motion Gadot made when manipulating Yuji's arm into its rightful place
Serah took a deep breath, and readied herself.
She cried out almost straight away, the excruciating pain too much, reducing Serah to tears as she slumped down on her knees, unable to bring herself to try again.
It was no use, she couldn't do it. She just couldn't do it! How was she supposed to move around when she was in this much agony? Serah had nearly passed out in the rapids, any obstacle to get in her path, anything she needed to climb and she'd be done, finished!
She couldn't help her friends, not when she was like this…
"In need of some assistance?"
That familiar voice had Serah quickly rising back up again, her teary eyes widening in shock at seeing the man standing several feet away. She hadn't heard him sneak up on her, not one single sound; or perhaps she had just been too distracted by the pain in her shoulder to have noticed. Regardless what else was Serah to expect from a man who moved through time like a shadow, remaining the same mystery as when Serah had seen him in her dreams with Lightning.
And here he was once more, that grotesquely formed sword resting on his back, his body sculpted within that deadly armor with his expression cold as ice. It was as if he had been waiting for her this whole time.
He was already walking towards her, each one of his long strides bringing him closer than was welcomed. With barely any time to even so much as cover herself, Serah moved back as fast as she was able, wanting to get as much distance from the Guardian as possible. But in that blind moment of panic, Serah had kept her eyes on Caius and notwhere she was going, the mistake to be her literal downfall when her foot caught on a protruding root from the ground, and she fell like a clumsy fool.
Her bruised body even more shaken up, Serah scrambled away along the ground, the agony of her dislocated shoulder slowing her escape, while Caius took his time, not even rushing as he soon came to stand over her with those same calculus eyes as those to condemn her and Noel in Oerba; no remorse.
Caius's sword remained sheathed on his back, but he didn't need such a weapon to get the job done.
'We'll make it out of here, Serah.'
Serah threw out her hand, to cast a lethal Thunder spell. Only mere sparks materialized, inadvertently backfiring on herself as the static buzzed up her arm.
"Get back! Stay away from me! Don't-" the Guardian's hand shot out, silencing Serah as she felt herself being hurled up by her neck, and she was slammed against the trunk, her toes barely touching the ground. Caius held her with an iron grip, threatening to crush her throat as he left her battling for every breath. The kicks from her legs did nothing to sway that strong build of a man, and her one useable hand could only cling to his wrist, nails scratching at the leather of his gloves.
"Please…l-let me…let me g-go!" Serah choked out, fearful of the man and what his intentions were to be.
Caius merely smirked at her, as if sensing the nature of that fear.
"Ignorant child, as you have been for all you have done thus far. You need not jump to such violating conclusions, I do not intend to harm you," he said, yet the hand locked around Serah's neck warned her otherwise. She almost screamed out again when Caius clamped his other hand on her dislocated shoulder, gripping it tightly.
"Be still," Caius ordered as Serah squirmed, feeling like she might die from the pain, when a strange energy began flowing through her from where the guardian grasped her shoulder. It sunk into Serah's skin like cold vapor, in through the muscles and down to the bones of the very shoulder that caused her so much suffering.
A sudden sharp stab of pain sliced through the ligaments, quickly fading to a dull ache. And the guardian released her instantly, leaving Serah to slip gracelessly to the ground against the tree in a violent coughing fit.
In that moment Caius looked down on her like an insignificant creature, as if that gaze alone could've torn her apart. Then with a sound of dissatisfaction, he turned on his heels and started walking back the way he came, to leave.
Serah couldn't believe it, even as she moved her once painful arm with ease, the truth wouldn't set in.
Caius, he had fixed her shoulder.
The Guardian didn't stop, didn't listen to her. He just kept walking, getting further and further away.
Strenuously, Serah picked herself up. "Why are you helping me?"
There were a lot of things she wanted to ask, demand even. Yet Caius did not appear in the mood to wait around for such interrogations, and especially not for her. He did however give one answer as he walked away, the words of which Serah caught loud and clear.
"I do what must to be done to amend the path. That is all."
"What has to be done?" Puzzled Serah stepped forward, prepared to go after him, even if her conscience said otherwise and the lack of clothes left her wanting to hide from the Guardian than approach him.
Serah never even got as far as reaching a decision on the matter, when her head started to pound with a splitting headache, her vision clouding in a haze as she dropped down to her knees.
A gold emblem blinded her sight…
A moogle swims frantic within the raging currents, his small paws holding onto a human girl who floats with him, who's head he struggles to keep above water…
To a rock the moogle is stuck, his tiny grip lost, as the girl slips under, lost to him…
Unconscious he floats, on the surface, where a large orange limb of dripping fingers dips in, pulling the moogle out...
Away he is carried into the dying forest, a slimy trail left behind on a grassless ground…
He sprints, he climbs, he leaps, not fast enough to escape from the shadow that chases…
In the distance it is seen, a fossilized tree, cocooned within crystal, where tunnels are buried throughout, a branch bridging right to one; a chance of safety…
Chunks of crystal and splinters of wood fly everywhere, blood spilling like wine…
Red droplets fall on dirt, down skin as a foot trips, a body tumbles, and to the ground a man lays still, eyes open, lifeless…
Serah bolted awaked, dazed in finding she was resting on her back. She had blacked out again, but for how long? A few minutes? Hours?
Those dreams again...
"Noel…Mog…" wobbly Serah stood, her brain still wearing off from the migraine inflicted upon it. As her balance went slightly off, something dripped down from her nose, and quickly she was to wipe it away, only to be surprised at the trail of blood to be left smudged across her fingers; a nosebleed.
Blood, there was blood in the dream too!
Her friends, they were both in trouble, or would be soon. She had to find them. They needed her help!
Looking over at that small waterfall she had fallen down not long ago, Serah went to move in the direction of the trail leading up the rocks not far from it, when memories of the Guardian had her breath catch in her throat. Immediately she glanced around that forest for any sign of the mysterious man, but he was nowhere to be found.
Caius was gone.
"Back for more? I thought you were done talking with me."
"Your words, not mine.
"Can the attitude, alright. This isn't about you and me."
"So there is something on your mind"
"As if you don't already know that."
"Indulge me anyway. I'm not your enemy. It would be nice if you stopped treating me as one."
"Considering the circumstances, I think I have full right to be cheesed off, so why don't we skip all this and cut to the chase."
"Good, now tell me…did you know that this was going to happen?"
"…The timeline is no individual path set in stone. There are a great number of paths the future can break off onto; multiple futures. They may hold minor or vast variations, while others may intertwine with another future entirely, or meet an abrupt end."
"You didn't answer my question. Did you KNOW this was going to happen?"
"…I saw it as a possibility, yes."
"And you didn't think to warn them? To prevent it!?"
"You accuse me of not wishing to? You may have seen something you didn't like, but I've had to see everything! Every single possible outcome of their journey, all the good and the bad! And let me tell you, having to watch them die a thousand times over nearly drove me to madness and would do you the same! So don't you dare come preaching to me like you know what's best, because you have no idea."
"Hmph...you sound more and more like that madman every day."
"Maybe I do, I can sympathize at the very least. But my hands are tied here and you need to accept that."
"Bullshit! There still must be something you can do, anything other than just sitting there!"
"It's the only thing I can do, and you know that, or I would be there with all of you. Don't you see yet? If I was to warn them of every danger, the timeline would alter and another threat would come in its stead…the cycle is endless and it's one she isn't able to withstand forever. The less I intervene, the better chance she has of living long enough to survive past all this, of having some future of her own left to value."
"What are you talking about…?"
"Lightning answer me! What aren't you telling me!?"
"She…she's dying, Snow."
An elegant hand combs through brunet hair, the sad melody from a lullaby filling the air, unheard to the ears that is sung for.
One sits in waiting by the side of the other who rests dreaming. Reluctance grips a heart, tying it down, as fingers run over red stained skin, tears bringing forth pain, knowing soon they must go and leave them behind.
The lullaby meets its inevitable end, and time can be spared no more. The small figure leans over, no fear or hesitation as they plant a kiss upon the cheek of the one in slumber.
That young figure rises, small feet carrying them away, their absence going left unnoticed to the other who is left behind; the chains that keep their soul bound to this world beginning to slowly weaken with each breath…
The dreams, they were always so vivid.
Serah had experienced them ever since her journey through time started back in New Bodhum. In the dream that night, she had seen Lightning fighting Caius; Noel appearing through the gate, and her sister entrusting Mog to him with the request to bring Serah to her. All of it, Serah witnessed before that meteorite fell, before she officially met Noel and Mog in person. Even as the details of that dream faded, she still knew who they were, she remembered them.
What scared her was just how accurate the dreams were, and more still, that they were starting to take a great toll on her, the side effects of headaches and fatigue lingering on longer than previous dreams. She had blacked out once like this before in the Augusta Tower, but now blood? What was going on with her?
And Caius? They had been right to suspect him all along, or so it seemed. What made no sense was that the Guardian had helped her, however brief and cold he may have been, he really did help her. Did that mean he wasn't the real culprit? That he didn't manipulate Serpentress somehow into attempting to kill them?
What had he been talking about, on setting things onto the right path?
She'd have to tell Noel about it when she found him…if that ever happened. That dream of him and Mog troubled her. Somewhere out there, they were in danger. If it served as a warning to her on what was to come, then it was still something she could prevent. Serah had done that once before, saved Snow from his Royal Highness before the monstrous flan could kill him. She just had to save her friends from the bleak fates of that dream too, somehow.
"I'll find you, I have to…"
Roaming through the forest in any given direction didn't seem like a good idea when Serah wasn't certain of where she was, so she followed the river upstream as planned. It was the only thing she had left to go by, and she knew for a fact Noel wasn't stupid. If he wanted to find her, he would know to follow the river, the same for Mog too, wherever the moogle was. It was the best shot any of them had on reuniting again.
Serah shuffled along as fast as her numb feet would allow, hugging her shivering body still recovering from her dip in the water, while trying to adapt to the change in temperature for this era. There wasn't a second to go by that she didn't keep a look out for her two time travelling companions, eager to seek out the key landmarks she had seen in her dreams, or any visual clue that might help her track Noel and Mog down, though nothing came even close.
It got darker the more she travelled up stream, the trees branching up higher and higher as more the sky was blocked out. No Caius; no Serpentress and no monsters, the fragility of that forest had become a ghost onto itself, and Serah just wanted to get out of it along with her friends as soon as possible, to be free of this place.
She hated being alone.
Her hands gripped at the moss infested rocks, pulling herself up that steep slope to reach the higher level of the river bank. Each footing Serah tested, making sure it would support her weight before progressing to the next one, and then the next. Beads of sweat trailed down her forehead, mixing with water and with tears, pushing her over her limits to keep going, and overcome the exhaustion, the hunger and the pain.
One slippery rock gave way under foot as she near to reaching the top, the sudden strain put Serah's sore shoulder nearly making her let go. Her eyes shot up at the top of the slope, as if expecting to see her friends there, for Noel to lend her a hand as he had always done. Nobody was there, no one to help her.
She couldn't quit…
Knuckles white, teeth gritted, she held on while feeling around with her feet for another footing to support her legs. Finding them, Serah used the aid of both her good and lesser arm to pull herself up; giving it her all to drag her tired body over the edge. She rolled onto the dirt in succeeding, her lungs letting out a shaky breathe while her gaze wandered up at the bony treetops where the morning's light shone down through the cracks.
What had happened to yesterday? Maybe the future wasn't certain then, but at least things… they made sense, they all had a plan. Their quest to save the future was nearing some conclusion, to where she may have met her sister again.
Where did it all go wrong? When were things ever right to begin with?
Serah's hand slid along her shoulder, gripping at her right arm absent of the black zigzag patterned armband to have been turned a shimmering gold by the Goddess herself.
Lightning had given it to her the day of the archery tournament in Bodhum, said it was for good luck. Lightning had her Guardian Corp exam the same day, so neither one to attend the other's event, perhaps being the reason why Lightning had gone out of her way to buy those armbands, to let her know she would be there in spirit.
The armbands had come as a matching pair, but when Serah had got to slip the second on her arm she had stopped, choosing to take her surprised sister by the wrist, and slipping it up onto her arm instead.
'There, now you can have good luck too.'
Neither one succeeded, Lightning failed her exam the first time, and Serah, only having begun archery that year, barely made it as a runner up in the tournament. For years after though, they rarely ever took those armbands off. Whenever Lightning left to go on security duty, that dark band was always there, remaining as an important part of her uniform. Even as they slowly began to drift further apart and work took up much of Lightning's time, likewise to Serah's studies, seeing that armband, let her know her sister still cared for her, just as much as Serah hoped Lightning thought the same whenever she saw her still wearing her own.
"What was it you said to me that day, Lightning? 'Keep your chin up and knock em dead,' something like that…"
Serah sat up, rubbing her palm from where the scabby indents from her nails remained visible on her skin; that time in which she had clenched her hand so tightly feeling like years ago…
"I wish I knew, what you'd say to me now."
She didn't rest for long, soon going on the search again. It got easier to the walk the further she went, building up more body heat with every step. Frequently did she scan the both sides of that large river, constantly glancing at those fast flowing rapids she'd been forced to travel down earlier for any sign of her friends. Serah kept calling her names into the wilderness the whole way, but never once, got a reply back.
It probably wasn't a good idea, shouting out and attracting attention on herself. If not Serpentress for being completely deaf, any stray monster would get drawn to it, and Serah knew that if were to happen, her best chances of escaping would be risking the waters of the rapids once more. Strange it was, she hadn't seen or heard anything yet, though Serah pinned it down to Serpentress's doing, more than just the forest dying. It always had a habit of scaring monsters off.
But, Serpentress had been here in this era just as long they had, hadn't it?
"Noel, Mog, are you out there?"
The panic harbored inside her since being separated from them, since seeing that dream, had begun to spread like a disease. Serah tried to keep her calm, to stay above of her emotions and focus on finding her friends, yet the longer she went on without results, the harder a struggle it was becoming to do just that. The truth was Serah was worried; scared to death for their safety, that soon she was jogging alongside that riverbank, her voice becoming raw for the amount of times she cried out to Noel and Mog; shouted to them.
No answer, why wouldn't they answer?
They couldn't…it wasn't possible that they'd already...no! The things she saw in that dreams couldn't have already come to pass. They were alive out there, they had to be. She would know if they were dead, she would feel it…
Serah couldn't rest, not until she found them.
"Where are you!?"
The river turned into a sharp bend, obscured by the trees and large slabs of rock to lean over the water like a miniaturized mountain. Easy to ascend, Serah stepped up the rocks quickly; looking out at her surrounding on reaching to the top. Yet, what she saw awaiting her further upriver wasn't good news, not in the slightest bit.
The mental blow of what Serah saw brought her to her very knees, her head shaking denial, not wanting to believe it.
The river, it divided off into three directions, each leading off somewhere into the forest beyond the thick lining of trees. Each branch of the river looked the same, and not one gave any hints or indication that there were waterfalls beyond them. And worse still the rushing of water here was too loud to hear if any such waterfalls of were even close by.
Serah had woken in the rapids further downstream before all this. She didn't know from which river she had drifted down from. This was bad, really bad.
"No, no…this can't be happening, which way am I supposed to go?" she looked, seeking out in any visual clues that might help her figured out that answer, yet she couldn't find anything of the such.
The trees were massive here, but the river was so huge in itself that even not they would merge a safe path across it from their branches. And the currents, they were going much too fast for Serah to try swimming across them, she'd only get washed down stream again.
Her friends, if they were on the other side, up one of those rivers, Serah had no way of getting to them, not unless she walked up far enough until the river was both narrow and shallow enough to attempt a crossing. Covering all that ground might take her hours, if more. She couldn't afford to search that long, she needed to find Noel and Mog, now! But how on Cocoon was Serah to know where to find them, when time wasn't on their side? Every second was valuable, enough that she couldn't waste them searching down each and every river; if she picked the wrong one, they would both suffer for it.
That dream, it wasn't enough of a guide.
"No, you can't do this to me…I need more, you have to give me a sign," Serah rubbed her tear stained face, looking up at that small pocket of sky beyond the high treetops that blocked most the sunlight out. "Lightning, can you hear me? I need another dream. I have to find them. I can't do this on my own!"
In the Vile Peak, she heard her sister's voice after that Twilight Odin was slayed. It wasn't her imagination, even Noel had believed in some way she had heard Lightning speaking to her.
'If you keep me in your thoughts, one day, I am certain I will find my way home again.'
Lightning had to be able to hear her from Valhalla, watching them on every step of their journey. Even if the paradox back then had something to do with it, the paradoxes interfering here had to give her an open window now, right…?
"You gave me this gift to help change the future didn't you, Lightning?" Serah's nails dug into crevices in the rock from where she sat, her eyes pleading up at that sky. "So why won't you hear me now and help me save them? They deserve to live just as much as I do, maybe more…I don't care what happens to me or how much it hurts, just please, please let them live! I need them, Lightning. I need you!"
They said they would go together. This journey, it was meant for the three of them. To leave this place on her own, to go to Valhalla and meet her sister without them beside her, it would kill her inside.
Serah needed something, anything to help her find them in time! But Lightning, even if she was listening, didn't answer her pleas, nor bestow another dream. The only answer Serah received in shouting up at that lonely, bleak sky…was silence.
Everything crumbled inside her, a feeling of defeat overwhelming her as slumped over, covering her face in shame. Serah felt utterly pathetic, useless for being so weak when she should be strong and sucked it all up. She hated to cry, yet she couldn't help every tear that spilled out.
She wasn't Lightning. No matter how much she tried to be, in training and becoming a fighter, she wasn't like her sister. Her friends, they were her true strength, where she derived her courage from. With them here, Serah felt brave enough to take on anything. Without them, she was nothing, nothing other than that stupid girl that got herself branded in the Pulse Vestige and condemned so many to death.
By herself, she was stranded.
"Why, what am I supposed to do now?" Serah buried her hands within her hair, nails digging at her scalp in frustration, "I screwed up, it's all my fault…"
Noel, the last she saw of him was when she was falling, screaming out her name as Serpentress loomed close. And Mog, she'd felt him slip away as soon as she hit the water and went unconscious.
She couldn't say goodbye to them, for that to be her last memories of them along with glimpses of their fates in that dream. Mog, she needed him so much…and, and Noel too. There was so much she hadn't told him yet; too much she had to apologize for.
All Serah wanted was to know they were okay. She had to see them again.
They had to be alive…
Something light struck the rocks not far from her, bouncing across the stone to where it rolled to a stop by her knee.
A small pebble…?
Bolting up, Serah searched along the riverbank in the direction the pebble came from, nearly jumping out of her skin at spotting a small figure some distance away, watching her.
Serah recognized that blue hair anywhere.
It was definitely her alright. That same angelic face and those emerald eyes every Yeul shared. The Seeress's clothes were as Serah had always seen them, with that clear jewel on her chest and the diadem headdress shining unnaturally within that forest.
Identical as she was to all the others, there was one difference Serah was aware of instantly, in that this Yeul showed more emotion; her wide eyed expression carrying a look of urgency upon her doll like features. And there was another difference too. The Seeress…she had blood on her hands.
Before Serah had even the chance to say anything, Yeul took off into the forest.
Serah stumbled down from the rocks, her head still dizzy in shock as she quickly reached the spot in which Yeul had been standing previously, and ventured into the forest to find her.
First Caius, now Yeul too?
What was going on?
The Seeress hadn't gotten far, not being that fast of a runner, her slim legs hopping over the large roots of the ancient trees that she crisscrossed through like a maze. It was much darker here than by the river, far too dark. With the lack of light in this place, if Serah wasn't careful, she was going to lose sight of her.
"Yeul stop! Wait!"
The Seeress didn't listen. She just kept running, only briefly stopping to look back as if to make sure Serah was following her, before slipping out from view behind some trees. Serah pushed on, running as fast as her body allowed as she hurried along the trail Yeul had taken, tripping on the same roots of the tree the young girl had disappeared beyond. It was there, Serah saw something radiated with light through the trees in the distance; a wall of intense blue?
A figure ran across that light, disappearing against the black outlines of the trees.
Serah went towards it, nearly tripping over herself in a rush to find out what it was. And it was into a clearing she soon came to be, where her breath was taken away, along with the name of the Seeress she had gone to speak, for her hunches proved right.
It was a large stem of the crystal pillar, the largest Serah had seen within all her time here. And trapped within that beautiful blue glass was a tree, perfectly preserved since the fall of the Cocoon all those centuries ago.
It was the crystal pillar from her dream, no doubts about it. Though it was different now, something had inflicted heavy damage onto one half of it, large chunks of crystal lying scattered all over the clearing, with tiny sharp shards shimmering beautiful yet deadly on the soil. If the damage had been recently, it was hard to tell for sure, but, something told Serah this hadn't happened too long ago.
The dream, she had seen crystal fragments flying, blood being spilt. Did that mean, Noel had already…
Cautiously Serah walked further into that clearing, the ground feeling cold against her bare feet while she tried to avoid the broken pieces of crystal. There was something unsettling about this place, the sounds of the river echoing from far behind her invading the silence here, as if she'd left one world and stepped into another.
The Seeress wasn't here, not anywhere that Serah looked for her. Just like Caius, Yeul had disappeared. Perhaps it was for the best, Serah didn't favor the idea of talking to the Guardian nor the Seeress while in the nude. But, her friends, was she any closer to finding them?
Serah took in the sight of that crystal pillar, towering up high above those trees. There were holes, dozens and dozens of holes that had been eroded into the crystal like tunnels within an ant colony, identical to the indents made by the miniflans who had damaged other sections of the pillar in previous eras. The miniflans weren't using those tunnels anymore that Serah could tell. There wasn't any flan excrements around here like on the branches where those schools of flans of been, and she didn't hear any…
Serah hurried forward, wincing at the broken shards that caught under her feet as she went to the base of the pillar. It stood out against the blue crystal, smeared across outside one of the tunnels made by the flans, as if someone had leaned or fallen against it.
It wasn't fresh, yet it hadn't been there too long either.
A voice suddenly cried out from elsewhere the forest, somewhere close. It was a man's voice, and one Serah recognized instantly that had her heart racing.
Fear electrifying to her core, Serah went sprinting out from the clearing and in the direction of that cry, her mind going a mile a minute while she ran with everything she had.
He was here, Noel was still here! Still alive! But he sounded hurt, like he was in trouble.
Serpentress, was it there with him? Would she just be running into danger, to her death if she didn't stop? Even if that was so, right now it didn't matter to her, all Serah cared about was getting to him, getting to Noel. It didn't matter at what cost brought on her, she wasn't going to abandon him here, not ever again.
She had to save him.
Ignoring every warning, Serah pushed herself even harder, screaming out at the top of her lungs the name of her friend and straining both her eyes and her ears to see or hear him.
"Noel, Noel where are you? Please! Answer me!"
She caught sight of more blood on the bark of a tree, and again on the ground, a trail of droplets leading through the forest like breadcrumbs. It made Serah's stomach churned at how much of it she found of it, far too much.
How long had Noel been bleeding? How badly injured was he?
Soon Serah found out, on stopping where the terrain dropped off into nothing …and she saw the hunter of 700AF at the bottom of it, lying there in a ditch just like in her dream. But no more was he unconscious, for those hands were clenching at the soil with every muscle within those well-built arms tensed; trying to get himself to stand up.
Serah nearly fell over herself as she skidded down the slope on her side to reach him, her knees going weak seeing he was still alive, still drawing breath.
At hearing her call his name, Noel slowly raised his head and looked at her, straining his blue eyes at her as if she were was miles away than a few feet, and quickly closing in on him.
"Serah…?" Noel sounded tired, like he was barely with it, his face sickly pale with his eyes appearing glazed, the same thing in which Serah had once seen in her mother's eyes when the final stages of her illness.
No, this wasn't good.
"I'm here, I'm here!" Serah assured, almost crying as she dropped down beside Noel from where he laid on his stomach. Her attention immediately fell onto the cuts on his shoulder that had already reopened, and new ones had joined them, brutal deep wounds that had caused his entire arm to be caked in red; the source of all the bleeding. The wounds had finally congealed, yet the damage had already been done. Just by looking at him Serah could tell Noel had lost a lot of blood, and there was no way he'd escape this without infection.
He needed stitches, no, he needed magic, but Serah had nothing, she was powerless to do anything to fix it. And yet, what got her was despite how poorly he was and the graveness of his injuries, never had Noel looked so relieved to see her again, smiling up at her like she was Etro sent.
"You're alright…good...that's good..."
Serah wanted to break down, but instead winded up choking out a laugh, her hand gently caressing his cheek still covered in traces of that mud they had rubbed on themselves from near the falls. "Of course I am silly. You think a fall like that could finish me off that easily?"
"Hah…stubbornness, it runs strong in your family, Farron…" Noel groaned, attempting to get himself up again, but was having trouble just like before. He was sapped of energy, too weak from all the blood loss.
How on Cocoon was she going to get him out of here?
"It's okay, I got you," looping his wounded arm over her shoulders, Serah wrapped her arm around the back of her friend's waist, uncaring of their nudity or proximity of their bodies as she'd struggled under his weight to help him sit up. "What happen to you? How did you get away from that thing, from Serpentress?"
Noel woozily shook his head from where he sat hunched over. "I didn't…it just disappeared on me, literally. Almost had me, up in the pillar back there…and then it…the distortions swallowed it, like those on the submit…the ones that brought us here."
"The distortions Mog mentioned was somebody tampering with time and space, right?" Serah glanced back up at the hill. "This doesn't make any sense. Why bring us here right into the path of that thing, and then send it away? Talk about being indecisive on what to do with us..."
So the broken blocks of crystal she found in the clearing and the damage done to the pillar, it was from Noel taking refuge there, and Serpentress must've been trying to get at him when it got interrupted by the distortions. Did that mean Serpentress wasn't in this time period anymore?
Still, there was nothing to say it wouldn't come back again, or that either one of them would be transported anywhere else through time, but at least they didn't have to deal with that thing for the time being.
"Tell me about it," Noel paused, looking beyond her. "Where's Mog…?"
"I don't know. I think, I think something took him. I haven't been able to find him anywhere. And um..." Serah thought about telling him about encountering Caius and Yeul, but maybe now wasn't the best time. She had to get Noel cleaned up first, to see what she could do to help him. The immortal Guardian and his Seeress could wait.
"Forget about it, it doesn't matter," gaining on a firm grip on Noel's body, Serah used her strength in her legs get the young man up on his feet. Her knees buckled as his taller frame leaned on hers; relying on her alone to support him, for without Serah was sure Noel wouldn't be able to stand. It was there with him pressed against her, Serah noticed how feverish his skin was, a thin film of sweat sticking to it. Noel was burning up.
No, the infection from his injured arm was already finding its way into his body. Serah couldn't waste any more time.
"Come on, there's a river not far from here. We'll go there, get you cleaned up and figure out what to do from-"
"Just leave me."
"What?" Serah looked up at his dazed face. "What are you talking about? I'm not leaving you behind, Noel."
"You can't save me, and it isn't a request," Noel closed his eyes, the strain to keep them open becoming a struggle as it was to keep talking. "Just find Mog…and go, leave here...I'm finished…"
"No, no you're not! Whatever it is I'll take care of it." Serah told him, holding him closer. "Everything will okay now, I promise."
Noel looked at her then with great sadness, agony woven onto his tired face. It was a look Serah recognized too well, that haunted her ever since her mother's passing in her youth.
The look of farewell.
"I'm not…sure promises, will do much good…"
"What do you mean?" Serah asked as Noel went to take a step forward, and his foot just suddenly seemed to catch on itself, and he went down; too quickly, too unbalanced.
On fast reflexes, Serah regained a hold of him before his head could hit the ground, both of them collapsing onto their knees alongside one another while she held him sternly by the waist. "Noel what's wrong? What's the…the…"
Her hand, it felt wet.
Confused, Serah pulled it away from where she'd had it pressed on his ribs and almost cried out in shock on discovering it coated in fresh blood…as was the soil Noel been laying on, thick splotches of it that she'd been too blind on seeing him again to notice.
He was still bleeding.
"Noel?" urgently Serah prompt him to sit more upright, leaning over to take a look…and her body went numb when she saw the far side of Noel's abdomen and chest were coated thick in that same blood, great amounts of it.
In amongst that dark red to stain his pale skin, Serah spotted the hideous puncher wounds near his ribs that had already long since swelled and discolored into darkening shades of purple.
Serah had no control of the new fear that awakened inside her.
Noel had been bitten.