Serah wasn't surprised to find Vanille sitting tucked into the shadows between houses in the rebuilt village she had once called home. She didn't know what Oerba had looked like when Vanille was small, or even how it had looked when Lightning, Snow and the others had first come upon it on their mission to rescue her. Now, lights burned bright and cheerful, smoke streamed from chimneys, and voices of mothers calling children in for the evening blended with drum music from a house down near the water. Considering all that had happened, it would be a lot to take in.
"There you are!" Serah said, eliciting a shriek of surprise from Vanille. "It's hard to have a party without the guest of honor," she laughed, moving to crouch next to Vanille, who replied with a resentful look.
"One of them," Vanille corrected Serah. "I'm sure Fang will do my part for me." There was a hint of bitterness to her tone that saddened Serah. It seemed every time Serah had seen her, she had been like the sun on a cloudy day, her true nature cloaked in stifling sadness. It shouldn't be this way. This was a happy time.
“It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” Serah said as she sat down next to Vanille and drew her knees to her chest. “When I first woke up, the sun seemed too bright, sounds too loud. I wanted to cover up my arms and legs whenever I felt the wind blow. Everything was so intense.”
Vanille nodded. "I've felt this way before. The last time we came out of crystal stasis. I was so disoriented. I couldn't even understand Fang at first when she spoke to me. I just wanted to hide, but we started to run right away, and then..." Vanille looked up mournfully at Serah.
"Enough of that," Serah said, moving closer to wrap her arm around Vanille. "It's in the past. You're here now. You're safe. You'll get used to things again. And it's not like you don't know anything that's going on, right? You could hear us when we talked to you. I know I could hear Snow, and you, when you talked to me."
"I remember," Vanille said with a nod. "I remember it all." She glanced sideways at Serah. "Is it still bad?" she whispered.
Serah frowned. "Bad? Is what... oh!" Guilt washed over her in a hot flush. “No, it's not like that. It’s not bad. Snow could never, ever be bad to me!” she quickly protested. “It’s just... not what I thought it would be."
"What isn't?" Vanille asked, shifting to turn toward Serah.
The gentle tug of her concerned gaze unraveled the ties binding Serah's emotions tightly to her, and she whispered, "Marriage." She wrung her hands in her lap. "Snow knows I’m unhappy, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. I feel like such a terrible person, because I know he’d do anything to make it better. I just don’t know what to tell him to do!” Serah rubbed her hands over her face, then looked over at Vanille again, flushed and doubly sick with guilt. “How selfish am I, pouring this out to you now, of all times? You’ve only been back a day, and we’re supposed to be celebrating.”
“Now who’s being silly?” Vanille laughed. “You listened to me all those years ago, when you had your own worries weighing you down. I’m not going anywhere now. You can tell me all you like.” Vanille pulled Serah close, and Serah breathed deeply. Vanille smelled like sweet orange blossoms and her namesake vanilla. It soothed Serah's wrenching heart as it made it race faster.
“He fought so hard to save me, Vanille," she murmured, feeling her warm breath reflected back at her by Vanille's cheek. "He defended me to Light, and he never gave up on saving me. He fixed up this house for us." She gestured to the closed window, where Snow's loud laugh mingled with Fang's while the pair caught up inside. "Anything I want, he gives to me. He says I’m the most beautiful thing on all of Pulse. I’m so lucky to have him!” Serah swallowed hard to keep from crying again. Crying never got her anywhere. She felt Vanille's fingers gently stroke over the back of her neck, and she shivered.
“Those are good things, right?” Vanille's question was measured, almost hesitant.
“Of course,” Serah said with a shaky sigh. “I’m sure any girl would do anything to have a man that dedicated to her.”
“So, what’s the problem?” Vanille tried to turn her face to look at Serah's, but Serah avoided her eyes. This was so humiliating, to tell to Vanille of all people. Even her daily one-sided conversations with Vanille as she'd watched over them in crystal form never got that specific. It was too embarrassing. Too ungrateful. Still, She had to relieve this burden before it crushed her.
“It’s all right, Serah. We’re friends, right? You can tell me anything,” Vanille coaxed once more.
Serah took a deep breath, then shakily eased it out. “The guilt," she said, finally forcing herself to look Vanille in the face. "The feeling that we maybe rushed into things. The feeling that... I don’t want him to... touch me.” The ties were loosed, and the wrapping quickly fell away, as though tugged by the brisk night breeze. “He’s been so patient, so understanding. I know it frustrates him, though. I know it hurts him.”
“Wait? Touch you?” Vanille frowned. “Do you mean, you’ve never...”
“No,” Serah confessed. She sat up and crossed her legs, then continued as she stared down into her lap. “Not even on our wedding night. I was so scared, but I knew he’d been waiting so long for it. He’d been so good to me. I owed it to him. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t, and it’s been two years, and I still can’t.” Her confession fell to a soft whisper. She felt like a failure as a wife, as a woman. An ungrateful victim who couldn't give her rescuer the one thing he so badly desired. As the years had passed, the pain of it had eaten away at her confidence and inner strength, until she'd barely felt like herself any more.
“Oh. My,” Vanille stammered. Her unease made Serah feel even worse, and she jerked to her feet.
"I shouldn't have said anything. I'm sorry."
“Wait! No! Maybe you just need more time!” Vanille grabbed Serah's wrist and pulled her back down. She fell on her knees into Vanille's lap, a sudden nausea overwhelming her. She screwed her eyes shut to avoid Vanille's earnest gaze.
“That’s exactly what Snow says! He’s been saying that for years. Every time he touches me, I just go stiff and my stomach turns to lead. I can’t help it. And I hear him sigh, then he’ll pull away. He sounds so resigned, Vanille. Then he’ll say, ‘I understand, baby. You just need more time.’” She shook her head. “All the time in the world won’t help,” she whispered. She finally opened her eyes to assess Vanille's reaction. Her expression was unchanged—confused and slightly uncomfortable.
Serah sighed and sat back on her heels. “Do you remember on the beach, when we talked about finding the right words?” she asked.
“Of course I do,” Vanille said. “I was so mad that I couldn't just tell you that it was my fault you became a l’Cie.” She sighed, and it was her turn to glance away. “Is that how you’re feeling right now, Serah?”
Serah didn’t respond, momentarily lost in memories of that day. The way the warm salty air clung to her skin, the way the sunlight glinted off the water. The feeling that something huge was looming just over the horizon, but she couldn't imagine what. The horrible premonition that she was about to lose everything she knew, everything she held dear. And the strange girl with the exotic accent, equal parts hopeful and anguished. Just like Serah had been. “You fell onto your knees, and your hands were on my hips,” Serah finally said. “I could feel your breathing through my skirt.” Her voice grew shaky, and she swallowed.
“Serah,” Vanille whispered, and the way she said the word made goosebumps break out on Serah's skin.
“Even after Snow proposed to me, and I was so happy, I kept thinking about how that felt,” Serah continued, forcing herself to look at Vanille as she confessed. She took hold of one of Vanille's hands and interlaced her slender fingers with Vanille's, callused and nail-bitten. “When he took my hand, I remembered how yours fit against mine so perfectly. It doesn't dwarf me. When he’d put his hands on my body, I’d remember yours on my hips, on my back. That’s when my heart would start to pound. That’s what made me tingle. Not thinking of Snow." She took Vanille's other hand as well, and shed the remaining wrappings on her truth. "I was thinking of you.”
Vanille gasped. “Serah?” Her eyes widened, but she didn't pull away.
“I’m not asking anything of you, Vanille. Don’t think that,” Serah whispered quickly with a squeeze to Vanille's hands. “I just don’t know how to tell Snow that I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve been lying to him all this time. I've been lying to him and to myself.”
“You haven’t been lying, Serah!” Vanille protested before Serah could even finish. “You just didn’t know! You were still learning.” She glanced out toward the other houses in the village. “Back when I was young, they used to say that we always have more to learn about ourselves, more ways to grow. When we’ve learned it all, that’s when we die.” She dropped one of Serah's hands and gently touched her cheek. “You just hadn’t learned that yet. But you're learning now, and that's what's important.”
“But how do I tell him that? How do I tell Light when she returns? How do I do it without hurting them?”
“One of the things I've learned from the day I was branded a l'Cie until now is that when you grow, sometimes you hurt the ones you love. We’ve all done it, right? Even Lightning and Snow,” Vanille said. “I know I have,” she added with a roll of her eyes that made Serah laugh despite herself. “If they love you, they’ll forgive you. You’ve just got to learn from your mistakes and make sure you apologize.”
Serah looked up at the glowing window above them. “I can’t. I don’t know how I can look into his eyes and tell him everything he did was all for nothing. I don't know how I can ever find the words to say how sorry I am."
“Oh Serah,” Vanille sighed. “You know Snow better than that. He’d say it was worth it, no matter what. You’re worth it, no matter what.” She gave Serah’s shoulders a gentle shake. “Trust me, I've been there. I know.” Serah just shook her head and looked down.
Vanille's fingertips pressed beneath Serah's chin, and she obediently raised her face. “Serah, didn’t you tell me once that if something’s too tough to deal with, to face it later?”
“Yeah,” Serah breathed, then licked her lips. “Yeah, I did.”
Vanille mimicked Serah’s movement, then took a slow, deliberate breath. “It was the best advice I’ve ever gotten."
Serah bit her lip. "I just can't do that." Her heart was in her throat, but she knew she'd come too far. "I'm sorry, Vanille," she choked out as she pressed her mouth to Vanille's in a desperate kiss. She felt her startle, then relax, her lips soft and pliant against Serah's clumsy advance. Vanille’s fingertips brushed her collarbone, then her neck, then light against her cheek before they drew apart.
“Oh,” both girls breathed at the same time. Vanille’s eyes were wide with what appeared to be surprise and realization, her chest heaving in a mesmerizing way that Serah couldn’t tear her eyes from. She’d wondered for so long what her touch would feel like, such a contrast to Snow's delicate restraint. She'd tried so hard to push it from her mind, to think only on Snow, but in the bath, whenever she was alone, and even while Snow carefully tried to ease her into the marital act, Vanille's touch from that day on the beach had seared itself into her memories, and it was all she could think about.
“I never imagined you could feel this way too,” Serah stammered, bringing a hand to her lips.
“You never asked,” Vanille replied with a rush of delight, and before the words had left her mouth, Serah’s was on her again, with a kiss far more fervent and desperate than the first one they’d shared. Serah didn’t know what she was doing, and obviously neither did Vanille. Their fingers delicately traced over bare shoulders, collarbones, necks, arms, backs. Serah’s wandering fingers eventually found Vanille’s sides and bare midriff, the satiny soft skin both foreign and quite familiar and causing her to involuntarily squeeze her thighs together. Vanille responded with a moan-squeak of pleasure that vibrated through Serah’s mouth.
The kiss deepend, with tongues tentatively exploring new territory. Serah was the aggressor, as she was familiar with some of this from gamely giving foreplay a try for Snow's sake.The dread and hesitation she normally felt had become a desperate sort of enthusiasm. She wanted to see what happened next, and then after that. She wanted to know what happened to the heat between her legs that only got hotter each time she squeezed her thighs.
They sank back against the wall of the house, where Vanille found the bottom edge of Serah’s top, then slipped her fingertips beneath it, traversing the knit of her skirt until Serah felt those rough fingertips brush above her waistband. It was Serah’s turn to moan helplessly as Vanille traced the contours of her navel, stomach and ribcage. Even Snow's gentlest touches couldn't compare to the intensity of this, and Serah’s soft moans turned to desperate whimpers.
Vanille's mouth migrated from Serah's lips to her neck, and Serah willingly submitted. Her skin tingled and her nipples ached. Her entire insides felt like they were on fire, and she was desperate to both feed it and put it out at the same time. Serah reached up and gripped one of Vanille’s pigtails, yanking so hard that when Vanille licked from the crook of her neck all the way to her ear, she broke the tie and sent the red curls cascading around her shoulder. The other side soon met a similar fate, and then Serah gripped two handfuls of Vanille's thick hair, scratching at her scalp, tugging at it. Vanille squealed against Serah's neck, then continued to nibble, occasionally sucking at patches of skin.
“Vanille,” Serah whimpered as the teasing tickle of Vanille's mouth forged a trail down the vee of Serah’s shirt, to nuzzle in the slight valley between her breasts. She nosed Serah’s necklace out of the way to kiss and lick at the skin there, while Serah yanked at her hair harder, her hips now lifting slightly off of the ground in a slow rhythm.
She had lost herself in the sensations, until she finally yanked too hard. Vanille recoiled and grunted an involuntary “ouch.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Serah gasped, immediately releasing Vanille’s hair.
“It’s all right,” Vanille panted, raising her head to look up at Serah. Her lips were wet and swollen from their explorations, her face and chest flushed pink. The heated skin was fascinating, and Serah traced its path over Vanille’s cheek, down her neck, to her chest. Her finger dipped deeper beneath Vanille’s top, which caused Vanille to shiver and arch her back. Vanille’s nipples were shameless peaks like Serah's, and suddenly Serah wanted to see. She wanted to compare their bodies, explore their differences, and celebrate how much alike they were. There were no shameful secrets to be held by Vanille’s body; it felt as familiar beneath Serah’s curious fingertips as her own did.
The girls explored each other, at times frantic, and at times shy and hesitant. Serah shivered uncontrollably, yet she thought she was going to simply evaporate into the air at the same time. Vanille’s fingers trembled, her breathing shallow and fast. It was all new, yet so natural. There was nothing to fear.
“The first day I met you, I felt like I’d known you forever,” Serah said later she lay with her head against Vanille's damp shoulder, pressed close to her against the chill. “I just knew how to talk to you, and knew you understood me.” She shifted against Vanille, and Vanille tightened her arms around her. It felt so comforting. No expectations. No guilt. “After you returned to crystal, I’d look up at you and wonder if I’d missed my chance. You crossed my path for a reason, and I was too wrapped up in myself to notice.”
“Don’t say things like that!” Vanille said, giving Serah's hip a chiding smack. “You said it yourself. Sometimes you just need to look at things from a distance. Maybe we both needed the distance.”
“And you were the one who was running then,” Serah said. “Guess now I’m the one running.”
Vanille sat up and pulled Serah with her. “See, you and I really aren’t so different. We both just have to keep each other honest.” She gave Serah a long kiss that made her thoughts scramble all over again, then drew back with a determined nod. “You believed in me, that I’d find the words when the time was right. I know you’ll find the words for Snow when the time is right too. And until you do, I’ll be there to cheer you along the way. He loves you, and he’ll always love you, no matter what. He’ll understand.”
Serah nodded, licking her lips to taste Vanille there once more. Looking at Vanille, it was as though the sun had come out. For the first time in a long time, Serah could see to the horizon. “You’re right. And I’ll always love him, too, even if I can’t be with him in that way.”
“Serah!” Both girls jumped as Snow’s voice echoed from the front porch.
“Vanille!” Fang’s call followed after a moment.
“We’ve been gone too long. They’re probably worried,” Serah said, quickly straightening her clothes and brushing herself off. She wanted to feel guilty, but she couldn't completely any more. She was going to go inside to make this right.
“Isn’t it nice when someone loves you enough to come looking for you?" Vanille said wistfully as she took hold of Serah's hand. "That kind of love never goes away. It might transform, but it never goes away.”
Serah smiled and squeezed Vanille’s hand as they walked around the house toward the two figures silhouetted in the front door. “I think that’s what I’ll tell him."