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Sometimes the phone still feels strange in her hand, against her ear, even after years of using it. It’s not as bad with her cell – small, light and streamlined, with a touch screen and a thousand functions unconnected to making calls – but this is the house phone, the old thing that was already in the apartment when they moved in, this bulky thing that is a relic from a past she never witnessed. It’s so odd, this mix of old and new that is everywhere in their daily lives now, because of course old technology, old architecture and systems were mixed with new ones at home as well, but that was a different old and new and sometimes she feels like an alien.

Sometimes she wonders, somewhere in the back of her mind, if she’s just crazy and one of these worlds only ever existed in her head. (She can never quite decide which one.)

Not now, though; not when Vanille is on the line and talking about their travels, about all the things she and Fang discovered in this small, enormous world as something new and amazing. At least she’s not alone in her madness, Serah thinks, except she doesn’t really think that. She thinks that she’d probably go crazy without the others, if they’d never found each other again, and ends up being just grateful, because they did and everything is almost perfect.

Fang and Vanille are coming back soon. Home. Serah doesn’t know if they think of this town as that but she does, for them. This is where everyone is, and to her the people are what gives her a sense of belonging even when the places constantly change and are lost. And she thinks Fang and Vanille must see it the same way because they always come back here for a month or two, before leaving again because some of them are still missing but also because the world is big and strange and someone has to explore it.

(They have been born two worlds and countless lifetimes away in a home they lost to war and crystal. They lost Cocoon as soon as they accepted it as a new home, lost Nova Crysalia and are once again strangers in a place that holds nothing familiar, starting from scratch. They might need some time to root themselves in this new world, to find their place and their purpose. Serah understands that out of all of them, she was the lucky one.)

“We got a surprise for you guys when we get back,” Fang says some distance away and Serah realizes she’s been on speaker all the time. “Boy, are you gonna be surprised.” With the distortion of the connection Serah cannot tell if she sounds gleeful or not.

What is it? she almost asks, but doesn’t, as she knows that some things can’t, or shouldn’t, be told on the phone. Vanille would have told her already if this wasn’t one of them.

Vanille doesn’t tell her now. Vanille changes the topic and asks her about her family, if she’s pregnant yet because she’s been talking about it the last time they met.

“Actually, we’re thinking about adopting,” Serah tells her now, and doesn’t tell her why they chose to go this way. This is another thing that shouldn’t be discussed on the phone. Because she doesn’t want to. Because Vanille will want to hug her when she tells them and Serah wants that hug.

On the other end of the line, somewhere on the South American continent, Vanille draws breath to say something but Fang interrupts her, her voice suddenly sounding much closer than before. “Awesome,” she says, and it sounds like she really means it. “That’s actually really convenient.”

 

-

 

When she gets the diagnosis she isn’t even surprised, but devastated none the less. And she immediately feels silly for it, like she shouldn’t be. She isn’t sick. She isn’t going to die. She is never going to have children.

She once went on an adventure to save all of time and space. She turned to crystal and back, she died and was reborn, she survived two worlds, she’s seen and done thing no one, not one person from this strange and wonderful planet can ever dream of seeing or doing. It seems like such a small thing in comparison, wanting to be a mother, and seen relative to all that she has lost, losing this shouldn’t matter so much.

But it does. It’s something she’s always wanted for herself, something she took for granted, and after everything she went through, having this taken away just doesn’t seem fair. Like a punch to the gut, delivered by god, or fate, or whatever force she angered the most during her adventures. Maybe this is some kind of punishment, she thinks at some point; a price she has to pay for the decisions she made. And had she known about it she would have done the same things, would have made this sacrifice even if it was hard. But it doesn’t seem fair that it was just taken from her.

It probably isn’t a price she paid. It probably just happened, for nothing.

Maybe this is something that has always been wrong with her. Maybe it happened when she came to this world. She doesn’t know if she’s still got the same body she had before, the one that died when the world ended the first time. Probably not. Maybe something went wrong in the transition.

Maybe none of that ever happened, she thinks again when she sits on the couch in their apartment and doesn’t cry. She can’t ask the doctor if he thinks her body got reassembled wrong because that sounds insane and maybe that’s what she is. Maybe everything was just a dream.

She doesn’t believe that. If this world feels strange around her sometimes, it’s not because there’s something wrong with her, but there is a certain comfort in the realisation that if her past never happened, if it was all in her mind she still wouldn’t trade those memories for the world she’s living in. They made her what she is, after all. They made all of them. They will never be fully part of this world but they will always be part of each other.

Serah isn’t afraid to show her pain to her sister now. She isn’t going to apologize for being hurt, for not being stronger than this and pretend she isn’t affected by the loss. (She will not trade feeling normal for the joy that comes over her every time she sees her sister; not just the joy of seeing her unhurt and home at least after weeks of work but the joy of living in a world where her sister exists.) Claire won’t fault her for it.

They all carry the past in their hearts. While Fang and Vanille are restless and curious and sticking to each other as the only constant they know, Claire has finally settled into her place in their mid, finding a home and stability in her friends and her family. The past is in the way Sazh strives so hard to create a home for his son that’s absolutely normal, in the pleasure Hope takes from understanding the science of this world and the support he can give them when it comes to fitting in. In the way Snow sometimes seems so tired because a new world and a new life are not enough to wash away five centuries of despair.

Snow wants children, too. He lost his own parents even earlier than Serah did, has no memories of them, and Serah knows, though he never told her, that he wanted to be the father he always wished he’d had. He would have been great at it. This, too, she knows beyond a doubt. They would have made fantastic parents.

The tightness in her throat makes Serah regret taking the call while she was alone. She thinks of calling her sister at work, wonders if that would be too selfish and decides that it would be. Not because Claire would mind. She’s going to support Serah through this, through everything and rely on Serah and the others to support her, too, through whatever hardships may come. But she’s an officer of the law, might be fighting crime right now, might need her mind on something else for the sake of her own and everyone’s safety. Serah thinks about getting herself a cup of hot chocolate instead, because hot chocolate always makes her feel better. Mostly, it would give her some simple task to focus on. Would give her hands something to hold.

She’s still sitting on the couch when Snow comes in, and the light is fading already outside the window. She doesn’t know she’s crying until he cups her face and asks her what’s wrong, and then he holds her while she cries into his shoulder. (She doesn’t have to be strong here.)

When she can, she tells him how sorry she is. It’s not an apology – it’s not her fault and neither of them thinks it is – but an expression of sympathy. He’s losing something too, right here.

In reply, he kisses her forehead and strokes her hair.

They go to bed early that day, not even bothering with dinner. Serah is too worn out, too exhausted emotionally to even think about food and Snow is exhausted almost all the time. Serah still wants to talk to Claire, but it’s not so urgent anymore. It can wait until tomorrow, when they meet in person. For now, Snow’s arms around her are enough.

In the morning she wakes when he leaves her but clings to the oblivion of sleep until Snow comes back with a cup of hot chocolate and a smile that dances in his eyes like the world is a better place than it was the night before. Serah clings to both, the sweet drink in her hands and the unspoken promise that everything is going to be alright.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” he says. “This might not be so bad after all.”

“Oh?” Serah says. Not scandalized, just curious. And a little eager. She wants so desperately to see something good in this, and if anyone can find it, it’s Snow.

“Yeah. I mean, it sucks, big time. But it might also be lucky, in a way. For some poor kid who would have grown up without parents and now might end up getting a pair of really awesome parents who happen to be free.” He sits down on the edge of the bed and takes her hand in his. “Serah,” he says, and looks her deep in the eyes like the night he asked her to marry him. “How do you feel about orphans?”

Smiling is easy, this time. “I married one,” she says, and leans in to kiss the tip of his nose.

 

-

 

Everyone is there when Fang and Vanille arrive. They all gather in Claire’s apartment, right below the one Serah and Snow live in and sit, stunned to silence, on couch and recliner and chairs. Staring.

Vanille giggles a little because apparently they all look pretty stupid right now.

Sazh is the first to break the silence. “Well,” he says. “I guess that explains why we’ve never been able to find Noel anywhere.”

On Fang’s lap, the little toddler sticks his thumb in his mouth and stares back at them without a care in the world.

 

-

 

They found him in an orphanage in a country called Armenia just two months ago, they explain. It was mostly a coincidence, paired with a measure of intuition. Taking him with them had been easy, they explain, though no one asks what exactly they mean by that.

“After that, figuring out what happened to Yeul wasn’t hard,” Fang tells them. She leans back on her chair in her jeans and t-shirt and balances sleepy little Noel on her knee. “Finding her was a different matter. Took us all the way to Panama. Hence us only getting back here now.”

“You found Yeul?” Serah sits up straight as if it would help her find the girl. “Where is she?”

“Right here!” Vanille crouches beside the basket she’s left by Fang’s chair and lifts out a baby, tiny and fragile and wrapped in a blanket. She carries it over to Serah with a spring in her step that makes her ponytail bob up and own. Serah takes the child without thinking. It makes a small, unwilling sound at being moved but settles back into sleep when she holds it against her chest.

The fine blue hair is unmistakable. No one on this planet has hair like that.

“That’s where you guys come in,” Fang informs them. She’s looking at Serah, then at Snow. “See, we’re keeping this little guy here, but considering their past and possible future, we figured it might be pretty awkward to have them grow up as siblings.”

“You think?” Clair mutters. She’s staring at the baby, too. Baby Yeul. Serah can’t seem to look away. She’s so small and light in her arms.

This is the seeress who helped us in our quest, she thinks. This is the girl who died in Noel’s arms, who promised to be with him again. Who became the goddess of Death. But she only sees a baby, small and helpless and without baggage and obligations. She just sees countless possibilities, so many more than Yeul ever had for all that her lives were many. And that’s enough; that instant she is overcome by all the protective instincts and motherly love that she doesn’t have anyone else to give to.

A hand appears in her field of vision, large and bearing a ring matching hers. Snow carefully moves the blanket away from the baby’s face and the baby blinks sleepily and frees a hand from the hold of the fabric to grab for his.

“Is that going to be a problem?” Fang asks, and Serah shakes her head and says “No,” before she even has time to think. Too late she remembers that this isn’t only her decision to make, but when she looks to Snow for confirmation, he is too busy staring at the tiny hand wrapped around his finger to notice.

“Looks like a good solution,” Sazh says, but he sounds sceptical. “But what if they remember everything? They share a history with most of you. Could be pretty weird, don’t you think? And even if they don’t, you know what they’ll be like when they grow up, or what they are supposed to be like. I’m just saying.”

“Does it matter?” Snow asks. “They are kids, and they deserve to have a good home.”

“That’s what we thought, too.” Vanille agrees. She’s bouncing on her toes a little, clearly excited. “When we found Noel, we decided that he should have a good childhood if he has to grow up again, so we thought we might just as well take care of that ourselves, you know.”

“Sazh is right, though,” Claire speaks up. “You knew them when they were grown, and that is going to influence the way you see them. The way you raise them, too, even if they never remember. I mean, you even gave them the same names.”

“Noel already had that name,” Fang tells her. “Don’t know who named him, though, or who their parents are, if they even have any. Anyway, Noel is already used to being Noel. Guess he’ll be kinda miffed if we suddenly start calling him something else.”

“Anyway,” Claire finishes her argument. “I’m just thinking, maybe they would be better off with someone who doesn’t know who they used to be.”

“Like who?” Fang wants to know. “Who do you know around here that you trust enough to put the childhood of your friends in their hands?”

“They aren’t my friends,” Claire points out, but there is no force behind it. “I hardly know them, especially Yeul.”

“So you can keep an eye on things and let us know when we’re doing wrong by her,” Snow points out. He seems already sold on the idea. Claire frowns at him and he grins at her, his finger still held captive by the infant in Serah’s arms. “You can be the world’s best mean aunt.”

“I’ll show you mean,” Claire snaps, but her lips are twitching suspiciously.

“That’s settled, then,” Fang proclaims, sounding satisfied. On her lap, Noel has nodded off, and Vanille comes over to take him and place him on a free spot on the couch where he grumbles sleepily and curls up like a giant reincarnated kitten.

“I can get you all the legal papers you need.” Hope seems to support the idea as well, and Serah throws him a grateful smile. He doesn’t notice, because his eyes keep going from Noel to Fang and back again. “I can even forge you papers to prove that you are their biological parents. With Fang and Noel, no one is going to assume otherwise anyway. You look like you really are his mother.”

“I am his mother,” Fang corrects him. “And so is Vanille.”

“I can see how that might be difficult to explain in the biological sense,” Claire notes wryly.

“If anyone can do it, it’s Hope,” Serah teases, and turns her attention back to the child in her arms before he can scowl at her. The truth is, she wants them all gone right now, so she and her husband can enjoy their new baby for a while. And make plans. And try to deal.

“I don’t have to do that, though,” Hope points out. “I can just make you their adoptive parents. Whatever suits you best. Either way, just leave it to me.”

They will. Fate and a dying world have thrown them here but it’s Hope who made it possible for them to fit in. Without him, they wouldn’t have an identity, no jobs, no money. This world’s information technology is simple, he keeps telling them; for him, it was no problem at all to get into anything. He was the first one who got a job, and he used it to track them all down and bring them together, three years ago. Now he makes so much money that he could move to the other side of town, where the rich people are living. He stays with them, though, living in the apartment building across the street, and every time Serah sees him a part of her is happy that he has been delivered to Earth in the young man’s body he had before Bhunivelze took him, because he deserves to have a body that actually suits his mind. Another part of her is slightly thrown off every now and again because there’s just something wrong with him being older than her, and maybe even older than Snow. (Even Snow doesn’t know what his physical age is, exactly. With all the travelling through time it was hard to keep track, he claims, and Serah believes him. The five centuries that followed negated all importance of that question anyway. They also make it silly to complain that Hope is no longer a teenager.)

“So you’re going to keep her, then?” Claire frowns, looking sceptical, but Serah knows her too well to think she’s really objecting. Claire is just worried that her sister and Snow don’t know what they are getting themselves into, and about the preconceived notions they might have about the future development of a baby who isn’t even old enough to crawl. “Don’t dump her on me when you don’t feel like dealing with her crying in the middle of the night.”

“But Sis.” Snow smirks. “Who else will we dump her on?”

“At least give her another name.” That’s Sazh speaking up. He looks serious. “I mean it. Right now that’s not Yeul. That’s just a baby who can become anyone. Don’t force her into a role she might not want to play.”

“Yeah,” Snow agrees. “You’re right, the name might be a mistake.”

Serah finds herself nodding as well. Snow never even knew Yeul, just like most of them didn’t. Serah only met her briefly herself, but she heard enough from Noel to have a clear picture in her mind, and so did Snow. A different name will make it easier to let that go.

In any case, it will be easier than raising Noel, who was her friend and her companion for a while and Snow’s for so much longer. For a second, a rush of grief threatens to overcome her when she realises that she will never see her friend again, not like that. He’s lost to her, but then, he’s not lost at all, and it seems selfish to mourn all the bad memories he used to have for her place in them, when he’s finally been given the chance to grow up with loving parents in a world full of people.

Maybe that’s why he and Yeul are like this, she speculates. Maybe this is a gift, given to them by all the other Yeuls. A chance for Noel to have a real childhood, a manifestation of the wish of countless seeresses to grow up unbound by the past and be only herself. There must be a reason they are the only ones reborn rather than resurrected.

Maybe the Yeuls left everyone else as they are to be their guardians. If so, Serah accepted that role the moment Vanille placed the baby in her arms.

As for Noel, Fang and Vanille will do great by him, she knows. And they never knew him in his old life so that will be no problem. Serah is leaving him to them without worry.

She’s going to get to watch him grow up. That will be so weird, but maybe it will be wonderful, too.

“I’m sure we’ll be able to think of a name,” she says, smiling as the nameless baby in her arms brings Snow’s finger to her mouth to gnaw on it.

 

-

 

It’s still warm outside but they days are getting shorter as the year progresses. It’s in the twilight between sunset and night that Serah comes home from work. She doesn’t usually work this late but the parents of one of her students had asked for an appointment, and the road there took time.

In Neo Bodhum she used to meet any parents or kids on the bench before the club house.

It’s rare that she comes home later than Snow, so the dim quiet of the apartment is nothing she isn’t used to. The only difference is that he should be here, and while there are a hundred possible reasons for his absence that are perfectly harmless, she cannot help the twist of worry deep in her stomach and wonders if that will ever completely go away.

She finds him in the bedroom, in the end; not asleep but lying on the bed, looking out of the window at the darkening sky. Just doing nothing, for a while. It’s not something Serah ever expected when they were living on Cocoon and so much younger, but after centuries of fighting monsters and watching over an entire city when all he wanted to do was lay down and die, it’s something he’s entitled to.

He turns when she comes in and givers her a smile just barely visible in the fading light but doesn’t otherwise react. Serah drops her bag by the door and crawls over the mattress to lie against him, her head resting on his chest. Snow wraps his arm around her and goes back to looking at the sky. Together they lie silent for a long while.

“Do you ever feel like nothing of this is real?” Serah eventually asks, the words coming out of nothing. “That everything that happened to us is just a dream?”

Snow doesn’t react for a long time. Serah is beginning to think he might have fallen asleep, glad she kept her voice down so it didn’t wake him, but then he says, equally quietly, “Would that really be so bad?”

Serah knows the answer to that. “Only if I ever wake up,” she whispers and closes her eyes.

 

-

 

Vanille has taken up writing. When she first wrote down the story of how they all met and defeated the Sanctum together, how they destroyed and saved the world at the same time, she told her friends that it was because that world is gone and when they are, too, one day, there will be nothing at all left of it but the stories they tell while they still can. It was Fang, though, who send it to a publisher. It’s become popular, a year ago or so. A fantasy novel. No one knows it is true or would believe that it is, and all of them prefer it that way.

Serah has read it before it even got published. It humbled her, made her understand better than any verbal account of their adventures what the others went trough while she slept in crystal. It made her wish she could add her own side of the tale and become more than a shadow in the back story of someone else, but she never even tried. She doesn’t want to be important, anyway. She just wants to be happy.

If there is one thing Vanille’s take leaves no doubt of it’s the fact that Serah is important to all the right people. And right now, as she watches her little baby girl try to eat her husband’s hair, she’s perfectly happy, too.

(Her husband. She loves that word. After the wedding she couldn’t stop saying it, to the point where Hope would tease her about it for weeks afterwards. Serah didn’t care. She’s waited more than a thousand years to get married; there was nothing wrong, she decided, with revelling in the moment.)

It’s Vanille’s novel that gives them another reason to all meet, just a week after Serah and Snow so unexpectedly became parents. This time, they are sitting on the porch of Sazh’s little house enjoying the sunset, and Dajh is showing little Noel how to catch bugs in the garden, and no babies are dropped on anyone.

“A video game?” Claire asks. She doesn’t frown. She just looks blank, as if the meaning of the words escapes her. “About us?”

Vanille nods. She looks excited and embarrassed at the same time. “I’m not quite sure how that happened,” she admits, and Fang laughs and ruffles her hair when she refuses to meet anyone’s eyes and blushes.

“They are even thinking about asking Hope to help with the development,” the dark haired woman informs them, and Hope nods and says, “I’m inclined to accept.”

“You’d better,” Snow tells him. “Gotta make sure they make me look good.”

“I doubt that’s actually possible,” Claire throws in, all comfortable teasing and love, and Snow winks at her as he shifts the baby in his arms without even trying to make her let go of his hair.

The sight makes Serah regret having cut her own hair just before getting the baby. By the time it’ll be long enough again, her daughter might not be interested in playing with it anymore. But it’s nice to watch her family like this, too, to the point where sometimes she fees like clasping her hands and squealing with joy.

Not this evening. Right now, she just feels calm and content and a little baffled at the news. Snow and Hope and Claire are already engaged in a discussion about the game and what it might be like, and Vanille, once she realises that no one minds this development and blames her for starting it with her writing soon joins in. Fang shares a look with Serah that is maybe meant to be from one long-suffering wife to the next but can’t hide the smirk beneath, and Serah has never felt closer to the other woman than here and now.

The sun is almost gone. The birds are singing their last song of the day and she can hear Noel and Dajh laughing as they try to follow the sound of the insects chirping in the high grass. Soon, Serah will move into a house close by with Snow and Claire and the baby so their little girl will have a real garden to play in when she’s older. They already picked one, just down the road, near the river.

“We thought of a name for the baby,” she tells the others once the discussion has slowed down some. Everyone goes quiet and looks at her expectantly, except for Snow and Claire, who already know.

Serah smiles and leans back in her woven chair, her back to the horizon. “We’re thinking about naming her Nora.”

Hope is the first to show a reaction. He nods slowly. “It’s a good name,” he agrees, a soft smile on his face that is wistful but not sad. No doubt he is thinking about his mother right now, but Serah is thinking about old friends and an old home; about Maqui’s grin the day he introduced her to his friends, about Yuj’s taste in clothes, and Gadot’s brotherly teasing matches with Snow. About LeBreau’s cooking and the way the smell would attract everyone in the vicinity of the bar. About the waves on the beach in Bodhum and not having a care in the world besides her sister not liking her boyfriend. About the way the group took her in as if she had always been one of them. About her cat in Neo Bodhum, about watching the town grow as they all build it together as something that belonged to the people who called it their home and no one else.

About how they all were there for her as they waited, together, for Snow to come back.

These people, these men and women sitting around her, they are her family. Sometimes, however, they might forget that all of them had other friends and family once; people that were important parts of their lives for all that they lost each other long, long ago.

Hope had his parents; looking at him now makes Serah remember her own, and the terrible time when everyone but Snow tried to tell her that her sister was gone. Fang and Vanille had families once, now only alive in memories that they never share, as if they are content to let Gran Pulse die with them when the time comes. It’s Sazh who raises his glass first and says, “To absent friends.”

The others join in the toast as the sun sets on yet another day.

 

13 May 2014