Story: Moving on... Without You

Chapter Summary: "Any more and he'll never wake up again." Ardea's words haunt Serah as she races against time to save Noel.

Chapter 16*: Stormy Vessel (Raindrops running through my veins)

[Day 20: afternoon...]

Vessel – (noun): an airship.

Noel's muscles relaxed from their paralyzed state, slackening to a sleep-like tranquility. Later, Serah would not be able to explain how she'd found the presence of mind to summon their fastest chocobo – Silver Surfer, she'd called him – or how she'd found the strength to lift Noel onto its back. But she did. According to what Noel had said before, what seemed like ages ago, the airship was still at least an hour away on foot. Urgency spurred Serah on. The feeling that Noel needed medical attention as soon as possible burned in her veins. With Noel propped up in front of her, Serah rode like the wind.

As promised, she found the airship at the very edge of the forest. Riding out from under the canopy of trees, Serah took in her first view of the sky in days. In the open plains, gusts of cold wind sent strands of hair flying in her face. Above, dark clouds were blowing in from the east. A storm was coming, but she figured that was the least of their concerns.

Serah jumped off the chocobo agilely, one hand supporting Noel's back so that he wouldn't fall off the beast. When she was sure he was settled on the creature's back, Serah boarded the aircraft. Thankfully, the doors weren't locked and it seemed like they'd left the keys in the ignition – or rather, that's what it looked like to her. Having never piloted a ship before, she only assumed that there must be some similarities to the velocycle Snow had been teaching her to drive back in Bodhum, all those years ago.

As it turned out – airships are nothing like velocycles.

Silver Surfer followed Serah into the ship. It was the same aircraft from the Soloch ruins mission, so the spacious cargo area in the rear was able to accommodate the chocobo easily. There was no danger in Noel falling from the creature, but Serah wasted no time in lowering him onto the floor and checking his pulse again. The slow throbbing of his heartbeat against her fingers did little to reassure her of his well-being. As much as she wanted to cradle him in her lap and indulge her aching heart, she knew that time was not on their side. Crying wouldn't save him. The abrupt disappearance of the silver chocobo as it returned to its crystal form helped her to keep her mind on track.

At the controls, Serah noticed a transceiver that could be used to contact communication devices from the Academy. Hastily, she lifted the handset and her fingers had started to dial Sazh's number from memory. When she realized what she was doing, she stopped herself. Was it really a good idea to call Sazh from a stolen Academy vessel? She was pretty sure the Academy could trace any call she made from the ship. What if it made the Academy suspicious of him? For all she knew, the entire organization was against them, and the last thing she wanted was to put one of her only friends in danger.

Up to now, Serah had been working on pure instinct, allowing her to make quick decisions with a cool head. But as she became aware of their precarious position, the next course of action was not immediately apparent. Unable to call Sazh, she realized just how few people she actually trusted. But other than him and Hope, who else did she know?

The solution came to her as she looked around the ship in frustration. She was reminded of the flight to the Soloch ruins, and her (literal) run-in with Sergeant Evans. The number of his comm device was already programmed into the auto-dial of the aircraft.

The line connected instantly.

"Hello? This is Sergeant Evans," his voice answered cautiously. "Strike team 3, do you copy?"

Suddenly at a loss for words, Serah dropped herself into the pilot's seat. Was she wrong to call him? Was he in fact in league with Ardea, Flint and Blaze? During the mission he'd seemed so candid around her and Noel, not in any way suspicious or antagonizing like Ardea had been. Looking behind her, at Noel's prone form, Serah wondered if they were now on their own. Her hand began to lower the transceiver back onto its cradle when it crackled again.

"Serah? Noel? If that's you, please, answer me!"

Serah read a pleading desperation in his voice. In the background she heard another man speaking, asking for the comm device. A voice she knew: Sazh. Could it really be Sazh on the other side?

"Who is with you?" Serah asked, trying her best to alter her voice to sound like Ardea.

Finally it seemed that Sazh had won the battle for the comm device and answered for him. "D'ya have a cold or something, Serah?" Though it was a question, he didn't wait for a response before continuing. "Either way it's good to hear you're aliv – ah, safe."

"Sazh!" Relief washed over her, as she leaned forward into the microphone. "Noel's hurt."

Her voice dropped its excited tone instantly. She'd meant to say how happy she was to hear from him, to ask him how Dajh was doing, or even ask him to put the child on the phone so she could hear one of the adorable stories he'd heard from his friend Poe. But when she opened her mouth, the only thing she could talk about was Noel.

"He won't wake up. She poisoned him. There was too much – she said 'any more and he'd never wake up again!' Oh, Sazh, what can I –? I mean, I gave him the Elixir but he won't open his eyes!"

"Whoa, slow down!" Sazh took a moment to wrap his head around the situation. "Ok, what happened to Noel?"

"She poisoned him, Sazh! He won't wake up!"

"Who, who poisoned him?"

"Ardea." That bitch.

"Alright," he said calmly, as if talking her off a ledge. "Did you try giving him an Antidote or a Remedy?"

Serah shook her head, before realizing he couldn't see it. "No, it was paralysis poison. She gave him too much… it was my fault."

"Paralysis, as in Pain? Well, just give him a Painkiller."

Frustration surged through Serah's veins as Sazh continued to miss the point.

"Sazh. I gave him an Elixir," she said, deliberately emphasizing every word so that he would listen to her properly. "I cast Cure and Esuna more times than I can count. I think the paralysis has finally passed, but he still won't wake up."

In the background on Sazh's end, Serah could hear Sergeant Evans inquiring what the problem was. Sazh quickly repeated what she'd just told him. "Do you mind?" he asked, his voice growing louder as he regained the comm device from Sazh. "Serah, what's your location?"

It took her a moment to remember. "I'm not too sure, but I know we're on the northern edge of the plains between the Rudka mountains and Nautilus."

"Hm. Well, I know a veterinarian who might be able to help Noel. Her name is Joy and she lives in Kighs, a town very close to the Soloch ruins, where our mission was, and southeast of Nautilus. Is the airship operational?"

Things were moving fast now, and in her mental state of exhaustion, she found it hard to follow the conversation. "The airship..?" she glanced down at the control panel. "I guess so? I don't know anything about ships, but the buttons are all lit up."

"Ok, good," Evans said encouragingly. "I'm going to hand the receiver back to Sazh now, and he's going to walk you through the controls. With the ship, you can make it to Kighs in a few hours."

Hours? She wasn't sure they had that much time. With no medical training to speak of, Serah had no way of knowing if Noel was going to be alright, or if his condition would worsen with time. That doubt made it nearly impossible to concentrate on the task at hand. But when Sazh's voice came on the line again, and he started asking which buttons were lit up, which levers were down, etc., she managed to set aside her worries. With his step-by-step instructions, Serah input the coordinates of Kighs and successfully launched the ship.

"Now, slowly let go of the controls and the auto-pilot will do the rest!" Sazh said triumphantly. A few encouraging words later, he hung up.

With the auto-pilot engaged, Serah settled herself into the captain's chair for a long and uneventful flight. She figured she should stay in the cockpit, in case the storm clouds ahead made good on their threat to open up and assault the ship. She took to monitoring the gauges and numbers on the screens in front of her, though she didn't quite understand what they meant.

Every now and then, she would retreat to the cargo bay to check on Noel's condition. But, an hour into the voyage, Noel was still unresponsive to her voice. His pulse was steady now, so she told herself that her fears were irrational. She rested her elbows on the floor, supporting her head with her hands as she observed him. No matter what crazy scenarios her mind conjured up, she knew she'd done everything she could for him. His quick, shallow breaths puffed against her bangs weakly, assuring her that he was still fighting to live. Soon enough, he'd get the medical help he needed, and everything was going to be fine.

Before they'd hung up, Sazh and Sergeant Evans had promised to meet them in Kighs. They figured they'd arrive an hour or so after her and Noel. The promise of a reunion brightened Serah's spirits, something she sorely needed after what had happened in the forest. The icy terror that had nearly torn apart her resolve when Ardea had injected Noel the first time – when she'd thought she'd killed him –had never fully left her. But… it was best not to think about that.

As many times as she told herself not to, the solitary flight provided no distraction from her thoughts, which circled around the same worries and questions over and over. She only prayed that this vet would be able to help Noel. What if he never woke up again? Was it like crystal stasis – or more like a coma?

The worst part was that she never really told Noel how she felt. It wasn't like she wanted to make some grand "confession" or anything, but now that she was potentially facing a world without Noel, she realized just how important he was to her. Since she'd met him, she'd been changing, a little at a time, to be someone stronger. He'd taught her to fight, but more importantly, he'd asked her to stand up for herself. For so long after her parents died, no one had ever expected her to do anything on her own. Lightning had always tried to shelter her and Snow... well he'd wanted to do everything for her, as if she was some crystal doll that needed to be protected. At the time, she'd loved that about her fiancée. But looking back, all she could see was the pedestal they'd put her on, and how lonely the view was atop it.

But she and Snow had been engaged. No matter how many points Noel had in his favour, the guilty feelings had always trumped him. It had only been this morning when she'd seriously considered her feelings on the matter. If, by some miracle, she were able to see Snow again: what would she do? Could she calmly tell him that she didn't want to marry him - that she didn't love him anymore? As impossible as that seemed to the woman she used to be, the woman that she was now believed she could. In all the terrible things she'd endured since the crystal pillar broke, she found the courage to want and to fight for what she wanted. She'd finally made the choice to move on.

Thinking back to this morning, she recalled how flustered she'd felt after her dream. In response to her accusations, Noel had apologized for merely sleeping beside her. Even after that kiss in Nautilus. Even after all those nights of sleeping in each other's arms, when she'd held him close for more than warmth. She'd made him apologize for something so innocent. Only now did she realize just how much restraint Noel had shown. She felt like a tease. Why had she been holding herself in check? They'd travelled alone together for two weeks on the plains of Pulse, but they hadn't even kissed again. She only hoped it wasn't too late to let him know that she... loves... him.

From one of the extra survival packs in the cargo bay, Serah extracted a blanket to support Noel's head. Then, after a cursory glance at their flight path and the controls, Serah laid down beside him, resting her head on his chest. No matter what, I'll be here, she thought, falling into a troubled sleep.

Storm – (noun): A violent weather condition of strong winds, rain, thunder, lightning, etc.

Turbulence rocked the ship, and it took Serah a moment to orientate herself. The storm had begun, and according to the coordinates, the aircraft had been blown way off course. Rain struck the windshield like bullets, ruining the visibility from the cockpit. Serah called Sazh in a panic.

"Sazh, we've flown right into a storm! The coordinates say that we're way off course!"

"It'll be alright, don't worry," he answered, in an attempt to calm her down. "Your original heading was southeast. I assume you've been flying directly into the wind, right?

"Yeah, the wind is really strong here," she agreed, as the metal plating groaned from the pressure. "I think it's blown us further south than we wanted."

"Ok, I think you better ride it out. Then, when the wind subsides, adjust your heading due east."

Something clattered to the floor behind her. An array of tools scatted across the floor of the cargo bay, from a toolbox that had been on the ledge above Noel. Snapping her head back to see what was the matter, she found Noel convulsing on the ground.

"Sazh, Noel's having a seizure!" she screamed, running back to his side. His body bucked against the cold metal floor, limbs hitting so hard she knew that he'd have bruises. She tried to remember what she should do to help, but was drawing a blank.

Sazh was shouting something at her, but she was too far away from the receiver to understand his words. Thankfully, the word "tongue" reached her and she recalled that during a seizure, the person would be in danger of swallowing their own tongue. Or was it biting off their tongue? Unsure how to protect him from himself, she rolled Noel over so that he was laying on his side, his right ear against the pillow and facing the cockpit. For a while she had to fight against his constant shaking to keep Noel on his side. Then, he was still once more. Sweat had soaked his body, and soon he was shivering from the cold. Serah found him another blanket and wrapped him snugly.

She returned to the cockpit. The fear for Noel's safety strengthened her determination so that when she spoke next to Sazh, her mind was already made up.

"Sazh, tell me how to fly this thing as fast as possible."

Despite the gale-force winds that tried to pull the ship out of her hands, Serah held on to the controls with every ounce of strength she had. Lightning flashed all around her, blinding her momentarily, and the thunderclaps were instantaneous and deafening. Darkened skies and pouring rain forced her to trust in the ship's global positioning system, because she could hardly see at all. When it came time to land, this became an issue. Even out of the cloud cover, night had descended, and the shadows played with her depth perception. A reflection of the moon glinting off a rooftop was the only hint she had to find Joy Numenbacker's house. Steering towards the solar-panelled cottage, she engaged the landing gear as Sazh explained.

One crash landing later, it became obvious that Serah was not cut out to be a pilot.

The door to the cottage was open and Joy stood under the eaves, clutching her shawl around her shoulders against chill of the storm. The sudden tremors that rocked her house alerted her of their arrival. The ship's hull had dug into the ground of her backyard, a few meters away. As she peered out into the night, she found a young woman emerge from the twisted metal of the airship, dampened moonlight shining in her hair. She was carrying something heavy on her back. Through the rain, it was hard to discern what it was. Thankfully, Sergeant Evans had called earlier, filling her in on the situation.

Joy rushed back into the house, re-emerging a moment later with the gurney from the operating room. Outside the front door, she nearly ran into the young woman. Up close, she was surprised how small she was – she couldn't have weighed much more than 100 lbs soaking wet… as she was presently. The man draped over her shoulders probably weighed twice as much as she did, but she'd managed to carry him across the yard in a few minutes.

"Quick, place him here," she shouted over the rain.

In the foyer of the cottage, Serah hesitated while Joy rushed Noel into the OR. Water pooled on the floor around her, dripping from her hair and clothing. She bent down to untie the laces of her knee-high boots, which were now caked with mud from the trek across the yard, when Joy called over to her.

"Come in, don't worry about the mess," she said, "I think I'll need your help over here."

With only a second more of hesitation, Serah ran into the OR, boots half untied. Standing at Noel's side, she took his hand in her own.

"Alright, what can I do?"

Vessel – (noun): a tubular structure, such as an artery or vein, which transports blood in the body.

After having the circumstances of his paralysis and subsequent seizure explained to her, Joy looked thoughtful.

"Well, you did the right thing. The components of the Elixir would be able to neutralize the paralysis poison by binding the molecule. The newly formed compound, however, needs to be filtered out of the blood. Usually this would be done by the kidneys. However, the amount of poison poses a problem."

Serah's eyes went wide at the statement, the woman's words confirming what she'd feared all along. Ardea had warned her about the consequences, but she'd refused to believe it. Even now, she clung to the hope that Joy could do something to wake Noel up.

"When it reacted with the Elixir, the concentration of the neutralized compound was too high, causing it to precipitate out of the blood, and deposit in the vessels. The seizure was caused by this accumulation of precipitate. That isn't the only danger. The compound is also being treated as a foreign body, causing inflammation and possibly blood clots within the circulatory system. This could lead to heart attack or stroke.

"Right now, his kidneys are working overtime trying to filter out the poison. Without intervention, they run the risk of failing due to the high levels of the compound in his blood. If we perform hemodialysis, filtering his blood through a machine, I think we'll be able to save his kidneys as well as prevent additional deposition of the compound."

Despite the serious news, Serah was relieved to hear that Joy already had a plan of attack. She took a steadying breath before responding. "Alright, so we use hemodialysis. How can I help?"

Joy eyed Noel's neck wearily. "There's just one problem," she indicated the wound that she had covered with gauze. "He's lost too much blood already. Filtering his blood outside his body means that his blood volume will decrease even more. As it is, he could go into shock any moment."

It was clear to Serah that Joy thought dialysis was Noel's only hope. But now she was saying she couldn't do it. "Can't you just give him some blood?"

Joy shook her head. "I'm a veterinarian. I don't normally have human blood on-hand."

"Use mine," Serah said resolutely, offering her arm. Over Joy's protests, Serah clarified, "I'm O-neg. That means I can donate to anyone, right?"

The tenacity of the young woman's gaze was enough to convince her.

"Mhm, that's right... Ok, we'll do it. But I need you to understand that this is a very risky procedure, and I can't promise it will work."

No words would sway her at this point. Anything was infinitely better than doing nothing at all, hoping that his body could handle the burden on its own.

"I understand."

Joy was already moving, collecting the implements she needed. "First, I'll start your line. Then I'll set your friend up for dialysis. This will be a shock for his body, so he may go into convulsions. I want you to stay calm. If your heart beat is steady, this will go a lot smoother."

Joy had Serah sit up on the stainless steel counter, with a tube connecting her arm to a plastic bag. Then she started a line at Noel's wrist, attaching it to the bag of Serah's blood. The small amount of red liquid in the bag remained steady after that. As fast as the blood flowed out of Serah's body, it flowed into Noel's. Joy used the neck wound as the drawing point for dialysis, so that she wouldn't need to make another incision and induce further blood loss. Then, she wheeled over a machine set the salt concentrations manually. The whole procedure hadn't taken much time to set up, but Joy informed her that the shortest run is generally two hours.

Insisting that Serah not donate too much blood, Joy stopped her after one unit. Serah insisted that she could give more, but Joy wouldn't hear it. Without the optimal equipment, it had still only taken 20 minutes. The dialysis was well under way, and Noel hadn't woken up.

To keep her mind off her friend, Joy suggested that Serah wash her clothes and take a shower. About to protest, Serah looked down at herself and the words died in her mouth. Mud had splashed up her legs when she'd ran over in the rain. Blood had dried into a thick dark brown skin on her thighs and hands, and had soaked into her shorts. She followed Joy in defeat, sending fretful looks over her shoulder as she left the operating room.

"The bathroom is just here." She waved her hand in front of a wall, revealing a hidden door in the northwest corner of the house. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to wash your clothes by hand. I don't want to risk using the washing machine while the dialysis is running. Regretfully, solar energy storage does have its limits. Towels are in the cupboard under the sink."

The room was painted a pastel green, so light that it was nearly white. To the right of the door was the sink, a small vanity and a large mirror above it. Stepping into the room, Serah thanked Joy and shut the door.

Serah watched her reflection as she stripped out of her bloodstained clothes. First, she stepped out of her boots, her feet enjoying the softness of the bathmat. Then she bent down, removing the satchel from her leg, and placed it on the floor against the door. Her jean shorts needed to be peeled off, and the sticky sensation made her cringe. It hadn't seemed like that much blood when she'd removed the needle from Noel's neck, but at the time she'd been…

Her heart jumped into her throat. Reminding herself that Joy was doing everything she could wasn't enough. She threw the shorts into the sink with frustration. Noel was not going to die. She covered her face with her hands, dragging them down against her skin in an effort to erase the apprehension that clutched at her heart.

She'd already had to take off both her gloves and arm wrapping so that she could donate blood. All that remained now was her shirt. As she lifted it over her head, the muscles in her back and shoulders protested at the movement. Carrying Noel had required all of her strength, but again, at the time it had felt like nothing. Now, the pain was a reminder of what she did to help him. She prayed it was enough. She threw her shirt into the sink, along with her undergarments and turned on the tap.

Jumping into the shower, she turned the dial as hot as her skin could handle, and let the water cascade over her face. Her eyebrows knitted together in effort as she urged her troubles to wash away like they always did. They didn't leave her as easily as the blood and dirt that flaked off her body and disappeared down the drain.

When she was finished, she wrapped a fluffy robe around her, and hung her clothes on the towel rack to dry. Joy let her sit by Noel's side until the dialysis was complete.

They moved Noel onto the hide-a-bed in the living room, and Joy surprised her by pressing a button which lowered the bed into the basement.

"I figure the storm might bother him," she said with a knowing smile.

Serah thanked her and joined Noel downstairs via a small ladder. She sat on the edge of the bed and held Noel's hand well into the night.

Etro... she pleaded, her voice lost to the drumming rain and roaring wind, Maker... Lightning... Anyone! Please, please, just let him wake up!