"Home wasn't a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, wherever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you go."
--Sara Dressen (What Happened to Goodbye)
“Noishe!” Lloyd laughed, chasing after the protozoan. Iselia Forest was safer without Desians roaming about. The only monsters left were natural ones, wolves and the occasional bear being the worst. Noishe was still a coward, but he was still protective and stubborn enough to not let Lloyd off by himself. Never mind the fact that Lloyd was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.
Noishe enjoyed stretching out and really running up and down the mountains. It had been a few quiet months of recuperation since the worlds had been reunited. Lloyd understood feeling stir-crazy. After almost a year of constantly being on the road, Iselia felt very small. Wonderful, but small.
Lloyd caught up to Noishe, breathing hard, a brace of rabbits over one shoulder. Noishe nipped playfully at his fingers, too-intelligent eyes bright with amusement. With one hand on the back of Noishe’s neck, Lloyd looked around, getting his bearings. He didn’t often go this far up the mountains; his dad had always warned him against it with the threat of the Desians looming.
Noishe sniffed the air and trotted forward, tugging Lloyd along. “Wh—where are you going?”
A bit higher up the mountain and through what might have been an old game trail, now overgrown, Lloyd trailed after the protozoan. It had been a long time since Noishe had acted like this. Not since the beginning of their journey, when he’d tried entering the village despite knowing full well that he wasn’t allowed.
“Whoa.” Lloyd stared at the little cottage perched on the edge of a cliff. One wall was entirely crumbled, and the rest blackened and burned. He’d never known that people lived out here, but it looked like it had been abandoned for a while. Taken by the Desians maybe. “Noishe, you can’t just—”
With a groan of exasperation, Lloyd jogged after his protozoan, who was nosing aside the rotted door and padding inside. Lloyd stepped carefully, pausing just inside. There were remnants of little toys broken on the floor.
Lloyd crouched, prodding a wooden horse on uneven wheels along. They’d had a kid, whoever had lived here. Noishe sat beside him, and nudged the swords on Lloyd’s hips. “What do you want?”
“Why would you want my swords?”
Another, more insistent one.
Lloyd sat back, sitting cross-legged and slipping one of his swords—Kratos’, with its bold, fiery edges and elegant hilt—into his lap. Lloyd could feel the tug of the Eternal Sword even now. It was still something insane, to think that he, of all people, could use the same Sword that Mithos the Hero had used to split the worlds apart, a Sword that could command time and space.
When Lloyd looked back up, he blinked a few times at Noishe because for a moment, he thought he’d seen the cottage as it must have been once. Full of people and life. Cozy.
But that was crazy.
Until the image didn’t go away. And the weirdest part was that Noishe looked like he belonged in that cozy little cottage.
“Up, Daddy! Up!”
A small child was carrying a cup as he toddled after a woman, who laughed. “Careful, don’t spill.”
The toddler slowed, focusing hard on his cup. Footsteps and groaning springs. Lloyd stared, dumbfounded, at the person that appeared in the doorway. Kratos, sleep pants slung low on his hips, pushing his mussed hair out of his face. There was a bandage wrapped around one shoulder.
Kratos blinked down at the boy. “What’s all this for?”
The woman—his mom, Lloyd realized—smiled. “Well, Lloyd wanted to know if you were okay since you never sleep in. I told him you weren’t feeling good, and he insisted on doing something. Breakfast in bed used to be the tradition, but I thought I’d spare us my cooking. Coffee works though.”
“Drink, Daddy! You wanna feel better!”
Lloyd didn’t recognize the soft smile that tilted Kratos’ lips as he crouched. “This will help a lot. Thank you, Lloyd.”
He took the mug carefully before the toddler threw his arms around his father’s neck. Kratos hefted him easily onto his hip, kissing his hair. Still smiling over his son’s head, Kratos looked at Anna. “I don’t think you properly explained the ‘in bed’ part of your tradition.”
Anna’s laughter rang out. Lloyd couldn’t stop staring at her. She was young, his mom. He’d known that, logically, but even the Professor looked older than her. There was a hollow to her cheeks that spoke of hard times, but her hair was chopped messily below her ears and her eyes were bright. She was pretty, he supposed, but it wasn’t like Colette where it was obvious. It needed movement. Action. That was where her prettiness came out.
“I don’t think he heard anything after ‘breakfast’,” Anna confessed and let Kratos draw her in for a kiss. “Not too bad for a first attempt honestly.”
“Yes, the house is still in one piece, miraculously,” Kratos said dryly. Anna shot him a look and Lloyd felt something in his chest ache. They argued in such a familiar way, petty topics and amusement tugging at their lips.
“And here I was all sympathetic about you being injured,” Anna sighed. “Guess you’re sleeping on the couch tonight.”
“I believe you’re forgetting a key part of your plan.”
“I’m well aware of the fact we don’t have a couch. But we have a shed.”
“There is that,” Kratos conceded, taking a sip of coffee.
“Daddy’s not sleepin’ ‘n the shed, Mommy. He’s sick.”
Kratos wisely hid his smile in the mug. Lloyd didn’t recognize this Kratos, expressive and loving, so different from the taciturn angel who’d fought them, and the gruff teacher, the hero of legend. They felt like entirely different people.
‘Broken’ was the word that had come to mind with Mithos, at the end. Tired from life and fighting, his brilliance dulled by madness. Lloyd had never thought of applying it to Kratos, but it was just as appropriate.
With a blink, the scene was gone. Lloyd’s breaths came short in his chest. Had he imagined it? But there was no way he could’ve imagined all of that. His parents. Together. Happy, if that scene had been any indication. He remembered Kratos’ voice in Flanoir, hoarse and pained, even if it was hard to tell with him.
It was his voice that gave him away every time, Lloyd thought, even if it had taken him a long time to learn to look for it. Kratos could mask his expressions, his gestures, but when he spoke, emotion could be heard.
Lloyd stared at Noishe, at those sad, intelligent eyes. Noishe had known, had recognized this place. Lloyd looked down at the sword in his lap, felt the thread of connection to Origin. The pact didn’t lie with him, but he still held control over the Sword. Time and Space. Time.
You cannot change the past. Origin’s voice resonated with his subtle power. But you can witness it.
“Let me see something else,” Lloyd asked, squeezing the hilt. His parents. His mom.
It is a dangerous thing, to have power over Time. Mithos was not always so broken.
“Please, just one more!”
In between one blink and the next, the cottage is once again in one piece. Lloyd stood up, still holding his sword as pads through the hall. The bedroom was, apparently, at the far end of the hall. A baby was crying, and when Lloyd peeked in, Anna was bouncing him gently; her eyes were red, with exhausted circles beneath them. She looked so much thinner than she had in the other memory; this must be at least a year before that one, judging by the baby’s size.
“I don’t know what’s up with him,” Anna said. “He’s clean, he’s fed, I just—I don’t know what he wants.”
“Possibly just a bad night. I’ll get him to sleep; you go to bed. You need your rest.” Kratos gently took the baby from Anna’s arms, kissing her forehead.
“I’m fine, Krat—”
“I know you are. But you still need your sleep. Or don’t you want to set a good example?”
Anna gave Kratos a look, half-fond, half-exasperated. “Oh shut up. And come to bed soon?”
“As soon as Lloyd lets me,” Kratos promised.
Lloyd followed Kratos and his baby self around the house as Kratos bounced and rocked him, all to no avail. He followed the wails out the front door, to a forest that, while similar, was still a bit younger, a bit more green.
“Well,” Kratos muttered, wincing at a particularly loud shriek. “At least we know it’s not a sickness in the lungs.”
And then Kratos began talking. Lloyd stayed on the doorstep, enraptured as Kratos walked in circles, just talking about anything and everything. Describing the forest, the stars, complaints about the lack of sleep, a list of things he needed to do the next day, all nonsense in comparison to each other. But slowly, the baby was quieting down, soothed by the cadence of Kratos’ deep voice.
At some point, Kratos told a story, and it began with, “You should have seen Yuan’s face the day he realized the full extent of what Martel being pregnant meant.”
And Lloyd listened, as enraptured in the memory as his younger self was by the story. The story was simple, a memory of some long ago day. (It doesn’t hit Lloyd now, but it will hit him later that these may have been the only times that Kratos spoke of those times during the War, of his times with Yuan, Martel, and Mithos. These late night—calling it a conversation is a bit of a stretch—storytelling times that he ever had a chance of recalling the good things that had happened with them, not just the pain and suffering since Martel’s death) Kratos’ face was relaxed, his expressions shifting easily through the stories. Lloyd was stunned to recognize some of his own expressions on Kratos’ face.
This time, the scene faded slowly, like morning mist burned away by the dawn. Lloyd stood in the ruined doorway of what he now knew to be his childhood home. Noishe whuffed softly at him, pressing his forehead into Lloyd’s ribs, shoving himself under his arm. The contact helped; Lloyd’s breath no longer came as fast, the vice grip on his chest loosening.
It was one thing to know that Kratos was his father. Absent as he’d been, and as severe as he was once Kratos had found him again, he was his father. As hard as Lloyd had looked in the mirror, searching for a resemblance, he hadn’t found much. The idea that he took after his mother had been a comfort on those days. The tiny photo in his locket didn’t provide much information on Anna. Having seen her, heard her, Lloyd could say that he did take after her a bit. Maybe. But seeing Kratos as he’d been, happy, in love—he’d been able to see the resemblance immediately. And they had loved each other, his parents. Anna had looked happy and free, with nothing of the painful memory she had become for Kratos.
Lloyd looked back at the burned out ruins, and sheathed the sword before he stepped forward, guided by the fresh memory of the house. Here was the hallway, here the kitchen, here the bedroom. He crouched and sifted through the charred wood and the overgrown floorboards, not sure if he was searching for anything specific. Not that there would be much to find; it had been almost fifteen years since the house had been destroyed.
Sunlight caught on his Exsphere, and Lloyd paused, looking at it. His mom was in there, in a sense. Hopefully not in the same way that Alicia had been, or Mithos, or Martel. Trapped to never interact with the world again. Even if there wasn’t a heaven the way the Church of Martel had always preached about it, maybe Colette was right and there was something up there. A different kind of heaven, with a different kind of goddess. Lloyd liked to think his mom was up there somewhere, watching and cheering him on.
Lloyd stood back up with a satisfying crack of his knees. He took a final look around, taking in everything. Origin’s warning echoed in his mind, about not being lost in the past. Like Kratos was. And Mithos.
But he’d never known his past. Dirk was a wonderful father, and Lloyd loved him fiercely. But there was a disconnect sometimes, looking at Dirk. At knowing that, with every story Dirk told about his grandfather’s soup recipe, or his mother’s teaching him his trade, that none of those people were his. He would find no pieces of himself in them. Wouldn’t see his nose on someone, or hear the way he laughed in exactly the same way as some great-uncle, the way Colette had mentioned sometimes. Her family in Iselia was small, but she had cousins scattered across Sylvarant, ones that would come visit now and again. There were no family-favorite jokes from some grandmother, no cool aunt to sit with at the festivals when all his friends had had to go to bed.
For seventeen years, Lloyd’s entire family consisted of himself, his adopted dad the dwarf, and the gravestone in the yard. Anna didn’t exist in a vacuum. She must have had other family. Parents. Siblings, maybe. There were people out there that were his in a very different way than Genis, and Colette, and Dirk, than the entire population of Iselia.
There was a chasm between the people in those memories, that little cottage where he had likely taken his first steps, had said his first word, but that he had no knowledge of. If Lloyd thought of home, he thought of a wooden house in the mountains with plants in every nook and cranny, of grinning the day he had to look down to look at his dad, of baking experiments, and lessons at the forge. He thought of walking into a schoolhouse for the first time, of a sunny smile and trading halves of a sandwich at lunchtime. There was nothing of home in this cottage except for the face of a mother that Lloyd only knew from the photo in the locket, of Kratos' quiet kindness and a vague memory of counting stars.
Noishe tugged at Lloyd’s sleeve, worrying the cloth between those sharp teeth until Lloyd looked at him. “Sorry, Noishe. I…I guess we should head back, huh?”
Lloyd followed Noishe back down the mountain, the evening’s chill already beginning to set in, though the sun had yet to fully sink below the horizon. He couldn’t stop himself from taking one last look back, however, remembering his parents’ happy faces.