of the Heart

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy XIII-2 and all its characters are property of Square Enix. I own just the game.

Academia was strikingly beautiful at night, the towering buildings cemented to the multiple layers of the city bathed in an unearthly radiance. The soft neon lights that lined those buildings seemed to stretch to the sky, parting the black heavens and giving the illusion that the stars were not too far out of reach. The populace was just as active in the nighttime as it was in the day, melodious laughter and excited chit-chats filling the air. Flat pathway escalators acted as the veins of the city, transporting energy to and from the heart of the metropolis, where Serah stood now. This sight of nocturnal Academia was one that she was not familiar with, at least when it was not pelted by heavy rain and dominated by the darkness of the timeline's paradox. No. In 4XX AF, Academia was not besieged by Caius. There were no deaths; just life, and so much of it surrounding her.

The crowd beside her began counting down, and she followed suit, silently in her mind.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

A surge of fireworks burst into the atmosphere, a great shower of vibrant silver and blue slowly raining downwards as three fresh eruptions followed, arching over the fading lights like a giant umbrella. She didn't know which was louder—the explosions above or the cheers next to her. The pattern repeated itself with different colors, its display easily rivaling the splendor of her home's fireworks festival. She watched in awe and sadness as memories of the people she had spent her time with at Bodhum's fireworks festival flashed through her mind, the recollections growing stronger with each flare of colors that painted the velvet sky. Serah crossed her arms, wrapping them around herself as if to keep the longing and loneliness from penetrating her heart.

There were so many fond memories. She had been attending the festival with Lightning ever since they were children. Serah had always feared that one year her sister would grow impassive towards the event; she had always been far more mature and wise for her age, and had always put her duties and obligation to her work and her only family member above everything else, including her own needs. Fortunately, Lightning had never grown tired of the festival, always making an effort to leave work early to celebrate with her younger sister, always making sure to splurge just a little more on food and drinks and games so they could both justify her brutal work and sleepless nights. And then there was Snow. He could have had any woman he wanted, but instead, he chose to propose to her almost four years ago in her greatest time of distress and need, giving her renewed dreams and hope by promising himself and his soul to a doomed l'Cie under those fireworks. She had felt like the luckiest girl ever, even with her curse.

But that's all they were now—just memories, and she feared so much that that's all they will ever be.

She was aware of being pushed back and forth by children dashing through the mass of people—each of them holding a little pinwheel that spun with the gentle breeze of the night and the energetic motion of its owner—but didn't care, her eyes riveted to the exhibit that sent back bittersweet reminiscences from another lifetime and another world. The distraction proved so great that she didn't even realize she was flailing backwards from a particularly rough shove of a child until she stumbled against a hard body, startling the person behind her. She quickly balanced herself to a full standing before turning around to apologize, stopping midway in her "Sorry" when she discovered it was Noel, his handsome face looking back at her with concern. Her sheepish smile fell quickly, lips parted to release an inaudible sigh. She stood unmoving, stunned by how spellbinding the reflections of the fireworks were in his royal blue eyes until a gentle breeze swept his long, brown bangs over them. Realizing that she was beginning to stare, she swiftly looked downward and straightened out her pink and white dress even though it already wrapped snugly around her slim figure.

"Serah! Are you all right? What happened?" he asked her, those beautiful eyes taking on a sharp edge as they hastily searched the crowd for a possible threat. A hunter's habit, she supposed.

"Y-yeah, s-sorry about that," she stammered, suddenly feeling overly embarrassed to have crashed into him the way she had. "A kid knocked into me."

He shook his head, watching the rowdy children tearing through packs of adults like a scissor slicing across fabric. "Let's stick together," he suggested. "It's way too easy to lose one another here and I've already purchased everything we need."

She nodded in agreement. Noel had stepped aside to stock up on some healing supplies for their journey, so she had taken the liberty to check out the fireworks. She didn't realize she had wandered too far, swallowed up by the throng of residents.

"Hey…Serah?" he asked tenderly, his head tilting to eye her carefully. "Is there something on your mind? Anything you want to talk about? It seems like something is bothering you."

She forced a smile and turned to look at the sky again, subtlety avoiding his watchful gaze. He was always so perceptive when it came to her, and deep down she knew her odd behavior was worrying him. Ever since the vision she had in the Augusta Tower of Noel being stabbed by Caius, she had been overwhelmed by terror. Every time she saw him, she was haunted by the same vision, the fear of losing yet another person so dear to her leaving her in a debilitating emotional state. She could not bring herself to reveal the terrible vision and worry him. This was her burden to bear, and she could only hope to change the timeline to avoid the fate in her premonition. They had just finished talking to Hope earlier, learning more about the nature of the Proto fal'Cie Adam and its failure to save the future. Instead, their new plan was to search the world for graviton cores in order to levitate the new Cocoon. Serah was all too eager to continue their journey, but Noel had suggested taking it slow for the night and enjoying Academia's annual festival of the Day of Rebirth, a celebration of a second chance given to humanity. He knew they could both use some fun, as their journey was often filled with heart-wrenching revelations and hope and loss of hope and paradox-induced headaches. As difficult as it was to enjoy herself, she still needed to try, if not for her own sake then at least for his.

"It's nothing," she reassured, injecting strength into her statement. "I was actually looking forward to tonight."

He sighed, unconvinced, but didn't push the issue. He understood her well enough to know that she wasn't going to talk if she wasn't ready to. "If you say so…" he said softly.

"Come on, Noel. I shouldn't be the only one having fun tonight, right?"

"Right," he agreed with enthusiasm that sounded a little too forced to her ears.

Her smile widened. Noel was too sweet, too willing to put himself in an uncomfortable environment just so she could unwind. He came from a desolate world, lived a lonely life his entire existence, so she doubted social graces and being near so many people at once were what he was at ease with. However, that didn't stop him from trying—and that was what she respected so much. He was always willing to learn new things, new ways, explore and accept the unknown. He had helped her discover so many new things about herself and the world, and now it was her turn to return the favor.

"Let's get going then," she said as she faced him with her game face. "But…where's Mog?"

"Hah, abducted by the kids in that corner." He pointed to the entrance of a small restaurant a few feet away. Surely enough, poor Mog was hovering helplessly in the air, batting away little hands with his very own pinwheel, Kupopopopo echoing harshly through sweet laughter.

Serah couldn't contain her own giggles, the entertainment lifting away a good fraction of desperate helplessness that filled her heart. "I think the little guy can take of himself…so let me show you around?"

He leaned forward, and she could hear excitement rising in his voice, telling her that this night was really all for her. "You're really up for it then?"

"We have all night, don't we?" she challenged with a grin, already making her way towards the opposite street filled with various stands.

He followed behind her in the same manner whenever she took point, ever so keen and ever so protective, leaving a comfortable distance between them but never too far in case he needed to reach her when danger struck. But the city was perfectly safe, and he needed to follow his own advice on needing to relax, so she slowed her pace until he was walking by her side. She guided him down a lane with shocking aquamarine lights. Exotic food and snacks filled the stretch of tables on one side of the street, games and flamboyant items for purchase on the other. A live orchestra band played not too far away on a small stage, the notes sharply traveling throughout the bustling city. She couldn't identify the song, but stopped for a moment to appreciate the haunting melody that held her in a trance. It was a simple tune, but the complexity of the piece rested in the different emotions it conveyed. She placed a hand to her chest, trying to find the rights words that best expressed how she felt. This song, it made her feel like she was living through moments of peace and happiness before facing inevitable tragedy.

She glanced at Noel from the corner of her eye and found him locked in the same daze she was in, but probably for different reasons. He looked like he was in deep concentration. "This must be different than what you're used to hearing?"

"It definitely is. It's certainly a lot more powerful than the lone singing voices that I'm used to in my time," he concluded, a rueful smile accompanying his reflection.

As the song reached a shattering crescendo, the childlike curiosity that lit up his eyes was hard to miss, and it reminded her of her students at New Bodhum—young children who bore the same look of inquisitiveness, wanting to discover more about everything that was foreign around them. He moved up a bit, eager to get a closer look at the different instruments.

Feeling like a teacher again, she wanted to explain each of the instruments, already making his way next to him when a stranger suddenly appeared beside her, commenting idly, "Pretty little piece, huh? It's called Wish." He looked to be much older than her, perhaps in his mid or late thirties with a receding hairline. His pudgy frame filled out the funky green suit he was in. He was dressed rather oddly for the occasion, maybe even silly perhaps.

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Wish?"

"Yeah, that's the name but no one knows who wrote it or where it had originated." The stranger suddenly leaned in, a bit too close for her liking. "Hey, I haven't seen you around here. Let me accompany you tonight, my dear?"

She took a step back, quickly shaking her head. "Umm…no, that's all right, I'm already with someone."

The piece had just ended and a roar of cheers and claps erupted, everyone moving toward the stage to give their ovation before the cymbals banged, introducing a new song that sounded like carnival music. The empty space between her and Noel was immediately filled, and she lost sight of him. "Noel!' she called over the applauses, tip-toeing to peer over heads and shoulders as she searched for him. "Noel! Noel!"

The stranger seemed skeptical about her companion as he too searched for this person she was yelling for. "I don't see this Noel person you're talking about," he remarked, his voice carrying a lilt as he waited for Noel to appear. A few seconds later, his tone changed to a more insistent one. "Come on, why don't we head to this nice restaurant I know, grab some dinner, drinks, desserts. Then we can do some shopping. I think I know just what to get you—"

"No, really it's fine," Serah interrupted and held out her hands to gesture for him to stop, both talking and getting any closer to her. She scanned and called out for the hunter yet again, her heart racing slightly faster as she simultaneously tried to figure out how to get rid of this intruder.

Just as she was about to walk toward the stage herself to search for him, a grip tightened around her wrist, trying to drag her in the other direction. "Hey! Let go of me!" she protested, pulling her wrist back, half angry and half shocked that he had resorted to physical measure in his persistence to win her company.

"Come on hun, just you and me—"

"Can I help you?!" a voice spat with fury behind the man, causing him to immediately spring aside, the sudden fright he must have felt betrayed all across his visage.

And there was Noel, his face taut. His mouth formed a tight line of disapproval and his eyebrows knitted over his piercing blue eyes, his gaze as hard as steel. He crossed his arms over his chest as if restraining himself from launching forward. His muscles strained against the fabric of his tight black shirt as he slowly walked next to her, his menacing eyes never leaving the man who had just touched her. Serah could feel the blaze of Noel's rage emanating from his body, and so could the others who had stopped what they were doing, turning to the three of them.

"N-no, that's all right!" The man held his hands up in surrender and began moving backwards, finding an escape route. He grumbled something under his breath before he took off about fifteen feet away from them. Not a minute later, he was already trying to talk to another woman who was eating a hotdog next to a concession stand. Luckily for her, a group of her friends arrived, hauling the woman away.

She turned her view away from him in disgust and let out a breath she didn't even know she had been holding till she let it out, releasing all her anxiety and apprehension in that one exhale. Noel relaxed too, his expression growing soft as he assessed her quickly, especially her wrist.

"I'm okay," she told him before he could even ask, but what did make uncomfortable were the looks people were giving them; they were still the focal point of the spectacle.

Noel must have sensed it too, refraining from saying anything more until he guided them away from the lingering stares and as far away from the creepy stranger as possible. He walked beside her, much closer than he had earlier. They stopped at the end of the street they were on. He ran a hand through his air, his lips shifting wordlessly, trying to formulate what he needed to say.

But he didn't need to say anything. What had happened was certainly not his fault. "Don't worry about it Noel," she said gently, the forgiveness his eyes were asking for already in her voice.

"I…I-I just…" He struggled to find the words, frustration growing in his tone. Finally, he lowered his head, a long sigh escaping between his lips. "Sorry, Serah. I shouldn't have gone too far ahead on my own."

"You hadn't. I'm just sorry that you couldn't enjoy the rest of the music. You seemed really into it."

He shook his head, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "It's no big deal. I'm just really glad you're okay."

"I am," she reassured him again. "So come on, why don't we go check out the games?"

"All right," he relented, and then a beat later, "but…just stay close to me, okay?"

Her heart soared at his concern, unlike any other way she had felt when he looked out for her. Whenever he protected her on the battlefield, she felt appreciation, nothing beyond. But this, this simple request made her feel something entirely different, both heartfelt and anxious.

"Okay," she said with feigned casualness. They began to walk, and with every step she took, she found herself leaning towards him more and more. Any closer and their skin would meet, so she drew her hands together behind her back, the idea of accidentally brushing her arm against his suddenly making her feel jumpy.

They weaved through more crowds until her eyes fell on five high rows of all sorts of stuffed animals lining behind what seemed to be a tall, cushioned pillar with a plasma frame resting on top. Digital numbers blinked on the screen. It was a very flashy punching bag, but her attention was geared more towards the dolls; she easily recognized Cactuar, Chocobo, Moogle, Tonberry, and Pupu.

"So cute," she commented, noticing that a few girls around them were holding dolls in their arms, their well-toned significant others wrapping an arm around their shoulders.

"Do you…want one?" Noel asked, one hand already digging into his pocket to reach for some gil, mimicking the other men waiting on line.

He must have caught the look of delight she had tried to not make too obvious. She loved stuffed animals, even had a Carbuncle sitting in her room back at New Bodhum, a birthday present from NORA. But after Lightning's disappearance and Snow's departure, she felt stuffed animals shouldn't have the same appeal to her anymore. However, try as she may, she could not deny that the childish part of her was still existent, and Noel could easily read her face even when she shook her head, pink side ponytail swaying over her shy smile. "No, it's all right…" she answered, unconvincing even to herself.

"Are you sure? The Chocobo seems to be the most popular."

She didn't say anything so he pressed again, "I'm actually interested in trying this game."

Serah beamed, having no choice but to give in. "Okay. Well, you have to wait on line and give your money to the host before starting the game, and it seems like they are calling four people up at a time. Each person punches the punching bag; the stronger the punch, the higher the score. The person with the highest score wins and gets to choose a prize."

Noel chuckled. "Yeah, I figured that much. All right, so if I win, which one do you want?"

Her eyes shifted from one toy to the next. They were all so adorable, making the decision even harder. She was taking way too long, even Noel was aware of her indecisiveness. "Oh come on, don't make me pick one for you, because if I have to it's gonna be the Behemoth."

Whatever look of shock and disgust she had made caused him to burst into laughter, and it wasn't long before she joined in.

She pouted, crossing her arms across her chest in mock annoyance. "Okay fine, I guess I'll take the Cactuar."

"You got it," he told her with unparalleled confidence as he walked over to the line.

She waited with him, watching the other girls give their boyfriends kisses here and there, looking completely star-struck. A few fell into the embraces of strong, welcoming arms, other choosing to intertwine their fingers and hold hands. She had been the same way with Snow when they first started dating—all happy and carefree. They could spend hours lying on the beach, talking about their pasts, NORA, goals, nothing, and everything. Snow had always wanted a lot of kids, told her the plans he had for his children and how he wanted to be the best father, having grown up without one. She had always assumed she would be a mother at her current age, with the way Snow talked about family. But all the dreams she had with him felt so distant now, carried away into the same sea from where they had been born on the nights they had discussed their future on the shores of Bodhum.

In a way, she was just as new to all this as Noel was, re-living a slice of normalcy she hadn't experience in a long time. She cast a furtive glance at her friend's hand, wondering what it would be like to lace her fingers with his as they walk side by side, talk as they stroll along a shore, watch the fireworks while suspended in air, share a passionate kiss when the moment felt right.

She wanted all that again, she wanted to be happy again. Guilt washed over her, a high tide ebbing to gentle ripples…and then numbness.

So lost in her thoughts again that she did not realize that the host was about to call the next four contestants, immediately knocking her out of her reverie. Noel was one of four men, and also the shortest and smallest of them. Standing beside her were three girls dressed in revealing dresses, cheering for the males next to Noel. The men turned back, making wild gestures of bravado as they each stepped up to the plate. The numbers flickered: 700, 780, 850.

She held her breath when it was Noel's turn, and before the blink of an eye, it was over. The punching bag vibrated back and forth from the brute force, the digits flashing rapidly overhead, until they finally settled on an impressive, maximum score of 1000.

The host, with his eyes wide, staggered backwards, slightly overtaken by the numbers. "Uh…well, we don't see this too often. Good job, young man! Pick your prize."

"I'll take the Cactuar," Noel told the host, pride blooming in his voice.

As he went to claim the prize like a true hunter claiming his reward, Serah heard the girls beside her groan audibly, seeming more irritated that their friends couldn't show off their prowess than not winning a toy. She felt sorry for the men to be in the company of such attractive but vain girls. Ignoring their complaints, she walking towards Noel as he approached her with Cactuar in his hands, but before she could reach for her doll, the trio of women cut in front of her. Three pairs of arms found their way towards her partner, their fingers greedily clinging to every available slice of his upper body's flesh.

Serah stopped in her tracks, an instant stab of concern paralyzing her in the face of this foreign threat. It was completely different from the times she had worried about his safety or the timeline or the future. It was far too primal, far too personal, stirring a concoction of nasty emotions to be spewed by her heart and run its course through her veins.

"Just who are you?" the blonde one asked with a giggle, running her neon pink nails up and down his bicep.

"Yeah, Handsome, haven't seen you around town before," purred the one in the tight, short dress as she seductively lifted a leg against his.

"H-handsome?" Noel choked out, his body shifting awkwardly in the grasps of these, these predators.

A blush tinted his cheeks, his eyes blinking rapidly as he tried to train his gaze away from the bodies. Shock registered in her first and then the feelings of self inadequacy—anger and jealousy joined thereafter; each sentiment bounced off each other fiercely like a volley of ricocheting bullets, fueling the rise of bile till she could taste it in the back of her throat when the last woman grabbed his shoulders, tiptoeing to level her mouth with his.

"Wanna have some fun with us tonight?" she asked, lips inches away from his breath.

"Uh…umm…no, t-that's a-all right," he stammered, releasing more gasps than audible syllables.

But the last one was relentless, pushing his hand away and pressing her curvaceous body against his chest. "Oh, but I insist…"

Rarely was she known to share Lightning's terrifying rage whenever her sister fought to protect what was dear to her. She could no longer contain the wrath she needed to deliver, her disgust with these women far greater than her internal restraint. She stormed up to Noel, snatched the doll from his hand, and beat the woman (with the curves) over her head with Cactuar, her side ponytail bobbing wildly with each strike.

"He said no! Didn't you hear him the first time?" Serah seethed through gritted teeth. "Are you deaf?"

The other two women broke away, girlish screams echoing one another; the last one had no choice but to release her hold on him in an effort to protect her head with her arms.

"Serah!" Noel exclaimed, quickly coming to his senses. "Serah, stop!"

At the sound of her name, she lowered her arms and stumbled backwards, panting hard as she willed herself to calm down at the sight of the women cowering together. The tension in her body slowly receded with the knowledge that those hands and bodies were no longer tainting and tempting Noel. She didn't know which was more nauseating, but hopefully she had made it clear to the ladies that she was not going to tolerate that kind of behavior from them again. Next time, she was going to be armed with Mog, in his sword form.

The women scrambled to their male friends, whose eyes burned with resentment and something else…envy. The three of them slowly walked towards Noel, one of them already smashing his fist into his palm. Panic rose in her chest as the men drew closer to him, and before she could even think of how to react, she was already in front of him, arms widely spread out. "You want him? Then you're gonna have to go through me," she blurted out, her adrenaline rush keeping each word firm. It took a few seconds for her to register what she had just done and said, stunning not just herself by the men in front of her. She heard Noel shuffling behind her, the slightest of his movements telling her that he was just as shocked and unsure of what to do.

"That sounds so familiar…" she heard him whisper, his voice projecting a distant musing.

"That was the first thing you said to me when we met," she reminded him gently, her focus never leaving the threat before them. She stood tall and solidly like a column, remaining rather calm even though she was unarmed. In this moment, she understood that the only thing that mattered was the safety of the one she was protecting, nothing else.

None of the men made a move, until one shifted his foot slightly forward. Noel had recollected his senses and detected the motion before she did, jumping in front of her and shielding her from any possible onslaught with his entire frame.

"Look, we're not here to cause any trouble. We'll be leaving now," he said warningly, an open palm gesturing for the trio to cease. "Come on, Serah."

She looked back and forth between him and the group of men, and agreed that it would be best to just walk away. She slowly dropped her arms. Like Noel had said, they weren't here to cause problems. He turned first to lead her away, and in that instant, she caught the blur of a fist flying over her head, aimed at Noel's back. Before she could yell to warn him, Noel had already whirled around, catching the attacker's wrist in a vise-like clench.

His eyes betrayed every bit of tension in his body, promised every bit of pain he was capable of inflicting. "I'm serious," he deadpanned, a deep scowl breaking across his face.

The assailant grimaced, and his two friends backed away with the females. Having no choice but to concede, he grumbled something inaudible and Noel released his arm with some reluctance. They watched him return to his friends, wrist limp in his other hand. It wasn't long before they all took off. She and Noel walked in the other direction, ignoring the many looks and whisperings of the people around them. They had caused another scene, but it didn't bother her nearly as much as it did the first time.

Some distance away, Noel stopped and stretched his arms, a smile on his face. His cheery self was returning to lighten the mood. "Well that was something new."

She wanted to share his good nature but couldn't, instead feeling an uncontrollable fit of anger burst with her accusation. "You know, all that could have been prevented if you had just walked away from the girls like you had with the men." This was the first time she had ever snapped at him. She immediately recognized it as her own possessiveness and jealousy talking, but it was too late to take back her words.

His eyes widened, mouth agape. "W-whoa, what? Serah! I wasn't going to leave you behind to go with them!" he defended, drawing his fingers to his chest. "I told her no! Isn't that why you started beating her? Because she didn't listen to me the first time?"

She didn't say anything even though she knew he was right. Still, the images of Noel locked in their seduction played through her mind, and her heart sank with hurt.

He exhaled sharply, a pleading look in his eyes. "I'm sorry if I made you feel like I was going to abandon you. I out of all people should know what it's like to feel abandoned, growing up in a tribal village with hunters and all. We had always stuck together."

She wanted to tell him that it wasn't solely the abandonment itself she was upset about; it was the intent behind it that bothered her. Those girls were far more physically attractive than her and were basically throwing themselves at him. She walked farther away from him and casted her eyes downward, finding that she was still gripping Cactuar tightly in her hands. The doll looked up at her with an elongated 'o' for its mouth, its expression winning a small laugh out of her. Aggression eased from her fingertips as she brought Cactuar towards her chest, giving it a proper, affectionate squeeze with all ten fingers and loving the softness of the toy. She cherished Cactuar because she cherished the person who had won it for her. It was wrong for her to blame him for not understanding how she had felt. Having grown up in a deserted world, his mind was still innocent when it came to understanding women, and as selfish as it was, she liked it that way, for now.

She heard him walk up behind her. "Serah?" he asked with uncharacteristic apprehension.

She faced him with a forced silly smirk, giving him the impression that she had simply gone crazy earlier. "Sorry about that, Noel. I guess I overreacted, thinking that you were going to run off and abandon me, Mog, and our mission."

He looked at her incredulously, just as she had expected. "You've gotta be kidding me! Seriously?"

She continued to carefully cover her track and change the topic. "How about you let me pick the next game for making me worry like that?"

"Sure, no problem." He let out an exaggerated sigh of relief to confirm that he was off the hook, but his expression turned serious moments later. His hand brushed against the back of his head, his sincerity true and genuine in his bashful smile. "By the way, I was really touched that you came to my defense like that. You weren't always this hostile, were you?"

He probably knew the answer. Even growing up with someone like Lightning, she had been docile her entire life. Death had stolen her parents too soon, before she could even capture any lucid memories of them, before she could understand the true pain of losing loved ones. They were taken care of by some relatives until Lightning turned thirteen, and then she had sacrificed all of her teen youth to take care of Serah, trying to put her through a good life. Snow had played a similar role when they met. Serah had always been the dependent one, drawing strength from those far stronger than her. Looking back, it was so naïve of her to have thought that she could never lose her sister and Snow. Now they were both gone, forcing her to stand on her own two feet and realize how important it was for her to guard the ones dear to her, for fear that they too would one day disappear like Lightning and Snow had.

She had changed, grown more powerful and protective throughout her journey, but also more vulnerable to the fear of loss, especially after having developed tremendous attachments to the ones who mattered. She simply shrugged, finding it easier to lie than to face that vulnerability, so she told him with a beam, "Well I am called Meanie Miss Farron, aren't I?"

"I'm sure not going to argue with that," he agreed, gazing at her for a few seconds longer, his eyes requesting that she offer a continuation. She gave none.

A trail of bright pink glitter suddenly swirled behind Noel's head, Mog's body emerging into view as he floated higher, smacking the man across the face with his pinwheel.

"Hey!" Noel yelled, easily grabbing the moogle's wing and pulling him back before he could evade his fingers. "What was that for?"

"That was for leaving me with those kids back there and then giving me competition, kupo!" he chirped, pointing to the Cactuar that was held affectionately in Serah's arms. Mog's crystal drooped a little at the sight, his little fury arms waving to smack Noel again but never quite reaching his face.

Serah felt a surge of warmth embrace her heart, wanting to hug the living stuffing out of Mog.

"But there's one thing that I can do that Cactuar can't! Kupo! Serah, there's an archery contest down there. Go for it!" Mog wiggled his way out of Noel's grasp, dancing in the air, summoning a white cloud into which he disappeared, reappearing seconds later as a bow dropped into Serah's hand.

Noel pointed to the weapon. "That's your strong point now, Serah."

She nodded, feeling more ready than ever to test her skills. "I guess I'll go give it my best shot then."

They walked side by side, maneuvered through a few booths until they found the site of the archery contest at a wide open space. Holograms of different monsters throughout the world floated against a backdrop of an extensive black stretch of net that caught the arrows that flew through the targets. She counted maybe fifty monsters and two scoreboards, one for each contestant. Two people would play against each other at this game, the winner being the one who hit more targets.

"All right, who's up next for a game of Bowmaster?" the host encouraged, motioning for people to step up.

"We'll give this a go," Noel answered, already stepping up to give the host some gil—a quick learner. He then went to select his bow from the racks, testing each one before settling on one he was comfortable with.

She dropped Cactuar by her feet before lifting her weapon to show the host, the crystal embedded within it lighting up as if to wish her good luck. "Will it be all right if I used my own?"

"Sure thing," the host accepted, moving out of the way to start the game. He placed a hand on a red button by the border of the net, counting to three. "All right folks; let's see what these two can do. One…two…"

Serah grinned, falling into her traditional battle stance and straightening her posture. Her eyebrows furrowed in resolve as she looked over to Noel, who was just as prepared as she was, his impeccable posture alone proof enough that he was going to be a formidable opponent. "Don't go easy on me," she warned.

"I don't think you need me to." He had more faith in her than she had in herself.

"Three!" the host shouted, his palm slamming against the button.

It turned out that the icons were not meant to stay static. Some monsters dashed across the air, others blinking in and out of existence like phantoms. Hitting a Bomb caused it to rupture and eliminate nearby monsters, reducing the number of targets. A Long Gui that could not be taken down acted as an obstacle that obstructed the view of smaller creatures. This game was tricky; there were no consistent patterns. She had to rely solely on her skills and speed, not luck. The arrows soared through the night like tails of shooting stars. She chanced a glance at the scoreboard and found that she was in the lead, but Noel was only four or five points behind, having the disadvantage of needing to reload his arrows whereas hers operated on magic. The targets grew fewer in sight as the whish from each dying one filled the air like sighs from ghosts. Normally her arms would have been sore by now, having never changed to her sword formation or rely on spells for reprieving her aching limbs, but she was still standing firmly, feeling as steady as the straight arrows she ejected.

There was only one more target left on the board now. Two arrows flew towards it, hers claiming the target first and knocking Noel's out of its trajectory. The lights overhead blinked, and she found that she had scored ten points more than Noel. Applauses and cheers went off for her. She dipped her head in gratitude, satisfaction blossoming in her chest as she looked down at her glowing bow that shook slightly, Mog's way of congratulating her. She almost quite didn't believe that she had really won against Noel until she saw him clapping for her too, his smile the most radiant in the crowd. He put away his weapon before approaching her, pride evident in the reverent way he looked at her. No one had ever looked at her like that.

"Excellent performance, young lady!" the host roared, coming to her to hand her the prize she won. "Here you are. Two flash tickets for the Cosmo Clock on the upper level of Academia. These will allow you to cut that enormous line."

She thanked him, took the tickets, and picked up Cactuar. The Cosmo Clock—she could see the gigantic ferris wheel upon gazing at the upper level of the city, the ride towering enough to bring the occupants to the sky. Each carriage shined like a gem in the night and swayed lightly as the wheel oscillated at a slow and steady pace. The seemingly endless number of spokes entwined one another to form a massive clockwork at the core, gears and cogs spinning to keep the carriages cycling.

"The tickets…are for that?" Noel asked, overtaken by awe.

"Yeah, it's gorgeous…" She felt the tickets bend a little in her hand, her thumb having pressed into them a little too deeply. She had two tickets and it almost went without saying that they were for them. Still, she felt like she needed to ask him to accompany her. "Hey…Noel? Wanna check it out with me?"

"I'd love to. Never seen anything like that…" He stood and watched the ferris wheel with his hands on his hips, standing as erect as the ride, excitement brimming in his eyes.

Of course he hadn't, and of course he didn't know that the ride wasn't just for kids or family or friends. It was also a ride for first dates, romantics, and lovers, the cage confining two people in an intimate setting for a short but unforgettable duration. She was suddenly worried about how he might feel in such a setting, but ultimately, she was more worried about how she might feel. As nervous as she was, she couldn't possibly decline these tickets and deny Noel of something this novel and thrilling to him. It was settled then. She pocketed the tickets in her side pouch and threw her bow into the air, the weapon disappearing into white smoke and then transforming back to Mog.

"Okay, sounds like a plan then, but let's grab something to eat before the Cosmo Clock," she suggested, her stomach rumbling a little. It was a little hard to tell whether she was really hungry or simply edgy.

Mog floated above them, rubbing his stomach furiously. "I could use some food myself actually, kupo!"

Noel took one last long look at the Cosmo Clock before turning away. "Okay then, food it is."

Serah checked the map of the Academia posted on a nearby wall, tracing some paths with her finger. "There should be a food court on the upper level, near the Cosmo Clock."

Mog led the way, Noel and Serah following slowly behind the moogle. They got on the flat escalators, the upwards lift giving them an expansive view of the city below and the energy the festival radiated. So much life thrived here, so much vigor to feed off from. She couldn't imagine what it had been to live in Noel's world in absolute isolation and loneliness, a place where you didn't feel like time existed because every day was the same: dark, depressing, hopeless. She wanted to help him complete his goal, fix the timeline so he could be granted with a future where he no longer had to feel alone, a future he rightfully deserved. The vision she saw of Caius stabbing him still frightened her, but her inner resolve to do what she could to protect him made that fear wane, just a bit.

"I think you're capable of buying food on your own now, especially since we have stores?" she teased him once they stepped off the escalator. She remembered how shocked he looked the first time he was told that he didn't need to hunt for his dinner. It had been on that fateful night when the meteorite hit New Bodhum. After Lebreau had come to, she made everyone some quick dinner as Noel told NORA about the time gate. Noel had suggested that they go out to do some hunting, leading the older woman to laugh and explain that they had stores to buy food from. Gadot had been annoyed, thinking that 'future boy' was using his tricks to deceive everyone, but Serah had never believed that to be the case. She had sided with Lebreau, taking an easy liking to the new stranger, his odd habits and ways far too genuine for deceit.

"Oh yeah, well, who was in trouble when we first reached the Archylte Steppe where there were no stores, hmm?" he teased her back and stroked his chin. "If I could recall, a certain somebody fell into a mud pit three times while chasing a Mewmao."

"She got mud all over me too, yuck, kupo!" Mog whined, his eyes squeezing even tighter in disgust.

"Sorry Mog! The point is that I eventually did get it!" she shot back playfully, forgetting to add that she had only done so with enormous help from Noel who had basically pinned the monster down so she could get a shot at it. Hunting really was tough, and she was so grateful that she had Noel by her side, otherwise she would have starved to death on those days spent at the Steppe.

"And that's what matters. You've really become a great hunter after all your practice," he told her honestly. "The hunters I knew would have been honored to have you in their pack."

She did not miss the sadness she heard in his last statement, as quickly as it had gone. She pulled Mog from the air and placed him into Noel's hands. "And Lebreau would have been honored to have you as her errand boy. The other men hate going grocery-shopping for her. Now why don't you two go buy something and I'll save us a seat at that table?" She nodded towards a long bench by the seating area of the food court.

"Okay," he said, any signs of sorrow in his face and tone already long evaporated. "What would you like?"

"Surprise me," she said with a wave, making her way to the table.

She sat down and watched Noel and Mog disappear into a bakery and thought that they really did come from two different worlds. It wasn't a bad thing at all. They were both learning from one another, and maybe once they reach Valhalla, a world which neither of them was familiar with, they'll discover something even greater, together.

As she waited, a child, no older than nine or ten, approached her, immediately taking a liking to the Cactuar on her lap. The girl smiled, but said nothing and took a seat across from her, presumably waiting for her parents. She continued to look at Cactuar with deep fascination until Serah lifted the doll onto the table. "Would you like to see it?" she asked the girl.

The girl nodded, happily extending a hand to stroke the plush. "Are you married?" she suddenly asked, anticipation so apparent in her young eyes.

Serah laughed. This child easily reminded her of one of her students, Emma. They were about the same age, both had wide brown eyes and short blonde hair. Emma was obsessed with marriage, asking boys her age on the beach if they wanted to marry her so she could have a dream wedding on a ship sailing away from New Bodhum. She supposed it was one of those things amongst princesses and knights in shining armor that little girls liked to daydream about.

Her hand fell to the pendant around her neck, her fingers lightly rubbing the engagement ring. The truth was that she would have been married by now if Lightning had not disappeared. Oh, how different her life would have been. She would have lived a life of peace and comfort, would not have known the true and full extent of her growth, that she was just as capable and strong as her sister. As she clasped the necklace tighter in her palm, she felt neither remorse nor regret for putting the wedding on hold. It had to be done. Ever since she began her own journey, she found that there were far superior expressions of love.

She released the chain from her hand and offered a gentle smile. Knowing that she would disappoint the girl if she told her the truth, she decided to humor them both and answered, "Yes."

The girl appeared more than satisfied with her answer, eyes gleaming with wonder. "Oh, what was your wedding like? Do you have kids?"

Serah tried to think of something entertaining to tell her, but her thoughts were interrupted when Noel came up beside her, a cup of mousse in his hand. She saw that he had gotten the same thing for himself and Mog.

"Microchu Mousse, chocolate flavored," he told her, setting the cup down on the table for her and giving her a spoon. "Apparently it's the most popular treat at the festival. They've almost sold out at that bakery. This is pretty good I must say." He took another spoonful of mousse, completely oblivious to the child across from them until she blurted out something that nearly made him drop his utensil.

"Oh, you must be her husband!" the girl yelled, her gaze darting back and forth between Serah and Noel.

Noel choked and looked as if he was about to jump out of his own skin, completely flustered and aghast. He shot Serah a confused and terrified look, his big blue eyes frantically demanding why this girl was under the assumption that they were married. She could practically feel his uneasiness crawling through his skin from the way he shifted uncomfortably in his standing. Mog, sensing the awkwardness, took his cup and ducked under the table.

"You're her husband, you're her husband," the child cheered excitedly, her words coming out as law.

"I'm not—" Noel protested, but Serah stopped him with a hand.

She raised her index finger to her lips, gently urging him to keep silent. She could tell that he didn't understand why, but a nod confirmed that he was going to abide by her wish, as silly and insane as it was.

"So what was your wedding like? Do you have kids?" the child repeated, this time the questions directed at Noel.

"Uh…um…well…" His throat was closing in on his words and she could see that the cup was shaking slightly in his hand. "Umm…it was nice…and no?"

The girl was going to open her mouth to speak again, but was stopped by her parents who had just walked up to her. "Molly, let's go. Stop bothering these nice people here," the mother said, taking her daughter's hand and giving Noel a 'sorry-about-that' look. Her father stood on the other side of her, carrying food in his arms and shaking his head in disapproval.

"Umm, that's quite all right," Noel murmured, turning to the side as he waited for the girl's parents to take her.

Molly gave Cactuar one last pat and went off with her parents, waving good-bye to Serah. She waved back, and it wasn't until Molly was out of sight that she felt a small longing in her heart. She missed her students back at New Bodhum. She missed their crazy talks, their overly idealistic passions and dreams they used to tell her, the 'Meanie Miss Farron' title they gave her. Yes, she was strict with them, but she had only wanted the best for her students for she had learned so much from the best—Lightning.

"Are they gone?" Noel asked her, still turned to the side.

She looked at his side profile and saw that a blush blended into his pale complexion, producing a lovely shade she liked very much. She fought down a giggle, deciding it was for the best to stop torturing the poor soul. "Yeah, they're gone," she affirmed.

Noel turned around to make sure and then sighed like the weight of the entire world has just been lifted off his shoulders. "What was that about?" he asked, taking a seat next to her to finish his mousse. His eyes were firmly fixated on the content inside his cup.

"She came up to me, wanting to play with Cactuar and then asked me if I was married. I know how young girls like her think, having taught a couple of them just like her back at New Bodhum. They get a kick out of things like that, so I told her yes just when you returned, so she must have made that connection," she recapped, dipping her own spoon into the mousse for the first time and having a taste of it. Noel was right. It was absolutely delicious.

He was quiet, the spoon in his hand unmoving and resting idly in the cup. She stole a glance at him and saw his eyebrows crease over thoughtful eyes. "You mean…you didn't refer to Snow? He's going to be your real husband, right?"

She put her own spoon down, too. She had not forgotten about Snow, never. But she hadn't exactly linked the idea of marriage to him either, at least not at the moment. "Yeah he is, one day. And no, I didn't refer to Snow. She's young, Noel, and she's not exactly ready to hear my life story, nor would she understand it," she told him with a small laugh, thinking how nonsensical everything would have sounded to the child if she had started spewing all the details of her love life. "She just wanted to hear something simple to be entertained."

He listened to her admission with an unreadable expression, his mind seemingly disconnected from the body beside her as he absentmindedly scooped the remnants of his mousse, finishing it and setting it on the table before he told her in a low voice, "You know, I've only heard about marriages through stories and history. I've never actually seen one take place, not even a proposal. You're the first person I know who's engaged."

Surprise took her; this was yet another new thing she was learning about him. She raised a questioning brow. "Not even your parents?"

"No. Marriage was unheard of in my village. Our primary goal was to reproduce, then nurture and protect in order to populate. It was all about survival. Some sort of bonding develops afterwards, and I guess you can call that love in a way. If so, then that's the only love I know," he elaborated, but he wasn't done—she could tell from the muscles constricting around his eyes that there was something else lingering on his mind. "Can I tell you something, Serah?"

She nodded. "Of course…"

"I don't want to worry you, but lately I've been feeling…I….I don't know how to describe it. It doesn't even make sense to me."

"What do you mean?" she asked slowly, noticing now that he had his fingers gripping his chest as if they could penetrate skin and rip his heart out.

He shook his head hard, trying to clear his mind before continuing. "Sometimes…I…I feel like I'm sick or something. My heart won't stop jumping, I get all clammy, lightheaded, my body feels like it's burning, and there's this pain in my chest, but this pain…it doesn't feel like any battle wound. It's completely new, hurts in a way I've never felt before. It comes and goes, and I can't control when it does, but sometimes it's hard to focus with it. All this…it's recent, so I'm wondering if it has something to do with a routine change or maybe I'm not resting enough or getting enough sleep. Maybe it's the effect of the timeline, paradoxes, anomalies. "

She watched him with sympathy, her own hand reaching to her chest that flourished with flattery. She knew why he was feeling the way he did, and it had nothing to do with the theories he provided, but did she dare tell him the truth?

"Are you…feeling it now?" she asked him, having and resisting the urge to lay a hand on his back to soothe him.

"Kind of," he admitted, eyes still focused on his empty cup. "Maybe it's the mousse," he joked, a grin finally breaking through.

She closed her eyes and smiled weakly with him, living vicariously through his words. He was young, and this was probably the first time his footsteps treaded into an uncharted territory of his heart. Living in a world devoid of the love she had come to see and know growing up, he saw this unidentified emotion as an intrusive illness, completely alien and infectious. His mind and body never had the chance to build immunity against this foreign disease, and it pained her to know that his first exposure to it all was inflicted by her. She did have to admit that it was somewhat amusing that he had unknowingly admitted his feelings to her without quite understanding them himself. She figured this was something he would need to sort out in due time—sometimes the journey of the heart is best to be taken alone.

"You'll be okay," she promised, voice full of affection and understanding, at the same time delivering a sort of finality with her single statement. It's something everyone experiences at least once in life.

He exhaled heavily and slowly. "I sure hope so. I'm sure it'll go away sooner or later." The confidence she was so used to masked any weakness he had just shown, leading her to wonder if he feigned strength often to keep driving forward, especially during times of pain and uncertainty. She supposed it had a lot to do with his upbringing. In a world where survival mattered the most, you had to keep fighting despite any obstacles thrown in your path.

She nodded, quietly finishing her own mousse. She felt Mog stir beneath the table, his body fidgeting against her leg, all too impatiently.

"Sorry if I worried you. I'll be fine," he told her with poise, his recovery ever so precise and graceful. "You ready to check out the Cosmo Clock?" He opened his hand to collect her cup.

"Yeah, I am. Thanks," she replied, placing her finished content into his palm.

"Oh, don't forget me, kupo!" Mog figured this was the appropriate time to come out of hiding. He too dropped his cup into Noel's hand.

"Gee, thanks," Noel grumbled, making his way to a garbage can.

Serah picked up Cactuar and followed, sharing a giggle with Mog behind him. It wasn't until she caught up Noel that she felt her lightheartedness fade, a heavy weight on her heart, her mind a battleground seeking resolution for her conflict. Just like Noel, she too was facing some sort of mental and internal ailment, and it only grew stronger the closer they approached the ferris wheel. The line was very long, but luckily they had the flash pass, which she was very grateful for. She didn't know if she could stand waiting on that line with this feeling eating away at her inside.

"I'm going to find something else to do, kupo, you two enjoy!" Mog said once they reached the Cosmo Clock. He fled off before neither she nor Noel could answer him. Even Mog had sensed something between them, something strange and off.

"Well, I'm sure Mog would have required an extra ticket anyway," she quipped, trying to steady her shaky smile.

"He'd probably be bored with us anyway," Noel added, as if to make the situation better. "Well, you ready?" He gazed upwards at the ride, the sheen in his eyes brilliant as the lights that lit the wheel.

She consciously swallowed the lump of nervousness that had made its way up her throat and nodded, walking to the front of the line to greet the attendant. "Hi, we have these flash passes," she told him, handing him the crumpled tickets.

"Ah, sure thing. You two will board next! Come over, right this way." The attendant opened the gate, leading her and Noel to the platform.

She could see the next empty carriage, a two-seater, swinging at a very gentle pace, lowering from the wheel with unhurried measure. There were many of them linked on the wheel, different sizes and shapes, both Coccoon and Pulse scripts emblazoned on each door, symbolizing a union of these two worlds towards which the festival celebrated. She translated the message on their purple carriage: This moment in the present shall become a memory in the future, but on this wheel of time it shall spin in eternal rapture. She thought about the message a little, and found it to be sweet. Whatever memory created on this ferris wheel would never die, bounded always to a continuous, unbreakable circle. It fitted very well into the conceptual clockwork design of the ride.

The attendant held on to their carriage and opened the metal door, one hand gesturing them inside.

Noel stood on the opposite side of the attendant, his arm out in the same manner. "You first, Serah."

Upon entering, she felt her heart pound a little at his courtesy. He had always treated her with respect and politeness, but it felt completely surreal yet wonderful to experience it in a whole new context. She gripped the sides of the cage to secure herself as she sat down, Cactuar on her lap. She noted that the interior was a lot smaller than how it looked from the outside. Noel entered next, and also had the same trouble of fitting in, steadying himself as he took the seat across from her.

"Enjoy!" the attendant said and closed the door with a heavy thud, the bolts locking in place.

They were completely confined and no more than three feet apart from knee to knee. As the carriage began to escalate, so did her heart, an intoxicating dizziness immediately taking over her. Her gaze bounced from one side to the other, down past Cactuar's head and at her feet that grazed the tips of his sandals. She wondered if it was evident to Noel that she was looking all over except at him. When she felt brave enough to chance a glance at him through the bangs that covered her eyes like curtains, she found that his stare was fixed to the side, his eyes on the spectacle taking place through the bars but his mind seemingly elsewhere. His brown hair swayed gently in the breeze, the soft glows from the lights and fireworks danced on the smooth surface of his skin, highlighting his chiseled side profile. She found her lips curving upwards, finding the view of Noel's face to be more riveting than the wonders taking place outside. Her gaze lingered just a little longer, trailing from his face to his broad shoulders, then to the rest of his upper body that had shielded her so many times in battle. Even though he claimed he was okay each time she asked him, she was sure that there were scars produced from his chivalry. Her mind began to wander, wondering what those scars looked like, how deeply they were buried into his skin…beneath that shirt. Her heart throbbed faster, rising higher till she could feel almost feel the pulses at the base of her throat. Heat emanated from her cheeks and then travelled through the rest of her body, intensifying as it did so. She was burning like a furnace.

She quickly turned her head parallel to Noel's, letting the air through the bars cool the warmth in her cheeks. Even as she trained her eyes on the beautiful display of fireworks and lights outside and the grand bird's-eye view of the city beneath, she found it difficult to look away from the sight right across from her. It was as if his body exerted some sort of invisible magnetic pull, its energy inviting and attracting. She gripped Cactuar tighter, believing she could resist its attraction if she physically did what she could to hold back. They were about a quarter through with the cycle—the apex of the ferris wheel now visible through the window—and there was not a single word or sound emitted in the distance between her and Noel. Her lips struggle to release a comment about the view, but her mind was berating each remark that ran through her head. She was suddenly very conscious about what she had to say, worried about how her statements would sound. It was silly and irrational—she never had to hold anything back from Noel, but when only the sound of her own defeated sigh reached her ears, she knew she was not just holding herself back; she had to keep her heart on a tight rein as well.

They both looked away from the window at the same time; she felt that mysterious energy from him diverting her attention, and it wasn't until she was staring right at him that she realized what she had done. She waited for him to speak, to tell her what he thought of the ride and the sight of the city at this height, but he continued to look at her for a few moments longer. The words that left his mouth caught her by surprise, having nothing to do with what she had thought he'd say.

"You have a chocolate smudge on your face," he said softly, quickly casting his eyes downward as if he had looked too long.

"W-what? I do?" She patted her face that was now ablaze, searching for that one smudge she couldn't see. "Where is it?"

Noel looked up slowly, his gaze directed at her face for just a few seconds before they roamed elsewhere. "By your lips."

She touched both corners of her mouth, her tongue unconsciously rolling across her lips to clean the stain. "Is it gone?"

He was either having a hard time focusing on her or trying to avoid her on purpose. The hands that rested smoothly on his laps suddenly began to tense, fingers curling into the palm, thumbs roughly rolling over the skin of his index fingers. She was sure his heartbeats had increased as well, the way his chest heaved up and down noticeably faster.

"Noel?" she whispered, almost a little too afraid to call for his attention.

"S-sorry," he mumbled, forcing himself to look at her. "No, it's still there…it's on the right side, below your lower lip…"

Her finger followed his mapping, trying to locate the smudge. She pointed to three different locations beneath her lower lip, but he shook his head to each one. He began to lean forward, a flash of soft fear and hesitation in his eyes as one of his arms dived forward. That energy was present again, drawing her forward as well, the length of their limbs meeting to close the gap between them. Her heart hammered violently in her chest, and for some time, the only thing she heard was its vicious beats. He lifted his palm, all five fingers shaky, so uncharacteristic of a hunter's hand that had slain with a firm and steady measure. She held her breath and waited, waited for that tender touch she yearned for but never felt, waited for a taste of that kiss that had haunted her imagination…but it never came. He had redirected the direction of his hand, circling it back to himself, mirroring the location of her smudge on his own face. The spasms in her chest gradually declined like a dying heart.

She cracked a smile but it wavered upon her lips, eventually disappearing altogether as she finally pinpointed the smudge and rubbed it away.

He nodded and lowered his arm. "It's gone now."

"Thank you," she said quietly and finally released the breath she was holding. Her gaze returned to the window and saw that they were now at the peak of the ferris wheel. "Look," she told him, a hand reaching for the bars, "we're at the highest point…"

Before he could fully turn to the window, too, the carriage suddenly rattled and then all the noises dissolved into the air, all motions ceased, the lights blinked into darkness.

Her grip on the bars tightened as she surveyed the surroundings. "Whoa, what's going on?"

Noel frowned. "A power outage?"

A voice over the speaker boomed over the sea of static, "We ask for all the guests on the Cosmo Clock to please remain calm. The ride has lost power but the technicians are currently working to resolve the problem. Again, the ride has lost power but the technicians are currently working to resolve the problem. The ride should be moving again shortly. We will inform you of any updates. Please do not panic, thank you."

Serah sighed, hugging Cactuar tightly. "Guess you're right."

Noel smirked, a playful tone in his voice. "What? Don't tell me you're afraid of heights, after all we've been through with the time gates, suspended in space."

"Not at all. In fact, I love being at high areas." Her fingers reached through the bars, into the night aflare with fireworks. She stretched her fingers even though she knew the glitters from the flares were unattainable. Sometimes she felt just seeing a sight was enough, but other times it wasn't. As surreal as the impossible may seem, sometimes she just had to keep believing they weren't too far out of reach. Music bloomed in the air, familiar notes travelling with the wind to reach the entire span of the city. Wish, was it? That's the name of this song… She closed her eyes, losing herself in the sweet melody, her fingers drawing into her palm, capturing nothing but memories from three years ago. Aside from Lightning, only one other person had known her love for high places and what it meant for her—overcoming limitations and obstacles in life and finding yourself at a place you'd never thought you'd be at. Snow had carefully planned the proposal, the meaning behind the aero bike tour of the skies so clear—he had wanted to show her that despite her curse as a l'Cie, he was ready to help her overcome anything that threatened her happiness and her life. He had wanted to help her accomplish the things she never thought possible, help her evolve as a person through the years ahead. He was the only one who believed her about Lightning.

But then there was Noel, who had not just believed her, but believed in her. He was a hero in his own way, and as time passed by, she saw him more and more as her hero. If she could show her heart to others, they too would agree that she was slowly beginning to replace her fiancé with Noel, but one thing that was unclear even to herself was whether she truly loved Noel the way she loved Snow, or was she simply acting upon her loneliness. She had promised herself to her fiancé, and was well aware of the reasons for choosing to become his wife.

"Y-you k-know…" she began slowly, unsurely, her eyes still closed, knowing that her next confession would send a dagger through Noel's heart. "Snow proposed to me under fireworks. I-it was so random and I was so surprised. I was making a wish under Bodhum's wish-granting fireworks and then he popped the question. We later watched the fireworks on an aero bike, and it made me forget for a moment that I was a l'Cie." She wasn't sure why she was telling Noel this. Maybe it was to remind him and herself that she belonged to another man, or maybe she didn't want to string him along in deceit, giving him even the slightest hope that she returned his feelings in the midst of her own confusion and conflict.

If it pained him, he hid it well. His voice was strong. "I see…this reminded you of the proposal, huh?"

She nodded. "Yeah…" She opened her eyes, and then she saw it, the anguish that split his face like fissures over a frozen lake. She felt her own her heart crack at the sight.

"Don't worry, you'll see him again, and Lightning too," he soothed her when he saw the sadness on her face, not knowing she was upset about something else entirely.

"Valhalla," she breathed out, as if it were a dream. How close were they really to Lightning? How close were they really to fixing the timeline? How close were they to the vision—

She shook her head, bringing her fingertips to her temples.

Noel was ready to leap over to her if he were not bound by the tight confinement of the carriage. He made it as far as landing on one knee, kneeling before her like a knight awaiting an order. "Serah?"

Another burst of fireworks fractured in the night, illuminating the concern in his eyes, the raw worry erasing any previous agony that painted his face. She momentarily watched the fireworks, the tails that trickled down like frozen rain. If she were the same person she was on the night of Bodhum's fireworks festival, she would have believed in the miracles of those wish-granting fireworks. She had considered, just for mere seconds, to make a wish on these fireworks, relying on the heavens and the goddess to grant her another miracle. The naïve thought made her smile sheepishly. It was up to her and Noel to help Lightning save Etro. She couldn't rely on anyone else (not even the goddess) but herself to create her own miracles now.

She felt an uncomfortable pinch at the bridge of her nose and moisture framing the rims of her eyes as she tried to quell a turbulent tide of emotions, its intensity shaking the very core of her being and cracking the foundation of the wall she erected between her and Noel. They were partners, and he needed to know just as much as she felt like she needed to keep the vision from him. She couldn't keep this to herself any longer. "Noel, there's something I have to tell you," she murmured, bringing her unsteady hands to grip Cactuar.

Her heart beat much faster in the proximity of his presence, acknowledging that he faced the challenge of waiting with complete composure, unhurried and understanding, knowing that whatever she had on her mind was hard to voice out loud. The first tear fell when she closed her eyes, and many more droplets followed their predecessor when the image of her vision played out again in her mind, the details infinitely sharper this time. She had to remind herself that it wasn't real, straining to hear his staccato breaths against the drumming of the heartbeats in her ears and feeling the warmth that emanated from his body reaching to soothe her shaking form.

"Seems serious," he whispered, the syllables and the poor attempt at humor crushed under the distress in his tone.

Her chest swelled with grief, the air she was breathing in suddenly turning to liquid fire. "I had a vision in the Augusta Tower. I-I…saw Caius stabbing you and—and I don't know what it means," she blurted out, so quickly that the words nearly tumbled upon one another. She inhaled deeply, her lungs burning far less now that she had gotten the worst part of her admission out of the way. Then she slowly added, "I-I…don't want to lose you like I had with Lightning and Snow." And it's not because I'm afraid of being alone again…I know I can make it on my own now. I just…genuinely don't want to lose you.

She opened her eyes, and through the tears that obscured her sight, she saw that he remained very still, not a single flash of fear and shock apparent across his features. Instead, his eyebrows arched thoughtfully over half-closed eyelids, seeming to fully take in what he had just learned and then internally accepting her vision for what it was. This time it was her turn to wait. She tried to remain just as patient, revealing her nervousness only to her stuffed toy through the tightening of her hold, her nails digging into its soft body.

But she didn't have to wait long before a realization jolted him, his eyes growing wide with apprehension. "What about you, Serah?"


"D-did you see yourself in the vision? Did anything happen to you?" he elaborated firmly, urgency dripping in his tone.

Far more concerned with his safety than hers, it took her some time to recall what had happened to her in the same vision. It appeared she had confronted Caius before he sent a wave of energy that sent her crashing into a column. Oddly, she saw the vision of her own life in danger as nothing more than a mere observation. "I…I was standing before Caius, and then I was shot with a blast…flying into a pillar."

"I see," he stated with a deep sigh. "So this explains your strange behavior…and you were telling me that I was the one who worried too much?" His voice cracked a little, and the small smile he gave her looked painful to maintain. "It's just a vision…and at this point we don't really know what it means, but I'll tell you one thing. I'm not afraid to die. If it means stopping Caius and saving the future, then so be it."

"Noel! But-" she protested, but he cut her off, already knowing what was on her mind.

"But I'm not gonna give up that easily, no way." His eyes, as hard as sapphires, burned with inextinguishable resolve. "I made a promise to your sister and your friends. I vowed to never let you come to harm and I intend on keeping that promise. We'll reach Valhalla and stop Caius. I won't let him hurt you. You don't have to worry."

And at that moment, she made a silent oath to herself that she wasn't going to let Caius hurt Noel either. Relief and comfort washed over her, not from the knowledge of his promise, but from the weight of her own vow—to keep watch over him like he had done with her. "I didn't know how you'd react if I told you, which is why I kept it to myself."

"Serah, I grew up in a world surrounded by death. I'm not afraid of it," he explained factually. But then he dipped his head, and she could see that he was trying to turn his vulnerable expression to the shadows. "But because I've been around death for so long, life is one of the things that matters most to me…especially yours. We'll see this through, I swear."

She felt her heart collapse into itself, aches pulsing as it tried to smooth itself back to its original form. It was one of those rare instances when she was so emotionally touched that it just hurt. They were not just simply words spoken out loud, but the purest manifestation of his feelings and thoughts, reinforced by the actions he had shown her and the pledge he continued to deliver. The tears spilled freely, thick and warm, trailing through the cracks between her fingers when she wiped her eyes with her hands and dripping onto her thighs, each round bead of moisture rupturing in splashes as more landed. She should be embarrassed, crying like this and showing how emotionally weak she could be, but no shame came, and it dawned on her that she was comfortable enough to show him her worse side, her greatest fears and weaknesses, and not be judged. Most of his face was still obscured in the darkness, but she could see the tight line that was his mouth and the outline of his steel gaze that faced the window. His left hand curled into a fist, thumb anxiously rolling over the fingers again, and it was too apparent what was on his mind. Even coming from a world where romantic and social graces were non-existent, he still knew that the simple gesture of wiping away her tears was far too intimate for two friends of the opposite gender, especially at the level of closeness they had reached. He must have known that motion, amongst others she had the urge to share, was reserved only for her fiancé.

So Serah cried harder, her heart reaching for the man in front of her at the same time logic, morals, and another love, a different love, held it back, grounding it to with whom it should be: Snow. She hardly noticed the carriage jerking lightly, the ride moving again. Noel faced her with a half-smile, hopeful and reassuring, yet bittersweet and longing. She was experiencing all those and more, some feelings she recognized, others just emerging from the recess of her heart for the first time. She turned to the fireworks outside, catching the last glimpses of the fading sparks from their vantage point as their carriage continued to lower. She found that focusing on the lights helped the tears die down to little hiccups. She dried her eyes and tried to say something in response, but forming the right words proved to be an incredibly difficult task. Her mind was a wicked whirlwind of confusing thoughts and emotions. Whatever she rehearsed in her mind would end up lodged in her throat and washed down by a hesitant swallow.

Noel kept quiet, unmoving in his spot since he had knelt before her. Somehow, he knew what she needed most right now was silence. He remained close to her, the closest he ever could be without crossing any boundaries, and offered his presence to remind her that she wasn't alone. Perhaps he figured she was regaining her composure and felt calmer himself, able to watch the fireworks with her with the same expression of contentment he bore whenever he took pleasure in the simple things with her—cleaning their weapons together, taking turns cooking for each other, their nighttime prattles that put one another to sleep. So for the next few moments, she allowed herself to stop thinking, stop worrying, and just enjoy the sight for what it was with her…friend.

She heard the launch of a thousand dynamites and knew that this was going to be a big one. Noel had anticipated it too, and leaned to the edge of the window. The streaks of green lights shot to the sky like rockets and converged at an invisible core before they convulsed and exploded into a giant globe. Blue and teal ruptured within the sphere, forming the outline of a fissure, an expansive crack of imperfection that marred the surface. Other cool hues burst from the orb, materializing into crystal blades of all sizes that extended in all directions. One blade that was noticeably longer than the rest arched over the top of the globe like a crescent moon over the sun. The crowd beneath went wild, their cheers growing louder as the carriage descended in its cycle. She suddenly left her seat and kneeled next to Noel, her fingers gripping the cage as she pressed her face against the window, desperate to keep take in the full view before it faded. Cocoon. It was breathtaking, and she was too afraid to blink.

But all good things come to an end—if only there was the power to control when they would terminate. The sparks melted into darkness, leaving just a faint afterglow of the splendor, a shadow of its existence. When the night claimed that too, she sat on her heels. Her eyes lingered on Noel's back and her fingers gently squeezed Cactuar. The toy made her happy in a way it shouldn't, and before she could start overanalyzing, she thought of the Cocoon in the sky she had just seen and one of the women frozen in crystal. Some time ago, she had told Vanille that if something was too much to deal with, she should face it later. Sometimes, things seem easier when you face them from a distance.

She had made the mistake of keeping Noel at a distance, and not her feelings for him. The latter was what she had to face later on, and she had to have faith that everything would be put into better perspective when the right time came.

The carriage pulled to a steady stop, the attendant opening their door with a pleasant smile. Noel turned around and gestured for her to leave first, and she did so with a nod of appreciation. The first thing she did was stretch her limbs. Noel chuckled at her as he walked by, and she returned the easy manner with a grin and a shrug. He stopped by the gate of the ride, hands on hips, waiting for her and thinking where to go next, his eyes surveying the field.

She pulled herself up from her toes slowly and strolled towards him, each step causing her heart to flutter. She stopped behind him, and without thinking, without worrying, she did something that felt completely natural that put her nerves at ease. Her arms encircled his waist and she pressed her cheek against his back. Her eyes closed, and she knew exactly what to tell him. These two words held more meaning than whatever mess she had wanted to express to him earlier. These two words were simple and encompassed the strongest sentiment: gratitude. Feelings of lust and love could waver and wane, deceive and confuse. But gratitude was pure and true—and she knew her gratefulness towards Noel for all his efforts to aid her, even if they were detrimental to him, trumped all emotions, even love.

So she told him these two words, what she meant now and would forever.

"Thank you..."

A/N: Whew! If you have made it through, I thank you for your time! I had not expected it to turn out this long, but my good friend, Julie, gave me some great ideas to work with…and well…this is the end result.

I originally got this idea when I was messing around with the Brain Blast machines and came across the Day of Rebirth trivia. Not really knowing what it was, I sorta turned it into my original thing. Serah's vision at the Augusta Tower had always intrigued me. At that time, none of us knew Caius was simply sending Noel into a dream, so I had always wondered how Serah felt, having kept that vision from him. I kinda combined the two ideas and came up with this story. I absolutely love Noel and Serah as a couple (hate Snow!) but I couldn't exactly make this a complete Serah/Noel story, as the game left their relationship quite ambiguous—and so, I decided to stick with the game's approach just to make it canon.

Oh, and the Cosmo Clock is named after a ferris wheel in Japan, Cosmo Clock 21. It's supposed to be the biggest clock in the world!

Again, thanks for reading! Reviews and comments are much appreciated!