Author's Note: Alrighty, here it is, the last chapter! Wow, I'm sorry I held off posting this for so long. Every time I'd open the document to post it, I'd change something... so this chapter has been evolving since... well a few months at least. I think it's pretty polished now, but who knows.
Well, thanks for reading! This story has been a lot of fun to write. So without further ado, grab some tissues and enjoy!
Chapter 11: Heaven and Earth
The beach emptied quickly. Airships took off from all sides, rising into the dark swirling clouds in formation – almost like a flying-V of metal geese heading south for the winter. The change from the crowded mirth and noise of the fireworks festival to this whirlwind exodus swept the town of New Bodhum into an abrupt stillness. The desolate atmosphere was the only thing left behind.
There was nothing left to see here.
Yet three men and a boy remained, motionless on the rooftop. Another man, distraught and confused, had run away from the beach, toward the hills and craters that flanked the town. A ghost accompanied him.
Noel kicked a tuft of grass as he walked on.
Why can't I just go back? he wished silently.
Heedlessly, his feet kept pulling him forward, toward the site where the meteor had crashed all those years ago. At that time, as the last surviving human, he'd adamantly believed that there was a way to change the course of the future. Now, his ambitions discarded, he'd give anything to return a happier past.
Go back to where? How many places could he really call home?
To when? A future even more screwed up than this one?
Noel scoffed at his bleak outlook. There's nothing left for me, no matter where I go.
His feet stopped reluctantly. Without a destination, Noel was lost, even though he knew exactly where he was.
"Noel…" Serah called out to him.
Why is she following me? If she's going to leave, why doesn't she just go already!
Still, he turned to face the gentle smile of the woman he couldn't let go.
"I've made up my mind," she said.
["What about you? What about what you want?"
"Can you stop thinking about everyone else's feelings for one second?"
"No wonder you can't remember your wish! I doubt you'd be aware of your own feelings long enough to make one!"
"Come find me when you've made up your mind."]
Noel cringed at the memory of his harsh words. It hadn't been fair for him to run his mouth about indecision, when he was the one who had no idea what he wanted.
"Serah, you don't have to…"
The plan in her mind had been to tell him that she was going to leave them all alone, but the words caught in her throat. She couldn't bear to see Noel like this. He was so… lost. It was like he'd given up on life completely.
This wasn't what she wanted. Everything had been going so well: he'd been slowly returning to the hopeful, determined Noel that she'd admired. Coming back from the dead meant nothing to her unless the others came back as well. She just wanted them to return to the people they should be. Only now did she recognize the wish that bloomed in her heart since the moment she appeared to Noel.
I just want him to be okay.
And with the acknowledgment of that wish, came a sudden understanding of the confusion that had followed her throughout their journey across time and space and the very reason that she'd appeared to Noel and no one else. Though she'd been ignoring it all along, it was a feeling that she could never fully deny.
Is it fair for me to love him?
Shouldn't it be Snow? Shouldn't I be by his side right now?
A voice in her head answered sarcastically, 'The way he was always by your side?'
Anxiously awaiting her answer to the question she probably didn't understand, Noel reflected on his impossible expectations of her. They had been discussing Serah's wish and bringing Lightning out of crystal stasis, but the whole time he'd wanted her to confirm or deny their relationship.
What am I to you?
It wasn't fair. He'd been ignoring just how much pain she must have gone through. It wasn't that he didn't care, but that he was too preoccupied with his own desires to think it through from her perspective. Serah had lost her sister, then her fiancé. She'd traveled through time with a stranger with the fate of the world on her shoulders and then died before anything was resolved. And, as if that wasn't enough already, when she miraculously re-appeared, he asked her to choose between her friends. He'd forced her to choose a side when both options were painful.
He could empathize. He still couldn't decide if it was better to help her pass on to the next life or to try to keep her from disappearing. Should he hold her or let her go? If he truly loved her, wouldn't that mean wanting the best for her? Even if it was the worst thing for himself?
Being alone was the hardest part.
"Since you came," Serah began, bringing both of them back to the present, "No, even before I met you, I dreamt of having someone like you in my life. For a long time I thought it was Snow; I imagined that he'd settle down and stay with me like he promised. But he didn't and it wasn't until I met you that I realized how foolish I'd been for thinking I could change him.
"You were there for me in a way that no one else was. On our journey, you were always with me. You stayed. After being left behind over and over again, you were the only one who didn't disappear."
"Serah…" He couldn't bear to hear anymore.
"Noel," she pressed on, her honest tone was a chord plucked directly from his heartstrings. "What I want is you."
"I love you."
Life was never fair.
"Serah… it's not the same."
Her heart was so big. She loved all of us. I'm just a friend to her.
"You don't underst-"
"No," she interrupted. "I do. Noel, my love is the kind where I want to marry you."
His throat went dry. Though it was only a little, he had to squint because his eyes weren't used to the brightness as the moon peeked out from behind the clouds.
"Are you listening, Noel? I love you. I loved you and I still do!"
There were no words to convey how he felt at that moment. Suddenly his arms enveloped her; his lips touched her forehead, her cheek, her neck. Sadly, no matter how tightly he held her, no matter how many times he kissed her, it all felt hollow. He didn't want to admit it, but it was nothing but a shadow of what could have been.
"Why tell me now?" Noel asked quietly against her cheek. His breath bounced back to him against the skin that wasn't there, that shouldn't be there anymore.
She's dead, he told himself with building frustration. Was there a point to any of this?
Pulling away just enough to see his clouded blue eyes, Serah amended, "I'm sure if I had lived long enough I would have told you everything. If I'd had the time, we could have been together."
Again, Noel was struck with the futility of their situation. A pointless confession would only fill his heart with a hopeless love. It wasn't right, and it wouldn't get them anywhere but depressed. If they kept focusing on what "could have been", they'd lose sight of what was right in front of them: the miracle of a second chance.
"We still can be…" Noel whispered, half-afraid of what he was about to propose, but more afraid of leaving it unsaid. "Even if it's not normal… even if people think I'm crazy, we can be together like this... I don't mind."
"Noel…" Serah shook her head and stepped back. His arms fell away, to hang limply at his sides. "I don't want that."
In response to his pained expression Serah self-consciously tucked a stray strand of soft pink hair behind her ear.
Her voice was softer when she said, "You'd be isolated again, Noel."
There she went again, always thinking about others before herself. This woman needed a Guardian, someone who'd protect her from her self-sacrificial tendencies. He wanted to be that man. In perfect symmetry, he needed someone to protect, a reason to keep living.
"I'd have you and that's all I need."
My motivation. It's just like Sazh said, as long as I can find it, I'll be fine.
I choose her! With Serah I'll…
"It's not! You're wrong! One day you'd realize that it wasn't enough."
Why couldn't he see it? If they continued on this way, he'd only end up resenting her. Living with a dead girl was no life – it would be torture for both of them.
They walked in silence for a while. Though Noel didn't notice, Serah was leading him back to the beach. She hadn't finished what she'd set out to do, and there was no way she'd be able to leave Noel so dispirited. Bouncing between stepping stones, Serah tried to lighten the mood.
"And besides, if I stay here, there's no way I can be re-incarnated."
Noel scoffed, avoiding her gaze. "Like Yeul?"
It wasn't as glamorous as it seemed. There was too much pain in death that even eternal life couldn't act as a counterbalance.
"Well, not exactly," Serah paused and skipped further ahead as if to gather her thoughts. When she turned back to him, she explained. "Supposedly, when normal people die, their souls return to Valhalla until Etro grants them a new vessel. Unlike the Seeress, they could come back as anything: a Catsith, a flower… ooh maybe I'll come back as a moogle!"
So she wants to come back…
"Serah, why did you appear to me?"
He rephrased. "If you wanted to get re-incarnated, then why go through all of this? Why not just get on with it?"
It was her turn to avoid his gaze. Nearby, the waves glittered in the starlight as they lapped against the shore, while the sea beyond was empty and black. Facing an ocean of uncertainty, who could blame her for playing in the surf a little longer?
"I wasn't ready… to say goodbye."
Tears caught in his eyes as he hugged her fiercely.
This was the moment. Finally he had the chance to voice all of the things he'd left unsaid the last time. It was on the tip of his tongue this whole time, but for some reason he couldn't say it.
It didn't feel right. After all this time, he'd forgotten why he'd wanted to apologize.
If anything, he could still make things right. There was still time.
He glanced back towards New Bodhum, straining his eyes to find the light from NORA house. To his relief, it was still shining.
Taking Serah's hand, he started running.
"Noel?" Serah squeaked, startled and off-balance as she tried to keep up with him. "What are you doing?"
In the gathering moonlight, his features shone with hopeful optimism in a way that reminded her of the Noel she'd left behind all those years ago.
As they approached NORA house and the others, Serah unexpectedly slipped her hand out of Noel's. To his look of concern, she smiled and motioned for him to keep going.
"I'll catch up with you. There's one last thing I have to do on my own."
And with that, she left him alone in the doorway.
Lifting his fist to knock, Noel hesitated. Would they accept him after what he'd done? Without Serah by his side to bolster his confidence, he wasn't sure he could face them. Snow was probably still furious, and he was ashamed that he'd run away like a coward. His hand dropped to his side.
"Don't worry, we'll let you in," came a voice from the shadows on the porch. Moonlight cascaded down his shoulders as Hope stood up and took a step closer to Noel. "But are you ready to return the favour?"
"Hope… I'm sorry."
A smile stretched across his friend's serious face.
"I don't think I'm the one you need to apologize to." Hope reached in front of Noel and opened the door. "Hey Snow, Sazh: Noel's back!"
"'Bout time," chided Sazh as Noel followed Hope inside sheepishly.
Snow was reclining on the sofa. His eyes flicked up at Noel, but he didn't move to greet him.
"Is she with you?" he growled.
The others tensed. Dajh held Mog close to his chest, squeezing slightly in apprehension. Sazh placed a supportive hand on his son's head.
Snow leaned forward, forearms on thighs. He tried not to sound worried when he asked, "Is she gone, then?"
Everyone released the breath they were holding.
"Why the hell not?" the NORA leader demanded.
"Snow… I… Well, the truth is…" Noel forced himself to meet the other man's eyes. "Sorry."
"Sorry?" the blonde scoffed, awkwardly rubbing his head. "For what?"
The truth came rushing out, because Noel knew that if he stopped to think about it, he'd never say it.
"For trying to keep her all to myself. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't care. Serah wanted to say goodbye to everyone but I couldn't look beyond my feelings to see that. I was selfish."
Noel waited for him to agree, to chastise him and belittle his useless attempts to protect someone who wasn't there anymore.
"Well, you aren't the only one."
Tapping his foot nervously to fight the urge to start pacing, Hope continued his interruption.
"If our wishes were supposed to help Serah move on, then it's no wonder why she couldn't reach Heaven. I was selfish, too. With my own interests in mind, I didn't want Serah to disappear. I figured that if she stuck around just a little longer, Lightning might reawaken. Plus, we were making real progress with the chaos problem. In fact, I wasn't thinking about her happiness at all…"
Hope rubbed his lips as if he wanted to take back that last part.
The abruptly honest confession encouraged the others to follow suit.
Sazh was next:
"I kept selfishly hoping that she would leave Noel alone. I wanted her to stay dead, so that we could all move on."
Noel tried to stop them, worried about what it would mean if they faced the root of the problem.
"It's true," Snow added, his voice drowning out Noel's warning. He held the hunter's fearful gaze as he spoke. "It killed me that you were the only one who could see her. It wasn't fair! I loved her more than you ever did!"
Noel's anger instantly rose to the challenge. "It wasn't like I-"
"I know!" Snow yelled, for once not trying to start a fight. "I know. Selfish? Well, I guess that counts me, too."
Even Dajh piped up. "I wanted Serah to not be dead anymore."
"So you see, Noel, it's no wonder she couldn't pass on," Hope concluded.
Was it that simple? Noel wondered. Were their self-serving desires holding Serah captive?
Somehow that wasn't quite right. She'd admitted that she could have moved on, but she hadn't been ready.
No one is ever ready. It's the last thing everyone wants to say, but so rarely do they get the chance. And, when the chance presents itself, it feels too soon, too brief, too jarring… too frightening that we let it pass without saying it at all.
She'd just wanted to say it, properly.
Noel's eyes widened in understanding, "Guys, I think I finally figured out her wish."
In the schoolhouse down the road, paper and scissors flew about in a mysterious fury. Cutting and gluing (ironically) as if her life depended on it, Serah assembled her last message to her friends. To each of them she'd addressed a personal letter, written in words she'd cut out from books. It was infuriatingly slow work, but it was something she needed to do.
Closure – she only hoped it would be enough for them.
Having only Noel's letter left to write, she rested a moment, trying to put her feelings to words. She sat on the floor, with her arms behind her bearing her weight comfortably. Gazing out the solitary window, she saw the stars twinkling merrily in the night sky. She wondered if, at the end of her journey, she'd become one of them, smiling down on Pulse, giving hope to those who were lost. She couldn't help but think that it wouldn't be so bad, being a star.
Suddenly her body slumped backwards, while her arms tingled like they were falling asleep. Straightening into a cross-legged position, she held her hands in front of her. The light of the moon shone through her translucent skin, like a delicate veil over her soul that was indisputably worn thin.
Not yet! she panicked, forcing her insubstantial fingers to lift the scissors once again. The object shook in her hands, but with considerable effort, the blades would still move under her power.
"Almost there…. Just a little bit more…"
At Noel's suggestion, everyone had left the house in search of Serah.
Dajh was calling her name every few minutes, often throwing Mog at shadows. The moogle tried his best, but with the chaos around, his magic didn't work. With the collapse of the timeline, time distortions were all around them, making his spells altogether useless. Obstinately refusing to listen to the moogle's pleas, Dajh argued that ghosts were just distortions of reality, something a magical creature like Mog should be able to detect.
And so the boy continued to toss the creature around. The giggles that echoed down the beach suggested that he might have been enjoying himself.
"Where did she go?" Snow asked as he jogged alongside Noel.
"I don't know," Noel replied, his eyes scanning the area fervently. The chaos clouds had been pulling back steadily, as if cooperating with the moon to light their search.
"She said she had one last thing to do."
"Hey, I found something!" shouted Hope.
They all gathered around him near the dock. At their feet were five white envelopes, partially dusted over with the sand they'd disturbed by their approach.
"Are these…" Sazh wondered aloud as he picked up the envelope marked "tO saZh".
Hope bent down and picked up the rest of them. He handed one to Snow and one to Dajh before turning to Noel. While most of the names were spelled with jumbled up letters that had been cut out from various sources, only one was left blank. Hope shrugged as he handed the unmarked envelope to Noel.
"Is she here?" he asked quietly.
The brunette shook his head.
While the others were opening the letters, Noel stared at the one in his hand, his expression just as blank as the paper. Struggling with the decision to read it or not, he lifted his head, searching for Serah, wishing for her to give him a clue.
Having opened his letter first, Sazh was the first one to break into sobs.
"Serah!" he shouted. "Is this it? Please, at least show yourself one more time!"
Tears pooled in Snow's eyes as he read Serah's last goodbye.
You are always trying to do what is right, something I've always admired. I hope you continue to be the hero this world needs. I love you very much.
"Please, Serah!" he begged. "I have something to tell you, too!"
Just one more time, she told herself, willing her body to solidify once more.
The morning was slowly taking shades of black out of the sky. Though the sun had yet to rise, it pressed against the horizon burning from grey to blue, then to pink and warmer.
Her silhouette flickered on the edge of the dock in front of them. Whether it was the sky that lit up her face or the joyful smile she held, Noel couldn't say. But suddenly she was there and he realized that he hadn't even glanced at his letter.
"Goodbye, everyone…" she said softly.
Hope's eyes widened in surprise.
"Serah!" he shouted, pointing to get the other's attention.
"Holy Eidolin, it's her!" Sazh exclaimed.
"Bye Miss Farron!" Dajh said, waving his small hands rapidly. "Tell my mommy I miss her!"
"Goodbye, Dajh!" she giggled in response. "I'll make sure she knows."
The shock of seeing her again had Snow frozen in place. It was just like that feeling he'd had in Etro's temple, when Hope had confronted him. He could feel her again. "Serah, I love you!"
"Goodbye, Serah, thanks for everything!"
Hope nudged his friend, "Noel, c'mon!"
"I… ah, thank you, Serah. Goodbye."
Too bright to behold, the sun crested the ocean's waves and passed through her body.
"Thank you," whispered the wind.
And with that, she disappeared.
Serah didn't come back after that. She must have moved on.
Noel wondered if she was in Heaven, or Valhalla or even wandering the Void Beyond. Whether she'd met Etro at the end of her journey, or if the goddess was truly dead, was something that he worried about from time to time. But, no matter what challenges she faced in death, he was sure she'd be strong enough to handle it. That adventure was one she had to travel alone.
In the same way, Noel, too, had a journey to travel. Mercifully, he had some friends to help him along the way.
Every morning, his first thought was of Serah's wish to be reincarnated. Today, he'd think. I'll find her today. And so, he'd keep his eyes open, more aware of everything around him than he'd ever been. He'd notice the insects that returned to the city in the summer. He'd greet every person he met with an expectant smile, wondering if her soul was residing within them. The sunshine, the wind… in everything he searched for that quality that would clearly tell him "this is her". As a result, he experienced the world in an entirely new way, hyperaware of its beauty with eyes insatiable. Though he didn't know the names of the flowers he saw each day, he'd memorized every one.
Noel lifted his head skyward. From the roof of NORA house, he looked out over the sea into the starry night. Time stood still and chaos continued to ravage the planet, but at the very least, the overbearing clouds had disappeared. The worn letter that Serah had left him was clutched in his hand, but his eyes wandered the heavens, admiring the points of brightness in a black and endless void. Serah's parting gift. And for Noel, it was enough motivation to keep living.
How long will I love you?
As long as stars are above you
And longer if I can.
How long will I need you?
As long as the seasons need to
Follow their plan.
How long will I be with you?
As long as the sea is bound to
Wash up on the sand.
How long will I want you?
As long as you want me too
And longer by far.
How long will I give to you?
As long as I live through you
However long you say.
How long will I love you?
As long as stars are above you
… And longer if I may.
Goodbye, Serah. One day I'll find you again.
Disclaimer: Letter contains lyrics from "How long will I love you" written by Mike Scott of The Waterboys. I would recommend the cover of this song by Ellie Goulding.