Spoilers through Oerba 200AF.
The desolate landscape shook her core. They wandered the remains of Oerba, not a single soul in sight aside from the usual mix of monsters. The quiet roar of the wind did little to comfort her. She glanced at Noel. Things like this didn't seem to effect him. Was he used to being alone?
She stumbled over a piece of cracked road. Noel caught her before she fell to the ground. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," she confirmed. "It's so," a pause, "Empty here."
He nodded in agreement. "I hope we find the artifact soon."
"Yeah." She walked behind him, taking up a rear guard. Ever since he spontaneously embraced her, she found herself studying his back, shoulders, and arms. Every small movement became highlighted by his musculature. He didn't have the size of Snow, but she suspected he was just as strong, if not stronger. Snow overwhelmed her when they hugged, but when Noel held her, she fell into a small crevice that seemed made for her. A pang of guilt stabbed her chest as she realized the implications of her thoughts. She loved Snow, yes, but somehow she felt closer to Noel despite meeting only recently.
She rubbed her arms, remembering the warmth behind his spontaneous embrace. It comforted her, grounded her, and here in this desolate place, she wanted it again. Even the wildlife only appeared occasionally. It made their walk seem lonely, as though they were the last two in the world.
The sun's reflection upon the sea nearly blinded her. Even that reflected beige, not the beautiful sapphire of home. Still, the salty smell comforted her. "Can we take a break?" Noel arched an eyebrow but didn't argue. She took off her shoes and rested her feet in the water.
"You're being quiet again," he commented, skipping a stone across the water's surface.
"It's hard to find something happy here."
"Hard, but not impossible." This stone managed five skips before falling through the glass.
She cocked her head up at him, "What is there to be happy for here?"
"I have you, for one." Her cheeks flushed as pink as Mog's nose. He continued, not paying mind to her reaction, "If there's one thing I've learned, it's that having someone at your side is something to be happy about."
She grimaced. "I'm sorry." She hadn't meant to remind Noel of where he came from.
"There's nothing to be sorry for. As long as I have you, there's hope. We can change the future."
She grinned, "Right!" His words cheered her up, and through that gave her energy back. She bounced up and dusted herself off. "Shall we go back to looking for that artifact?"
"Are you sure you don't want to rest longer?"
"I feel refreshed now. Maybe it will be in that building over there."
He smiled warmly, "Yeah."
The monsters were few and far between, thus Noel felt comfortable walking beside her to the building rather than defensively taking the lead. As they neared it, it became apparent it was an abandoned schoolhouse. Noel watched her expressions as they stopped to look it over, worried it would upset her.
"A school, huh? You know, they still haven't built me a schoolhouse back home. I wonder who is taking care of my duties now."
Noel smiled, "Perhaps there will be one for you when you return."
She nodded. "Maybe. I may not have become a teacher if Lightening was there."
"Is that so?"
"After all," the next words died upon her lips. Would she and Snow be married? Or would he find another cause to chase? Why didn't he take her with him? Noel urged her to accompany him despite her inexperience. Did Snow not have that faith in her?
"Come on," Noel said, placing a hand upon her shoulder. "Let's go check the roof."
As they ascended the stairs, the sweet scent of flowers filled her nose. She stopped and looked quizzically at Noel. He returned her expression of confusion. She ran up the last few steps and gasped.
Someone had to live here. A beautiful garden filled with vivid crimson, flame orange, and golden yellow flowers covered the rooftop. She walked to a flower and inhaled deeply, a small comfort in the desolation.
"This is the last thing I would have expected to see," Noel remarked dryly as he inspected the broken windowpanes of a sunroof.
She chuckled, "Right. But I don't see anyone around."
"Nor did we see anyone when we explored the area."
She pursed her lips and moved them from side to side as she attempted to rationalize the situation. The worn wood whined under her feet as she approached the rundown fountain in the back. The closer she became, a distinct familiar sphere lay on a pedestal among the greenery. She turned and waved Noel over. "It looks like an oracle drive." She leaned forward to activate the vision.
"No," a shrill voice cried.
Serah turned in surprise, but her hand brushed the top of the sphere as she did. Blinding light burst forth with such force Serah tumbled backwards. Noel cradled her into her fall and then lifted her up, standing protectively in front of her as the recording flowered into the skyline. Her lost memories played like a film. Tears welled up and threatened to fall. But, one thing changed from before, much to her dismay. "The prophecy! It's been changed," she moaned as she fell to her knees.
"But that's impossible," Noel replied in disbelief.
As the vision faded, a dark murky figure came into view. His rough voice rattled her bones. "If you change the future, you change the past."
"It keeps changing," Serah asked, struggling to make out the figure.
"Change is the only constant," he stated ominously.
He turned and swung a massive sword, cutting through the remnants of the vision. As he stepped forward, Noel's heart stopped for a moment. He stepped in front of Serah apprehensively, keeping his eyes trained on the man. "Caius," he sneered.
The young girl, all but forgotten, spoke, startling Serah. "I have seen you. I have seen both of you." She walked past Serah to Noel. He grabbed her arms, "Yuel!" He gripped her petite arms hard, as though he saw a ghost.
"You mean the seeress," Serah gasped, eying the girl with a confused countenance.
Noel gazed into her eyes, searching desperately for the girl he knew.
"I am not the Yuel you know," she stated simply.
"But," he replied in disbelief and yearning. Serah's heart ached for Noel as his face morphed through his distraught emotions. In mere seconds he displayed more emotions than she'd ever seen before.
Yuel ignored his plight and stepped to Caius's protective embrace. "You must understand, there are many Yuels," he stated condescendingly.
Noel grimaced. "Caius..."
"Wait," Serah interjected, "I saw you. My sister was fighting you."
Noel's eyes flittered between the two figures. "What are you doing in this time?"
"I learned of your journey, leaping back and forth along the timeline. Yuel has been watching everything you do." He placed his hand upon her head as though she were a good pet.
Their jaws dropped. "No, she's been watching us," Noel whispered in horror.
"Yes. I see you understand the significance of that. Then you must also understand that I am here for a reason. Your actions have necessitated the strictest sanctions."
"What do you mean by strictest sanctions?"
He held up his sword and dove to Serah.
Noel shoved her out of the way and drew his sword. He struggled to hold his blade to Caius's and fell backwards. He quickly stood and met his thrust. As their swords echoed, Serah muttered the remnants of spells, speeding through the casting rites to bless speed, strength, and protection on Noel.
Caius turned his attention to her. He dashed with inhuman speed and struck her down. She barely managed to enact a barrier, and it bowed under the strain of his power. She struggled to keep his blade from entering her stomach. Noel sliced his back, causing sparks to fly from his armor. He turned, swinging his sword behind him. Noel drew back, hoping to draw his attention away from Serah.
With a flick of his finger, hellfire spewed forth at her. She managed to dissipate the spell, but in the meantime Noel took a deep slice to his shoulder. She quickly responded with the healing rites as blood gushed out of the wound.
He did not need to summon rites as Serah did. While he attacked Noel, barrages of spells ravaged her defenses. Noel's hisses of pain echoed in her ears, but she could not help him or risk endangering herself. He ceaselessly attacked both at once, to the point Serah felt like a nail being hammered into steel. She steeled herself and tried to speed the rate of her spells. Just one, just one piercing through would ease his assault on Noel.
Caius dominated him in strength and skill, and her spells seemed to have no effect on him. Noel breached his defense, slicing open his forearm. An opening. She clutched her pendant and whispered the rites to her ultima arrow spell. As if reading her mind, Noel dashed to her. As Caius dodged each arrow of light, he pressed back to the fountain.
Noel ran to Serah, clutching her arms, inspecting her every inch desperately.
"You shall pay for your crimes in blood."
He heard the familiar whirl of winds and pulled her to him, narrowly missing his attack. Before he could process the situation, another slice of earth barreled towards them. He dragged her away, holding desperately onto her arms, refusing to let go. Their eyes communicated their questions and answers easily – they were both okay and unharmed. Noel heard one more attack and shoved her away, falling backwards himself.
He looked to her. She coughed, but appeared unhurt. Before he could feel relief the tip of Caius's sword lay inches from his forehead. "Stop Caius. I'm not going to fight you."
"Times have changed. I am not the Caius you once knew." He pressed the blade's tip to his forehead, causing a stream of blood to flow from the prick. "To change history is a sin." Serah crawled to Noel, muttering the beginnings of a spell.
"It's too late," Yuel interrupted, "The timeline has already changed."
Caius stabbed his sword into the ground in frustration. He dropped to one knee, as though he prayed to Yuel. "Must we accept this?"
Yuel lovingly placed a hand upon his shoulder, comforting him. She looked to the two, "If you change the future, you change the past. You can remold history as your heart desires." Serah felt the warning in her words. The concept terrified her.
Caius wrapped his arms around her, "Let's go now, before you are made to witness more." He held up one arm, opening a rift in time, and guided her through. Both vanished in seconds.
Silence. Words could not form. They stared at the empty space. As an artifact drifted towards them, Noel stood and grabbed it, clutching it to his chest. "Yuel," he said, voice sharp with pain and regret. His tone stabbed Serah's heart. He knew Yuel, the seeress, and he knew the man who attacked them. And she doubted he would tell her of them. The sorrow in his voice indicated it may be too painful for him to speak.
"What does Caius want," Noel thought aloud, crossing his arms and wrinkling his brow in frustration. Blood seeped down his nose. He growled and healed the wound with a flick of his finger. The blood stained the artifact, bringing a sad look to his face.
Serah walked to him, biting her lip. "Noel," she began, but couldn't continue. She turned her back to him and gazed at the glass sea. The flowers that smelled sweet and comforting suffocated her. The remnants of the fires they cast during battle charred many. "That man, Caius, who is he?" Noel said nothing in reply. She pressed on, "I've seen him before, in my dreams."
Seeing that she would not stop without an answer, he replied, "I thought I recognized him. But he is not the man I used to know. He couldn't be here in this time."
The fire in his voice burned all the other questions on her lips. Somehow he and Caius, the man who fought her sister in Valhalla were connected. He knew the seeress as well. But even as this bothered her, she could also see that seeing them hurt him. If Noel was the last man on earth, were they his companions before he earned that distinction?
They walked solemnly to the gate they passed while exploring. Noel said nothing, and as monsters roamed to them, he fought with a ferocity reflecting his frustration. Serah followed him meekly, not wishing to invoke anything.
She held the artifact to the gate, watching it vanish inside as the sphere became alight with energy. As she began to step inside, Noel spoke.
"The same face, the same voice. But," he paused, "She didn't know me at all." His voice choked on those last words.
She stared at him, unable to respond. The questions she had welled on the tip of her tongue, but she could not let them flow forth. Not like this.
"What, no questions," he accused.
She smiled gently and strolled to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I know how it feels when you can't express your feelings." She pulled him forward and wrapped her arms around him. He stiffened under her in shock. "I'm there for you too." He sighed and returned her embrace. "When you're ready, I'm sure we'll talk."
He whispered in her ear, "Thank you, Serah."
She squeezed him and released, giving an optimistic smile. "Shall we keep going?" She turned and jumped through the gate. Noel gazed at the abandoned schoolhouse, sighing. He trudged to the gate and climbed inside.
A/N: I really don't revel in the hurt/comfort thing but the chances to be fun are rare in this game. Everything is depressing upon depressing. :/ The chronology is a bit messed up, the second chapter was a reference to Yaschas Massif 110AF, and this takes place before that in the game, but I felt the balance of the two would work better. :| I don't think I'll do any more straight scenes from the game because it was an exercise in removing my inner desire to change things hehe. Anyway, thank you for the kind reviews, I'll admit people saying they want to read more has given me incentive to write.