Chapter 1: she catches my thoughts with a thread
He dragged his feet, listless, along the corridor, and he heard the shuffle of his school shoes and the whistling of his own breath. Felt the crawl of the cold sweat down the back of his neck. He still felt a little weak in the joints, still couldn’t work himself up toward the idea of doing his sprints in the gymnasium after classes let out for the day, and it wasn’t the first time that he wanted to break down and cry, and that wasn’t a good thing -- he got sick a lot, and he missed his classes, but at least -- at least no one had teased him today.
That was a good thing, Prompto thought, as he anxiously juggled his schoolbooks in his arms.
Good but strange: because the people in his class saw him -- they couldn’t have missed him since he still kind of took up more space than they did -- the people in his class saw him, but today they didn’t seem interested in him. Just let him pass, complaining that he blocked the little aisles in the classrooms, and -- that was it.
It was strange and it was a relief and the bad thing was, it made him wonder, almost to the point of screwing himself back up to the fever-pitch, if they were seeing something new in him, or something that had been changed in him, maybe from these past few days, when he was so sick -- he’d passed out for hours and hours, he’d burned up with such fevers, he’d lost track of so much time --
He sniffed, once, and stopped dead on the brick-colored tiles beneath his feet. The world was going blurry around him. The sunlight was too warm on his freckles, on his arm --
Click, from somewhere near him, like a door locking or unlocking.
Tap, tap, footsteps, someone was here -- he looked up, already stammering out a “Sorry” --
She hadn’t been in the classroom earlier: she hadn’t been sitting by the window, twirling a pencil between her fingers and somehow managing it despite the bandages and the plaster strips. She hadn’t been staring sleepy-eyed at the pages of her books. She hadn’t been carefully unscrewing the cap on that fancy pen of hers with the silver tip and the pretty gray ink.
He’d thought she wasn’t in school at all today, since her usual seat had been empty.
But here she was.
Nobody wore any uniforms to this school.
But she was almost always dressed in her black dress. Large square white collar and a black-and-white ribbon that she never bothered to tie into a bow. Did she chew on the ends of that ribbon? He couldn’t remember. He thought he’d seen her do it only once. Maybe twice. He couldn’t always trust his memories.
Black socks to her knees, and those little black shoes with the red undersides.
She was looking at him, now, and as he watched, she tilted her head to the side, toward her right shoulder. “You were gone for a few days,” she said, clear voice. Her black hair was falling out of its braids.
She didn’t look unkind at all.
She was smiling, but she didn’t look like she wanted to laugh at him, or make fun of him.
And in fact, the next thing she said was, “Are you all right?”
Prompto felt his cheeks flame up with red heat. “I ah I -- ” He gulped, and almost choked on it.
She just put her hands behind her back and seemed to wait.
He watched her tap the toes of her shoes on the floor, one foot and then the other, funny little nameless melody.
“I was sick,” he managed to say, at last.
She blinked, then, and stepped closer. Held her hands out. “Give me some of those,” she said.
He looked down at his own books. The things he’d missed while he was not attending classes, because he was too busy vomiting, blood and black ooze --
He stepped back, and didn’t know why: he didn’t want her to be in the line of fire, if he suddenly had to throw up --
She seemed to look sad for only a moment.
He wanted her to -- not look sad, so he said, “It’s not heavy, I can manage on my own.”
“I have a friend who says, managing on my own is good but managing on my own with a friend is better.”
“Sounds nice,” Prompto said, and he knew it, and he meant it. “Your friend.”
“Ignis is a good person,” she said.
“I don’t have many friends,” he blurted out after a moment.
“I don’t either. Ignis doesn’t go to school with me, he goes to a different school. Special studies, I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t see him in these classrooms. I see you.”
He tried to hide his face in his books. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. You lent me a pencil once. And then there was the time you gave me some candy. Why did you have candy again? Why were you nice to me?”
The tall man in the stiff jacket, who wasn’t carrying his sword: he’d been sitting on the stoop outside Prompto’s house, and he’d looked like he was just sitting in the early morning sun with nothing to do and nowhere to go, but -- he’d stood up, and said “Good morning,” and handed over a bright plastic bag, spangly, full of little sweets.
“For me?” Prompto had asked. “Why? What’d I do?”
“Nothing,” the man had said, before coughing a little, and walking down to the curb. “See you around.”
And he had tucked the sweets into his pocket, the empty bag into his backpack so he could save it for later --
There’d been drills in the gym, that afternoon, and he’d forgotten about the candy because he couldn’t be picked for dodgeball, and he’d walked humiliated back to the bleachers -- but he hadn’t been alone there, not that day.
He hadn’t been alone because she was on the other end of the bleachers, in her black dress, miserable and trying not to show it -- he understood her expression, since he saw it in his own mirror, every morning --
And he had dug in his pocket for the candy, and he’d left two pieces next to her hand, before retreating.
“Someone came to see me,” he said, now, to the girl in the black dress. “He gave me candy. He said good morning.”
“That’s nice,” she said, and he looked over at the funny twist in her smile. “Just -- an ordinary person, saying good morning?”
“He kind of dressed like you,” and Prompto pointed to the jacket tied around her waist.
“Hmm,” she said.
“I didn’t say thank you for the candy then,” she said.
“You looked like you were -- ” He almost said “really sad”, but at the last moment he changed it. “Like you were in trouble.”
“I think I was,” she said. “Or I was hurting. But you still did it, you were nice to me. So, thank you. Can I -- ”
When she started walking, he felt that he had to follow her, felt that he wanted to hear the things she wanted to say -- and she didn’t want to go far, only into an empty quiet classroom, with some of the desks covered in white. Spider webs in the windows.
But it wasn’t scary at all, not with the pale sunlight, not with the girl who seemed to go right into the quietest corner.
The dust on the floor was disturbed, and it was in that clear area that she was sitting, knees tucked up under her chin.
“I was sick, too,” she said, when he was already absorbed in a math problem. “I didn’t come to school for a long time. They sent the teachers in to see me.”
He looked at her and made an understanding noise. “They should have left you alone.”
“They didn’t. Still had to do math even when I was stuck in my bed.”
“I wish I had candy to give you,” Prompto said, after a moment.
“We can get some after you’re done with that.”
“Lots of things to catch up,” he protested.
“I can wait,” she said.
“But -- ” he said. You’re the Princess. You’re Noctis Lastella. Even I know who you are.
“Please?” she asked.
And he watched her unwind her jacket from where she’d tied it in a knot. Watched her roll the pretty material into a ball, which she placed on her knees.
Watched her yawn and close her eyes, and lean forward.
“You’re just going to sleep right here next to me,” he said, torn between surprise and a shy sort of happiness.
“Yeah, unless you want me to go away?”
“Don’t,” he said, too quickly.
“So I won’t. So I’ll stay. I like being next to you.”
“I don’t know why I like it either,” he said. “Being here next to you.”
She laughed, softly.
Her head eventually fell onto his shoulder.
And he smiled at her, and tried to finish the book in his hands.
She made him feel calm. Less like he wanted to run and hide. Less like he’d been sick. Less alone.
What could he give her, in return for those feelings?
Chapter 2: where she goes nobody knows
Lines of rain beating against the window, violent streaks of pelting falling, and he sighed, and reached blindly for the switch on the console that would turn up the heater, and for a moment he thought he wanted to curse himself, because he’d forgotten to do something so monumentally simple, so monumentally small --
And being who he was, bent down by his responsibilities, bent down by his duties, was not really any kind of excuse, he thought.
After all, didn’t he also have responsibilities toward the one who was in the car with him? Didn’t those responsibilities toward that one outrank the ones that he had to his country, to his people, to his bloodline?
The shape of that one. The deep breaths that ended in soft whistles, partly out of sleep and partly out of what sounded like an oncoming cold.
The knots of scarred muscle in his shoulders twinged painfully at him as he struggled to take off his heavy overcoat.
He needed to be warm, but not as much as his passenger did.
Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII felt, keenly, the deepening pains of age, descending upon him far before their time, as he tried to twist around in his seat, as he tried to drape the pinstriped material of his overcoat onto the girl in the passenger seat.
The girl. She was listing heavily against the window. There were lines in her face that should not have been there, that looked so out of place there. Dark hair that threatened to curl along her cheeks, along the soft angle of her jawline, with the moisture and the static electricity of the storm that raged outside. Bruises along her cheek, along her exposed arm where her sweater rode up, along her leg above her dirt-stained socks.
Not for the first time, Regis winced, and tried to remember when it was that he’d last checked in with the Kingsglaive -- with Cor, and with Crowe. With Clarus, who somehow managed to do part of his work in the training courtyards, a keen and avid observer of everything that was going on, in all its chaos and all its routine.
With the ones whom they were all training: the ones who would become the new members of the Crownsguard.
When was the last time Regis had read the reports from Ignis? Such a young set of shoulders to pawn off his own duties onto, and yet he hadn’t heard one word of complaint. There was only the angular handwriting and the precise notation, the sentences outlined to the most painstaking detail.
Reports every week for the past two years, reports crossing his desk with faithful regularity, and every report laid out another piece of the truth that was the girl who slept in the passenger seat.
Two years since she had forced herself upright, out of her invalid’s bed and back onto her own unsteady feet.
Two years since the nightmares began.
Regis reached out, tentatively, and he almost touched her hand --
Noctis Lastella stirred, and the lines in her face collapsed precipitously together, the sleepy frown turning into a pained silent cry as she suddenly fell victim to a full-body shudder -- his overcoat falling into a heap in her lap, and off her lap onto the floor, as she gasped for breath and didn’t wake up, and he saw his own horrors, his own nightmares, playing out in her features as she went rigid, as she forgot to breathe, and --
And just as suddenly as it had come upon her, the fit left.
Tears tracking down her cheeks in a pale imitation of the rain that still poured down in torrents, outside the car.
She had been utterly silent and utterly alone, drowning in the phantom claw-grip of her dreams even as she choked on her tears, even as sleep itself betrayed her to the monstrous things that walked in the far corners of her mind -- in the far corners of his -- and not for the first time, Regis bowed his head in shame over the steering wheel.
“Help me,” he whispered, and he didn’t know whose name, or names, to call on. “Please, help me.”
The Regalia grew warm around him, warm enough to raise a soft curtain of mist around the edges of his window and of hers.
He made himself look up again.
Made himself look over at her again.
Small for her age, was the general line of thought among the physicians and the nurses who had been looking after her from the moment she was born. Small and slender and high-spirited all the same, in the years of her childhood, and maybe there were still hidden nooks in the Citadel that retained the echoes of her laughter. The high pitch of her voice, untrained and wobbly, as she made up nursery rhymes for the puppies gamboling around her feet. The flash and the flight of her feet as she played skipping games up and down the many stairs winding up toward the throne of the Lucii.
He had been there, not at all of his own volition, on the day she’d clenched her teeth in a determined grin and leaped off the stone railing that rose low around the throne on its highest dais -- to disappear in a flash of ghostly blue light.
She’d reappeared, whole and hale, in a breathless heap on the main floor of the gallery and -- she’d laughed, the bright shocked notes of her delight and her new-found power rising to fill all the spaces around her --
He’d lost track of time, that first day: that morning of Noctis, warping into and out of sight within the columns and the soaring spaces, and that dazed artless grin of hers that refused to fall away. Had stood there in his hidden doorway with Clarus beaming over his shoulder, and Nyx Ulric whistling a tuneless admiring line, and the minutes had slid past without his noticing, as he watched the real shape of her, appearing and reappearing, and the afterimages of her movement, sifting away like smoke.
Had stood there until one of the chamberlains had cleared his throat.
And Regis remembered that he’d turned away from Noctis, suddenly recalled to the crushing weight of his day, without even letting her know that he’d seen her.
That he was proud of her.
And it was a pride that had grown, halting and wounded and awed, as that easy laughter had died a sudden strangled death.
Noctis in his arms, unable to look away from the blood, from the stained sylleblossoms, from the faceless masks of the Niflheim soldiers who had murdered the Queen of Tenebrae, who had reached for her with that same death and had nearly, nearly succeeded in shattering her --
Days and nights of sitting anxiously next to her, choking on the fear that she would not wake, or walk again --
And then, coming back to the Citadel to find that not only had Noctis left her wheelchair behind, but had added the crush of training with the Kingsglaive to her schoolroom lessons.
One single report from Cor, who had simply informed him that he had accepted her into the training ranks.
The rest of the reports had been in Ignis’s hand.
Training and homework and physical therapy: it wasn’t any leap of logic, really, or anything out of the ordinary, to see the smile fall away from Noctis’s face, replaced instead with a grim determined frown.
To stop seeing her entirely, not even at meals, not even to cross paths in the corridors of the Citadel.
This night had been nothing but an accident.
Driving in the Regalia -- a snatched opportunity, and Clarus sighing and shaking his head and almost understanding -- and the rain had come down in torrents almost as soon as he’d cleared the Citadel. Random corners at top speed, and the windshield wipers utterly failing at sweeping the storm away, and somehow he’d come to a stop at a traffic light and he’d looked out the window -- into her eyes.
Her mouth, moving: “Father.”
And hardly had he opened the door than she’d warped from the shelter of the store awning into the passenger seat, and drops of rain stood on her shoulders as she slammed the door closed, and muttered something that might have been thanks, before abruptly falling asleep.
He was supposed to be driving home.
He wanted to see her home, see her safe, even if only for a few hours.
And the days and the nights were running quickly past, like the raindrops slashing and smashing against the glass, and it was only a matter of time --
He did take her hand, then.
She didn’t wake.
She didn’t respond.
She slept on.
Chapter 3: the fire and the storm of her
The clock posted on the outside wall of the barracks ticked, ticked over the last few seconds to the hour, and had Cor Leonis been his old hotheaded self, he would have given in to the impulse to pace by now.
Instead he took a deep breath, and planted his feet, and planted the end of his sword in its scabbard precisely between his feet. Grass sprouting on the outskirts of the smallest of the practice rings, little yellow and white flowers with their five petals nodding on the slight breeze, and the rattle and the clash of the Kingsglaive, rising, as they called out insults and encouragement and advice, where they sparred and wielded their full strength against each other, in the never-ending struggle to improve, and to become stronger --
Two minutes past the hour.
Three minutes past the hour.
Well, there were reports to be read and signed off on, and he would only be exchanging one duty for another, if he had to give this up for a bad job --
Flash of nearby blue light and a soft gasp, a face gone dull red with exertion, blue eyes like a storm at midnight: and the girl who appeared in the center of the practice ring went down to one knee, and rested the knuckles of her hand on the stones, and said, quiet and carrying: “I’m late. Forgive me, Marshal.”
“You have an excuse?” he asked, as he drew his sword, sunlight flashing off its length and the lethal edge that he needed it to have.
“None,” the girl said, and she looked up at him, and there was so much of her father in her face, soft and barely formed as it still was at this point.
Slowly, though, the edges of youth were sharpening, and soon she would be well into her teens, and he already thought there would be strange angles in her face when that started to happen.
“I tried to get here as quickly as I could,” she was saying.
“I can see that.”
“School went over,” she finished. “I mean, not classes. What I was doing there.”
He stepped into the circle with her, gestured for her to get to her feet. “Which was what exactly?”
And he didn’t wait for her to catch her breath, to try and respond: he stepped forward into a sweeping slash-and-chop combination and followed that up with a jab that would have left her doubled over his bare fist, if she had still been there.
Instead he looked up to the glittering blue outlines of a plain short knife, tumbling end over end overhead, and the flicker of Noctis Lastella whirling back into reality and into this existence, and the sword she’d willed into being in her hands was nearly as tall as she was, and she was bringing it down towards his head, unsteady but determined, and the echoes of her fighting cry rising and rising in the sunlit morning --
He calmly moved into a high block and swatted her away, and she performed an intricate twist in mid-air to land in a deep lunge -- her sword shimmering into nothing, and in its place twin short blades in twirling interconnected circles as she struck for his knees, for his feet, her body low to the ground as she darted in at him, again and again --
“Good,” he called, as he felt the razor-wind slash of her passage, laying a long cut into his trousers. “What else can you do now?”
A grin was the first answer he received: then Noctis stopped past him, and turned around, and braced her feet wide. Right shoulder tilted forward as though she were planning to charge at him. It meant nothing that her hands were empty now, not when she could summon a multitude of weapons into her hands on the instant she wished them to be there.
But no sword-edges glittered around her.
Stillness, settling around her, but only for a moment -- as he watched, her hair started to lift from her shoulders. Started to fly around her face on the wind that was tossing dust past her feet, on the bright arcing bolts of white-hot light that were suddenly leaping from her fingertips, linking her in flashes to the stones of the practice ring.
Cor was vaguely aware of a high whistle from somewhere behind him.
The stray thought that did cross his mind had to do with Crowe: when had she changed her plans?
Or, perhaps, when had Noctis forced her to change her plans?
Noctis’s hand moved, and a crackling coruscating ball of lightning swept the stones towards him, and the very air itself stank of its passage, sharp burning briefly in Cor’s nostrils as he sidestepped and feinted and spun on his heel, sword already swinging in a wide arc towards her --
He watched, in the sluggish flow of the slow moments of his heart and his body on the move, as she fell into a combat crouch and threw something forward, something bright and small, and she wasn’t beneath the edge of his sword -- he tried to look over his shoulder, tried to find her, and instead a bolt of pain hit him right in the back of his knee -- time and the world around him sped up once again as he half-buckled to the stones of the practice ring --
Flash of her almost-grin, of her foot still extended in the follow-through of her kick, that vanished as she did and he knew how to watch in every direction, knew that he himself had taught her to attack from every vantage point she could think of and one or two that she didn’t, and so: when the flutter of her black sleeve appeared in his peripheral vision he was ready, and it was his turn to kick out at her, viciously.
“No -- !”
And Noctis appeared on the stones, coughing and retching, one arm over her stomach where he’d made contact.
He stepped forward, swung his sword again --
Fear in her face, the lingering image of it as she rolled hard to her side -- grunt as she hit the edge of the practice ring and she was still somehow rolling up to stand, and sway, and bare her teeth at him.
Fire, smoking, at the tips of her fingertips -- fire, scorching burst of it that threw up hot shards and dust, just missing him.
He saluted her again with his sword, and charged, and watched her throw up a hand as if she intended to get it chopped off --
Instead he, too, was jolted to a clamoring stop as she conjured a shield -- his sword bit deeply into the material of her makeshift shelter and he was effectively caught there, unless he let it go -- and he did --
But not quickly enough for Noctis to choke out a small laugh, and flick a thread of fire towards his shoes.
“Really?” he asked, and side-stepped, and shook his head, not at all impressed. “Really, Princess?”
And she didn’t look one bit repentant as she coughed again, and sent her shield and her fire away, and backed away until gravity finally pulled at her, making her sit down hard on the stones.
“I don’t find that funny,” he said, as he sheathed his sword, before squatting on his haunches next to her.
“Well I do.” Her grin was sunny and sharp all at once. “Crowe thought it was funny, too, but she iced my feet first before she laughed.”
After she coughed again, wetter and deeper this time, he dug a healing potion from one of his pockets. “Kicked you too hard.”
“You did,” she said. “If you apologize, though, I won’t be happy with you.”
Not for the first time, he wondered at her attitude -- but this time he did venture to ask the question. “You’re not much like your father in that wise. He was capable of accepting apologies from those who fought by his side, if they made mistakes. And I did, just now.”
She rolled her eyes, and waved the potion away. “First of all, can you all please stop comparing me to him? I really am not him. I don’t care what you think of me, if I say I don’t want to be him, and I have no plans to be. It’s still the truth.”
“The question is, why won’t you let us apologize?” He turned to look at the clench in her jaw. “I’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve yelled at Gladiolus and at Ignis. You never can take an apology gracefully, when you’re here in the practice rings.”
“That’s it,” she said, and she sounded far older than thirteen, to Cor’s almost untrained ears. “That’s why I yell at them when we are here. Here, when we’re training.”
Whistle of her breath.
He waited her out, calmly.
“Do I have to spell it out?”
“Please do,” he said.
“Ugh.” But she sighed, after a moment. “I know I’m not -- a prodigy, when it comes to fighting. I’m not someone who’s just going to be good with a few years of training. Gladio’s been doing this all his life, it’s sort of what he does, and no, I’m not happy about that either, but at least he can be blunt with me and I can be blunt right back. We can injure each other that way, no real hard feelings.
“And Ignis really is a genius at the things that he does, all those different things, and especially what he does when there are stabby things involved.
“And -- even the rawest recruit into the Kingsglaive knows more than I do about things like -- strategy and tactics. Or you take your time, you pound that knowledge into their heads and into their bodies, until they learn to do it like they breathe -- meaning they don’t have to think about it at all.”
“Maybe my father’s like that, too. I won’t know. I don’t want to know, all right, I tell you, don’t tell me about it. If it gets down to that, if he has to fight, then all of you have fallen or gone, and that means I’m pretty much next on the list, too -- next on the list of people to get themselves killed.”
He grunted, refusing to speak about the possibility that he trained for, that he trained his soldiers for.
“I’m not like -- your soldiers, not like Gladio or Ignis. Warping is the only thing I have over any of you, and I’ve been warping for years, and it’s not much of an advantage when -- well you kicked me good, didn’t you? It doesn’t really count as an advantage when I go up against you, or Crowe, or Gladio, or Ignis. So if I make mistakes, then that’s my own fault. My own problem. And why should you apologize for me being an idiot?”
“No point in being a tyrant,” he said. “Not to a country, not to a kingdom, not to an army.”
“Yeah, that’s true. But my point,” and she waved her hand like flicking it, like she was annoyed by something. “My point is also true. I made a mistake, and that mistake gave you the opening, and I ended up getting kicked in the gut. Which I deserved since I made a mistake. I should be apologizing to you, since I’m not good at picking these things up quickly, and you’ve got too many other things to be doing with your time.”
“I -- don’t think there’s any need for you to hurry through learning these things,” Cor said.
“And that’s where I say it again: you’ve got too many other things to be doing. To be worrying about. We’re still at war,” she said. “No declarations or anything, but -- we’re in the middle of it. We just don’t talk about it.”
“That -- is true.”
“So -- sorry, Cor,” she said, and he watched her heave herself to her feet, still a little unsteady. “What do I have to do, like, the punishment for that mistake? And that’s on top of me being late.”
Her eyes were steady and sure on him. Bright with the boundless energy of her, the restless strength rattling through her.
“Twice around the track and no warping,” he said, “then sword forms, ten times through the whole thing, and twice around the track again.”
She laughed, a little.
Made a disgusted face immediately after.
Then drew herself up to her full height and, with a gentle gravity that seemed too old for her young face, gave him the Crownsguard salute -- before vanishing into blue once again.
He bowed his head, and muttered his apologies now that she was no longer there to hear it: “Forgive me. It was wrong of me to underestimate you. I will do better next time.”
Chapter 4: for hearth and home
He was not running, not in this dream: he was marching.
He was marching, and he made a lot of noise in the world with every footstep, crashing impacts with every stride and there were screams rising behind him, screams that sounded like his own voice, and what was going on, what was going on -- in the dream he raised his hand to look at it and -- no no no, it wasn’t possible, it was all wrong, his hand was coated in viscous black and in plates of metal, and the bar code on his skin was glowing red red red --
He clapped that hand over his mouth and screamed anyway, screamed enough that he expected his voice to crack halfway through --
But the sound that came out of him was an inhuman screech --
He woke up.
And he didn’t know where he was, for a long sinking moment completely lost.
He had to focus, he had to focus --
Boxes huddled next to his bed.
He reached out to the banged-up corner of the nearest box: layers of tape and the tear in the corrugated material. Peering at it, at the writing scrawling across it, faded in the tape and easier to read in the cardboard, and all it said was: Prompto Argentum, Room 38.
He reached out to the lamp next to the bed and clicked it on, and the room filled with a wash of sickly white, and the dozen boxes all had the same words on them: his name and a room number.
The room itself: four walls, and a small window propped open next to the bed so he could feel the crack and the creak of the rising humidity outside. Table next to the bed, lamp on top of the table, and his cracked eyeglasses. Next to the table, the open doors of a closet. A desk perpendicular to the closet. Hooks on the wall, marching towards the door, and the open cubicle beyond that where he could see the ghostly outlines of a sink and a toilet bowl. Then walls again, a pair of low bookshelves, and then he was looking at the corner of the wall that had the window in it.
It had been years since he’d needed to do a full perimeter scan, and he hated that his heartbeat was slowing down into something approaching normal as a result.
Ping, next to his hand in the blankets.
He uncovered his phone, and the message on it: You’re in your dorm room. You moved yesterday. You start high school in three days. Cor.
And that explained everything, Prompto thought.
He wished he’d thought to look at his phone as soon as he’d woken up.
And he looked up at the cheerfully painted tiles on his ceiling, blue on white, and he could never have mistaken those tiles for -- anechoic material, that absorbed all sound and all screams and sobbing and whimpers.
In fact the painted tiles bounced his own sounds back to him, slightly slurred, slightly out of sync, but he could hear the echoes of his own breathing.
Just the opposite effect, and something he hadn’t known that he needed, something he hadn’t even known was possible.
He wanted very much to try and sleep again -- but he also didn’t want to suddenly fall back into the nightmares, so: there was nothing for it, nothing else to do, despite the fact that he could almost smell the ions in the air, sharp in his nose, making him cough and sneeze.
The promise of a dreary rainy day.
Here was the bag he’d packed the day before, with a few essentials that couldn’t go into the boxes: the plugs and cables for charging his phone. A set of headphones with fraying wires. His beat-up running shoes. He threw the shorts onto the bed and sighed, and resigned himself to opening all the boxes anyway.
Why hadn’t he thought of labeling the boxes with what was inside?
He could see his own breath forming into faint clouds as he worked, and that was almost all right. That meant he was still generating heat, he was still existing in this world, and that kept him going, until he could unearth an old pair of sweatpants.
Another chime from his phone: he squinted at the message. Get your keys to the building and to your room from the front office. Cor.
One more check to see if he had enough room for those new keys in his pockets -- he was going to have to save up for that pretty Moogle key charm he’d seen in a store near the school -- and he pasted on a smile, to defy the bad weather that seemed to be coming his way.
The pound of his feet on the sidewalks in the early morning, where there was nobody to stare at him as he went past, where there was nobody to bother him: that was good, he thought, that was nice, and he kept on going even as the first fat drops of rain began to thud onto the ground, loud wet plops and -- he looked around and he had somehow tracked himself back into a very familiar neighborhood --
He could run for his old house, with the overhang above the front door, and wait for the storm to blow over --
Black-domed shape in the world, outlines blurred in the downpour, on the front steps of the house that he’d known.
Prompto stopped, and stared, because there was something familiar about those shoes --
No, he knew who was standing under that very large umbrella.
Rain boots in bright green, and a black dress, and she sounded very small in the world indeed, with the crash of the rain tearing up her voice: “Hello!”
But she was focused on the house and she couldn’t see him, and so he had to shout in order to get her attention: “Hey! Noct!”
Whirl of the girl on the front stoop, her umbrella swinging wide and the long waves of her hair, and rain pattering into her face before he thought he heard her say his name, and run towards him, and then there was no more rain falling on him because she was holding the umbrella over him, and the umbrella was large enough for the two of them to share.
“You were gone!” Noctis was shouting at him. Tears and rain mixing on her cheeks. “You were gone! There was nobody home! I tried to warp inside!”
“You went into the house?” Prompto asked. “You’re not supposed to do that any more. I don’t live there now, remember? I said I was moving out.”
“You didn’t tell me when,” and -- was she pouting at him?
No, she couldn’t be, not when she was sobbing, a little, and he dug in his overloaded pockets for the towel that he had planned to stuff down the back of his shirt for his run, and he offered it to her. “It’s a little wet, sorry,” he said.
“No no,” she said, and she extracted a handkerchief from her own pockets and used it to blow her nose. “Sorry Prom. I forgot. Where do you live now?”
“Why did you forget? I’m not mad,” he said. “I just want to know if you’re okay.”
“Tired,” she said, eventually, after a moment.
“Okay.” He jogged in place, to warm his legs up again.
“Am I in your way?” Again her small quiet voice.
She was looking down at her boots.
She was his age, he thought. Maybe a little older. Their classes started in a few days.
But she sounded so much younger, just for a moment, and he didn’t like the thought of her being sad. He never could stand it, not in the years of growing up next to her, in the years of always being able to tell her most everything.
So he shook his head vigorously. “I promise I’m not mad about that, either. I can’t do anything about the rain.”
“Why did you go out anyway?”
That umbrella was tilting towards him, he saw.
He wrapped his fingers around hers on the handle, so they could both keep their little shelter upright.
Noctis smiled, a little.
And turned with him when he started walking.
“I thought I’d be able to outrun the rain,” he said, after a moment.
“No one can,” she said, shaking her head. “I tried it, once. Warping.”
He coughed out a surprised laugh. “Bet it didn’t work.”
“No it didn’t,” she giggled. “Went from a place where it wasn’t raining so much to a place where it was coming down like -- like the end of the world!”
He couldn’t help it: he laughed when she did, especially at the way she looked so embarrassed. “Let me guess, Iggy told you off.”
“He did,” she said, shoulders shaking with mirth. “He yelled at me for like ten minutes. And then he made some noodle soup for me. Not the instant stuff Gladio likes. It was good soup, even with the carrots and things.”
“Just because you can warp doesn’t mean you’re immune to everything,” he said.
“Still gonna try,” she said.
He stopped for a moment, and stared at the determination shining in her eyes.
And he wanted to borrow a little of it.
But he said nothing, and pointed to the building he’d just left instead. “See, that’s where I am now.”
“Not too far from the school,” she said, nodding. “You could run, if you thought you were running late.”
“I’ve never been late to class,” he said, grinning at her. “That’s you, not me.”
“I hate mornings,” she said, red in the face once again. “Mornings are evil.”
“Yeah, I know.”
One key for the front door of the building, and one key for his actual room, and he winced as they left the front office. Said, “I was going to start unpacking when I got back.”
They were going up the stairs to the third floor, and her voice was both muffled by the rain and amplified by the stairway, so she sounded like there were whispers surrounding her voice, like there were other people talking and not just her. “Can I help you with that? I don’t have anything to do today.”
“You don’t have anything to do,” he teased, “or you don’t want to do the things they’ve got on your list?”
For that he got a fantastic scowl, and he burst out laughing as he pushed back into his room.
“You’re a terrible person Prom,” she said, but she was grinning, and more importantly: he watched her prop her dripping umbrella up on the other side of the door -- nowhere inside his room -- and her boots got the same treatment, well away from the faded blue rug in his doorway.
That left her in sneakers and her black dress, dry and inside, and from another pocket she fished out her phone, and he watched her hit a speed-dial button, then the speakerphone function -- one ring, and two --
Who snorted. “I call Iggy, and Gladio answers. What are the two of you doing?”
“You don’t want to know,” Gladio said.
“No I don’t,” she agreed. “Don’t ever, ever tell me. Anyway I didn’t call you to chat, I just wanted to tell you where I was. And that is Prompto’s new place. Dorm room something or other. He moved here yesterday. We are unpacking today.”
“Address?” That was Ignis.
Prompto told him.
“Thank you,” was the reply. “If you will only wait an hour or so, I can drive out and bring you something to eat.”
“No need to rush, honestly,” Prompto said. “Just boxes and stuff to deal with here, and we’re not going anywhere if this rain keeps up.”
“Precisely; it is raining. So I will see the two of you soon. Princess? See to it you don’t catch a cold, running around in the rain again.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice, I hate sleeping with a stuffed-up nose,” she agreed. “Later -- oh and Ignis?”
There was a sharp grin spreading across her face.
Prompto felt his eyes widen -- and he clapped his hands over his mouth.
“You and Gladio using protection?”
The laugh burst out of him anyway, only a little muffled but enough to fill the room with the echoes.
“Goodbye,” Ignis said, and hung up with a crash.
“How does he do that,” Noctis was saying, giggling.
The echoes of his laughter, rising, and mixing in with the echoes of hers.
It was a nice thing to have, in this room that was still strange to him.
It was a nice thing to hear.
Though he felt he needed to say, “You’re terrible,” as he watched Noctis sort through his books.
“I am,” she agreed, cheerfully.
He was trying to shake the wrinkles out of his school-uniform shirts when he saw her put her hands on her hips, and he blinked, and said, “Something wrong?”
“Yeah,” he heard her say. The floor around her was mostly clear of boxes; there were only a couple more left to deal with, and from the open flaps he could see that they held the rest of his clothes. “Your bed -- it doesn’t look that comfortable.”
He very carefully did not tell her about waking up in a cold and panicked sweat. “It doesn’t?”
“No,” she said.
Dust clinging to her fingertips as she tapped them against her chin. “I’ll bring you some of my pillows,” she said, after a moment. “I mean, the next time I come and visit.”
“Noct,” he said.
She turned around. “Please tell me when I can visit,” she said, “so I can bring you some things. Pillows and -- ” She gestured, looking a little odd. “Some of those things you like, from my rooms. Flowers, maybe. You like sunflowers, I remember that. That book of paintings.”
“Not sure I can fit a whole lot of pillows there,” he said, and he got up from the desk, and two steps brought him back to her side. “I mean, yeah, sure, I’ll take one or two, if you’re really planning to give them away. And I want to try and plant sunflowers, look, I have a window box, so I’ll try to learn about it just before the growing season starts. But the rest -- you really don’t have to bring anything else.”
“I wanted to help you feel at home,” she said. “And you like a lot of the things I have at my place.”
“So, give me a reason to visit: keep those things around you,” he said, smiling up at her as he sat down on the floor next to his bed. “Since I won’t be able to find them here, I’ll go looking for them, and you know I’ll go and see you first.”
Something seemed to brighten in her eyes as she sat down next to him, her knee brushing his. “Yeah,” she said, quietly.
Hushed roar of the rain, drifting in from the window, and he yawned, and tried to scrub at his eyes to stay awake.
Looking over to his side, he saw that it was already too late for Noctis: and there was something familiar in the neat way she slept, self-contained with her knees drawn up and her head hanging down, and -- he’d fallen asleep that way and he didn’t want her to get a crick in her neck, so he nudged his shoulder against hers.
It worked: she fell against him, her cheek landing on his shoulder, and she didn’t wake.
He thought she smelled -- not like the rain, not like the sharpness of the way it fell, but like the soft clean air left behind at the end of the storm.
When the light step that announced Ignis’s arrival sounded in the hallway, when the door swung gently open, Prompto quickly put his finger to his mouth.
“You seem to have things well in hand,” Ignis said, very softly. “Don’t forget to eat, however. I made sandwiches.”
He said, “Thank you,” in the same quiet voice.
“And perhaps I have also bought some sweets: after all, this is your new home, and you want to start life in it on a sweet note.”
Prompto blinked, and smiled.
Ignis left as quietly as he’d arrived -- click of the door as he closed it -- and Prompto laid his cheek against Noctis’s hair, and closed his eyes.
Just for a minute.
Chapter 5: tell me what is it like to love?
He opened his eyes for the -- the fifteenth time? the sixteenth? and groped for his phone, and let out a quiet snort of disbelief to see the clock.
Two hours since he’d tried to fall asleep and here he was, wide awake and sweating and he was very carefully not pressing himself back into the pillows, very carefully fighting the urge to burrow into the blankets and cover his head, because he was old enough to know that hiding his face wasn’t going to do him any good, if the monsters in his dreams were that determined to get him -- if the monsters in his dreams were that determined to make him into one of them --
Where had these dreams come from anyway? Why was he getting eaten up by those dreams? For a while he wanted to blame the horror movies that Gladio seemed to like to watch: and there was one about dead bodies that came back to life, swarms upon swarms of them, ravenous enough that they would involuntarily work together, to scale a wall or to overtake an airship on the move, and -- was that for real? Was it possible for the dead to -- come back to life? What made them move? What remade them so that they became so hideously quick on their feet?
But in his dreams the living dead clanked when they walked, and they homed in on him with eyes that glowed in many lurid shades of red, and he -- he was fighting the urge to scream, again, here where he was wide awake and trying to stay quiet, because his mind was throwing up the thought that, that maybe he needed to join them, or maybe he wanted to be one of them --
And not for the first time, he wrapped his left hand around the wide cuff he wore on his right wrist, because every time he seemed to have those dreams his right hand would grow hot and prickly and then go cold, cold and dead --
Prompto bit at his lip until he could almost taste blood, until the mad urge to claw at his skin passed, and he threw himself back into his pillows with a strangled cry -- this one was loud enough that the person who lived in the next-door room thumped on the wall that they shared, the wall behind the head of his bed, and the vibrations hit his teeth and he felt the tears fall from his eyes, and he was so confused, so alone, and he didn’t understand why he was so messed up.
Glance again at his phone and the fact that he’d tried to get in touch with Cor, and it had been several months since he’d last gotten a response.
Not for the first time, he thought maybe the man had simply given up on him.
That would maybe make his life a little less awkward.
But it would also mean that he’d be without that distant presence that was always strangely kind, strangely protective.
And Prompto had no idea how to feel about that: he was fifteen now, and he was finding his own way in life, and he was scraping by in school and Noctis Lastella was still his friend, and maybe her friends were his friends now, too, and -- why would he have needed Cor?
Silly question. Stupid question.
Cor would have given him some advice about these bad dreams maybe.
Or maybe not, since he wasn’t responding any more.
He could have used some advice from Cor.
Instead of shouting back at his neighbor, Prompto punched his window-sill -- white-hot pain leaping up his right arm, all the way to his shoulder and up the back of his neck, up to his brain, and the tears that smarted in his eyes flowed silently down his cheeks and he tasted the bitter salt of them, and he was going to burst, he was going to fly to pieces --
Running, he thought, running had kept him calm, and he’d have to resort to it now, he’d have to go back out into the muggy streets. Maybe he’d run all the way to the waterfront this time. All the way across the city, all the way to the gates of the Citadel itself, and he’d grow wings and jump to the tops of those floodlit towers and maybe he would be able to escape his nightmares, if he made it all the way up there.
“Right,” he snorted. “How about no.”
Sweat-sodden sleeping clothes in a heap on the bed. Worn running shoes on his feet. He was still only halfway through saving up for a new pair, one with actual support for his feet. Shirt, shorts, the cuff on his right arm and the thin towel draped around his neck. Phone in his pocket, and the mocking slow sweep of the hands on the clock, that told him he had a long long way to go before sunup, before he could hide in plain sight again, before he could lose himself in the conversations all around him at the photography shop and at the bookstore.
He would even have welcomed homework: but it was the middle of the summer, so he couldn’t even complain about a stack of essays, or too many books on too many subjects.
So in the here and now, he lost himself in the thud of his soles on the pavement. The swing of his arms and the movement of his shoulders. Every step, every stride, crashing through his teeth as he ran, and ran, and he could only hope to outrun his nightmares for a few minutes at a time.
Red lights blinking at him every time he ran through an empty intersection. Red lights like eyes in the night.
He spat out a curse he’d picked up from Gladio, and kept going, and he had no idea where he was.
Salt on the breeze, and it dried out his throat with every labored breath.
He’d forgotten to take a water bottle with him.
Cough, cough, and he stopped against a brick wall, against the side of a shuttered coffee shop. Furled umbrellas planted in the sidewalk. Chairs in stacks, chained to the window boxes and their railings. Curtains drawn across the windows, patterns invisible in the shroud of the night.
“Stupid stupid stupid,” he said, softly, gasping with every word.
And it was only the movement that he caught out of the corner of his eye, that broke him out of his muttering.
After all this time his first instinct was still to hide -- he dodged behind the nearest pile of chairs and --
He knew those braids.
He knew those boots.
What he didn’t know was this:
What was Noctis Lastella doing?
Why was she here, in pajamas, in the dead of the night? Here, where he couldn’t even see anyone else following in her wake?
He wanted to go to her. He needed to go to her. It was as if she were exerting a pull on him, like gravitational motion, like those magnets they’d been playing with at school, a long time ago.
It felt like years since he’d held a bar magnet in his hand, with the side labeled SOUTH pointing outward -- and from the other side of the table Noctis had half-pitched the bar magnet in her hand at him, the side labeled NORTH skidding straight across the pockmarked wooden surface to stick softly and neatly home against SOUTH.
That was what he felt like, drawn to her right now --
He called out to her, then: and in the quiet of the late hour, his voice was a startling clarion call. “Noct!”
She was walking out of the night, slow looping path.
“Noct,” he said, again.
Not a twitch from her in response.
Just her footsteps moving from sidewalk to road and back again, strange aimless shapeless circuit --
Intersection, she was heading towards an intersection, and the traffic lights were active at this one: red for a minute, green for two minutes, the cactuar-shaped outline shifting from color to color in its fixed intervals --
“Noctis!” he cried, and he launched himself out of hiding, pell-mell towards her -- sure the streets were clear now, but this was still a city in the dead of the night, in the uncaring hours long before dawn, and anyone or anything could come through that intersection -- and with Noctis wearing her usual black they’d never see her until she was coming out of the night, until they were right on top of her --
Burst of speed he didn’t know he still had in him.
His throat burned.
His lungs felt so desperately heavy in his chest.
He breathed out her name, one more time, just a whisper lost in the night.
Noctis stopped right on the verge of stepping into that active intersection, right on that last corner, and seemed to shake all over, shock and the whites of her eyes showing all around, and from somewhere very close by Prompto heard the high whine of speeding engines and he needed to leap to her, or she would have to leap towards him, and he didn’t know if he could ask it of her --
Her voice, shivering, was like a star flaring to life.
Clear and wide-awake, and he stopped in his tracks, felt the crackle in his stressed muscles and his screaming joints, and he reached out to her.
He called out her name:
This time she replied: but not in words.
Bright breeze of something she’d thrown, arcing past him to embed itself shivering in the wall of the apartment building he’d skidded to a stop next to.
Headlights, piercing the night.
Lights that caught her in their full glare, in their full strength, and one moment she was looking over her shoulder and the next -- she was gone, she had leaped upwards and blurred away, a shadow vanishing into the night --
He looked around wildly, trying to find her, and the car that screamed through the empty intersection didn’t actually turn Noctis into a bloody smear, simply because she wasn’t there -- now the question was, where would she reappear, where where where, and he turned on the spot and he almost called her name again, where the echoes from his shout were still bouncing weakly around him.
Sudden weight in his arms that bore him crashing down to the ground: but not the back of his head.
“Ow,” said that same shocked voice.
“Noctis,” he said, staring up at her, where he was holding her, and where she was holding him: one hand fast on his shoulder, and the other tangled gently in his hair. “Did you just -- ”
“Didn’t want you getting concussed,” she said, laughing and grimacing at once. “Skinned my knuckles, is what it feels like.”
He sat up quickly and barely missed knocking his forehead into hers, and he unwound her hand from the back of his own head, and turned it over. Winced at the long scratched lines on her skin.
Somehow he’d kept his towel through the running and the shock and the turning around in all kinds of circles: he was grateful that it was still there.
One corner to dab off the dirt and the grit of the sidewalk, and the other to soak up the dark welling blood, and he made a face up at the girl who was still sitting in his lap. “Don’t have anything else to use,” he said.
“Knife,” she said, pulling something from her soft sleeve.
Sharp edge glinting up at him, cutting cleanly through his towel.
Now he had two pieces, one dirty, one less so.
And he wrapped that second piece around her hand and tied it off in a clumsy knot. “That should be okay until you get actual medical attention. I know how to -- apply plasters and that’s about it.”
“I’ll heal,” he heard her say.
“From this, yeah,” he said, and he looked at her, and shot her a brief scowl. “If that car had been any faster, if you hadn’t reacted the way you did -- we’d be planning your funeral by now. You’d be a spot on the road and we’d be mourning you right now.”
Even in the night he thought he saw her flush a deep red.
So he sighed, and shook her gently by the shoulders, and said, “Noctis, what the actual shit was that. Why are you here and why didn’t you hear me, I was yelling at you -- ”
“I wasn’t awake.”
His mouth was hanging open.
His mind had stopped dead in its tracks.
“What?” he said, softly. “Not awake?”
“Sleepwalking,” she said.
“Can I be rude to you,” he said, without thinking.
“Yeah you can.”
“How are you still alive?”
Short startled laugh with too many edges. “Lucky. Unlucky. Both. Neither.”
He thought about that for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, eventually.
And he got to his feet and he carefully pulled her up with him. Made a show of checking that she was stable on her feet. “It was nightmares,” he said.
And he heard her ask, because it was her turn: “What?”
“I am here because I woke up from all my nightmares and I didn’t want to sleep again,” he said. “Too scared.”
“Prompto,” he heard her say.
Her arms around him, here on this street corner.
He leaned into her and it was -- it was like the magnets: she fit into his arms and he fit into hers, and blindly he turned his head, not knowing what it was that he wanted until he was slanting his mouth onto hers.
Soft gasp against his lips, against his teeth, and she was pressing into him, she was kissing him back, darting touches of her mouth against his, over and over and over again.
Clumsy, he thought, dumb, like neither of them knew any better, and he didn’t want to change a single moment of it.
Kissed her again and again and again and it was like the perfect bright fizz in his nerves from running, the pure rush in his body and in his mind, and he pulled away and stared at her bright eyes, and said, “Gods, I think I love you -- ”
“Good, because I know I do,” was her response. “Love you, I mean. I know I love you.”
He didn’t blink or gape or say something like “No you don’t.”
He didn’t do any of that: he just said it again. “I love you.”
“Yeah,” she said.
And she stumbled, and he held on to her and somehow kept his feet.
Held her as she sighed and pressed her cheek into his, and said, “We have a lot of talking to do.”
“Not to mention a lot of explaining to -- them, you know,” he said, and carded his fingers through her unraveling braids.
“I don’t care about them right now. They don’t exist right now. Just you and me,” she said.
“That -- that sounds really nice,” he said, and he tried to kiss her again, but she turned her head at the last moment and he laughed as he smelled the sea-salt in her hair instead.
That was all right, he thought.
He didn’t need to be anywhere else: he just needed to be right here where she was.
Chapter 6: fights for her life and for my soul
He winced, a little, at the lateness of the hour when he was finally released from his night’s training -- tonight Crowe had been in a particularly foul mood and once he’d heard the reasons for the anger knotting in her hands, the worry twisting her mouth, he’d gladly offered himself up for target practice, for her particular brand of hellfire combat -- and now he was looking forward to an icy shower, to help chase away the flames that still seemed to prickle relentlessly under his skin, the unstable shifts in his own power as he tried to recover from her attacks.
It was still a learning experience, Ignis told himself, as he limped past the Glaives’ locker room, toward the elevators and --
Here was his small apartment and here was everything in order for the morrow, from the cans of coffee to the suit jacket and the list of errands, and here was his phone.
Blinking at him: six missed calls.
He lunged for the device and felt his exhaustion rush away, as he read down the list of people who had tried to contact him.
Gladio, three times.
And Noctis, twice.
Finger hovering over her name on the screen, poised on the speed-dial, and the phone rang, and he didn’t blink: he hit Speaker and Answer in quick succession. “Noctis?”
“No, damnit, where have you been?”
Gladio, low growl. Every syllable rocksteady and fierce.
“I was in training, as you well know,” Ignis said as he winced, and ran his hands under the tap in his kitchen, blessing the cramped quarters for once since that meant he didn’t have to get out of the phone’s range to hunt around for some spare clothes. “And we ran over tonight. Nyx is making Crowe go spare. I let her take it out on me.”
“Damn him, I’ll kick his ass when he gets here, but -- I’ll kick yours if you don’t get in contact with Noctis. She’s been calling me for the last fifteen minutes. She needs me and she needs you and she’s clear the fuck across town, and you want to explain to me how she did that?”
Clear across town?
“Hold one moment,” he said.
And he strode rapidly to the in-house radio lines. Keyed in a quick code.
“Garage,” the attendant said, at this time a steady-handed middle-aged woman.
“Scientia speaking,” he said. “I’d be much obliged if you could tell me where the Regalia is.”
The silence on the other end of the line lingered for a heartbeat too long. “...I am looking at it right now, sir.”
He took pity. He had to. “If anyone asks, it was taken out on my orders.”
“Sir,” the woman said.
“And now please tell me where the Princess actually went.”
“She said she’d be back an hour ago, but the roads -- there’s been an accident of some kind, heading out to Leide -- ”
He didn’t hear any of the rest. Slapped at the radio and yelled at his device. “I’m coming down now -- ”
“About godsdamned time -- ”
Ignis very carefully did not allow himself to swear as he leaped for the elevator once again.
Gladio was already at the entrance of the garage and it only took him a moment to get into Ignis’s car, only took him a moment to fill up the cramped interior with the thundercloud-knots on his brow.
“Level with me,” Ignis heard him say, “who the fuck do I need to kill? Someone taught her how to drive, and I need to break his kneecaps.”
“Then I wouldn’t be able to drive, and we’ll never get to her at this rate,” Ignis snapped as he veered off course, turning into a cramped alleyway to avoid an oncoming scrum of emergency vehicles. Sirens blaring into the night, lurid red and blue lights everywhere.
“Think!” He ran a red light, and another, and turned into a warren of confusing side-streets. “We’re talking about the daughter of Regis here. Or have you forgotten how Regis is attached to that car? He took his lady wife out in it at all hours, so it stands to reason he did the same with Noctis. At least, as far as she’d let him. The whole enterprise came to a sudden stop a few years ago.”
“So she’s been stealing the car she grew up in?”
“Not grew up in, though she did spend too many nights in it. And yes. She’s been stealing the Regalia. Going out for joyrides in it. When I found out I tried to dissuade her, and she would not listen to me: so I taught her how to drive it.”
“Aiding and abetting? You?” The grin on Gladio’s face was there for only a moment, feral and bright. “You really are attached to her.”
“Hark who’s talking,” and Ignis took one hand off the steering wheel to trace a line over his own face, crossing his left eye.
“I’m supposed to be attached to her. Comes with the job description.”
“Your body is. And you’ve done admirably with that. Your heart, however -- ”
“Ha. Well we’re just in the same boat, you and me.”
“Of course. And we are in the same car, that will crash in a fireball unless I concentrate. You want to make yourself useful? Home in on her location.”
Beep and flash of lights on the car’s console, and Ignis spared the map a brief and comprehensive glance, and nodded as he found the next roads that he needed to take.
And finally they were speeding past the thick cluster of ambulances and fire trucks, past two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles and the set faces of the first responders. They were pulling up at the last corner, right across the narrow cross-road from the Regalia.
“Guys,” Prompto called, hopping out of the back seat, all gangly arms and legs, the awkward shoulders of a boy in the throes of a growth spurt.
“Report,” Ignis heard himself say, and the word came out much too clipped, and he cleared his throat. “Apologies. I shouldn’t be treating you as though you were under orders, from me or from her or -- ”
“Don’t sweat it,” Prompto said, flicking his hand to the side. “I’d be worried if our positions were reversed.”
“She’s all right, right,” Gladio was saying.
“Yeah, she is, or she was last time I saw her. Probably she just looks much worse.”
Ignis gritted his teeth, loped around a ramshackle brick wall after him, past the crooked girders sticking out the top --
And the shadow that was standing in an alleyway raised a blood-stained hand to pull down a grimy black handkerchief. “Before you ask,” Noctis Lastella said, low and commanding, “I am really, really not hurt. I’ll prove it by going to the doctors at the private hospital. We were nowhere near the area when the accident took place.”
“Just three minutes too late,” Prompto said, somberly, and that was not a tone Ignis had heard out of him: it twisted his words, and extinguished the usual spark in his features.
“So what did you do? Call everyone in -- and then?” Gladio asked.
Noctis pointed into the alley that she had come out of. “You’re just in time, come on.”
The heavy, slow tread of her steps, and the sound that escaped her when Prompto reached in his pocket and clicked on a small but powerful flashlight.
Ignis took a deep breath, and bit his lip.
Watched as Noctis dropped to her knees beside a young man, laid out on the stones. Fat beads of sweat stood out on his face, but his eyes were closed and peaceful, and he was only sobbing, a little.
Below the waist he was a ruin, his entire left leg missing, and his right leg bent in at least three places that Ignis could see.
“Explain,” he heard Gladio rumble in Prompto’s direction.
He probably had to tell him not to intimidate the boy too much.
“He told us several times: he didn’t want any help.” Prompto was speaking to his shoes, voice shaking only a little. “He told us there was no one to look for him, to worry about him, but he was all right with -- dying.”
“The accident,” Gladio began.
“The accident is that this man was in the right place and time to stop a gang war from getting started,” Noctis said, her eyes hard, and her voice soft. “Raids into enemy territory, abduction, intimidation. He heard the plans and he made a decision to stop it all from happening. So he sabotaged several cars belonging to some of the gangs that were involved.”
He watched her hook her thumb in the direction of the accident itself. “Some moron decided to keep going despite the disabled engine.”
“He threw himself in front of the car,” Prompto finished. “And they ran him over, several times.”
“Shit,” Gladio said.
“You were paying attention after all,” Ignis heard himself say.
Noctis let out a sharp little sob. “Of all the things -- yeah, I did. I read your reports. So you will get one from me after this. First time for everything.”
The man who lay across her lap groaned, and seemed to look at her, and whispered, “Please.”
The change in her was instant: Ignis watched as she dredged up a sweet smile, and held that man’s hands in both of her own. “They know now. You have witnesses now. I will charge them to tell all the truth, in your name.”
“Thank you, Princess,” the man said, and on the last word his breath rattled out of him with cold finality.
“Astrals’ grace,” she whispered, and she bent over and kissed the dead man’s forehead, and closed his eyes.
Prompto, too, got on his knees to kiss the dead man’s cheek, before helping Noctis to rise to her feet again.
Ignis nearly recoiled from the smell of her, acrid mix of dust and ash and razed metal, and as she walked past him he saw the blood splashed all over her exposed legs.
Walking in her wake, watching the rigid set of her shoulders until she was standing next to the Regalia -- and that was when she let out a quiet fierce cry.
Prompto was there to gather her in -- but only for a moment.
Ignis heard her, muffled: “Help me turn around.”
And he stepped forward, as did Gladio.
Noctis’s face, twisted with grief, and the unyielding power in her words. “No one will know I was here. We -- Prom and I -- we didn’t call the city down on those assholes’ heads. As far as you know, I wasn’t here, Prom wasn’t here, and you were the people who tried to do something about it. Clear?”
Gladio looked like he wanted to say something.
So Ignis said, “I will expect that report by the morning.”
“Yeah,” she said, and: “I don’t care who takes me home tonight. Just -- I can’t drive any more. I can’t do anything any more.”
Gladio sighed, instead. “I’ll take the Regalia, Iggy, you drive them back.”
“You can drop me off at my place,” Prompto began.
“No. Don’t make me change my mind. I’ll sleep better if I know where you both are. You can go home tomorrow.”
Ignis looked away, to give her a little privacy.
He heard her say it anyway: “I’ll feel better, too, if you were -- nearby.”
Glimpse in his rear-view mirror of Prompto holding Noctis in his arms, as they drove away from the accident, down clear silent roads.
He’d have to talk to Cor in the morning, to learn about the boy named Prompto.
For Noctis’s sake, he hoped there was nothing to unearth.
Chapter 7: perhaps the me that she loves
Flicker, flicker, in the room all around him, and Prompto winced, and cut his eyes in the direction of the lone safety bulb high on the wall, red-coated, and the filaments in the bulb seemed to dance under his wary gaze, before the whole thing flickered again and finally settled back into dull red steadiness.
“I can take a hint,” he muttered, and he scowled as he looked down at the basins lined up in a row, at the pair of tongs next to his hand and the squared-off pieces of paper that were even now making their slow progress down the line of chemicals and water: and at least he could see the images that he’d captured on film, now cleanly transferred onto the photographic paper. At least he could see that this was the part of the process that he could almost, almost do correctly every time.
After all, this was all just a matter of a proper stopwatch and a clear set of instructions. A matter of moving things around after a set amount of time, and if he could manage to memorize all the steps in all the right order, then he was supposed to end up with photographs of some sort.
As he was shaking the last drops of distilled water from the last printed photograph, the red safety light crackled, and faded into night, into sudden total darkness.
He froze for a moment and fumbled for his smartphone, and his lips moved as he tried to remember the correct sequence to switch the screen lighting from a bright white-blue to a sallow yellow-green, so he could use it to see by, and not do any damage to his photos or, hell, to the chemicals he’d been using.
And in the process of switching the lights over he saw that Ignis had been calling him, and that made something sharp and clawed drop out of the pit of his stomach so it could start gnawing on his feet instead.
Hastily he gathered up his work and scooted out of the darkroom -- only barely remembering to scribble a note in the logbook to the effect of, Safety bulb needs replacing, darkroom cannot be used until then -- I swear I didn’t do anything -- as he made his escape into the evening air.
Photographs in his hands as he stopped under a street light, and of course the one that would catch his attention was the one with Noctis in it: silver chains looped in her braided hair, and a skirt that fell to her ankles, paired with a short suit jacket. That week there’d been some kind of big charity bazaar going on, with all the noble families clamoring to buy and to sell things of their own creation, and Noctis had sent him his own invitation, and he hadn’t wanted to go, but he’d showed up anyway, camera in hand.
All the newspapers in Insomnia printed the official shots of the ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened the bazaar, and he heard a lot of talk, afterwards, because the official shots showed Noctis standing rigid and watchful next to her father, her hand carefully wrapped around his elbow as if to help prop him up, and there was nothing but a mask of dignity in her eyes.
But he was glad he’d gone because now he had this print in his hands, and he wouldn’t even have had the chance to capture the original image if he’d just stayed at home.
The original image, the image he’d somehow managed to capture: Noctis in her outfit from that night, amid the rippling reflections of a vast expanse of clear-blue water -- specifically the massive indoor swimming pool in the depths of the Citadel, that was usually reserved for the use of the Kingsglaive for exercising, for physical therapy, and for the occasional bout of weapons practice.
He dumped the rest of the prints willy-nilly into a paper envelope that he’d brought along for the purpose, and once that was out of the way he peered closer at the photo of Noctis: where she was sitting off her heels and her plain black pumps were nowhere in sight. Where the silver chains had started to slide in her hair. Bottles of energy drink next to the hand on which she was leaning.
The smile she wore was only a slight curve on her mouth, but it lit up her eyes with vivid living light, even when he’d only caught the swing of her hair against her cheek, the sweep of her eyelashes.
It was a good photograph, he thought, and he wanted to put it in a frame and keep it next to his bed.
The thought was cut short when his phone rang: and he fumbled, hard, to keep holding on to everything he had in his hands, and finally he swiped his thumb across the screen of his phone and squeaked, “Hello?”
“I apologize for earlier,” he heard Ignis say. “I was trying to reach you and I neglected to cross-check against your schedule. You were -- working in the photography labs just now?”
“I was,” he said, and he took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down, and he started to walk in the general direction of the school gates. “And now you’ve got me, what’s up?”
“I cannot stay on the phone long, so I must ask you to pay attention, and again I apologize for the very short notice.”
“Uh oh,” he said.
“We’ve been held up in a series of meetings, Gladio and I, which means that we are currently unable to escort Noctis to her engagement for tonight. Dinner with the diplomatic staffs,” Ignis was explaining. “They are supposed to begin in two hours.”
“Pretty late for a school night.”
“And will you stay with her for it?”
Prompto blinked. “I -- I’d say yes except I have nothing to wear.”
Sounds of throat-clearing. “I hope that you will not mind very much if I tell you that -- you do have a suit. I don’t have your actual measurements on hand so I had to make do with estimates. But it is ready for you.”
“You got someone to make a suit for me? Wow, Iggy,” he said into his phone. “You really want me to go to this thing, don’t you? Fancy dinner party and all.”
That something sharp and clawing at his feet began to redouble its efforts.
“It would have been me, were I available. As I am not -- I must inconvenience you.”
“Where’s this suit exactly?”
“My quarters at the Citadel. Feel free to use the facilities. The reception will take place in one of the informal ballrooms.”
“Oookay,” Prompto said, and then there was the click of hanging up, and --
The thing was in two hours and he had already wasted thirty minutes talking on the phone, and -- there, there was a cab, idling at the corner -- he whistled at it and dove into the shotgun seat, and ignored the driver’s funny look when he asked to be taken to the Citadel --
Nervousness churning in his guts as he made his way towards Ignis’s apartment, and unfortunately he had to pass the actual ballroom on his way up -- clamor and clash of the musicians in rehearsal and he actually sprinted for the quieter corridors leading up and away, but he still didn’t have any answers for the question weighing heavily on his mind: what did people do at diplomatic receptions anyway?
Key-code into Ignis’s place. It was small, and half of it was eaten up by the kitchen, and there was the box on the island counter, addressed to him: and Prompto set aside his photographs. Opened the container with shaking hands and --
Okay, okay, he could do this, he told himself as he hurried through a quick shower, as he fumbled for the makeup kit he carried in his backpack, as he tried to tame his hair for the third time that day.
The dress shirt was a red so deep and dark it was almost black, and it had tiny black buttons on the starched collar and cuffs. Dark-gray suit trousers to go with, and he fumbled the knot of his tie three times before he said, out loud, “You wear a tie every day, get yourself together.”
Jacket on. Scuffed boots. He sighed, and glanced at himself again in the mirror, and he wished he could start over with his face, but now there was no more time.
Down, to retrace his steps back to the ballroom.
Okay, so he didn’t get all the way back to the place because the elevator opened on a floor he didn’t know, and he certainly hadn’t hit the button for that floor, and the person who was staring at him from the other side of the elevator doors was --
“Noct,” he managed, somehow, with all the breath knocked out of him.
Wide silver band holding back her hair, which fell in shining waves. Her plain black top left her shoulders and her arms almost completely bare -- but the skirt more than made up for it, rich black layers of material cascading in folds to the floor, thickly decorated with beads and crystals like stars in a night sky.
He let her pull him out of the elevator and that was a relief, because he couldn’t stop staring at her, and couldn’t do anything else but reach out to her.
“Stop looking at me like that,” she said, gently, hesitantly. “You’re making me feel -- too warm.”
He blinked, and found a smile for her. “You do know you just asked me to keep looking at you.”
Bright red flush in her cheeks, bright flash of her answering smile. “I have no idea why I’m looking at you right now.”
“Ignis asked me to go with you, because he can’t get out of his meetings,” he said, tracing a finger down her left arm, to the wide black cuff she wore around her wrist. It, too, was decorated in dazzling faceted stars.
“Oh,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to go down at all,” she said.
“So you’re dressed like this why?”
Her hands gently catching him up by the collar, and then tugging him down into a kiss that left him dizzy and breathless.
“Because I was planning to sneak out to see you.”
He couldn’t help it: he laughed. “And are you going to be mad at me now? Since I’m here and now you don’t have an excuse to sneak out?”
“Maybe,” but she kissed him again and her shoulders shook with her laughter, afterwards.
The great bells of the Citadel began to toll another hour.
He offered her his arm. “Shall we?”
“Yeah,” she said, and he wanted to kiss her again -- and he did, as soon as the elevator doors closed. Again and again until she was clinging to him, the two of them pressed full-length and trembling together as though they were caught in a storm.
He would have been content to have stayed there with her forever, trapped in that elevator with no way out, but when it stopped with a soft chime he was shocked to see Noctis pull away, and cross her arms defensively over her chest. Her smile and the light in her eyes suddenly extinguished.
“Noct,” he said, helplessly.
“I should have asked you,” she said, in a very small voice. “Are you all right with everyone looking at you? With everyone taking pictures of you?”
And understood why she looked so guilty now.
And -- yeah, he always knew that there was an image of a person, an image of a princess, that appeared in all the papers, that everyone at school talked about, that even people like Gladio and Ignis had to deal with, every day of their lives.
He knew that, but -- he also knew something about Noctis, just Noctis, without the title and without all the things that came with it.
Maybe he held an image of her, too, and maybe he was kidding himself that this image was closer to the real person than the image named Princess Noctis Lastella.
But looking at her now, as she swung her fist into the cabin’s walls and left the whole thing rumbling with the force of everything else she wasn’t saying or doing -- he tried to find the link between this Noctis, the Noctis of the here and now, and the Noctis he’d captured in the photograph and he saw her, saw part of her, in the nasty bruise that was already rising on her knuckles, in the tears that were threatening to shake out of the corners of her eyes.
The Noctis who had been smiling the way she had in the photograph because he had been complaining about a problem set in a maths class, because he had been digging through online tutorials for the latest levels of King’s Knight -- because he had been there with her, because he had managed to find his way into the bazaar for the specific purpose of being near her.
No one had looked at him then because he had pretended to be one of the other journalists, hovering around the edges of that raucous group, only to slip away to the pool at the first opportunity.
This was different, but not really, he decided: he could have said no to Ignis earlier, and he didn’t.
So he was once again doing this for the specific and only purpose of being near her.
He’d even gotten dressed up for the occasion.
And he made his decision.
Reached out for her hand.
Disbelief, when she looked up at him.
“I’m scared about what everyone’s going to say,” he said.
Flash of Cor Leonis’s face in his mind: his worry and the scant few messages they’d ever exchanged.
“I’m scared of what everyone else is going to say or do to me tomorrow,” he said. “But -- if you’re asking me if I’m okay with being with you, the answer is yes. Even if -- if it’s this.”
“This isn’t a small thing,” she said.
“No it’s not. But we’ll get through it. We usually do,” he said, and he didn’t offer her any false bravado, not this time.
“We’ll hide somewhere after this,” she offered. “Won’t stay the whole night.”
“Yeah, please,” he said.
The skirt had pockets -- who would have thought it? He watched her dab at her eyes, watched her pull away once more and clench her hands into fists, shoulders rising toward her ears as she seemed to go completely tense -- and then she exhaled, a loud gust in the elevator, and she held her head high as she reached for him again.
He took her hand. Drew her close.
And he followed her lead into the ballroom: eyes perfectly level, shoulders perfectly straight.
Wineglasses handed around to signal the start of the festivities, and he saw the movement of Noctis’s mouth when she made to sip from hers -- vivid red stain that never reached past her lips.
So he similarly pretended to drink his wine, and he was more than happy to set it aside.
He stayed away from it, even as a succession of men and women in overbearing suits asked her to dance with them.
It was -- not the longest night of his life so far, but it did sort of creep into the top ten.
And finally he was watching her curtsy to the last of the guests of honor, finally he was watching her cross the ballroom back towards him.
But instead of anything else, she gave him a small, shy smile, and: “Will you do me the honor of sharing a dance?”
Rising tune all around him: it was almost light-hearted but he could hear the intricate interwoven melodies, several songs carefully braided together into the single air.
“The honor’s mine,” he said, and he got to his feet and led her to the center of the dance floor.
And he didn’t see any of the eyes that were on him, on them, because he was too busy looking into her eyes.
There was that light again, in her, something that was hers, a faint spark in her that he wanted to see unfold -- and something about that wanting allowed him to stop worrying about his feet, about the very real possibility of stepping on her toes. Something about that wanting allowed him to just -- dance with her, allowing her to fly around him on nothing but the strength with which their hands were clasped --
He thought he might have almost succeeded when the music turned suddenly playful, like the musicians had dropped out in favor of one of those old-fashioned music boxes, and he couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of him -- the laugh that she soon echoed, rising and rising, and making all eyes turn towards them again --
And he was almost sorry when the music stopped and he had to remember his manners, dazed as he was, that he stumbled into his bow of thanks.
She just pulled him close, and whispered, “Get me out of here?”
“Anywhere you want,” he said, and stole a kiss, glancing it across the curve of her cheek.
Streetlights playing across her hands, across her arms, the sweep of her hair as it streamed behind her, the two of them in the Regalia, the top down and the night unfolding into a brilliant panorama of stars from horizon to horizon --
Without his camera, he could only stare at her, and strain to remember every detail, even as she grinned back at him, looking dazzled and dazed --
Chapter 8: the girl who was frozen in light
Soft high whistling, rising and rising around her, and she tapped her fingers impatiently against the cold tile and the dark lines in the kitchen counter, and the seconds ticked by on the clock on her mobile phone, which was still lit up following the sudden shrill of its ringing and the grave voice of her father, speaking: “I am on my way upstairs. I know it’s been a long time since I last made the request, but -- Iris, will you take tea with me?”
Boiling, next to her, steam rising against the shadows in the kitchen, and she picked up the tea things and rinsed out the pot once again in a wash of hot water. Cups waiting nearby, and she wiped out the pot and dumped in three scoops full of fragrant black leaves mixed in with thin slices of silver root, with vivid golden buds, and poured in the water from the still-shivering kettle.
All the way up to the apartments set aside for her and her brother and her father to use when they all happened to be in residence at the Citadel: it was a long seven-minute trip from the throne room and its extended warren of corridors and passageways, and that would give the tea just enough time to brew properly and be ready for her father, for when he came in.
Oh, and there was the other thing, too: the flask of dark golden liquor, sitting on the table behind her, well away and safe from any dangerous intersection with steam or water or anything else.
Sugar cubes and honey and a small container of warm milk waiting, as well, next to the flask.
How long had it been since she’d last done this? How long since he had asked her to do this?
Nights of whispering and long quiet talks as they waited up for Gladio to come home from the arduous hours of training and learning to become a Queen’s Shield.
She looked carefully around the kitchen, and she could recognize almost everything even with only a handful of dim lamps burning. What else would she need? Should she see if Ignis had left them something to eat? Should she call the kitchen staff? Her father had sounded tense, pained, like he’d taken a mortal wound, when he’d called in and interrupted her, right as she was getting ready to face-plant into her bed.
Another long day of training in the Kingsglaive barracks, and she’d been left alone to it for once, no sign of anyone like Cor, or Nyx, or Libertus, or any of the others, and she would have been asking questions, would have been wondering where they were, if Gladio hadn’t suddenly appeared just at the dinner hour, and she’d nearly cried out at the sight of him: the dark knots on his brow, and the worry written clearly in every strained line of his shoulders and arms.
“Noct’s eighteenth birthday today,” was all he’d said, before he’d traced a restless circuit from the punching bags to the free weights to several of the bench-pressing machines -- and then he’d just swept out again, as suddenly as he’d come in, without actually using any of those things -- and left her to nothing but her silent fears.
She was an Amicitia. She was nobility as her father was, as her brother was. She’d read the books and she’d heard the stories, and she knew what everyone else knew, about the heirs of the Lucii and the appointments that they kept when they reached their eighteenth birthdays.
Even now Insomnia watched and waited, quiet, hoping to learn the fate of its Crown Princess.
But even with her family being what it was, even with her brother and the direct connection to Noctis Lastella and to Regis, the truth was that she, too, was waiting along with the rest of the city. She knew about the heirs, she knew about their birthdays, she knew about the danger that those heirs faced on the night of that particular birthday -- but she didn’t really know anything.
And what she’d heard from her father, what she’d seen in her brother, could only make her heart pound with fear and with concern, the need for sleep pushed far far down.
She started, and spun around, and -- “Dad,” she said, and hurried to the tall stern shadow of him, and to the deep lines stamped into his face.
Lines that had already appeared in him that morning, as he’d paused among the Kingsglaive for their daily briefing.
She’d heard him, all terse and quiet, as she changed into fresh clothes after her sunrise run, unseen and unnoticed as he spoke to the under-officers and gave them their orders for the day, and from where she had been sitting in the locker room, she thought she’d been the only one to hear the real fear in his words.
Now she saw it plain in him, pulling down his shoulders, and the only thing she wanted was to help him carry that terrible weight.
Still her hands were steady as she poured the tea, as she brought the steaming cups to the table, as she uncapped the flask and poured a generous slug into the teacup that she pushed towards him.
“You might as well do the same,” Clarus Amicitia said, as he half-fell into one of the chairs. “I have the feeling that you’re going to need it. I trust you to know how much you’ll want.”
“Is it that bad?” she asked. A little milk, and two sugar cubes, and then, carefully, a few dashes of the liquor, and its sharp aroma almost made her sneeze, and the taste of it sent searing warmth into her belly, and into her knees. “I mean. I saw Gladdy. He -- he looked as bad as you do now.”
“No,” he said. “I can imagine the feeling is only sharper and more painful on his part. And on Ignis’s. I -- I will have to apologize to the two of them, because I had to order them to leave the throne room. I think we just escaped coming to blows -- I shudder to think of what had happened, if they had insisted on setting themselves against the elite of the Kingsglaive.”
Iris put her cup down with a hard click. Stared at him. “You did what? No wonder Gladdy looked like he did, if he had just come from the throne room when I saw him -- but Dad, why did you have to order them out? Shouldn’t they have been there? They’re her guardians, or they’re as good as -- ”
“I know that, Iris.” She watched him wince after swallowing a generous mouthful of liquor and tea, and cough, before going on: “I understand how they feel, now that I can think back on my own experiences, now that I remember -- ”
“Remember,” she echoed.
“We were barred from Regis’s testing: Cid and Cor and Weskham and I. Regis’s father’s Crownsguard -- they didn’t even let us enter the Citadel; they stood against us for five days.”
“Five days?” she asked. “The King’s testing took that long?”
“It did. He walked out of the Citadel on his own, at the end of it, and we all thought him invincible, and we were proud of him, and we were fools, the whole lot of us, laughing and laughing as we told him that we thought he’d done something incredible.
“We stopped laughing two weeks after, with our own trip to Accordo already well underway. It took Regis that long to work up the nerve to tell us what his great task was, and we also conspired against him, hoping to get him drunk enough to speak.”
She thought about Noctis’s father, and the stooped strength of him, the bent shoulders and the unyielding resolve. “Sage,” she said, quietly. “You said his great task was the Sage’s.”
“Yes. He carried -- and still carries, even now -- the weight of the ancient knowledge of all the kings and queens who came before him. All of their actions and all of their intentions, whether for good or ill, from those who founded the line and on, down through the generations.” Bowed head and bowed shoulders. “Knowledge is ever a double-edged sword: a useful tool, and a great weight of pure guilt. For him, it is the pure horror of hindsight. No wonder he drank like the world was ending, that night when he finally told us everything. I think, now, that he was grateful to us, for handing him that excuse.”
She shook her head. Wanted to ask questions.
“Dad,” she said, and reached out for his hand. Folded it in both of her own. “What happened?”
“I ordered Gladiolus and Ignis out of the throne room,” he said.
“Because Noctis survived to swear the year’s vow: which means that she cannot speak to anyone about her great task, until her nineteenth birthday. Twelve months she has to carry her burden alone, or to learn how to do so, before she can ask others to go with her. And they must choose to take her road, or to turn away from it -- the freedom to choose, to remain or to desert, is of great importance.”
“It’s part of the test, isn’t it,” Iris whispered, knowing the cold knots in her gut, now: she was afraid not just for her brother.
She was afraid for Noctis.
“Yes. The vow and the choice, both.”
“And Gladdy and Ignis? They went peacefully?”
“Only barely so,” he said.
She watched him make another cup of tea, and push away the flask -- so she replaced its cap and set it aside.
“Once they had gone and we had barred the doors, she was ushered into her father’s presence,” she heard him say. “And -- I do not know if you’ve seen her, recently.”
Iris blinked. “Noctis? Why?”
“So you have not crossed paths with her.” A deep sigh. “Were I to be asked, I would say she chose to break her own heart, but I am only guessing.”
It took her a moment to understand, and when she did, she nearly upset the teacups as she pushed away from the table and half-got to her feet. “Prompto,” she said. “I kept seeing him in the training courtyards. He -- he didn’t look well, he hasn’t looked well for the past few days. The days before Noctis’s birthday -- ” She stopped cold. “Oh, Six, no, she broke up with him?”
“That is what I thought,” he said. “I know nothing that can help to confirm or deny that.”
“I can,” she said. “I can talk to him.”
“I hope he will see fit to speak with you, and perhaps you can give him some advice,” he said.
“But what did Noctis do that for?”
“I cannot know. All I know is what I saw of her. I almost mistook her for Regis, she was so stooped and unsteady. She walked the same way she did when she was first recovering from her terrible injury, the one that nearly killed her. But she entered the throne room alone and unaided -- I felt the power of her, and the anger she was carrying. Her hurt pride. And I couldn’t begrudge her any of it. She looked up at Regis on his throne and she snarled, Iris, as though she were preparing to challenge him, and all of us.”
“Not with words. With the way she forced herself to stand up straight. With the way she looked at her father.
“With the way she looked at the Astrals.”
Iris froze. She couldn’t have heard that right. “What?”
Her father bowed his head. “I did not see them myself,” he said. “Only the bright light that flooded the throne room. But what am I to think when I see six great columns of light, coming down from the statues set above the throne?
“From the way Regis looked, he’d seen such a thing before.
“From the way Noctis looked -- she hadn’t.”
Iris covered her mouth in shock.
“Six columns of light that converged on her, and once they had her, we only saw her floating in light. Frozen, as though she were locked within those columns. Everything must have taken place in her mind, or in her heart, or both: we only knew that time was passing.
“Regis never once looked away from her. He wept, and he kept his eyes on her the whole time. Two hours, or perhaps it was three. No one can agree on that. I felt it was longer.
“When she fell to the floor -- I truly thought we’d lost her right then and there: she lay still for such a long time.”
“The bells would have rung, if, if,” Iris began.
“You did not hear them ring, for the simple reason that I did not order for them to be rung. There was no need for them. She survived: I saw her get up on her hands and knees, and her head was bowed, but she took on her great task. She said the year’s vow. And then she fell down again. I believe Cor was only the fastest one there to move; he took her away, and I saw almost all of the Kingsglaive follow him. They might all be still in her rooms, even now.
“I would have picked her up myself if I hadn’t been preoccupied with her father. As it was, I had my hands full, just as Cor did.”
“Is he all right?”
And her father shook his head. “His body is -- as it is, these days. The more pressing concern is his mind. What he knows. What he understands about her, and her great task.”
“She has to live,” Iris said, softly. “She has to live.”
And she had to know. She had to ask. “Dad. Are we allowed to know what her great task is? By which I mean, you and me. I can’t tell Gladdy. I can’t tell anyone. But -- ”
“You must give me your solemn promise,” he said. “No one can know. It is not yours or mine to tell anyone else.”
She nodded, and held on to his hand.
“The great task laid on Noctis’s shoulders is that of the Summoner.”
That terrible word!
That horrible task!
And she whispered, “Oh bloody fuck.”
Her father didn’t even flinch. “Just so.”
Chapter 9: where does she hide her heart?
One moment it had all been going so well, so smoothly, as though nothing else in the world had been happening except for the lowering gray clouds, except for the bite of oncoming rain and the harsh burr of lightning scraping against her teeth, except for the wind that moaned restlessly and threw great clumps of leaves down to the stones of the training courtyards.
It had been almost like a normal day, Crowe Altius thought: she’d been awoken before time, as always, by the cold in her bed, by the yawning absence of Nyx Ulric. She couldn’t even remember what had dragged him away this time -- his other lover, she’d thought, and she hated him and loved him in equal measure for his devotion.
After all, she, too, was ruled by her duty -- the duty she’d sworn her life and her heart to.
And duty had compelled her to rise too early from her crumpled sheets, to forego a scanty breakfast in favor of staking a claim on one of the practice rings.
Beneath a storm-blue dawn, she had braced her feet and her shoulders, and performed the extended salutations to the elements. Sweep of her arms and her legs in the long slow curves, spiraling up and down: not quite the movements of a Summoner performing a sending, but a means of gathering the energy in all the things that lived around her all the same, in order for her to offer that power to the Astrals.
And they would then grant her that power to use.
So she had thrown herself into her rituals, into the dance of her own body and the power of the elements brooding around her, and the magic had flowed so smoothly, so seamlessly, that she felt she was completely connected to the world around her and that was almost enough to soothe her injured feelings, her reeling heart.
Too perfectly connected, except for the part where she didn’t even notice that someone had joined her in the practice ring.
That the someone who had joined her was none other than her own student.
And she only noticed it when the power of that student hit her, jolting, the magic that flowed from her jagged and unruly, like spikes, like weeping --
Noctis Lastella, here, of an early morning: that was almost unheard-of.
And Noctis Lastella, here, practicing magic, with her eighteenth birthday no more than seventy-two hours in the past: that was literally unthinkable.
But Crowe paused in her forms to study the girl in the practice ring, and looked around for -- there they were. Her guardians, glowering side by side, shoulders fitted together as their scowls mirrored each other.
Gladio and Ignis, looking upon their charge with worry.
Their charge, who was crying as she called lightning up from the stones beneath her feet -- and as Crowe watched, Noctis let out an anguished wail, and dropped to her knees with a jolt --
“No,” Crowe said, as Noctis clenched her sparking hands, as the bright arcing power that connected her to the ground leaped back into her skin with a hiss, so she was completely wrapped in that harsh bright glow for all of a heartbeat -- before it sizzled away, disappearing back into her in a searing flash.
Ignis, of course. He knew what it was like to carry magic around in him, and his was the fire like beacons in the night, beacons in the storm: and he’d burned himself countless times on the fire that he carried inside him, because he’d neglected how to properly redirect it, how to properly release it after he’d put it to use.
Fire, drawn inwards, was bad enough: it had left him briefly feverish, most days, or it had left him breathless and heaving, as it scorched him from the inside out.
Crowe didn’t want to stop and think about it.
In the here and now, she threw herself across the few feet to the fallen Princess’s side, and lifted her carefully to a sitting position.
In her arms, against her chest, Noctis still breathed: but slowly, shallowly, the color draining out of her skin even as Crowe fumbled in her pockets.
“Here,” Ignis said, clipped, and passed her a handful of potions. Something to heal the body. Something to restore the magic.
But Noctis was shaking, now, fine tremors breaking out in her, and there was no point in making her drink anything when she was more than likely to be just plain incapable of swallowing it, and Crowe tore off her own jacket and wrapped it around Noctis’s shoulders.
Held her close.
Whispered: “Stay with me, Princess. Stay with me. We’re here.”
Quiet heartfelt cursing from close by, that also sounded like quiet fervent prayer.
She looked up, and met Ignis’s eyes. “Explain.”
“If you are speaking about her eighteenth birthday, the only thing I can tell you is that she was shouting to be let out of her sickroom within two hours of waking.” He winced, and looked away, for a long moment. “If you are speaking about her tears, that is -- I’m afraid she’s been distraught for a week or so.”
“I know she’s been distraught. I could see it in the way she worked. But -- do I get to hear that story now? No, poor choice of words,” she said, as in her arms Noctis muttered nonsense and continued to cry, without rousing. “I don’t have any right to pry into her private affairs. But -- she’s been in pain. She’s been distracted. Not even Cor could help her to focus, and you know what he does in order to force people to focus.”
Ignis’s mouth turned down even further at the corners. “There is no need to remind me.”
And how many times, how many times had Crowe seen Noctis under that same discipline? How many times had Noctis gone willingly to her knees, arms held out to her sides, shoulders bowed beneath the immense weight of the iron rod that Cor had placed upon her?
Unbidden, the memory of the one time that Noctis had taken that very discipline on upon herself, completely without anyone imposing it on her, arose in Crowe’s mind.
No one had ever seen fit to tell her what Noctis had done, or why she had chosen to use the rod, in those four hours under the midnight moon and stars.
All she knew was that Noctis had smiled, faintly, when the hours had passed, and she’d forced herself to her feet and walked away with her head held high.
Crowe had watched, that night, and wondered.
And she thought she’d be left hanging, again, in the here and now, as Ignis continued to press his lips into a thin silent line.
So she shook her head and picked Noctis up, and said, “I’m taking her upstairs.”
“I can carry her.”
She shook her head in Gladio’s direction. “I already have her. She’s no burden to me at all.”
“Truer than she knows,” she thought she heard Ignis sigh.
And the two of them trailed her all the way up to Noctis’s bedroom, and the bed that was an unruly mess: but once she’d wrapped Noctis in some of the blankets, she did seem to calm, or at least to breathe in a more natural way.
Enough that Crowe was then able to force some of the potions down her throat.
And Noctis, unconscious, drank meekly and without complaint, and sobbed again before settling.
Waft of black coffee, at her side, suddenly, and Crowe sighed and shook her head and looked up at Ignis’s worried face. “I really need to know what’s going on. I can’t be her instructor if I don’t know anything. If no one will tell me anything.”
“She is hurting,” Ignis began.
“I know. I can see it in the way she works. In the way she moves. Tell me why she’s hurting.”
“It all has to do with that -- thing her family has to do,” Gladio suddenly growled from the other side of the bed, where he’d taken up his post. Shoulders against the wall, arms across his chest, and eyes closed. “The heirs’ eighteenth birthdays. That trial thing.”
“Why weren’t you there? If I recall correctly, the Kingsglaive, where they still exist, are the designated witnesses when the heir to the Ring of the Lucii undergoes his or her testing,” Ignis said, after a sip of his coffee.
“I was here, but I was leading the rotation that night, and I couldn’t get in until the whole thing was over and done with -- I couldn’t even get past the magical barriers,” Crowe said. “All I could do was come up after, and watch with the Princess.”
She remembered trying to coax a little music from the flute that she had dropped into her pockets, and she remembered the rusty hoarse notes fluttering weakly in the heavy air that stank of medications and the sweat pouring off the Princess’s face.
“We were not there, either,” Ignis said, quietly. “We were barred from being with her.”
“Too biased, Dad said,” Gladio muttered.
“I would not have interfered -- or at least that is what I tell myself,” Ignis said. “They did not let us in until after she had fallen. Regis only said that she had passed her trials -- but his limp was worse than it normally was, and he almost had to be carried out like, like she was.”
“Three hours,” Gladio said. “It didn’t feel like it. It felt longer.”
Crowe shook her head. “And -- before that? You said something had gone wrong, before her trials.”
She blinked when Ignis looked down at the cup and saucer in his hands. “She felt that it was her duty to break up with the boy that she had been seeing for several years.”
“Wait, what?” Crowe said. “Why?”
“Don’t get it either. Not that I’m rooting for them. But the kid’s been pretty supportive of her. More than I’d expected, given -- ” And Gladio gestured to the girl in the bed. “You can’t tell me she’s an easy student. Sure she learns fast but -- but the attitude.”
Crowe was startled enough to laugh, a little. “I tell her I don’t like her attitude, but she needs to keep it: it might be the only thing keeping her sane.”
“Her attitude, and that boy: I believe she was leaning on him, too,” Ignis said. “Well. Inasmuch as she ever needed propping up. But she must have thought that she didn’t want to be a burden to him, to Prompto.”
“I’ve heard that name before,” Crowe said, thoughtfully. She was eager for the distraction. “Cor talks about him from time to time. Well. Cor just says he needs to make sure -- Prompto? -- Prompto’s doing well. I never did figure out the connection. And -- wait, isn’t he training with the two of you?”
“Yeah,” Gladio said. “As for the rest, eh. I don’t know a thing.”
“And Noctis broke up with him, before her birthday, before she would be tested for the Ring.” Crowe sighed, and covered her face with her hands. “I didn’t see this. I didn’t know this. I -- if I had known, I’d have stopped her lessons entirely.”
“We couldn’t stop her from getting to her feet,” Ignis muttered. “Could you have stopped her from her lessons?”
“I would have tried,” Crowe said.
“We did, too.”
In the bed, Noctis began to whisper: “No no no please no -- ”
Crowe watched as Gladio rounded the bed and ended up at Ignis’s side. Watched as the two of them joined their hands into a tense knot of knuckles.
“Go,” she heard herself say. “Go. You need to look after each other, so you can see to her. I will sit the watch with her.”
“I -- ” Ignis began.
She met his eyes with a level glare.
“It’s selfish of us,” he said.
“No. You’re already looking after her, and the stress is starting to show in you. Look after yourselves so you can look after her.”
Where she found the words she couldn’t tell.
But she met his eyes until he shook his head, and said, “We will be back tomorrow,” and hauled an unresisting Gladio to his feet.
When the door had closed behind them, when she was alone in the room with Noctis, Crowe dropped to her knees next to the bed.
Folded her hands next to the Princess’s unmoving arm, and whispered, “Forgive us all. Forgive me.”
Chapter 10: what child is this?
Quiet ring of an alarm clock right next to his ear, just loud enough for him to shake out of his restless sleep, just loud enough that he’d be the only one to wake.
This was -- just another start on the road.
What did he want? He wanted to stay in bed. He wanted to go back into his dreams. He wanted to sleep for another hour.
And then there was the contrast of the other things that he wanted to do: already the blood was pumping high and fierce in his veins, making him feel far too warm. Already the greater part of his mind was searching for the tranquility that he could only find in the furious fierce rush of his sword-forms. For the pounding of the blood in his veins as he lifted the weight of his shield in his hands -- a means of protection and a deadly weapon in its own right.
He wanted to remain where he was, curled carefully around the lean warmth of Ignis, around the thin high whistle of his breath and Gladio wanted to worry about him, because of course he was pushing himself, because of course all these days on the road with little to no respite couldn’t be doing him -- or anyone else, for that matter -- any favors --
He pressed a lingering kiss to the back of Ignis’s neck, and his reward was the half-slurred sound of his name, falling in a faint whisper from Ignis’s sleep-slack mouth.
“See you later,” Gladio muttered, and he pushed himself up to a sitting position, and the long years had sharpened his glance into an instinct, into a comprehensive sweep, and this room was much smaller than the one he’d grown up in, much smaller than the one he’d spent far too many dawns in: this room that was just enough space for two large sleeping bags and a few rucksacks in the corners and not much of anything else.
So it was an easy glance, and this morning it was safe and familiar, full of things and people that he already knew.
Ignis in the sleeping bag he was leaving, and Prompto in the other one, which left -- Noctis.
Noctis Lastella, who’d drawn the last watch of the night.
No, that wasn’t it.
No one else was taking the last watches, now, because at some point Noctis Lastella had taken that duty on upon herself -- and he tried to remember when she’d started doing it, when she’d straight-up demanded it from Ignis, and all he could come up with was that she’d been doing it nearly from the very beginning of the journey.
He dug a none-too-fresh shirt from his duffel, and ran a hand through his hair, and wrapped his hand around Ignis’s ankle for one more moment of comfort -- and then he resolved to begin the day in earnest. Resolved to take up his day’s duty.
Out into a starless dawn: still he could see, somehow, by the light cast up from the cold dark earth beneath his feet, catching the dawn that was still in the slow process of being born.
Faint flicker of the smoldering coals in the fire pit, carefully ringed around with ash-stained stones: the unsteady glow that threw light onto the face of the girl in the last camp chair.
But for the fact that the entire campsite had been half-packed up -- the camp stove in its box, the other chairs already folded away, the lanterns extinguished and set aside in an orderly pile -- she didn’t even seem to have moved from when he’d last seen her, when he’d looked over his shoulder as she took over the watch from him.
Blanket wrapped around her shoulders, with one trailing corner draped over her head, its unraveling edges half-falling into her eyes. The slow and steady blink of her, and the quiet rasp of her breaths. Stark on her hand the black ring that had been passed on to her from her weary father’s hands, its crystal glittering in a way that Gladio refused to admit left him wary, left him feeling like he wanted to run far, far away.
That, of course, was just plain impossible -- not to mention against his very nature.
It was his job to stick close to this girl, to this girl and the ring that she carried, that as far as he knew would be one of the instruments of her death.
“I’ll be back,” he said, to the unmoving shadow of her in the world.
“Watch yourself close to the river,” she whispered. “Daemons wailing all night. The wards held. I made sure of it. But do me a favor and don’t get eaten.”
“Me, eaten by daemons? You’re kidding, right,” he said, and he turned away to stretch, to center himself, to plot the course of his morning’s run. “You’re right here and you’re easy pickings. They can eat you first, and when they’re looking around for the next course I can just kill them at leisure.”
“That’s me,” she whispered. “Bait.” And: “Don’t make me go after you, Gladio.”
On his feet, on the run, the earth churning away beneath his footsteps, he had nothing but time to think.
He didn’t stop his thoughts from turning in her direction.
It hadn’t been very long, after all, since that morning in Leide -- not really. Not when he looked at the calendar. It only felt like it had been a lifetime ago.
Why had it been a surprise that she’d somehow managed to find a way to fly, to lift up into the air, on those desert rocks and desert sand? Why had he been surprised to see her reach out for those spirits to grant them some kind of way home?
In return those same fallen men and women had lifted her from where she was bound to the earth.
He still remembered her promise and -- he had to show her the message from Iris, who’d demanded to be present.
Silly Iris, he thought, for a moment. What kind of monster would he be, to ask a Summoner to perform a sending for his mother, and then prevent his sister from attending that sending?
He carefully put all thought of Iris away from his mind, because -- he couldn’t agree to her training as a hunter, but he couldn’t stop her, and this was already the second time in his life that he’d come up against a smaller person, a female person, wanting to do something she wasn’t exactly old enough for yet.
Iris going into training would just mean parts of Gladio’s life rewinding, and repeating.
Nearly all the way back to when he’d actually met Noctis: and he was already tall for his age then, already learning to hold his own against Cor, against his own father.
The same father who’d knocked him down, who’d left him curled into a ball and shrinking away from an immense shield, from an even more massive sword -- who’d then shaken his head, and pulled him back up to his feet.
“Come, Gladiolus,” he remembered Clarus saying, after a short squirming hell of plasters and bandages. “Come and meet her, while she’s still awake. And mind your manners like I showed you.”
And he’d known, even then, who the girl was, alone in the massive room with the narrow windows and the carvings on the walls.
The very small girl, wrapped in black lace and soft blankets.
He’d watched as one of the nurses lifted her out of her crib, and she hadn’t cried, hadn’t protested, hadn’t done anything except stare out at the world with her dark blue eyes.
He’d met her stare for stare, and tried to poke at her hand. “Why is she so quiet?”
And: “Is she alone?”
And Clarus had shaken his head, and refused to answer -- then or at any other time he’d asked.
Gladio remembered thinking: this was the Princess? This was the girl they were all fussing about? Oh, he’d enjoyed the cake that had been sent to the house in honor of her birth.
But to see her, in that moment, with the smell of milk stuck fast to her skin: she was so small. So delicate and helpless.
As she was when he’d left her by the campfire, in the here and now that was only an hour or so past, wrapped in blankets and hunched over, a small shape in the world, in the night that seemed to want to cling to her with claws.
Gladio ran, and ran, and he let his thoughts fall away from him, until there was only the pound of his feet and the colors rising at the horizon to show that the morning was on its reluctant way.
He ran along the river until the stitch in his side stopped him from breathing properly, and even then he only stopped for a short moment, just long enough to stretch, to scoop up a cold handful of water for the back of his neck.
To a clearing that they’d stopped at during the previous night, looking for mushrooms and herbs: here there was just enough space for him to summon his greatsword, and to start working through his forms -- that soon turned into a duel, himself and his shadow sparring on the ground.
His mind supplied him with the images: himself, growing up, and lifting larger and larger swords -- and the deeper lesson beneath, which was the literal use of the word shield, when it came to the Amicitia family, and when it came to the Lucii.
He’d trained with his father, and by his father’s side, for years: and Clarus didn’t spare him, either when it came to discipline or to praise -- that was not the case for the slip of a girl in black skirts to her knees. The girl who dodged around him, danced around him, with the lines in her face gone straight-edged with her concentration, as she mimed punching and kicking with a toy sword in her hand -- or he’d thought it was a toy sword until she’d thrown it at his feet and it had stuck in the stones, and he’d stepped away out of sheer instinct, and only after he’d glanced down at the thing she’d thrown did he see the very real edges of it, the leaf-shaped blade and the plain black hilt.
He’d yelled something at her, something like “Who said you could fight with a real knife? Where did you even get this?”
She hadn’t yelled back. Hadn’t answered his questions.
She’d simply met his eyes and declared, “I want to learn how to fight like you.”
“I’m not your teacher,” he’d said.
“No, I want to train with you,” she’d said.
He’d heard her shouting at Cor, afterwards, demanding to be put through weapons training, and her no more than -- seven? Had she actually only been seven years old then? But she must have said or done something to convince the Marshal, because after that, Gladio could remember her training in gray fatigues, and the blue outlines of the way she warped and flashed into and out of the world.
In the here and now, he still thought about sparring with her, about thinking on his feet against an opponent half his size and twice as fast.
And he threw himself through his forms, once and then again, and he wasn’t expecting the blue to come streaking in at him, but when it did -- he parried, and saw the shadow of her passage fly upwards into the trees surrounding the clearing, until he caught his breath and squinted upwards and -- she really was there.
Still wrapped in her blanket, still with that distant look in her eyes, but her swords were dancing around her in their ghostly outlines, ready to move on the instant.
“Trouble?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said, and she dropped easily down from that sheer height and didn’t warp away, and he observed the fall of her, the full crouch of her as she made it back down to the ground, the spring of her in her shoulders and in her knees, and her feet in her boots.
He vanished everything he had been training with, and nearly reached out to her in silence, when she leaned heavily against the tree trunk and went pale, before pushing up and away into a brisk walk.
He hadn’t been there, when the Nifs had attacked her, had maimed her so brutally.
He hadn’t been there and it hadn’t been his fault.
That didn’t mean he had to be quiet or tactful about it.
So he strode to her side and said, “Need a lift?”
And Noctis smiled, and shook her head. “No. Although we do need to hurry.”
“Where’s the fire anyway?”
“Cindy needs supplies,” she said.
“I could do with a hunt or two.”
And always, always, the completely unexpected brilliance of her sweet smile. “Hate to disappoint you then. This one’s a milk run. Just -- driving and shit.”
“And now you’ve jinxed it,” he said, hopefully.
“Fuck off,” she said.
And she pushed away from him.
He decided not to chase her.
Not this time.