A/n: SPOILERS. Please be advised that there are big spoilers for the game's ending ahead. If this warning is not applicable to you, then by all means, read on, and I hope you enjoy. Feedback is, as always, much appreciated.
The sky was gray. It had been that way since Valhalla began to encroach on the rest of the world, bringing with it thick, dark clouds that never foretold rain.
There had been some hesitance in selecting a burial site for Serah. They didn't know a place that wouldn't turn into a battleground, they didn't know the right place to put a girl who'd saved the timeline. Noel was the only one who could feasibly do any of it - Hope had his hands full with the Academy and the fall of Cocoon and where to keep Fang and Vanille. Hope had also lost his right hand - Alyssa had been discovered as a traitor almost immediately after they'd arrived back in 500 AF. Her arrest had sparked doubt within the provisional government and everyone was running amok. Lightning was Etro-knows-where, frozen, defeated, dead. Snow was lost. Sazh was some help. He'd volunteered to speak at the service.
Now, as Sazh spoke, Noel stood over a freshly dug plot, staring into the polluted sky. Sazh's voice was a soothing counterpoint to the tumultuous sky, soft, flowing words about the beauty of life and how Serah had chosen to live it. It was a beautiful monologue, and Noel tried to lose himself in it, tried to ignore the occasional glances at his back. He should've been the one to talk about her, he knew. But he couldn't talk about her without shaking. He knew they were concerned for him. He hadn't been able to leave her for nearly an hour after she'd passed, cradling her cold body and crying silently.
The river of words had stopped, dammed by Sazh's own tears. He covered his face, fingers splayed over his eyes. Dajh hugged his father's legs, eyes dim.
A machine lowered her into the ground. Noel made sure to stand absolutely still, locked his arms and legs and neck in place. The slightest movement, and he knew it couldn't stop from there - a twitch, a tremor, and then he would be running, running to her coffin, throwing himself in the way and tears would be streaming as he begged her to come back. No, that couldn't happen.
He dared not breathe as they shoveled dirt over her, finishing the job. And still, he felt telltale trails of saltwater run down his cheeks. When the last bit of earth was back in place, he turned and walked away, pushing through the gathered crowd, suffocating.
News of the funeral spread quickly. Many were of the opinion that it should have been public - Miss Farron was a small legend, helping ancestors or friends of friends. They were offended, they were sad. Her plot was discovered, was flooded with store-bought and home-trimmed bouquets. Some people set out offerings of small cakes (it was rumoured that she loved sweets). For the first few weeks, samaritans took it upon themselves to clean the mess of dead flowers and rotting food offers. As the chaos began to settle in heavily over everyone's heads, Noel found himself alone, lifting fewer flowers and pastries into the garbage. He didn't mind. (They didn't know what he knew - that Serah loved biting into warm, soft, salty pretzels, that she claimed she needed meat daily or she'd starve.)
He knew people wanted to ask him questions. Some did anyway, despite the aura of gloom he cast at the start of it all. A couple of bull-headed reporters came to mind, shoving odd sound-amplifying rods in front of his face and asking him their repertoire of questions, some personal and some not. He never looked at the camera, feeling a discomfort with the unblinking eye of the lens. He answered too many questions about where he'd come from, and what his thoughts were about the creeping chaos overtaking their world. He also answered too many questions about the fiance, Snow Villiers and his feelings for Serah. A reporter had tried to goad him: the strength of your reaction to Miss Farron's passing has sparked some controversy. Many of us believe that despite her engagement to another man, you loved Miss Farron. Could you clear this up for the public?
He didn't want to give them their tragic love story. He had let another reporter distract him, question gone unanswered.
He usually moved through the world of his own accord, and on his own time. He was used to hunting for food, used to taking thousands of steps a day, and it was all necessary to his way of life. Now he found himself retracing his steps, mapping out lands he already knew, just for a place to run to. Though the weight of his swords on his back was familiar, he knew he sharpened them less now. He had to be back at his shelter before the curfew the military enforced, and yet he always knew he could make it, so small were the lands he travelled. It was an odd life. Small. Contained. But he wouldn't let it pare him down. If he was anything, it was hopeful.
Every night he found an empty stretch of dying grass - it didn't matter where - and lay back. He closed his eyes and imagined little points of light in a clear, dark sky. He let the events of the day slip by, the interviews and the hunting and the run-ins with weird technology. He concentrated on breathing, in and out, inhale and exhale.
Then he would remember.
First, always, was her face. High cheekbones, smooth skin and the point of her nose. White teeth, perfectly aligned behind pink lips. Eyes of the palest blue. Then came the way she moved. Her gestures were never grand unless she was provoked, and even then they made him laugh. The feel of her fingers skimming gently over his forehead. The sound of her footsteps as she followed him across every terrain imaginable. Her little quirks next, each paired with a memory. When she was comfortable, she sung, and it was usually to him, but for herself. How she couldn't stand the taste of silver lobo, cheeks puffing out disgustedly and making the least attractive expression he'd ever seen on a girl. How the rambunctious chocobos scared her, so she rode with him, hands firmly intertwined around his stomach. So much in so little time.
And still, he knew there was more. More that he had yet to learn, more that he wanted to see and hear and - dare he think it? - taste and touch. More stories for her to tell him about her childhood. More steps to walk together. More of the extraordinary, and more of the mundane. He wanted all of it, and he wanted it with her.
"I'll find you again," he promised her, a whisper released into the swirling void above him.
"How are you?" Hope asked him one morning.
Noel couldn't lie. "The same," he said.
Hope could only look off to the side, out the window of the provisional shelter they shared with Sazh and Dajh. There were only two beds, and Sazh and Dajh had to take one. Hope and Noel alternated sleeping on the floor. Sometimes he wondered if he and Sazh were really Hope's bodyguards in this breakdown of social order, or if they were guarding Noel from himself. Guarding him from his own despair, hovering over his shoulder and monitoring his movements. He saw the poorly concealed disbelief on their faces when he told them what his late nights were spent doing. Their efforts were wasted. As hard as this new life was, he wasn't the type to harm himself.
"Will you be able to find the gates soon?" he asked Hope, spinning a coin on the tabletop.
Hope's gaze became stony. He could practically see the flurry of reasons and excuses filling Hope's mouth. But all Hope said was, "No. Not soon."
His fingers twitched. The silence between them was stifling, he imagined, to Hope. For him, the silence had started the second Serah had left them. Everything was a dull roar now.
"Noel, what's your plan if the gates do open again?" Hope asked, looking very directly at him. "I assumed you'd want to go back and save her. But... is there something else?"
He shut his eyes. He couldn't lie. "Nothing," he said. All he wanted was to have her back. He wasn't like Caius - he wouldn't try to tear apart the foundations of space-time. He could simply go back, leave a message, tell his past self to cut out a journey here, fight less enemies over there. Something that would make the future change even just one less time. That was all he needed. Serah wouldn't have to see just one potential future, and her life would be spared by that curse. One future lay between her life and her death. She had been perfect right before she'd fallen.
He could still feel Hope's gaze boring into him. "Noel. Are you sure about this?"
"I'm sure," he said, answering before Hope was finished. The tiniest hint of anger contracted his hands into loose fists. Didn't Hope understand? Hadn't Hope become who he was today trying to save the ones he loved? Didn't he continue for years, fuelled by the fact that he could see them again?
Hope's next question was almost too loud, falling through the air like a stone. "Did you love her?"
With that, he heard the phantom questions of too many reporters. He opened his eyes and he turned to Hope. Hope flinched beneath his gaze and looked away, not expecting an answer now.
But then Noel broke the silence, laid the coin flat on the counter and gave Hope his answer. "Let me put it this way: I called a dying world my home, and travelled dozens of others. But when the gates closed and I came back here with Serah, I was happy." His voice cracked then, and he could feel the sting high in his nose, a sure signal of tears. "The only way it was ever going to be okay was if she was here with me. Home... was with her."
As he fell out of the gate, he realized that he was also falling through the sky. It was an insane drop, like the ones the youth of Academia braved, catching air currents and slipstreams. The light overstimulated his senses, flashing white all over his vision, and then his eyes adjusted and he saw clouds and grass and sky. He felt a significant body just behind him, senses tingling for her. Serah.
He landed gracefully on a steel surface and turned to her immediately. She was approaching fast, hair streaming out behind her in the sunlight, smiling. So beautiful. He reached out his hands and they grabbed onto each other. Not for the first time, he wished she didn't wear gloves. She spun mid-air around him, looking straight into his eyes, shining with joy.
He asked her how she felt. Great, she said. And he dared to think they were home free.
But then a sickening yellow flashed over the clear blue of her eyes, and she was falling onto her knees. Dread fast crept over him, pressing air out of his lungs. He hugged her to him, calling her name, wishing it weren't true, but he already knew.
She had died. And in that instant, with her went his heart.