Loop Until checkParadox = False
Spoilers, second person POV, Hope. Implied Hope/Lightning. The problem with changing reality is that you're not sure how much has actually changed.

. . . . .

The images on the Oracle Drive are fuzzy, erupting with static whenever you push its playback limits. The Academy's researchers made their best attempt at measuring Bresha's Gate, but it's impossible to pinpoint the exact day when Noel and Serah are supposed to arrive. You review the numbers, over and over. Eventually, you give up and camp out at the Yaschas Massif site, insisting that everything be sent directly by datalink so you don't have to leave your vigil.

10 AF is the correct year after all. The Gate finally manifests in Yaschas, much to your delight; you're on pins and needles at any quaver of its energies. You find every excuse you can to wander down and check on it, until Alyssa finally starts teasing you about pitching a tent on the Pass, and describes in great detail about how you'll get eaten by a behemoth.

. . . . .

The Academy has set down strong roots since its founding. You grew to adulthood alongside it. It helps that your father assisted with the very first tenets, playing financial adviser quietly alongside its management. Joining was as natural as breathing. If you were offered the choice again, you would make the same one.

Hope Estheim, your peers say appreciatively, following in his father's footsteps. Hope is a determined young man.

Ever since Serah disappeared from New Bodhum, you've studied the distortions. Time travel has become your obsession, your sin; your thoughts allow room for nothing else. The paradoxes have taken away your friends, and left you stranded. Time has swallowed everyone: Snow, Sazh, Serah. Even Vanille and Fang have been claimed - if they ever wake up, it might be hundreds of years in the future, long after everyone else is dead.

And no one knows for sure where Lightning is. She might be in the pillar. She might be trapped outside of existence.

She might be dead.

They've all gone ahead, leaving you alone. You can't follow; you don't know how. The Gate won't yield to your hands. Maybe it's best that you can't force it open - someone has to stay and guard Fang and Vanille's crystallized bodies. Your friends must be stuck fighting on whatever battlefields they've landed on. That means it's up to you to help here, at home, so they have a home to return to.

Still, you can't help but want everyone back soon.

Yaschas Massif is a realm of endless evenings. The weather is cool without the sun, turning valleys into tiny pockets that suck in the warmer air of their surroundings. Insects drone constantly in the underbrush, buzzing against the camp lights. With the constant - yet localized - darkness, the circadian rhythms of the wildlife have been grossly disturbed.

The twilight does things to your concentration as well. You flick the reports back and forth on your datatablets, scrutinizing local paradox levels like the heartbeat of a dying patient. Somewhere close by, a researcher is flicking stones into the blackness, rattling pebbles off the cliffs. Plink, plink, plink.

The noise mirrors the staccato bursts of your thoughts. It's been ten years since the pillar rose, and split your friends apart. Having been crystal yourself, you know it's not that bad. Fang and Vanille aren't in pain - but they shouldn't have to carry the burden of Cocoon for the rest of eternity. They did all that they could; now you want them to return, to have a chance to enjoy their lives and be with the people who care for them.

Two solutions jump out immediately. The first is to relieve the weight of Cocoon from their shoulders. No threat of collapse means no duty to remain frozen inside the pillar. Fang and Vanille would be free.

The second option is to keep them from going through that sacrifice at all.

The Oracle Drive offers pictures of someone who might or might not be Lightning - but Ragnarok shows through clearly, playing out Orphan's death long before it came to pass. Paddra's seeresses have given you a key. If time can be crossed forward, then it can also be rewound. Which means: you could jump back. You could make everything better, everything perfect. You could save everyone.

But you have doubts. You're not sure where they stem from, but they creep in like infections, sliding alongside your theories and calculations. They point out ceaseless riddles: if your mother had lived, would you still have become a l'Cie? Would you have helped save Cocoon? Could it still have been accomplished if there had been only five people instead of six?

Would you be the same person you are now, without having gone through those trials?

Lacking those experiences, would you still go back in time?

To be the cause of not being - the logic loops and encompasses itself, building faulty subroutines that would choke a computer if you tried to program them. If time travel is possible, then perhaps you already attempted it, have already visited the past, and decided - inexplicably - not to do anything at all.

But the era you are in now exists, even though everything has become tangled since Cocoon's fall. You shouldn't be here in Yaschas Massif, researching the Oracle Drive, waiting for the Gate to produce Noel and Serah; you shouldn't be here because Serah should never have disappeared in the first place. Serah shouldn't have disappeared; Lightning's true fate should have been known. Snow should have never had to go searching. Sazh and Dajh shouldn't have vanished.

One thing ties into another. You're not sure which string makes everything come apart.

The painful fact is that you don't know what might have been altered, or how many repetitions of time you must be strong for, or in how many ways -

When time distortions are involved, there's no point in wondering how long you must endure something. The answer is clear. You will act again and again and again, until there comes a point when you've never acted at all, and that means it's finally over.

. . . . .

You don't remember why you were waiting in Yaschas Massif, but it turns out that it was lucky that you did. Serah and Noel's arrival takes you by pleasant surprise. They catch you as you're mid-review of the Oracle Drive, curious by the arrival of the Gate, but more fascinated by the prophecies that the Drive has been producing. The sun had been in your eyes all afternoon, slanting hot across your worktables; you'd been ducking in and out of the tent, trying to pinpoint why your nerves wouldn't settle down.

It had been an unsettling feeling, having the sensation of needing to meet someone, but not sure who. Or why.

Serah's explanation helps. She's changed time; she's changed you, your very mind and memory, as if she'd reached in and flicked a switch from one track to the next. 10 AF is no longer what it once was. This is - she claims - the correct version. You had been in the other timeline, the one that will no longer exist, encouraging her to help resolve the Drive's answers.

Other people might dismiss Serah. Other people had, when it came to Lightning's fate. But you believe in what Serah says - you trust, and you trust blindly with no hesitation, because if there is anyone in the world who would want Lightning back the most, it would be her.

You are an accessory to Serah's quest. You're her resource, a waypoint to resupply her as she sails through the Historia Crux. By doing so, you are potentially engineering the means for your own destruction - at least the parallel version of you did, erasing his own timeline as he sought to find the truth.

Did he know what would happen, when he helped Serah?

Do you know?

Director of Academy Research, Team Alpha, you tell her when she asks, and laugh it off when she teases you about how far you've come. Noel eyes you warily, his body language switching between protective and curious, focusing quickly on each person who gets in his line-of-sight. He's like a wild animal, but one that's been made inexplicably gentle by force of yearning: Noel comes from the future, or so he says, and there were no other humans left by then.

The new information that Noel brings solves numerous missing pieces, fitting alongside the hints that the Oracle Drives produced. Time is the nature of your enemy, in two ways now: it separates you from most of your friends, and is a ticking time bomb for the rest. Fang and Vanille are helpless, and it's been confirmed that the pillar will someday fall. They can't lift a hand to protect themselves - so it's your turn to repay all the ways they stood between you and the enemy.

Serah is as good-natured as you remember, but her attention seems remote, detached even as she leans on the campsite railings and kicks her feet up. "In the other timeline, the paradox had completely darkened the sky around here," she marvels. "But once we fixed the Rifts in the future Oerba, the fal'Cie went back to its proper time. You were still trying hard in the other Massif, Hope," she grins, her hair sliding over her shoulders as she balances her weight on her hands. "Even despite all the extra lights you had to set up."

Mention of your twin - your self - makes you curious. "What else happened to that world?" you wonder aloud. "Has it completely vanished?"

"No." Serah's shoes droop; she rests them on the ground, leaning against the railings so that the metal presses into her legs. "Not yet. Because the Gates still exist, we can go back for now if we need to. And, sometimes when we go places, it feels as if it hasn't been the first time we've been there. Like... we're already been through that timeline once. Just - we wanted to try again, maybe. Do something different instead."

A strange chill blooms inside your chest at her words. It's one thing to know that Serah and Noel are outsiders to the timeline; it's another to realize that they potentially have the power to move so freely. Rewinding events to fix a mistake makes sense, but the more you think about it, the more that consequences lose their potency. If you can repeat conversations over and over until the other person says exactly what you want, or restart someone's memories because you messed up, then the only limit on outcomes becomes your own patience.

Serah's not manipulative, and you doubt that Noel is - but anyone else, anyone else might feel that temptation keenly.

"How many times have you tried this time period over?" you ask, cautiously.

She turns her head to look at you, and then only makes a quick shake of her chin that you can't decipher. No, she never has. No, you shouldn't ask.

"It's tough to describe," she finally admits, filling in the tremulous silence. "Some things are - they're too familiar. But lately, I'm starting to wonder if they're memories of things that have happened, or are going to happen - or if I'm just afraid that they might."

Serah's fingers feel as light as a butterfly when she touches them to your sleeve. You struggle not to grab at them clumsily, craving for a kind of contact that's been years absent.

"Sorry, Hope," she whispers, and the sun of the Massif plays tricks on her face. It paints shadows under her eyes, turns her regretful, as if she already knows what you're thinking - as if she's heard it all before. "I'm sorry it's going to be so hard."

. . . . .

Eventually, Serah and Noel stop visiting your camp. Their time window has expired. You know from the New Bodhum and Bresha Gates that the Yaschas one will also inevitably vanish; dutifully, you set analysts to task, and make a notation in your calendar.

Weeks slip by. The year becomes 11 AF, then 12. Then 13. Over a decade ago, you were a teenager, struggling to survive fal'Cie dictates - now, you're a full-grown adult, having afternoons of coffee around data-strewn tables, lobbing hypotheses back and forth like game balls with your fellow researchers. You laugh a lot, and thumb through your colleagues' vacation photographs, and listen to them talk about new additions to their housing units.

But the world is still in danger. And you are no less driven and dedicated, ignoring the trappings that interest everyone else. You're different from many of the other scientists; you stand out in the crowd. It is, perhaps, because you approach the issue of post-Cocoon life differently. This isn't the first time you've been stranded on Pulse, and it's not the first time you've lived without fal'Cie benevolence either. You remember the lessons of your friends - Fang's humor, Snow's willingness to charge in, Lightning's ability to carve a path through uncertainty - and you look for those same qualities in the people around you.

These post-Fall days involve matters of survival - yet you offer them like riddles, with a smile, as part of a team pitted against an entire hostile world. The things you don't know, you choose to seek out eagerly. You challenge your fellow researchers to create new forms of math in order to even talk about the puzzles. Fresh terminology breeds and dies within weeks. Scientists deconstruct and rebuild the past in cascading ladders while you gently deflect offers to spend time doing other things with eagerly friendly coworkers.

It's not for lack of company. People are always around you, trying to guess at connections which you don't have, or whom you might secretly like or hate or love. The less-charitable talk describes you as neurotic: fixated on a dream, obsessed with worst-case scenerios. You don't have the heart to disprove them. Numerous assumptions persist that you're close to Alyssa, but only because she's physically around you most of the time; she's relentless about it, and you're too busy working on mapping the vibrational wavelength of the Gates to be particularly bothered.

Alyssa is as determined as you are to understand the paradoxes. You're not going to ignore that just because people want to gossip.

It's ok. It really is. You've got other things to focus on. More important ones.

You're older than Lightning now. A strange reversal; she would laugh if she could see it. You are older and Lightning is eternally young, freed from time - but she is free from time, so she could return while you're still young. The fact that she hasn't yet means you have failed. The fact that you can formulate such things at all means that you have not succeeded in this timeline, and that Noel and Serah haven't either, because once they do, this present you will cease to be.

The definition of success is to never live a life without Lightning at all. To be aware of that loss, however briefly, means that you've failed. Are still failing. Will still fail.

The thought of aging like this, alone, where each day is a day split apart from what should have been, seems suddenly unbearably heavy.

You cannot surrender meekly. What you do now will be the catalyst for the restoration, a chemical result that collapses in upon itself and leaves nothing behind. No one will know what had to be done. Not even yourself.

"Director," Alyssa says as the electricians fiddle with Augusta Tower's lighting systems, "I've finished some of the alternate work on the Proto fal'Cie diagrams."

Display panels flicker on and off, plunging alternating sections of the Tower into emergency reds. Afterimages melt in colored smears along the insides of your eyelids. When you blink, the spots lance across the walkways and form illusionary figures.

"Director. Would you be willing to move forward with this option instead?"

Something about Alyssa's question sounds wrong. You remember preparing a full rejection of the project, after the latest review of the Yaschas Oracle Drive showed Serah fighting your machines. You remember saying no already, but you think - you think you also remember saying yes.

You look down at the keypad, flexing your fingers experimentally. They're real. They're too real to be anything less.

"We have to find another method," you declare. "The prophecies stored within the Oracle Drives must contain other options. I'm convinced there's a better route to pursue than an artificial fal'Cie."

Alyssa's expression tightens. "The Oracle Drives," she repeats, her lip - almost curling, almost, but she smooths it away and makes an exaggerated sigh. "If you say so, Director. I suppose we'll have to start all over again now, won't we?"

. . . . .

The first AF century is recorded only sporadically in the Drive's archives. The second shows some promise, mostly in positive expansion around the Bresha region, but there aren't any clues about how to save a massive chunk of ecosystem from crashing into Pulse. Here and there, hints of wars break out, flashing like knifeblades in the dark.

But the Thirteenth Ark surfaces around the fourth century mark, floating serenely in the sky beside Cocoon, and your attention instantly fixates on it. The only problem, appropriately, is that it's in the future. You'd be dust long before it arrives.

That's fine. You've taught yourself how to solve problems.

Alyssa shudders when the lid of the stasis chamber opens. "Like a coffin," she declares, and wrinkles her nose. She sets her hand resolutely on the doorway, but her shoulders cringe away; her body language denies her claims of courage, and her mouth is twists down into a taut bow.

You touch a reassuring hand to her back. "You don't have to come, Alyssa. This is a lot to ask of anyone. This era has so much to offer - stay and finish your work here."

But her decision has already been cemented before you even finish speaking. "No," she insists. Her gaze is cast forward; she's refusing to look at you. "I can do this. I want to see the future. I have - I have every reason to follow this through to the end. I'll do whatever it takes."

With that, Alyssa stalks the rest of the way into the capsule, and leaves you to follow behind.

When you sleep, you dream of Lightning.

You've spent almost half your life without her, but seeing her standing there makes it feel like less than a day. Her face is the same, untouched by age. Her Corps uniform is gone; she's cloaked in metal and feathers instead, just like on the Oracle Drive. Against the gloom that surrounds you both, she is a luminous glow.

As your eyes focus properly, Lightning lifts a hand, first towards your shoulder - and then, as if reminding herself that you are taller now, up towards your cheek.

Her fingers brush your skin. Hope. You're doing the right thing, she says.

"Am I here?" you blurt. "Are you here? Did we free you at last?"

She hesitates, and in that half-formed moment, you have your answer even before she shakes her head. You knew better than to hope; you've had practice in adjusting to a life of nothing but uncertain attempts, and yet Lightning's confirmation makes the sense of loss rise up fresh in your mind. Disappointment cramps your throat. Your chest twists, and suddenly, like a collapse of your past into your present into possibly your future self - all versions together and crying out with one heart - you feel your willpower crumble.

You want to reach up and take her hand. You want to cup her face with fingers that are adult-sized now. You want to stand straight, and look her in the eye, and talk about things that have nothing to do with broken timelines.

She sees your expression - you can only imagine what your face is showing - and her eyes soften. The paradoxes are being corrected. Serah and Noel are fixing what they can. You're protecting humanity. All these tasks must be accomplished if we want to avoid a future that must not come to pass.

"I'll bring you back," you insist. This time, you do try to move, wanting so badly to grasp her hands and memorize the shape of them, to brand your flesh with the contact so you can never forget her again. None of your fingers even twitch. There's an invisible barrier between you both, weighing down your bones; gravity is encircling you like shackles, the residual awareness of your physical body imprisoning on a cellular level.

Lightning smiles, just a faint turning of her mouth, and it's like a brilliant illumination that undoes all the severity of her lips. Vanille and Fang, she reminds you gently, and you want for Serah to have worked faster, to have solved things already so you will not have to endure the sight of Lightning bidding you goodbye for what feels like the final time.

This is a memory you will not miss losing. And yet, if it is the last memory you'll have of her alive, you will fight to keep it forever.

The feathers of Lightning's armor start to blur. Fog melts the boundaries of the darkness, transforming the world into a haze of unmeasured definitions. You can't stop her; you can't even reach out and try to hold her as she dissolves away.

"Will all this vanish too?" you call out desperately as she's erased, wanting the answer to be yes and no simultaneously in the best of paradoxes. "Will I have never seen you here?"

Lightning looks at you. Her expression vanishes before you can parse it; her eyes are there for only an instant, solemn and serene, and then you are left to drown in blackness. The gloom catches you, brings you inside it. Sleep claims you like a crystal embrace, taking you into a world that knows no calendar, and has no words for time.

. . . . .

There are people waiting for you when the capsule door opens, and lets you out.

Disorientation colors your first impressions of 400 AF. The gravitational field cancels itself without any grandiose formalities on your side: the wake-up bell rings, you open your eyes, and the meters tick patiently down as they orient themselves to local force values. Time within the capsule had been slowed down to a fraction of motion; cancelling the field instantly had been deemed too hazardous, so the revival had been scheduled in stages.

To be honest, using gravitational time dilation made you deeply skeptical of being able to survive without being crushed into a fine pulp. You're faintly surprised that you're undamaged.

There's a small crowd gathered in what must be the containment room. The walls are brilliantly white, startling your vision; you fight not to squint as anonymous hands reach out to lead you forward. Strangers reach out and brush their fingers against you in awe, their voices merging in a tide of astonishment. Someone offers you a robe, awkwardly, as if no one was really sure what state of dress you'd emerge in, or if four centuries would require an immediate change of clothes.

"You really are human," one of them remarks as she steadies your arm.

As you stretch your legs and are led from physician to physician, gracefully accepting the diagnostics that must be run on your physics-defying body, you soak in your new surroundings. Technology has advanced along predictable channels, becoming smoother, sleeker, embedding each surface with multiple functions. As you pass through one windowed hallway, you glance outside, eager to see what your new environment must look like.

The sky outside is black.

You blink; a cold vise slams around your chest. You blink again - the clouds are white. The sky is a brilliant, jewel-crisp blue. Crowds of people bustle like colorful dots across long, glowing walkways, prosperous and at peace.

Despite the sudden normality, you stare at the window, unable to shake the feeling that you are actually, horrifyingly, dead.

The sensation passes quickly as you adjust to Academia, like a twilight dream melting away beneath the sun. 400 AF sounds so arbitrary, artifical on paper, like a figure that someone decided to write down simply because it rounded to the nearest century. Three hundred and eighty-seven years have passed. In that time, humanity's new capital has not only risen - it has flourished. Over the course of generations, the descendants of Cocoon had valued the pursuit of knowledge enough to elevate the Academy into governance; they had chosen, deliberately, to be led by those who had a dream of saving Pulse from Cocoon's second fall. They had valued curiosity, a knack for abstraction, and an overwhelming desire to learn.

But the strangest part is how Academia's people behave towards you. Hope Estheim, is what they murmur now, or simply Hope. The Hope of humanity. You'd been braced for rejection, assuming that politicians and scientists both would claim that you bring outdated ideas; at best, you were hoping for enough professional leniency to borrow a spare workroom as a charity case. If you'd planned ahead, you might have thought about investments or business - you can imagine how your father would have shaken his head, his financial expertise completely ignored. Instead, you threw yourself into the future without any assets at all.

Instead, Academia gives you the title of Academy Lead Adviser, and calls you Director, and confers you with the status of both. You're invited to discussion panels where the recorders are always trained on you, capturing every blink and cough and shrug. Clips with your soundbites play back on the hallway news monitors. The security detail assigned to assist you seems intimidated whenever you smile in their direction.

Academia's people, you realize - after a few surreal days - are treating you like a natural phenomenon.

You are their prophet. You are a living artefact, the byproduct of timelines snarled and interlaced. You commune with travelers outside of time, mythical visitors who appear at key points in history to confer their guidance. Not everyone is pleased by your return - but you are surprised by how few people protest. Your appearance and the Ark have been linked together in enough of a prophecy through the Oracle Drive that you both are one and the same: a foretelling that proves to everyone who has doubted over the years that there is a future for Cocoon's survivors, and it has been worth the effort all this time.

The histories gloss over your status as a l'Cie; they say only that you fought against the Cocoon fal'Cie, that you helped the Academy set its path for the future, and have dedicated your life to carrying it through. They say you are a hero. In some versions of history, it was the Academy who chose you to carry the message forward, sacrificing everything in service of duty; it never watched dumbfounded as you blithely informed your teams that you'd be vanishing forever from their lives.

Maybe, in one timeline, that's really what happened.

There's a cloud of other people's dreams around you, a Hope that exists in textbooks and movie portrayals. Rather than soak up the attention, you request more reports on the status of the New Cocoon Project. You deflect the waves of visitors gently; you deflect everyone equally with a smile. Academia's people don't know how to react.

This time, at least, when the whispers begin about how distant you are, the words are spoken with reverence.

Ironically, it might be because you acted with no thought for yourself that the current government only eyes you warily, asking what causes you recommend, and what methods you support. You're task-oriented. History said as much; your scientists established a respect for it, and yet the reality seems to leave Academia's researchers flustered. You're not here to take over authority - you're here to examine the Ark. It doesn't matter who's in charge. What matters is survival.

Once they realize that you have exactly zero interest in personal power, Academia's officials almost fall over their feet trying to get you to confirm historical records and speak passionately on behalf of their personal agendas. It's disappointing, a little, but it's encouraging too: humans are resilient. Even with the prophecies of destruction ticking closer each day, people still argue, still compete and quarrel and love.

They still dream.

On the bed of your quarters, you spread out the datasheets and tab the contents back and forth. Several scientists from your 13 AF Augusta workgroups ended up pursuing several alternate methods that had been suggested during the initial brainstorm sessions: containing the descent's impact via forcefield, building a replacement support cradle, rolling Cocoon like a marble down a ramp when it fell. They'd documented their work, proposed variations, and revisited the options along the way. You frown when you see that the marble idea hadn't panned out; there'd been no feasible means of building a sturdy enough track for Cocoon burn off its momentum. Too bad. It had been one of the more interesting possibilities.

The remainder of the records are less encouraging. Over and over, there have been hostile actions from anti-Academy forces and fal'Cie loyalists - the two groups had significant overlap - and some of the ruins they've destroyed can never be reclaimed. You page through their litany of antagonism, sighing. Pulse had provided enough difficulties on its own with food cultivation, factory restorations, and for a moment, you think there's mention of some sort of trouble that had persisted in Bresha even until 300 AF - but when you go back later to try and find the report, there's nothing. It's disconcerting. You don't know if it's the touch of Serah and Noel, or only your own memory glitch.

"Yes," she says when you see her next. "But it's all right now! We fixed it. Back in 100 AF."

You frown. Serah's comment is jarring; it feels disjointed, as if a cloud had passed over the sun and taken reality with it. You thought you were asking her about what she and Noel had scavenged for lunch in Sunleth, but the train of the conversation is uncertain now, menaced by the potential of other realities lurking in the corners.

Tactfully, you pick another topic instead. "The strangest thought crossed my mind the other day." Sugar makes your teeth feel tacky; you're halfway through some apple-cinnamon-honeystick concoction that you've developed a shameful fondness for ever since landing in 400 AF. The refreshment stall sold you two, for some reason, and you've been trying to coax Serah to eat the other one ever since she stopped by. "Was Snow ever here, in Academia? I can't find any record of it, but I thought - " you add, but trail off, the impressions slipping away even as you try to grasp them. "Every now and then, I wonder if I might have seen him. Was that something you experienced in another timeline?"

Serah's hand goes still on the offered fruitstick, her fingers sliding against your wrist. Her eyes flick up towards you, and even though her face is the same, there's a haunted edge to her gaze that never existed there before. It sobers her innocence.

"I'm not sure," she confesses, and glances down. "The places Noel and I are visiting - nothing really feels new anymore, Hope. There are areas where there aren't any clocks, and I think we spent an entire week racing chocobos once, but there's no way to tell. I'm not even sure how long Noel and I have been traveling like this."

Concern tugs hard at the corners of your mouth. "How do you keep from losing track of which timeline is the right one?"

Serah's other hand goes to the pendant at her throat. "When I do, I think about Lightning," she says quietly. Her voice dwindles with each word. "Because in the end, it's okay if I don't live in the same place, or if my memories end up changing. I used to think that I'd find Lightning, and we'd all go back to live in New Bodhum. Now, I don't know where we'll end up. But it's okay. As long as we make it there. That's what's important."

You chastise yourself instantly; no matter how out of touch you might feel with history, Serah must be experiencing much worse. Apologetically, you turn the handle of the fruitstick into her palm, waiting for her to grasp it, and give it an experimental nibble. Her face breaks out into an amazed smile; you offer a tentative grin back. It does taste good.

The both of you work together on indulging dual appetites for sweets, crunching through layers of honey folded over slices of fresh fruit. Noel is off on his own, engaged in a ruthless quest to out-riddle Captain Cryptic; a futile effort, as you could have told him. He might not give up until well into the night, but that means you and Serah can relax for a short while, and share the hours together as if only this simple evening mattered.

"Hey, Hope?"


"I'm glad you didn't die this time around."

There's no sane answer you can make to that, so you smile wryly, and say, "Me too."

. . . . .

400 AF isn't your last stop. It can't be. You'll have to move on further, to 500 AF in accordance with the Oracle Drive's predictions. It's a little frightening to realize how far you've come - not because you've severed yourself so completely from your own origins, but because you're running out of room on the prophecies, coming to the end of the roadmap you've followed in leaps and bounds. Over five centuries will have passed between your destination and your birth, but your participation amounts to less than three decades. It feels like you're throwing away huge chunks of time, time that can never be recovered, rushing towards a solid wall that will shatter you upon impact.

700 AF was Noel's era. If you can't solve Cocoon's dilemma by then, you really will be out of any guidance you can find. You - and humanity - will be on your own.

The time capsule needs repairs. Thankfully, the principle is gravity-based, which means you can shave off enough of the Graviton Cores to repower it, and this jump will be shorter than the first. There's only one bed in the capsule, but you keep coming back to it and frowning. You can't think of why a second would be needed. It might have been provided for an assistant; you know you've had several over the years, each for various projects. One of them had been particularly talented. You're not sure what happened to her - her name was Alice, or Alys, or Alissa - and there are some days when you think you remember her voice, and some days when you just can't. She most likely retired, settled down, followed her own dreams. Like everyone else, she fell away as the years rolled by.

Twenty-seven years old is too early for things to blur.

Out of a nagging sense of familiarity, you review your data files one afternoon. There are no notes, no projects with an appropriate name on them. Your assistant created nothing. She left nothing behind.

With a sigh, you add that discrepancy to the long list of other issues that are quietly moldering in your mind. There are so many things that have submerged into mere possibility. You're not sure how many; naturally, you can't remember. Everything seems fresh to you, clear, even though you know Serah's doing things that are changing your thoughts. What you remember today might not be real tomorrow. She and Noel are fighting a battle of that much power.

Exhausted, you push your chair back. The health monitor at your elbow beeps gently when you power off the computer screen, reading vitamin levels through your thumbprint. You humor it long enough to glance at the readings, and cancel its recommendation for a meal supplement. Academia's advancements are nothing short of incredible. If humans had known how far they could come on their own, perhaps there wouldn't have been as much protest over the last few centuries.

The outer wall shimmers translucent with a touch. Academia opens out like a banquet beneath you, a network of glittering buildings and advertisements. The scale is deceptive; you could reach out and encircle the whole of human civilization in the the arch of your fingers. You could blot it out with a glove.

When you exhale, your breath leaves a cloudy blotch on the air between you and the abyss.

"If the timeline is corrected, would all this be completely undone?" you ask aloud. Lightning is in Valhalla; even if you can't see her, maybe she can hear you. Maybe she's watching this very moment. "Would everyone be back in New Bodhum? Would this city have never existed?"

You're doing the right thing.

The answer is apparent even before you finish speaking. "No. I would still have had to travel ahead, to save Vanille and Fang from the pillar and make sure that New Cocoon would be completed. One way or another, I would have ended up here, in the future. And - everyone else would have stayed in the past."

You lift your hand, resting it against the wall, which obediently gleams opaque upon contact. When you think about your situation from that perspective, it sounds a little better. When you first started out, you only wanted your friends safely back in 3 AF. Now, you realize how lucky you are that they aren't. Losing them forever is a price you're not certain you could endure.

Maybe you already found Lightning, at one point. Maybe staying in Valhalla this long is what she chose.

You think about asking Serah, but she's already gone.

. . . . .

Work in 400 AF winds down as the capsule is prepared. People come to speak with you as you finish, asking for any last few points of guidance. The ideas you offer them are fresh seeds that will incubate for another century. Several of them clasp your hand, thanking you for your continued sacrifice. Others shake their heads in disbelief.

"It must be hard saying goodbye again," one scientist comments as she slots in a row of memory chips. "To everyone you've met here, I mean."

"No," you reply, perplexed by her kind - if misplaced - concern. "It's not."

The clocks are set for a century interval, a mere one hundred years this time. It's a little intimidating to think that other people had literally counted the days until you woke - that they will count down again, wiping away the dust and watching the numbers click by until you're revived. They'll protect you while you sleep, keeping anti-Academy sympathizers from sabotaging the circuits, from locking you in to choke and die as a form of protest against governmental institutions.

You're not even sure if you'll exist after this. When you first started the whole trip, you assumed that you wouldn't - or rather, that you wouldn't if you did things right. But now, you're no longer certain if the purpose of the journey is to undo the original paradoxes, or to save all of humanity. The longer that you live without Lighting, the more you suspect it's the latter. She might have been the one trying to rescue you all this time, rather than the other way around.

But, if that's the case, you're not sure what form the restored timeline should take at all.

The one constant that repeats is the quest for humanity to survive. To this end, it was the Academy that rose as an example - and your hand played a part in that as well. For your researchers, you provided more than ideas: you gave structure, a desire to persist through the uncertainty, and the willingness to consider impossibilities as mere puzzles waiting to be tackled. These standards have nurtured minds which continued to look towards the future, always seeing something to reach for in the form of Cocoon overhead. No one let that goal slip. They believed in it just as strongly.

But it wasn't you who came up with that approach. That perspective is the last gift that your friends gave to Cocoon's people, after all the bloodshed and despair poured out at the feet of the fal'Cie. Your friends showed you how a team of people who should have hated one another ended up working together to save a world that hated them. They taught you how to fight against destiny itself until a new purpose could be pulled from a doomed Focus. They gave you a reason to reach out and grasp a dream big enough to encompass everyone.

This is the true message that you have carried with you, bearing it through the centuries. It's wedged into your heart. It's carved across your bones. It's the lesson you will always remember, regardless of whatever else changes; it defies paradox, ignores parallel contradictions, and you will repeat it over and over until it is ingrained in every part of humanity beyond Time itself, no matter how many loops must be made. Humanity will survive. Humanity will -

. . . . .

The images on the Oracle Drive are fuzzy, erupting with static whenever you push its playback limits. The Academy's researchers made their best attempt at measuring Bresha's Gate, but it's impossible to pinpoint the exact day when Noel and Serah are supposed to arrive. You review the numbers, over and over. Eventually, you give up and camp out at the Yaschas Massif site, insisting that everything be sent directly by datalink so you don't have to leave your vigil.

10 AF is the correct year after all.