Author's Note: Okay, first off, I'm very sorry for dropping this story for so long. I just couldn't finish it. Endings are HARD! But, here it is, the "official" end. (Maybe stay tuned for an epilogue). I am so grateful to everyone that read Moving on Without you. Seriously, thank you, dear reader. By now I'm sure some of you have played "Lightning Returns" but I just want to say that I haven't. I actually own it, but I've been holding back until I finished this story - true fact! So I make some references to what I think I know about the third installment... so I guess I'm sorry if something doesn't make sense. Good bye, and enjoy Chapter 24!
A bit of a clarification note: In this story, the "Barrier" exists between the Mortal and Unseen Realms to keep them separate. When Bhunivelze breached the Barrier, he created a hole through which "things" (such as himself and Noel) could pass. This hole I call a "dimensional pinhole", a "portal", a "gateway" and "Gate". Sorry if it gets confusing, but these words are all describing the same thing.
Story: Moving on... Without you
Chapter Summary: The end doesn't have to be a moment of sadness; if everything lasted forever, there would be nothing to remember.
Chapter 24: Destiny and the Unalterable Future
[Day 21: The Shadow Realm]
Destiny - (noun): the predetermined, usually inevitable or irresistible, course of events.
Serah could hardly believe it. It couldn't be over. Suddenly, in a blast of light and a wash of darkness, the two gods were cancelled out and the world was saved from Bhunivelze's ruthless domination.
"Is that it?" exclaimed Noel with cautious excitement. "Did we just kill the Maker?"
"Serah," he whispered, noting her silence. "We did it. It's over."
"Well," interjected the other woman, "That's not entirely true."
Both Noel and Serah's heads snapped to attention. Shadow-Serah pointed to the hole in space that Bhunivelze had made when he breached the barrier between the Mortal Realm and the Unseen Realm. Earlier, it had been a small point of light way off in the distance, but the dimensional pinhole had since expanded. Now, the entire city of Academia was visible on the other side, encroaching on the Shadow Realm like an invading army.
"What's happening?" questioned Noel.
"Bhunivelze didn't just breach the Barrier - it looks like he destroyed it completely."
"But without the barrier between the Mortal and Unseen Realms won't they cancel each other out?!" Even thinking pessimistically, Serah hadn't considered that killing the Maker would have world-ending consequences.
To Noel, it was like the death of the goddess Etro all over again. Just like that, he felt all of their progress since Caius' death being erased. The chaos was back, reaching out into the Mortal Realm as if Lightning's sacrifice counted for nothing. The world was about to be destroyed, and again, he couldn't help but think that it was all his fault. They were right back where they'd started. Looking over at Serah, the woman who'd died twice in his arms, he realized just how true that was.
From where they stood in the afterlife galaxy that was the Shadow Realm, they could see chaos energy seeping into the Mortal Realm and the destruction it was causing. The hole in the Barrier was like a window to madness, and insanity came in the form of black phantom snakes of chaos energy. The buildings of Academia crumbled as the disease spread, getting into every crevice and then pulling them apart from within. The trees and greenery were turning black, as if the air itself was poisoned. Nothing else moved except the dust it left behind, blowing in the lonely breeze.
"Why?" Serah wondered quietly.
The way everything had circled back to the way it had been, months ago, made it seem as if the world was destined to face this collapse. She wondered if this was what was meant by "destiny". Was this something that, no matter how many times they stop or reverse its effects would happen anyway: the unalterable future?
"Serah…" was all Noel could say.
The gateway to this doomed world shimmered in front of them, as if made of water. In a few minutes they'd be forced through the expanding hole along with all the souls and chaos energy of the Shadow Realm. Noel gathered Serah in his arms, holding her as tight as he could. Last time... seeing her die had damaged something irreplaceable inside him. He couldn't bear to have that happen again. Whether they were facing a lifetime in a broken world or the end of everything, his only condolence was that they'd face it together.
Within his embrace, Serah extended a timid hand toward the silver liquid that made up the portal. On the other side was the world she knew: the cities of Academia and New Bodhum, monster taming missions, theme parks, the Farseer tribe, Dajh's homework, Vanille's girlish laughter, Sazh's enduring friendship and Fang's... Picturing the cie'th-like appearance of her friend, she felt the all too familiar impulse to make it right, even if she didn't know how. More than anything, she just wanted to see all of them again. She'd told her shadow-twin earlier that she wasn't finished yet - that she wasn't ready to disappear forever. Latching on to that determination and making it an armor around her heart, she pulled back from Noel.
"Even with the chaos... even if it's not perfect or happy, we need to go back! Our friends are waiting for us!"
Noel nodded once, steeling himself to jump into whatever life was waiting for them on the other side. Their hands found each other, warm and solidly reassuring. As a team they faced the portal and the aftermath of greed's passage.
In the midst of their decisive moment, the sound of giggling was like the tinkling of broken glass, its mocking tone enough to cut their ears and shred their confidence.
"Didn't you forget something, Serah?" the other woman asked slyly.
Like an unpleasant tightness on the back of the neck, the atmosphere around the shadow-woman changed. Until just a second ago, she'd had all the luster and grace of an angel; but now she wore the smirk of a mischievous child.
Serah faced her with apprehension. "What do you mean?"
"You're dead, Serah," stated the woman, placing a finger against her cheek. "Just because the Gate is open doesn't mean you can pass through."
Despite trusting her shadow-twin the whole time they'd been together, Serah didn't want to believe her now. Though she had worried that, after dying at the hand of Bhunivelze, it wasn't possible for her to return to the world she knew, her stubbornness wouldn't let this woman be right. With a mix of desperation and fear, her fingers stretched outward, the index finger gracefully leading the way through the shining gateway. As it made contact, the substance rippled, erasing her view of the decaying city as its surface became opaque and grey. The portal coated her finger with what looked like liquid metal and was ice cold.
"No!" she whispered, pulling her hand away. As soon as she stopped touching the portal, the substance dripped off harmlessly. "It's not fair!"
That's right, death is a door... But I'm locked out.
The hole in the Barrier was moments away from pulling Noel into the Mortal Realm. Serah's gaze bounced between him and her arm that had gone numb from the cold. Her face slackened, with the corners of her mouth turning down and her wide blue eyes pleading for some sort of mercy. It was too cruel.
"Hey, Noel," she said, aware that these might be the last words she'd say to him.
Watching her struggle, with no way to help her, he was strongly reminded of her last words to him all those months ago.
"Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."
― William Jennings Bryan
Hope straddled the Twilight Boundary between Valhalla and the rest of the Beyond. It was the closest he could get without help. Now that he was certain that Lightning had called him, that he hadn't just been imagining her voice, he was eager to push through the fortress of solitude that she'd built around herself. He was going to make her let him in. As strong as they all were, not one of them could do everything alone.
This time, she was going to put her faith in him.
[Remember, you don't have much Time left.]
"I understand. You can trust me with this," Hope promised resolutely.
The throne crackled with invisible electricity, giving a charged edge to the atmosphere. Slowly, a Time Gate flickered in front of his grey-green eyes, almost like the goddess wasn't sure about their plan. Not that there were any other options.
Gathering his courage, he stepped forward into the tide of Time and was swept away.
"What? Serah - no!" Noel pleaded as he read Serah's worried expression. "This can't be - I mean, we'll find a way, right?"
For a second, Serah prayed that the hole would expand faster and swallow Noel up already. If they couldn't be together, then she didn't want to extend this moment, and the pain that came with it, any longer.
But that feeling only lasted a second.
"Noel, I-" Serah hesitated, fighting her conscience that was telling her to leave it alone. Her mind warned her that there was nothing she could say to change anything. If she tried to cross the barrier again, the liquid would cover her whole body, and when it did, she didn't know if she'd suffocate or disappear or something else entirely.
However, she wasn't about to give up - that wasn't who she was anymore. What were Fate and Destiny, but convenient excuses to let go of the things that meant the most? After everything she'd been through, she couldn't accept her death like a docile virgin, tossed into the volcano. She wouldn't just lie down and wait to die! Just like Noel taught her, she was ready to fight for what she wanted.
We'll make our own destiny.
"Noel, I don't want to leave you! I don't know what's happening to me, or the Mortal Realm, and whether or not the world is about to end - but I don't care."
Facing Noel with every fiber of her being interlaced in his steady fingers, Serah expressed the most vehement wish she'd ever made.
"I can't say for sure if it'll last a minute or a hundred years but, for the rest of the life - or whatever this is - I have, I want to be with you!"
Noel hugged her fiercely, desperate to hold on to her forever. "Serah," he whispered into her hair, expressing a thousand different shades of hope and love in those two syllables.
The gateway loomed above them, menacing them with the end of their time together unless they could think of something. The best Noel could do was lead Serah to the very edge of Etro's shrine, but that only gave them an extra minute, at most. Noel's mind was a jumbled mess of half-finished theories and possibilities, racing fast and faster but not getting anywhere. He was supposed to be a Guardian, yet he felt completely useless in this situation. There wasn't enough time, and the pressure made it that much harder to think.
What would Caius do?
As soon as he caught himself thinking that, he physically shook his head. That bastard was the last person he wanted to take after. The man had destroyed the timeline and killed the goddess and, in the end, his selfish goal was left unaccomplished: Yeul was lost. However, that thought led to another uncomfortable memory:
"There will be times, Noel, when you won't be able to protect her."
In the red-haze sunlight, Noel froze mid-motion, his bloody blade resting on his lap and the cloth in his hand wadded up. He glanced over at his teacher, narrowing his eyes in defensive hostility.
"Are you saying that you still don't think I'm ready?"
Caius squatted down and inspected their kill, a lobo. For a moment he remained silent, as if picking his words carefully.
The eager Guardian-in-training filled the void, unable to leave it be. "What do I need to do to prove myself? I've defeated every monster in the area, twice. I'm faster and better at tracking than you, and it's been at least a month since Yeul's last vision…"
The words held an edge of finality to them that Noel couldn't ignore. The young hunter fell silent and sullenly went back to cleaning his swords. When Caius was like this, there was no arguing with him.
Eventually, the older man continued.
"What is the one true purpose of the Guardian?"
"To protect the Seeress," Noel replied without hesitation.
"Precisely. And with that purpose comes many responsibilities. Other than defending her from her enemies, you must provide food for your charge, and a safe place to sleep. When you travel, if she's tired, you carry her. If she is frightened… if a vision she has scares her, it is your job to make her smile again."
Having heard this lecture a million times before, Noel opened his mouth to interrupt, but Caius held his hand out to silence him.
"Life is very short for our Seeress, so you have to make every moment count. You may think that this job is glorious and full of battles - well, it is, but not the battles you'd imagine," Caius said with a small smirk.
"She won't ask you to do these things; in fact, she might tell you that you're wasting your time with her. But you must fight her on this. It is up to you to read her face, her voice, and her body language. Only when you can do what needs doing, without prompting, will she be able to rely on you.
"Only when she trusts you - when she believes that everything will work out, as long as you are with her - will you truly become a Guardian."
"But you just said I wouldn't be able to protect her!"
"And you won't. Death is inevitable for both the Seeress and yourself."
Noel bristled, pride and naiveté unmistakable in his response. "I won't let that happen!"
Again, Caius held a silence that spoke of patience and wisdom, which further added to Noel's annoyance.
"Eventually there will come a day when something happens that is beyond your control. It is when you come to terms with this inevitability, put aside your insecurities and pride, and make the conscious choice to take on the world for her that you'll become more than a Guardian."
"You'll become a man."
Looking down at the woman in his arms he wondered if this was what Caius meant: the moment when he knew, deep down, that he couldn't protect her anymore. It was all out of his control. No matter what he did now, he couldn't change the fact that she was dead - killed by the Maker, whom he couldn't stop - and she couldn't cross the Barrier.
He pictured Yeul's face, and the leather cords that he wasn't wearing anymore. Despite all the promises he made back then, about life and about love, he'd given up on ever finding her again. Being a Guardian, what did it really mean? He'd told Caius he'd been ready, but he realized just how childish that was.
But with Serah…It was different; he couldn't let her go, even knowing that there was nothing he could do.
"Serah, I lo-"
"This is it," interrupted Shadow-Serah, the Mortal world reflected in her clear blue eyes as it descended upon them.
Both Serah and Noel closed their eyes.
Falling from the sky above Valhalla, Hope used a blast of wind magic to angle himself towards Etro's tower. There was one thing he had to do before his mission could start.
The only sound in the sacred chamber of Etro's throne room were the echoes of his own footsteps. Light, reflected on dust particles in the air, danced all around him. The room held a haunting aura that prickled on his skin and made his heart tighten in his chest. It was the presence of the Divine, the goddess, Lightning.
He knelt at the foot of the throne, bowing his head in reverence.
"I'm here, Light. I'll always be here for you."
Her crystal statue stared blankly back at him. He didn't expect a reaction, since she wasn't due to reawaken for a few centuries, but he couldn't help but feel disappointed by her detached expression. As he turned to leave, he paused, aware that this was probably his last chance to say what was written across his heart since he was fourteen years old.
With all the confidence of a soldier at war, he climbed the steps of the throne. Leaning down, he placed a gentle kiss on her cold cheek.
"I'm not a little boy anymore," he whispered.
As he stepped out of the room onto the balcony, a damp breeze blew in from the ocean, tasting of salt and sadness. Hope closed his eyes and let the wind ruffle his hair. This was as close as they'd ever get.
Flapping his bat-like wings furiously, an exhausted Mog struggled to climb the railing.
"M-mog?!" Hope stuttered, completely baffled by the moogle's appearance. He lifted the creature onto the balcony.
"Greetings, Hope!" panted the moogle, completely out of breath. "It is my - duty to help - you, by order of - the goddess."
Hope chuckled unconsciously. "I'm not sure how much help an out of shape moogle is going to do me right now."
Mog puffed out his cheeks angrily. "Fine then. I'll stay here. You can climb the tower all on your own, kupo."
"Mog..." Hope entreated, feeling slightly guilty for making fun of him. However, Mog crossed his arms stubbornly and turned his back on Hope.
With an exasperated sigh, Hope lifted his gaze to the highest tower of Etro's shrine. In-between the green rings that graced the building's upper stories, was a massive clock. The ornate face cluttered with numbers, far more than any clock he'd seen before. On the outer ring was the usual 1 to 12, but the series kept going in a spiral pattern with 13 onward tilting sideways and getting smaller to the point where they no longer looked like numbers anymore but a strange new language. The minute and hour hands were embellished with meandering curls that came together to a rather severe point. The only way up to the clock tower would be to scale the outside of the building. Lightning had warned him that Time was fleeting - meaning that he needed to start climbing now.
Looking back at the temperamental moogle, Hope decided not to mince words. Lightning had entrusted the fate of the world on his shoulders, and he'd show her that he was worth counting on.
"Mog, I'm sorry, but you look exhausted. Right now I need to start climbing. You are a very capable companion, and I would gladly accept any help you may provide, but I'm not going to wait for you if you decide to follow me."
Like saying the magic words, Mog turned happily to Hope, a knowing half-smile gracing his lips. "Oh, you won't have to worry about me, kupo!"
And then, with a puff of white smoke, he transformed into a metal tool. Hope caught it, though he himself was caught by surprise.
Investigating the item, he smiled in understanding. "A grappling hook, huh?"
Aiming the gun at the upper rim of the clock face, Hope pulled the trigger. The hook shot out with force and latched on the the edge securely. A diamond-shaped button on the barrel then started flickering with a pink light. Pressing it with curiosity, Hope's body was yanked upwards with incredible speed as the rope reeled him in.
"Not doing that again," Hope winced from the edge of the clock's rim, rotating his aching shoulders.
"Sorry, kupo. Maybe I should have warned you..." Mog flitted fretfully.
Having no time to spare, Hope swung his legs down and let his body hang from the top of the clock. Looking down, he tried to calculate the distance between him and the longer minute hand, without being distracted by the possibility of falling. According to the outer numbers, the clock read two minutes to twelve.
Lightning had explained to him that Etro's clock had the ability to control time. If someone could manually set the clock back, events would be rewound in all dimensions. The plan was to set the world back to before Bhunivelze had breached the Barrier. However, Time is relative - and Hope didn't know how much time one minute on this clock would correspond to in the Mortal Realm. At best, he could rewind 28 minutes using his body weight and gravity alone, and that was if he jumped right now.
"Here goes..." he said as he let go of the edge he was holding. And dropped.
The pointy end of the minute hand approached too quickly and he wasn't prepared to grab it. Slipping and skipping across the rough metal edges, Hope's hands strained to slow his fall. Halfway down the minute hand, he realized he'd be in trouble if he were to impale himself on the hour hand, so he redoubled his grip with every ounce of strength he had. With bloody hands he finally came to a stop inches above the spear. He could only breathe a sigh in relief before the minute hand started moving, rotating backwards under his weight.
"It's working, kupo!"
There was one caveat to the power of Etro's clock. Lightning had warned him that, while no one in the Mortal Realm would be aware of Time's reversal, those in the Unseen Realm would remember everything. And the person who reverses the time experiences an even higher rate of reversal. As Hope forced time back, his body began to shrink, his muscles lost definition, his bones shortened and his weight dropped considerably. Eventually, the minute hand stopped moving.
"No," whispered adult-Hope in teenage-Hope's body. Panicking, he craned his neck to see the time.
Fifteen minutes to twelve.
Mog flew down to him. "Let me try!" he shouted and jumped on the minute hand with all of his weight.
It didn't move.
"Dammit!" Hope shouted, squeezing his eyes shut in self-disgust. After everything he'd accomplished in his life, he was nothing but a little boy, too small to save the world.
I couldn't do it after all… Sorry, Light.
"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever."
Holding her breath on the edge of the roof, Vanille prayed with all her heart that Noel was alright, wherever he ended up. As soon as he'd reached Bhunivelze, both of them had disappeared, presumably across the Barrier into the Unseen Realm. However, Sazh's ship kept moving and collided with an invisible wall. She let out a yelp of terror as some electric magic seemed to arc across the vessel, causing the engine to sputter and die.
"Sazh!" she screamed as his ship took a nose-dive into the pavement. She couldn't believe her eyes as it exploded.
A rough arm wrapped around her shoulders as Fang attempted to comfort her, but her sobs only intensified.
Black wisps of chaos energy curled out of the hole that Noel had disappeared into. The tendrils grew thicker like a sinister vine, expanding the hole and allowing more of the blackness to come through. Soon the sky darkened and the building under their feet was crumbling. When the black coils wrapped around Vanille, her partner held her tighter. The world deteriorated around them. They both closed their eyes.
Raising a hand to block out the bright sunlight, Vanille blinked a few times and smiled…
Just as the Mortal Realm was about to swallow them up, it started pulling back. A minute passed without anything happening, prompting both Serah and Noel to lift their bowed heads apprehensively.
Faster than before, the hole in the Barrier receded into space.
"What's happening?" questioned Noel.
Stepping cautiously away from him, but still within arm's reach, Serah watched in disbelief as Academia disappeared from sight. Soon it was just another point of light amid the multitude of stars. Then she turned to her shadow-self, seeking some sort of explanation.
"I think that things are... That Time is... moving backwards."
"Is that possible?" wondered Serah, glancing back to search for the hole, afraid of what would happen if she lost sight of it.
Without warning, Noel was lifted off the ground.
"Noel!" Serah shouted, fear-stricken and reaching for him long after his body was sucked backwards through the portal, into the land of the living. Falling to her knees, Serah watched the hole close itself up again and disappear.
"Serah," called the shadow-woman, in an attempt to be reassuring. "Serah, this is a good thing. Trust me."
She was right, of course. If the Barrier was whole again, then the world was saved. However, if time was rewound…
"But what about Bhunivelze and that Shadow Fal'Cie?" panicked Serah, looking all around her.
The room was empty, even Hope's ghost - or whatever that had been - was no longer in front of the throne. Only the shining fabric of her twin's white dress interrupted the bleak atmosphere of the Shadow Realm.
"Being erased from existence is a permanent thing, Serah," the woman said, absently smoothing down her hair as she stared into the void of space. "Whether time flows forward or back won't make a difference to them now."
"But he was the Maker…" Serah trailed off when she realized that the other woman had wandered to the far edge of the temple and was no longer paying attention.
Since things had calmed down and it was only the two of them once again, Serah realized that she didn't know what to call the mysterious woman that looked and acted so much like her.
The other half of my soul...
"By the way… sorry for not asking earlier, but what's your name?"
However, as she was talking, a time rift materialized behind Serah. The other woman tilted her head curiously and then giggled with recognition.
"Looks like that's your cue to leave." She smiled.
Being pulled into the rift as time continued to move backwards, Serah struggled to remain in the Shadow Realm a few moments longer.
"Well, thanks for all your help, whoever you are."
As the Shadow Realm was wrenched from view, she vaguely heard her whisper:
[Day 21: Academia]
Sazh steadied himself as he was jostled by the crowd. The people of Academia stood behind their leader, regardless of what evidence there was to the contrary. Though he couldn't deny that the Director was capable in his position, he wasn't about to be enslaved by yet another Fal'Cie.
"Bero Vulcan is just toying with us," he shouted passionately. "If he wanted to, he'd level this city in a heartbeat. All our lives…" Looking up at the televised monitor of the rooftop, Sazh's voice trailed off in disbelief.
The plaza fell silent, their collective gaze jumping from the images on the mid-air screens to the edge of the roof of Academy HQ.
Uneasiness gripped his heart as Noel opened his eyes to a clear blue sky. A slight breeze ruffled his white and yellow uniform as he stood taller than any building in Academia. He knew this view, and he remembered this point in time… but something was missing.
At that moment, anything was possible. All outcomes were equally viable in his mind while he stood facing where Bhunivelze should have been. At least the bad guy stayed dead. But the fear that gripped Noel's heart stemmed from something entirely different than dictator Fal'Cie and the fate of the universe. He was afraid to turn around because as soon as he did, he'd have to let go of his illusions and face reality.
This is it. Either she's here or she's not, he told himself.
Just turn around.
Serah couldn't believe her eyes. In front of her stood her dear friend, looking much younger than she remembered.
The boy chuckled awkwardly. "Hi, Serah. It's good to hear your voice again."
Noel turned on his heel to find sunlight reflecting off blonde hair and a white Academy uniform.
"...It's good to hear your voice again."
The standard blinking to make sure she was real didn't change anything but, as his eyes adjusted, he recognized just how much she'd changed.
"But how did you manage to come back?"
For a minute, he was frozen, staring at her like he was seeing her for the first time. Her hair was a real mess; now that it was growing back to its original pink, he noticed that the curl was coming back too, in the form of a frizzy halo. And her outfit looked ridiculous on her - the tie was coming loose and unpinned, while her jacket was too large around her shoulders. She was sweating under the heat of the sun and she wasn't wearing any make-up. But even like that, in his eyes she was the most beautiful woman in the universe.
If he closed his eyes, he could picture the real Serah Farron. She wasn't wearing a uniform, nor a white and pink dress. Her hair wasn't in a side ponytail. There was nothing around her neck. If she'd seen him staring at her like this, she'd get all flustered and tell him to stop.
And she did. With hesitation she added, "...Noel? Is everything okay?"
"Why doesn't this feel real?"
"Don't," she said, her eyebrows pulling inward, "Don't make this sad. I promised, didn't I?"
"I promised I wouldn't die on you this time."
In his imagination, there was another Serah - one that he'd like to meet. That Serah had grown out her hair had it braided in a long plait gradually going from pink to blonde. The woman he pictured was wearing a sari of deep blue and had leather cords running up her left arm. That Serah would smile if she caught him staring and give him a little wink. She'd love hunting and singing and taking care of their children.
Rushing forward, he scooped the woman he loved more than anything into his arms.
"Serah," he half-whispered, half-laughed, happier than he'd ever thought possible. "I..."
As his demeanor changed abruptly from joy to seriousness Serah pulled back to give him a searching look.
"I can't say for sure if it'll last a minute or a hundred years but..."
As soon as she recognized the words, tears gathered in her eyes and she held him tighter.
"For the rest of the life I have, I want to be with you."
Hope stepped away from the happy couple to give them some privacy.
At the edge of the roof, he looked down and was surprised to see a million upturned faces. Startled, he searched above his head for what could be holding their attention. When he realized that they were looking at him, Hope waved to the people, and the air in Academia overflowed with cheering.