Chapter 1: Sunburn
...Okay so basically this is a bunch of
travel drabbles omg no it isn't and I can't pretend it is anymoreloosely-strung-together stand-alone fics pretending to be 'chapters', ranging from small to medium in size and from the sublime to ridiculous in tone. Often comedic, occasionally tragic, 99.9% full of shippy chocobro feels. The fourth wall is broken with alarming regularity but only for a good cause; likewise for any broken hearts. (I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this, now I'm in too deep, and the only way out is through. Come down this road with me. ♥)
"Put the top down," Prompto said, for the umpteenth time that morning. "Come on, it's hot."
Ignis sighed. It wasn't as though he was unused to being the only grownup, but that didn't make it any more fun. "No. You need sunscreen and there isn't any."
"Finally we get a reason," Gladiolus grunted from the back seat, and flipped a page of his book. "I just thought you liked stuffy dark places, Ig."
"Pretty stuffy himself," Noct put in, his sleepy murmur still audible over the purr of the engine.
Ignis' gloves tightened on the wheel with the very tiniest creak of leather. "I'm not comfortable either," he hissed, and at the side glance and eyebrow Noct and Gladio shared in the rear-view, added, "and yes you two, I am comfortable sometimes. When we get to the next stop, I'll stock the first-aid kit. We'll all need some sunscreen before we head into the desert anyway."
Prompto, mouth agape, slewed around in the seat to express his disbelief to the backseat. And, from his volume, to everyone within a mile radius of the car, as well. "Wait, wait. You're not putting the top down because of me? We're sitting in this box instead of having the breeze in our hair and it's my fault?"
"Technically, yes." Ignis made an infinitesimal adjustment to the rear-view, as if to remind the two in the back seat that yes, he could see the faces they were making at the back of his head. "Or at least, it's the fault of your genes."
"I'm not that pale." Prompto held out his arms, and they were bright white against the dashboard. "I just... maybe need a little sun."
"Hey, wanna turn those down?" Noctis made a show of shielding his eyes. "I'm trying to sleep back here."
"I've seen moogles with more of a tan," Gladio put in.
Prompto folded his blinding white arms and made a point of looking out the window. "Fine. Fine. We'll all sit in the dark because nobody wants me to get a freckle. Fine."
There was a considering silence over the sound of the car engine.
"You get freckles?" Noct asked, when it was plain someone had to.
"Oh, don't act all interested now."
Gladio actually lowered his book. "I pegged you as the instant flambé type. Like an overripe tomato."
Prompto snorted. "I ran outside every morning every day for like eight years. Trust me. I go maybe a little pink maybe, then boom. Freckles. All over. I have been informed by my female peers," he sat up a little straighter in the seat, as though the opinion of the girls he'd gone to school with was of equal weight to that of the King's council, "that they are cute."
"At least they said part of you was cute," Gladio said.
Prompto turned red in a way that had nothing to do with sunburn. "Hey! All I'm saying is we don't have to sit inside the car on a gorgeous day like this because of me. And I'd like to think that if I did get a sunburn I wouldn't be a big baby about it."
We all have things we'd like to think, Ignis thought, but it was no good. Noctis had lightly punched the back of the driver's seat to get his attention.
"Hey, you heard him. Go ahead and put the top down."
And though they all sometimes pretended otherwise, a prince was a prince and he had no need to say please. Resigned, Ignis leaned over and hit the switch, and the roof of the Regalia folded back to reveal the fathomless blue sky above.
"Yaaaaaaay top down!" Prompto waved his arms above the windshield, and the occupants of the car breathed a sigh of relief as the air washed over them. All of them, that is, but one.
The damage was not apparent until they stopped for the evening. Prompto, as promised, had come out in festoons of freckles over his nose and shoulders, while Gladio was utterly unaffected and Noct's skin merely took on a faint gold hue. Ignis, on the other hand...
"Are you red?" Gladio asked, squinting across the campfire.
"Just the light," Ignis said, too quickly, and busied himself with the dinner dishes. "Coffee, anyone? I've got some water on to--"
"Wow, you really are red," Prompto stood up to get a better look. "Like really really--" He hissed in sympathy. "Man, that looks painful."
"Thank you," Ignis said, more crisply than was usual, "it is. Don't poke me."
Prompto retracted, about to do just that. "Do you uh, do you want some ointment, or..."
"I would like," Ignis said, "To clean up dinner. And then I plan to sleep face down in the nearest creek."
"You could have said," Prompto said, as though Ignis could have. But he could not, and all of them knew it.
Noctis had spent the whole exchange silently staring into the fire and occasionally poking the ground with the toe of his boot--both signs of deep concentration. When he rose it was sudden, scooping up his plate with one hand and bringing it over to the camp stove.
"Dinner was good," he said, and brought his hand down on Ignis' shoulder. Ignis flinched in anticipation of pain, but instead a wave of icy cold magic poured from Noct's fingertips. In spite of his best efforts, Ignis could not suppress a gasp, not at the blissful cold or at the sharp tingle of healing magic that followed it. "But next time," Noctis continued, as Ignis reached bewildered fingers to his face, "buy more sunscreen. It's easier than spells."
In the battered metal hood of the camp stove, Ignis could see his reflection, his face no longer red and sore but a soft tan that, on second glance, he found he rather liked. "Yes. ...your highness."
Noctis made a dismissive noise at that, but for the rest of the drive, so long as weather permitted, the Regalia's top stayed down.
Chapter 2: Garnish
Ignis has to get them from somewhere.
Ignis would assert, as would any of them, that serving their prince was generally more pleasure than duty. Noctis was neither haughty nor spoiled, was usually in good spirits (or asleep), and always game for anything from fighting giant monsters to a day-long pinball marathon. He did not adore his rank, but didn't shirk from it, and he had a way of putting those around him at ease. He was, in general, a man it was easy to follow.
With one exception.
"Noct, don't go off alone--"
Noctis Lucis Caelum had a bad habit of standing perfectly still for minutes at a time, scanning the landscape, lost in thought just long enough for everyone to relax a bit. And then he would whirl around without warning and take off at a flat run in some seemingly random direction or another, sprinting across the terrain without regard to obstacles, leaving his startled retainers scrambling after him. It was a challenge keeping up, to say the least, and this time was no less sudden. He was ten yards away before Ignis had regained his balance.
The prince paused just long enough to glance over his shoulder. "Pretty sure you don't have to watch me pee, Ignis."
Prompto punctuated this royal decree in his own inimitable way (a loud snort of laughter and a click of his camera at Ignis' face).
"Oh." Ignis slowed his run to a trot, then stopped. Tugged on his gloves. Tried to make it look like he could anticipate his prince's bathroom breaks as readily as his other moods and desires. "...Right."
"If he springs a monster with his pants around his ankles, I expect a good shot for the scrapbook, Prompto." Gladio settled his shoulders against the nearest boulder, making as much of the small scrap of shade as he could.
Prompto's laugh dwindled into a nervous titter. "Ahahaha that's okay, I don't really want to get executed, thanks."
Ignis' lips thinned; he refrained from saying that Lucis hadn't had any executions for centuries. Instead, while Gladio studied his fingernail and Promto fussed over his camera, he tried to make himself useful. As luck would have it, he was standing in the middle of a large patch of usefulness.
"Something smells good," Prompto said suddenly. Gladio grunted his agreement.
"Wild Basil," Ignis said, kneeling and plucking sprigs of the tenacious little plant. "Also mandragora onion, purple oregano, and if I'm not mistaken..." he reached over by Prompto's foot with a little noise of effort, "...there. Yes. Bit of dill for that excellent trevally His Highness caught this morning."
Prompto boggled. "You mean all this time you've been getting all our dinner herbs off the ground?"
"Listen to the city boy," Gladio laughed. "It's not like we're eating roadkill, you know."
"I hardly have access to an herb garden," Ignis said, carefully folding his prizes in his handkerchief. "But I assure you, my knowledge of herb-lore is quite sufficient for such basic culinary purposes."
"So can you eat all of these? What about that? That red one looks tasty."
"I wouldn't advise eating chocobo-bane, Prompto, unless you're fond of indigestion. If you would like a basic overview, I'd be happy to oblige at some later date." Ignis opened his jacket and tucked the bundle of herbs in the inside pocket. They would wilt a little, but be more than serviceable by dinnertime.
"And now you know why Iggy smells so good all the time," Noctis said, emerging from the undergrowth and doing up his belt. "Pockets full of herbs. Let's go see what he can make with them, huh? It's getting late."
"Yay, dinner!" Prompto bounced off through the shrubbery, thoughts of botany forgotten. For once, Ignis did not hurry to follow, caught off-guard by his prince yet again.
In all the sweat and heat of long days in the outdoors, it had never once occurred to him that he smelled good.
Noctis' habit of barreling off without warning (over and often through his companions) is TOTALLY CANON OKAY it has nothing to do with my gaming habit of finding my quest direction and then mowing through my indignant entourage.
Chapter 3: Lure
Like a kid in a candy store.
"You know what the gossip papers used to say about him?" Gladio asked, as the heir to the kingdom of Lucis avidly studied the quayside bulletin board, oblivious to all else besides a water-wrinkled, typewritten notice pinned to the decaying cork.
"I can recall several key phrases," Ignis replied, making use of the pause to clean his glasses on his handkerchief. "Few of them flattering. But I think you're referring to the old canard of the heir to the throne being a sullen, lackadaisical youth, with little interest in anything, much less his future role as leader of our kingdom and defender of our people." Ignis sniffed his distain as he checked his lenses. "The Times-Herald always did have a bitchy streak in its editorials."
"He's not sullen," Prompto objected. "They just don't know him like we do. Watch this." Tucking his phone back in his pocket, Prompto crunched across the sand to join his prince on the dock. "Hey. Anything biting?"
Noct was still absorbed by an arcane chart made of Xs and Os on yellowed dot-matrix paper. For all Prompto knew it could have been some kind of Imperial secret code or his own grade-school standardized text scores, but he was pretty sure it was supposed to indicate where the fish were running. (Though Prompto didn't think fish could run, it was something he'd heard Noctis say.)
"Trevally," Noct answered, tracing a careful fingertip over the chart, and glancing at the tide times posted nearby. Prompto, having known him a long time, could detect a note of excitement in his voice. But apart from his closest friends, anyone else would still call the Prince's demeanor indifferent, at the least.
"Still getting a real sullen vibe, here," Gladiolus said in an undertone to Ignis. "The wedding journalists are going to eat him alive, you know."
"Come now. Give Prompto a bit more credit." He nodded his encouragement to Prompto, who gave the matter a moment's thought before winking back.
"I've always wondered. What's the difference between a crankbait and a spinnerbait?"
Noctis was surprised enough to look up at him. "You've always wondered that?"
Prompto waved his hands around in a noncommittal way. "Well, maybe not always, but--okay I just wondered."
Noctis actually turned away from the bulletin board, his face brightening in a way that would have made him unrecognizable to the journalists of the Lucian Times-Herald. "Oh! Well, it's easy to get them confused if you don't know, I guess. So, they're both lures you reel in to get the fish's attention, unlike doing a line-and sinker jig where you just throw it out and wait with a bobber, you know?"
"A crankbait's the same as a jammer or any other kind of plug lure. But a it generally has a side-to-side motion, while a spinnerbait moves constantly and has a little flasher that spins around while you reel it in. That's why it's called a spinnerbait, right?" Noctis illustrated these facts with motions of his hands that were probably illuminating to anyone but Prompto, who didn't know a spinnerbait from his own ass and had just seen them advertised on the nearby bait-shack. But in light of Noct's enthusiasm, he tried to keep nodding in an interested fashion.
"Okay, so. Generally I don't use a spinner because they really aren't as versatile as a plug or a popper. Though you can change the color of the plastic skirt on the spinner depending on your water conditions, and now they've got this nice silicone type I've been wanting to try? Anyway. Live bait's okay I guess, but it's kind of messy and complicated to deal with on the road. Can't keep nightcrawlers and crickets in the trunk of the Regalia. Well, not anymore, after what Ignis did last time I--"
At this point Prompto was signaling the other two for help, but they were too busy stifling their laughter to render assistance.
"...like garlic and coffee, you can get worms that have the smell already in them. Crappie go nuts over that stuff. One time I took some of Iggy's leftover Ebony Coffee and..."
"Now then, Your Highness," Ignis said, arriving to help at last. It was nearly too late for poor Prompto, whose eyes had begun to glaze over at the can of (plastic, neon tornado glitter, mandragora-scented, grub-twister) worms he had opened. "Talk about fishing all day, and you won't actually have time to fish! I do hope you'll get us something nice for dinner, hmm?"
Noct blinked, as though coming out of a deep slumber. "Oh. Right. I'll... see what I can do."
"I thought I was a dead man," Prompto gasped, once Noctis had taken up a spot on the end of the dock and was contentedly casting away.
"Payback for all the times you go off on camera lenses." Gladio unhooked a limp Prompto from his arm and propped him against the notice board instead. "Or chocobos, or car wax, or--"
"I'm sorry," Prompto said, with feeling. "That was--that was.... it was pretty impressive, actually."
"Oh, he can go for hours," Ignis sighed. "But I suppose it solves the wedding problem."
Gladiolus raised one unconvinced eyebrow. "How's that, you figure?"
"He just has to spend the whole time thinking of a big, floppy, largemouth bass. The press will be delighted with the result: Lady Luna looking radiant next to her smiling groom."
Prompto wrinkled his nose. "I'm worried about the wedding night, in that case."
"Don't be." Gladiolus snorted. "She's already got her catch-- hook, line, and sinker."
This one is for my dad, who never quite managed to instill in me his love of fishing, but who had me play guess-the-worm-smell on the regular. Honestly the fishing parts of this game make me feel like I'm hanging out with him. ^_^
Chapter 4: Arson
Dad always said if you play with fire you'll wet the bed.
"You're on fire today, Noct!"
The prince of Lucis staggered back from the smoldering wreckage of the voretooth, and shot Gladio a filthy look. Literally. His face (along with his clothes, his arms, and a large portion of the landscape) was utterly black from the smoke. "I'm on fire, Gladio, because you set me on fire."
"Set all of us on fire," Promto coughed, beating sparks out of his flannel.
"Rather singed over here as well," Ignis put in, removing his glasses and revealing two perfectly clean circles around his eyes. His glasses, on the other hand, were opaque with soot.
"Yeah, well." Gladiolus looked around the charred circle--one bush was still blazing merrily along-- and his equally charred companions, and scratched at his head sheepishly. His fingers left a clean spot; he was as dirty as the rest of them. "This magic business isn't really an exact art, you know."
(Gladio keeps telling Noct this in fights when they are all actually on fire. I think he's doing it on purpose.)
Chapter 5: Rain
Rain and stars and kingdoms all eventually fall. (Note! Spoilers for the end of chapter one, just in case you haven't played that far, watched Brotherhood/Kingsglaive, or, you know, read the back of the game case.)
The night Insomnia fell, its prince was standing in the middle of his posh Galdin Quay hotel room in his formal suit, looking out over the sunset beach while Ignis checked the fit of his clothes. They had left the city in some haste and there had been no time to do such small tasks beforehand. Nevertheless, Ignis insisted that the prince was not going to meet up with his future bride in battered fatigues, and certainly not in an ill-fitting suit. Notis dutifully put on his pinstripes and then put up with Ignis tugging on him from several different angles. Prompto, with a wolf-whistle, said the prince looked like a Noct-out. (He got a chair pillow thrown at him for his trouble.) Gladious said he had never seen a better dressed corpse. Everybody laughed, even Noctis.
Nobody was laughing now.
The thudding rain on the raised top of the Regalia and the churning of her windshield wipers were the only sounds as the four passengers huddled inside, drenched to the skin, stunned into silence. Even Prompto was utterly still, though his rare moments of quiet were usually punctuated by constant movement to some song inside his head. Ignis' knuckles showed white through the vents in his gloves; his hands gripped the wheel as though they were glad for something solid to hold on to--or to throttle. There was no noise from the back seat as Gladio stared intently at his black phone screen, willing it to light up with some news--good or bad. And Noctis, sitting next to him with water dripping unnoticed from the ends of his bangs, was as blank and cold as his own profile on a coin.
Prompto wanted to say something. Anything. But all the words had dried up inside of him, some drought that all the rain in the world could not quench. His camera rested in his trembling hands, shuttered and dark. Locked inside it were all the bright days that had now become part of some irretrievable past, and Prompto didn't have the heart to even look at them.
The Regalia's headlights cut bright swaths through the darkness; somewhere beyond the clouds the sun was setting. The thought made Prompto bite his lip to choke back a sob. (Noct had not shed a tear, had not said anything. Prompto could not begin to imagine how he felt. They had all been robbed of a home--but Noct had lost both his past and his future.)
"We're here," Ignis said, startling each man out of his own grim reverie, turning the clang of the Hammerhead's gas pump chime into a passing bell. They emerged from the car automatically, blinked around the rainy roadside stop as though they had never seen it before. Cindy ran to meet them and delivered her news, uncharacteristically subdued. When she was finished Noctis turned back to the car as though fully intending to track down Cor Leonis that instant.
"Noct." None of them had touched him, not yet. Noctis' pain was so palpable that it seemed touching him would only make it worse, jarring the broken things inside of him and starting the bleeding all over again. But Ignis, who had known him longest, laid a hand on the prince's arm in gentle restraint. "We can't keep going tonight. We'll meet up with Cor in the morning."
Noct shrugged him off without looking at him. "We're going now."
Ignis' face hardened, along with his voice. "Your highness," he said, sharply enough to make Noctis lift his head, "while we are certainly yours to command, if you think I'm taking the last hope of Lucis across the badlands at night in the rain with the countryside swarming with Imperials, then I must conclude that grief has caused you take leave of your senses."
Prompto put a hand to his mouth; Gladio made a soft noise of impressed surprise. Neither of them had ever heard Ignis take such a tone with Noct before. It had the desired effect, as Noctis finally got a good look at his reflection in the rain-streaked window of the Regalia. He saw what his friends saw when they looked at him: pale, ragged as a shroud, his wet hair plastered to his forehead and his hands still smeared with blood. He lifted them up to see them better, and could not keep them steady. He looked terrible, he realized. All of them looked terrible. They stank of smoke and death and suddenly Noctis wanted to throw up or pass out, but couldn't find the strength to do either.
"In... in the morning." Noct's voice sounded strange even to himself. Choked-up, far away, numb.
Ignis nodded. "First thing. I promise. You must get some rest now, Noct."
"Please," Prompto said, and then made a strangled sound when everyone looked at him. He hadn't meant to say anything, but it was all so awful. If Noct and Ignis were going to fight, he thought he might actually cry in spite of everything.
A flicker of expression crossed Noctis' face for the first time in hours. "Well, all right," he said, slowly. "Since Prompto's tired."
"Very good, Noct," Ignis said, in either agreement or approval, and with a guiding hand on the small of the Prince's back, walked with him over to the battered camper parked by the diner.
"I'm not really tired," Prompto protested to Gladio, as they followed several paces behind. "It's just that Noct--"
Gladiolus brought his hand down on Prompto's head, ruffled his damp hair. "I know, kid. I know."
Ignis offered to cook something, but no one was hungry, not even Prompto. The whole camper smelled of stale cigarette smoke and old fry grease, but for once no one complained. Instead they stripped off the wettest layers of their clothes and fell into whatever beds the caravan had to offer: Gladiolus draped over the sofa, Ignis in the reclining chair, Prompto and Noct on the bed in the back.
The mattress was thin and squeaky, and Prompto's restless wiggling usually meant at least fifteen minutes of squawking springs before he got comfortable. This time he flopped down and immediately went as limp as an exhausted puppy. When the bed started vibrating a little bit later, Prompto's first thought was that the wind was buffeting the camper. It took him a few seconds to realize it was Noctis, curled up around himself and silently shaking with rage or tears or both.
"Noctis," Prompto whispered. There were already snores from the other half of the camper; he didn't want to wake anyone.
Noct did not make a sound, but there was a slight shift in his breathing that let Prompto know he was awake, and had heard. Of course he won't talk, Prompto thought. Of course he would pretend to be asleep. He's a pri--a king. Kings can't cry themselves to sleep, right? But they do. The king was still his dad and now-- Prompto could not finish the thought. Instead he reached out and wrapped his arms around Noctis, and hugged him as hard and as fiercely as his exhausted strength would allow.
Noctis didn't say anything when Prompto curled up against his back, but neither did he push him away. Slowly his shaking subsided, slowly he sank back into Prompto's warmth. The rain drummed hard on the rust-pocked roof of the old camper, and in the company and protection of his companions, the new king of Lucis slept at last.
Apologies for anyone who's only here for hijinks and pecan logs, but sadly life is made up of both pecan logs and kingslayings. Timewasting nonsense will resume next time.
Chapter 6: Ebony
It'll put hair on your chest. Which would be pretty impressive since I think all these guys wax.
It was both a reward and a habit, if Ignis was being honest with himself. His was a life with small room for personal pleasures (and little time to regret that fact). So he had learned to take his joy in simple things: well-polished shoes, sharp kitchen knives, and outrageously expensive, shade-grown, organic, heirloom bean coffee. Eight ounces of luxurious bliss in a gold-rimmed can. Glorious. Even in the middle of the desert, camped twenty miles from god-knows nowhere, it tasted like civilization.
(After that terrible day, he caught himself rationing it. Buying extra when he found some in stock at an outpost. Hoarding it like some rare spice. It didn't make sense; it was neither practical nor a necessity, though he treated it like one. In Insomnia it had been overpriced, but still commonplace. Every news-stand had some in stock. But outside the fallen city it had become a thing to cling to, though Ignis Scientia would have insisted he was not the sort of man to cling to anything.)
But Ignis knew one thing: he wasn't going to make it through this road trip without it. Which might have explained the small flutter of anxiety he felt when he reached down between the seats and felt the empty shape of the Regalia's cup-holders, not the single can he'd allowed himself that day.
"Um," He began, hoping that the wind blowing over the open top would explain the elevated, tense tone of his voice. "Has anyone seen my--"
Prompto's noise was enough to make Ignis swerve off the road, raising a great billow of dust over the car. Noctis launched up out of a sound sleep with the sword of kings manifesting in his fist, and Gladio was half out of the car with a battle cry. They frantically searched the sky and the horizon, expecting nothing less than magitek-propelled daemons riding battle-armored behemoths. Rabid ones.
"What the hell-" Gladio began, when the dust cleared to reveal nothing more threatening than tumbleweed.
Noct's sword dissolved in a burst of crystalline light. "Prompt-o."
"Sorry!" Prompto was scrunched down in the front seat, eyes wide, Ignis' (somewhat crumpled) coffee can in one hand. "Sorry. I was just... I thought it was my soda. It took me by---eugh. Iggy. How do you DRINK tha--"
"I drink it just fine, thank you," Ignis retorted, falling back down into his seat. "Or at least I do when someone's not getting his motormouth all over it."
"Here, here." Prompto shoved the can at him. "Take it, for Odin's sake. I don't want it. Bleh. Bleheheheheh. Eh." He flapped his fingers over his tongue in a vain attempt to get the taste off.
"What's the matter, Prompto?" Noct couldn't help but laugh at his best friend's face. "Too bitter for you?"
"It's not bitter it's--"
"Mine, if you don't mind," Ignis said, retrieving his can of coffee and nestling it firmly in the cup rest where it belonged. "At least I can take comfort in the fact that you're not likely to pilfer any of it."
"Iggy," Gladio said, grimly, "You know none of us are going to touch the stuff. I think you take a year off your life with every can."
"Then luckily I have seventy or eighty of them to go before the Empire comes to do the job more quickly." Ignis threw the Regalia back into gear, and peeled back onto the highway with a squeal of tires usually only heard when Noct drove.
"I don't know how he does it," Prompto whispered to Noct, several dozen miles later when they were sharing the back seat. Gladio was taking his turn at the wheel, and Ignis was dozing off under his cooking magazine.
"Was it that bad?" Noct asked, intrigued for the first time by Ignis' drink of choice. (Noct had never asked to try it, though he did on occasion express some curiosity about it and if it was worth the price tag. Ignis, for his part, suspected that the coffee was so part of his own identity that Noct feared that having so much as a sip would cause him to suddenly manifest glasses and a posh accent. In truth it was just that Ebony coffee was a fussy grownup kind of thing to drink, and Noctis always had zero interest in fussy grownup anything.)
Prompto shuddered. "I've never had anything like it. Gladio's right, that shit's gonna kill him."
"Sweet," Prompto breathed, as though the mere word was not enough to contain his meaning. "Like... like espresso syrup. And just between you and me and the subwoofer here," Prompto leaned in closer, "I haven't been able to take a steady shot since I had it. Must be enough caffeine to knock over a solid stone malboro."
Noct leaned back in slow understanding. "Ahhhh. So that's how he does it."
"You mean the cooking, the stabbiting, the mending, the laundry, the driving, the this isn't a chocobo track please slow down your highnessing, the--"
Noct nodded, and Prompto whistled.
"Man. You gotta get him off that stuff."
Noctis looked at him incredulously. "Are you kidding? Next time I have a chance I'm getting him a case of it."
Chapter 7: Knickers
This must be one of those comic misunderstandings I've heard so much about.
"Prompto! Don't leave your stuff in the bathroom."
Prompto looked up just in time to get a face-full of underpants, hurled in his direction with unerring aim by the refugee prince of Lucis. He had a moment's gratitude that they were at least clean underpants before pulling them off and holding them at arm's length, puzzled. "What? I didn't-- hey, these aren't mine."
Noctis leaned out of the bathroom doorway, toothbrush in one hand. "Of course they are. They're black coeurl-print."
"Which doesn't make them mine," Prompto said, holding them out with both hands and a speculative look. "Besides, I can't wear this cut, it goes right up my ass. These are... I mean do they even have a back?"
"Not much of one," Noct admitted, grudgingly. He came out of the bathroom entirely for another look. "Well, if they aren't mine and they aren't yours--" He let the sentence hang.
Prompto was somewhere between horrified and scandalized. "You seriously can't tell me that these are Ig--"
"No way," Noct broke in. "The man has like twenty pairs of identical long-line briefs in black and nothing else."
Prompto's expression went from understanding to incredulousness. "Yeah, that sounds like--Hang on how do you know about Ignis' underwear?!"
Noct's absolute lack of a response gave Prompto an inexplicable cold chill. "So that leaves..."
Prompto looked from Noct to the scrap of black cotton. "No way. They're tiny. Someone else must have left them here." He threw them back at Noct and wiped his hands on his pant legs. Clean or not, strange hotel knickers were still strange hotel knickers.
"They weren't here when we checked in last night," Noct said, throwing them right back.
"Ugh, that doesn't make them my responsibility--"
"Quit throwing them at me--"
"You threw them at me first--ugh not in my hair, just leave them where you--"
"I'm going back in the bathroom."
"Don't you leave me out here with these--"
Prompto and Noct both jumped in surprise; the airborne underpants fluttered down and landed neatly on the toe of Gladio's boot.
"Ah!" Prompto squeaked, then wrangled his voice down a few octaves. "Hey. Gladio. Um, Noct found--"
"There they are," Gladio said, scooping his mislaid lingerie up from the floor. "Knew I was missing a pair. Hurry up, you two. Ignis already has us checked out."
Gladio shut the hotel room door behind him, and in the sudden silence he left behind, one could have heard an overused idiom drop.
"Okay," Noct said, finally. "Just... try not to picture--"
"No," Prompto wailed, face in his hands, "I already did. How does he even get everything in those?"
"Look they're probably just really stretchy--"
"You are. not. helping. Noct."
"Nobody's making you think about it."
"You're making me think about it just go brush your teeth already!" Prompto flopped back into his chair, concerns about his hair forgotten. He was still there when Noct came back a minute later, toothbrush behind his ear.
"...You're still thinking about it."
"Only because I'm not sure it's physically possible. You ever gotten a look at him in a rainstorm? Those leather pants are not leaving a lot to conjecture, is what I'm saying."
"That's what you're saying, but what I'm hearing is that you've spent a lot of time looking at Gladio's crotch."
"Look," Prompto said, sitting up violently, "I'm a photographer, and I'm trained to automatically seek out the largest, most impressive feature in any landscape and let me tell you, it's usually his--his... um." Prompto failed to find words, made a few helpless gestures with his hands, and ultimately deflated in the face of Noct's raised eyebrow. "Him," Prompto finished.
Noct slowly wiped his face off with his towel. There was a note in his voice--the teeniest, tiniest note that probably nobody would notice even if they were listening--of disappointment. "Oh. I didn't know."
Prompto blinked. "Didn't know what?"
Noctis turned a single shrug into an eloquent statement on the nature of bonds formed on the road, on the ways friends can grow together and apart, on the strange and myriad twists of a man's heart. Sadly, from the outside, it still looked like a shrug. "That you had a thing for Gladio."
Prompto went white right down to his lips, white enough that his wide blue eyes were startling and unearthly and his hair a gold color not normally found in the realms of mortals. The dazzling effect was ruined by the immediate tomato-red blush that followed, along with a lot of incoherent spluttering. "I--I don't--I never--It's not--Noct--how could you--"
"It's cool, it's cool," Noct said, though inside he was thinking how it was not cool and why wasn't it cool because it wasn't in any way remotely in the same time zone as cool and why did it feel like he'd just taken seventeen ice-cold crystal royal arms right to the gut. He held up both hands as though to re-enforce the entire coolness of ...everything. Of Gladio's tiny underpants and generous endowments and Prompto being interested in them. "I mean, he's a great guy. Didn't think he was your type, but--"
At this, Prompto couldn't take anymore. "You--You're an idiot," he gasped, already on his feet to go. "Your highness," he added, just for that much extra, and shut the door behind him.
Yes, Noct thought, I guess I am.
"Noticed anything today?" Gladio asked, four hours later, while Noctis pumped the gas like it was a declaration of war and Prompto jabbed listlessly at his cell phone screen.
Ignis paused, one hand still in the gas-station cooler, considering Gladio's question as though it was some fragrance in the air. "Ah. I assume you mean besides the ominous silence, the general lack of photography, and Noct seething in the back seat like a spare tire with a pinhole puncture?"
"Oh, that's just those two not figuring out they should just bang already." Gladio grabbed a six pack of sylkis lager for camp later that night. "Of course I meant besides that."
"Hmm." Ignis surveyed him up and down, and then snapped his fingers. "Ah! Coeurl print thong today? You're right, the others made much too much of a line."
Gladio grinned. "That's what I like about you, Ig. You always notice the important things."
Sorry for the delay, folks. I was waylaid by stupid adult things like oven vents and kitchen cabinet topography. We'll get Prompto and Noct sorted out next chapter, I promise. ;)
Chapter 8: Plume
In a king's hand, it's more than a lucky charm.
Ipsen and his good friend Colin worked at a tavern in Treno. One day, Ipsen got a letter. The only part he could read said, 'Come back home'. ... He walked a thousand leagues through the Mist. Sometimes he was attacked by vicious monsters, but he made it, because his friend Colin was by his side.
And then, after much time on the road, he had to ask Colin something: "Why did you come with me?"
Colin answered, "Only because I wanted to go with you."
It was bad, and all of them knew it. For the first fleeting seconds of the fight Noctis cursed himself for getting them all into it. He should have been looking where he was going. He shouldn't have gotten carried away, racing Ignis' chocobo neck-and-neck across the blurring landscape, briefly remembering what it was to feel joyful, to feel alive. He had turned his head to shout a taunt to his companions, now trailing several yards behind him. Only Prompto's sudden gasp of horror and Gladio digging his heels into his bird's flanks had given Noct any warning, but it was too late, and nowhere near enough.
The huge monster rammed into Noctis with the force of a '208 Dragoon LT sedan at top speed, ripping him from the saddle and hurling him to the ground, sending his terrified mount sprinting for the hills. Noct, winded and spitting dirt and blood, found himself caged in by a shifting forest of spiracorn legs. By the time his friends caught up, the entire herd of beasts was on him, and the ominous hum of a magitech engine droned from above as the troop carrier blotted out the sky.
So Noctis blamed himself, at least for a moment. After that he was far too busy keeping himself alive. The spiracorns were frenzied with rage, their thorned hides flecked with bloody foam, their sharp hooves lashing out as fiercely as the blades of the Imperial assassins. Noct summoned one weapon after another to his hand, propelled himself back and forth through the battle until he was lightheaded and dizzy with the effort. He wiped sweat from his eyes and staggered towards a boulder before realizing it was the massive shape of a downed spiracorn, and its legs were still churning the air as it struggled to rise again.
"Noct, get back!" Prompto was a blur of motion between them, his pistol blazing with a deafening retort as one hoof arched down. The spiracorn shuddered and went still with Prompto's bullet between his eyes, and they both fell against its stinking, still-hot flank. Blood oozed from the monster's wounds where Gladio's greatsword had gouged its flesh, seeping into the back of Noct's jacket. But the blood on Prompto's face was his own.
"I'm sorry," Prompto said, reloading his gun with shaking hands, ignoring the bright streak of blood pouring down his forehead where the beast's hoof had grazed him.
"I'm sorry I called you an idiot."
Noct shook his head. He couldn't even remember when that was. Some other life, or just this morning? Both now equally in the past. "Prompto, this isn't--"
"It's not Gladio," Prompto said, and Noct didn't like that desperate note in his voice, the way Prompto sounded like he was confessing something he didn't want to take to his grave. He aimed over the back of the dead monster and picked off two Imperials that had Ignis and Gladio pinned against a sheer cliff, and swore as his pistol jammed before he could take out a third. "For me. Listen. Noct, you're--"
Prompto got no further. The Spiracorn's mate had found them, and her scream of fury blotted out Prompto's voice as she charged, knocking Noctis aside to get to Prompto, tossing him into the air with her twisted horn. Prompto spun in the air like a rag doll and was still falling when Noct felt some last, terrified reserve of power surge to life inside himself.
Noct's warp strike tore the air like a thunderbolt, both blades of the Swords of the Wanderer sank deep in the Spiracorn's throat. He was airborne again before she hit the ground, connecting with Prompto's body hard enough to knock the air from his lungs, both of them landing in a tangled heap and rolling down a steep embankment before coming to rest at last in a dry creek bed. Somewhere far away and above them, Noct could hear Gladio's whoop of triumph, but it was little comfort to the prince. Prompto's body was limp in his arms, his blank face to the sky, blue eyes unseeing through a mess of dust and blood.
"Prompto!" Noct fumbled in his jacket pockets, fingers tripping over useless potions and stray coins, desperate to find a little miraculous wisp of red feather. He had only the barest hope that it would work. It was nothing more than a lucky charm, though Gladio had said in a king's hand it could do much more. He'd never needed to try it, before now.
"Please. Please, for the love of the six--"
Never before had Prompto seemed so small, though he was so much smaller than the rest of them. He'd always made it up in his energy, his laugh, his affection. No soldier and sworn to no oath, utterly unfamiliar with battle up to a few weeks ago. He had come with Noct because he wanted to, so Noct would have someone by his side whose friendship was untouched by any cold notions of duty. And it had brought him here, to this. It was so stupid, Noct thought, and for some reason it was becoming harder for him to see. A drop of water fell from somewhere and made a clean spot on Prompto's ashen cheek. I won't let it end like this, he thought, and his hand closed on something soft and unnaturally warm in the bottom of his pocket.
The feather burst into a flare of crimson light as soon as Noctis touched it, spilling out of his jacket and everywhere. Notis' lungs were clogged with the stink of monster ichor and the metallic tang of Magitek troopers and the thick choke of his own tears, but a fragrance like honey and incense wiped it clean away, pouring from the scrap of phoenix down shining in his hand. It bloomed over them both, rising in a shimmering mist around them. From somewhere far away in the sky, Noct could hear the distant, ringing cry of a bird that was no chocobo.
It can bring a man from death's edge, Gladio had said to his doubtful prince. If it's you calling him.
Prompto's eyes flickered and then air rushed into his lungs with a wheeze, coming out again in a startled cough. He grabbed Noct's arms hard enough to bruise, his boots scrambling a second on the dry gravel before the rest of his body realized there was no need to keep running.
Noctis didn't say anything. He could only crush Prompto against him, rocking them both in his arms. And if in doing so he made a noise like a sob, Prompto was good enough not to mention it, weakly patting his prince's blood-soaked jacket.
"H-hey. It's okay. I'm okay."
"Sorry," Noctis breathed, managing to let him go, scrubbing his face on his arm. "Sorry. Just... Don't scare me like that."
Prompto laughed, though it was a watery, nervous kind of laugh, and raked a hand through his ruined hair. "Heh. What was I saying? It was something import--" He broke off, horror dawning on his face. "My camera!" He scrambled up the embankment and Noctis could hear him reassure the other two that yes, he was fine and Noctis was fine but there were more important matters to deal with, like finding his camera.
Noctis slowly got to his feet, and then just stood there, too exhausted for more. Behind him he heard a meek little kweh and turned to find their chocobos there, all safely huddled in the ravine. If ever a bird could look sheepish and apologetic, they did. Noctis spent a restful minute patting their downy necks and making soothing noises, never so grateful for the feel of feathers. He hugged them in silent gratitude, glad for their non-judgmental support and comfort, knowing they would never tell. When they were all calm again--Noct included--he swung himself up in the saddle, and gathered the reins of the other birds to lead them. The red light had spread all around by the time he joined the others, but it was only the deep glow of sunset. Prompto, camera safely retrieved, was busy trying to make the most of the picturesque horizon line.
"There he is at last," Ignis said, smiling. "What took so long, Noct?"
"Probably puking his guts up, like anyone with any sense would do after a fight like that." Gladio reached out for his mount's reins. "You all right?"
Noct shook his head. "No. I'm starved within an inch of my life."
"Well then," Ignis said, briskly. "That's something we can do something about. Come along, Prompto!"
"Campground just about a quarter mile up the road," Gladio said, with a hopeful glance at Ignis. "How about some steak on a skewer?
"It would not kill you to eat a vegetable once in a while. Honestly! You're almost as bad as his highness--"
"Hey," Noct said, as Prompto mounted up beside him. "So, what were you going to say? Before?"
Prompto's color deepened, and it could not be blamed on the evening light or ancient magicks. His grin was lopsided, troublemaking. "Heh. You're gonna have to wait until next time I think I'm dying. Or," he added, "you're going to have to... beat me to camp!" With that he cracked his reins and his chocobo went off like a shot, Prompto's laughter and the chocobo's eager wark lingering after. Noctis dug in his knees and raced off after him through the sunset. He'd never get there first. Somehow, he didn't care.
Chapter 9: Shield
This is the duty of the King's Shield.
(I got 99 Kudos but a bitch ain't one-- thanks guys! ^_^)
There were few opportunities for selfish pleasure in the life of a King's Shield. It was a fact that had been hammered into Gladio's head his entire life, starting from the first moment he was old enough to understand it. Gladio's father had explained this, in patient words his son could easily absorb. The fine house in the city, the best schools, the nice family car, the good food, the household staff--all of it was bought with the blood and loyalty of the Amicitia family, which had, for time immemorial, been a barrier between the king and those who would do him harm.
"This is the duty of the King's Shield," Clarus had said, as his son gazed in wonder at his familiar surroundings and realized, for the first time, that these things had a cost and were not merely granted.
"But Dad," Gladio had asked, looking at his father's sword mounted above the fireplace, "you hardly ever use a shield."
Clarus had smiled, but he had also looked sad, in a way that had confused and puzzled a six year old boy. "Gladiolus," he said, "we are the shield."
It was a conversation Gladio had thought of often in the days following the fall of the Wall, of Lucis. Because though he had had no confirmation, and had not spoken a word to Iris or anyone, Gladio knew his father was dead. If the king was dead, then his shield had been shattered. There was no other way.
He kept his grief to himself, poured it into his heart like molten steel. He would cast it into a sword, and with that sword he would guard his king, until he was likewise shattered. This is the duty of the King's Shield.
It was therefore hard, in the face of such things, to find ways of enjoying his life on his own terms. Like Ignis, he had come out of teenage resentment to eventually respect and then love his duty (and to respect and love his prince). And like Ignis, he'd learned to make his own time on the borders of that duty.
To be honest, his companions had a way of making the task a little easier, a little more like a normal life. A snapshot on a scenic overlook. A beer by a campfire with a warm chocobo at his back. A long drive with the top down and an ocean view, with a perfect blue sky overhead, when Ignis would actually turn the stereo up for a change. And now, in the most perfect of moments: in a warm sleeping bag with the smell of coffee and bacon creeping into his consciousness, the sound of wind soughing through pine branches as their dappled shadows danced on the top of the tent. Gladio was the King's Shield, but in moments such as these, he was also just himself, and content with that.
Contentment was short-lived, however, when bacon was involved; the smell of it was never enough. Ignis was just plating some up when Gladio emerged from the tent, stretching luxuriously, looking out over a bright morning mist just lifting from the lake below.
"Had a bit of a lie-in, did we?" Ignis' scolding was fond, as he paused over the oatmeal long enough to pour a cup of coffee for Gladio.
"Seems like I even out-slept the prince," Gladio answered, glancing around the campsite in mild surprise. "And Prompto. Where are they?"
"Noct went down to throw a few casts before breakfast," Ignis said. "And Prompto wanted some shots of the morning light on the lake. They're close enough to keep out of any trouble, I think." Ignis moved the creamer closer to Gladio's reach, without being asked.
"Those two are trouble," Gladio laughed, and the two of them shared a warm and knowing look over the camp stove. "Here. What do I have to do to get some of that bacon?"
"Go and get them for me, would you? You know Noct will lose all track of time once he's fishing, and the porridge will be cold."
"Sure, let me get my jacket--" Gladiolus broke off, peering down from the rune-carved ledge of the campsite. There were familiar voices below, a rustling of foliage from the direction of the lake. "Oh, wait. Here they come now."
"On their own?" Ignis said, in mild wonder. "I can't imagine why."
"Hey, that bacon of yours would raise the dead, Ig."
"Flatterer. It won't get you extra."
Gladio moved in a tiny fraction closer, so their shoulders touched. His voice was lower in a meaningful way. "So. What can I do to get a little ...extra?"
Ignis arched one eyebrow, his fingers tensing slightly on the tongs. "For your sake," he breathed, "I hope you're not talking about bacon."
Gladiolus had one finger under Ignis' chin and was just leaning in when Noct shouted up from below, startling them apart. Gladiolus took six long strides across the campsite and Ignis busied himself with the breakfast dishes, clanging the pots a bit more than was strictly necessary.
"Catch anything?" Gladio called down, leaning over to give Noct a hand up onto the ledge. From Noctis' grim expression and the brim of his hat pulled low over his eyes, Gladio suspected the answer was no.
"Prompto did," Noctis said, walking past a bewildered Ignis and heading straight for their pile of camping gear.
"Hey, congrats," Gladio said, pulling Prompto up one-handed. "Was it a big one?"
Prompto didn't answer, his eyes on the ground, his face flushed. He didn't look like a victorious sportsman.
"Yes," Noct answered for him. "It was a big one."
"Well," Ignis said, expectantly. "Let's see it."
Noct sighed, put the first-aid kit down on the tabletop beside the bacon, and then took off his hat. Dangling from his hair, its triple-hook caught neatly in the skin of his scalp, was a bright red chocobo popper.
"...You're seeing it," he said.
Silence in the campsite for a moment, broken only by the wet blorp of a bubble rising up in the pot of oatmeal.
Gladiolus was the first one to make a noise, breaking out into a snort, then a chortle, and finally a guffaw, completely overriding Prompto's protests that it was an accident. "Forgive me, Your Highness," he choked. "For not protecting you. From Prompto."
"I said," Prompto began, but was roundly ignored, as Ignis made a strangled sound. He tried to stop it by putting his hand over his mouth, but once Noctis' face twitched and the fishing lure jingled it was a lost cause. He laughed until it hurt and he had to hold his sides, and when Noct himself helplessly joined them, Prompto passed through his own mortification and did the same.
"I'm sorry," Ignis gasped, shaking his head. "Let me get it loose--does it hurt?"
"Of course it hurts," Noct answered, but he was still laughing, trying to hold his head still at the same time. "Get it off me already!"
"Nice catch, Prompto!" Gladio clapped his hand on Prompto's shoulder hard enough to make him stagger. "It's a new record!"
"I know, right?" Prompto wiped his streaming eyes. "I should get a picture with it!"
"Have you considered having it mounted on your wall?" Gladio suggested, and they dissolved into laughter again, hanging on each other for support.
"You guys," Noct growled, in something between a laugh and a threat.
"It's certainly too big to throw back," Ignis said, as he rooted around in the first-aid kit for the tweezers and ointment.
"Ignis!" It was plain Noct's pride stung more than his head, and his head stung plenty.
"Now now, your highness. Hold still."
Noctis grimaced, but for some things, even kings had to obey. Though he had a few choice threats for Prompto for taking pictures of his emergency surgery, and had to endure being called a trout for the rest of the day, he took it in remarkably good spirits. By the time Noctis was unhooked the bacon was cold, but nobody seemed to mind, not even Gladio. That, too, was the duty of the King's Shield.
And he did it gladly.
Chapter 10: Vacancy
Reclaiming your birthright is dirty work.
There were moments on his journey when Noctis Lucis Caelum actually felt like the man he was born to be. Stepping into the charged silence of a royal tomb that even his father had not found, knowing he was the first in centuries to stir the dust under his feet. Standing in a spinning circle of crystalline weapons with the sharp, cold pang of ephemeral steel blooming under his breastbone. Bringing one of those blades down upon the seething evil of a daemon infesting the hallowed grave of his kin, cleaving it to nothing but ruinous smoke. Feeling the fierce loyalty of his comrades beside him, hearts unwavering through darkness and danger. In those moments Noct felt like a king.
...This was not one of those moments.
The old man behind the motel desk clearly did not think so, either, surveying the Prince of Lucis and his companions with a dubious eye. "You boys look like you need a room."
It was pouring the rain in old Lestallum, driving down in cold torrents that somehow did nothing to wash away the pungent stink of wet chocobo, pond-water, sweat, and monster blood clinging to them all. Noctis was muddy up to his thighs and elbows, the result of his once-white chocobo getting mired in a patch of mud by the river. Prompto, who had gotten stuck himself trying to get them out, was splattered with greyish muck all over, with only his eyebrows showing their proper color. Gladio had been obliged to fight off a pack of saberclaws while Ignis got the other two free; the reddish-black goo glistening on his clothes made the mud look like haute couture, and he stank like a slaughterhouse. Even Ignis was an unmitigated disaster in both a visual and olfactory sense, and from his pained expression, he knew it all too well.
"Yes," Noctis said, peeling three soggy 100gil bills out of his equally soggy wallet and draping them on the counter, hoping they still counted as legal tender. "Please."
"Stop," Ignis said, as soon as Noct got the motel room key in the door. "Wait. I'm not interested in paying out damages to this establishment. I can only imagine what we'd do to an innocent carpet right now. Just-- Take off your shoes out here, for a start. Then we'll go straight in the bathroom, strip, shower, and then figure out what can be done about our clothes."
"What?" Gladio grunted, picking something that looked like a bit of intestine off his shoulder. "All together?"
Noct poked his head around the door. "Pretty small bathroom, Ig. We'll have to get real friendly."
"Look, you guys," Prompto piped up, "I want you to know that I love every one of you like--well probably more than anyone I've ever known in my life."
"Aw," Gladio interjected.
"But," Prompto went on, "I would stone cold fucking murder any one of you right now to get that shower first."
Ignis laughed in surprise, went to give Prompto's shoulder a pat, and changed his mind halfway. "Yes, well. In order to avoid getting murdered, I think it best if we find a way to take turns fairly."
"How's this?" Noct said, folding his arms and then unfolding them, because it brought the swampy smell of himself too close to his face. "Princes go first."
"HA." Gladio slapped Noct on the back with something slimy that had certainly been inside a saberclaw a few hours before. "Nice try. How about your bodyguard goes first, just to make sure there's nothing dangerous in the shower that might do you harm? It's the duty of the King's Shield, you know."
"I'm smallest," Prompto said, edging away from Gladio to avoid getting hit with any stray gore. "I'll take the least time. I'll go first."
"Take the least time?" Ignis wiped off his glasses on his shirt-tail and then frowned, realizing he'd just smeared them more than before. "My dear boy. I've never known anyone who takes as long with his personal hygine as you do. I've often wondered if you're not tweezing your undercarriage one hair at a time."
"So this is not going to work," Noctis said, while Prompto spluttered uselessly at Ignis. "How do you want to do this? Draw straws?"
Ignis sighed. "Noct. Since when do we carry around straws?"
"I'm not goin' back out there to get any," Gladio added.
"I always thought they were like, soda straws," Prompto said. "Which makes like zero sense, since aren't they all the same length? Also for the record I don't tweeze my--"
"Rock-paper-scissors?" Gladio suggested.
"To be frank," Ignis said, eyeing Gladio's disgusting condition, "I think the less any of us wave our arms around, the better."
"The longer this takes the more we're standing out here not being clean," Noctis' temper was starting to fray. "Let's just--go and do this. We'll strip in the bathroom, then take turns rinsing off. If we're all in there together it'll keep anybody from taking too long."
They stared at each other, grim. There was clearly no other way.
"Yes, well," Ignis sighed. "I suppose it's the nature of the journey to become...intimate."
Prompto's inexplicably still-clean eyebrows drew together. "Familiarity breeds--what was it?"
"Contempt," Noct said, already squelching out of his jacket.
Ignis made a face as Gladio picked clots of hair and mud off of his pants. "It's unfortunate, but preferable to me vomiting right here."
"You're no Rose of May yourself, Ig," Gladio said.
"Fine." Noctis exploded, and peeled out of his shirt. "We all stink. We got it. Let's... get this over with."
"We all stink, yeah," Gladio agreed, giving Noct a side glance. "But I think we know here who stinks at keeping up with his arm days."
In reply, His Royal Highness Prince Noctis Lucis Caelem threw his soppy, chocobo-manure smeared shirt directly in his bodyguard's face, where it clung for a moment before slopping wetly onto the floor. "Just for that," Noct said, "I'm taking the shower first."
"Gladio," Ignis said, holding up both hands between Gladiolus and his prince. "Remember, this is a hotel--"
"Nope," Gladio said, cracking his knuckles and grinning through his mask of dried saberclaw blood. "This is war."
Ignis got into the driver's seat of the Regalia and shut the door hard enough to jostle the others inside. It was a bright and sunny day, a far cry from the previous evening. Ignis' demeanor, however, was nothing short of a hurricane warning. Prompto broke the silence first, when the interminable ticking of the turn signal grew too much to bear.
"So," he ventured, in a small quaver. "What's uh, what's the damage?"
"The damage," Ignis said, while still glaring down the road at oncoming traffic, "Is two lamps, one chair, one mattress with bedding, the entire carpet, one bathtub, a complete overhaul of the plumbing, all our funds including what I could scrounge from our loot sales, and one motel which we have been asked in no uncertain terms to never patronize again. I would add his Highness' reputation to the mix--along with the honor of his name, our country, and the venerable ancestors of his line--except for how by some small mercy he's traveling incognito." Ignis pulled the car out onto the road, and revved the engine as though to make up for not raising his voice. "I hope you're all very pleased with yourselves."
Noctis and Gladio exchanged a glance in the back seat.
"Worth it," Noct said.
"Yep," Gladio agreed, and then punched Noct in the arm. "Don't try it again, though."
"Ow! what was that for?"
"Just making sure you stay on your side."
"I was on my side! Not my fault you take up enough room for two--"
"Huh. Maybe you would take up enough room for one if you'd keep up with your training--"
"Of all the--"
"Both of you," Ignis said, and stretched his fingers around the steering wheel in a way that managed to be extremely threatening. "Do not make me pull this car over."
"Ha! You tell 'em!" Prompto leaned over towards Ignis. "Um. We're on a bridge, though?"
"Yes," Ignis said tersely. "Your point?"
Prompto gulped. There was icy silence for several miles.
At last Gladio coughed. "So! Nice weather, huh? Who feels like camping tonight?"
Prompto's hand shot up. "Me!"
"Me," Noctis said, and leaned on the back of Ignis' seat. "C'mon. You wanna cook something fun, Specs?"
Ignis' mouth twitched as he fought not to smile, but he did not succeed, finally lifting his gaze heavenwards with a helpless shrug and equally helpless laugh. "Yes," he said, "I do. And Gods only know why I don't poison you all."
Psst-- If you're interested, check out Persistence of Memory, a FFXV/FFVIII Crossover I've just started. Chapter One is up and the next one is going up this afternoon. ^_~ More Running Down a Dream travel drabbles are in the works, too!
Chapter 11: Neon
I'm the moth that's resting on your windowsill
With a lust for light and an iron will
(Over the Rhine)
NB: Pushing the envelope here of both "drabble" and "teen and up rating" with every bit as much enthusiasm as Prompto's gleeful attempts to break the fourth wall, just FYI.
The last one had been a bit more than they could handle. No one said so outright, but stating it as a fact would be redundant. It was plain on their faces, pale and haggard in the dying light of a day that they had been none too sure they would see. Thirty-eight hours, Prompto's phone told him, once it got signal again. Thirty-eight hours in the depths of the old mine, and in that time they had not slept, or eaten anything more than the occasional protein bar, which Gladio kept in his pockets for emergencies. They'd split the last one four hours ago.
Prompto's own pockets were empty. No potions. No high potions. Not even a damn remedy. The whole party had gone through a rough dozen Phoenix Downs--a new record. Noct's spells were dry; and Ignis, in aggrieved tones, had to inform them in the elevator that he was out of hand sanitizer.
But glittering among the carousel of Noct's royal arms was the Bow of the Clever, and the terrifying giant of the mines had been defeated. They'd won. Somehow.
And they felt like hell for it.
"So," Prompto wheezed, "Anyone care if I fall down here and go to sleep on this rock? No? Good."
"I care," Noct said.
"Ah, Noct. That's so thoughtful--"
"Because even I'm not sleeping here, and I'm sure not carrying your ass anywhere." Noct leaned hard against the nearest boulder, which happened to be Gladio.
"I'm not carrying you either," Gladio retorted, shoving Noct upright before sitting down hard on an overturned mine cart. "I'm barely carrying myself. Goddamn. Next time I wanna go looking for the Tomb of the Obvious and Not Particularly Difficult, if that's okay with you guys."
"Shit," Prompto breathed, hands on his knees. "If that's the way our tank feels, how are the rest of us even alive?"
"Gods only know," Ignis said, visibly steeling himself for the walk back to the car. "But we must press on. It'll be dark soon, and these hills will be teeming with things that will make our last battles look like a birthday party. And I, for one, hope to be in a safe, warm hotel bed by that point."
Prompto's groan dwindled down into a sad little whine. "Can't we at least ride our birds back to the car?"
"Chocobo lease expired four hours ago," Noct said, picking his way over the mine rubble to follow Ignis.
"Twelve Knights of the Wall are you serious?" Prompto looked hopefully in Gladio's direction. "Hey, Gladio, you got any more snacks? I'm dying here."
"No I don't and no you aren't. Suck it up, Buttercup." Gladio hauled himself to his feet, and the effort was visible. "Or you're gonna be a snack for something else."
"Not a very big one," Noct put in. The shadows between the cliffs had grown deeper, and he switched on his light.
"Eh." Gladio said, and did likewise. "He'd stick between something's fangs."
"Perhaps as a serviceable bit of dental floss," Ignis called back, his flashlight gleaming from somewhere down the path.
"Oh my goddddd I hate you guyyssss." Prompto staggered after them all the same, turning on his own lamp as he went. He didn't like the way the darkness seemed to ooze out of the entrance to the mine, and was glad when they turned a corner and it was swallowed up by oncoming night.
It was well after midnight before they got to the hotel, forced to detour several times when daemons blocked the way ahead. More than once Ignis turned around and put the pedal to the floor, deeming discretion the better part of valor. They didn't have a choice at one point, with the Regalia caught in a pincer between two boiling fonts of darkness on a narrow stretch of road, the scent of mortal blood and physical exhaustion too much for the monsters to pass up.
Ramuh had come to help that time, blasting the fiends into brittle dust and leaving Noct on his knees on the fractured asphalt, his breathing ragged, the dull red glow of power slowly fading from his eyes. Gladio had changed his mind then about carrying anyone, heaving an unprotesting Noct up against one shoulder and walking him back to the car.
At the outpost, they split an order of fries that none of them tasted, as Prompto nodded off on the countertop. The eastern horizon was starting to pale by the time they made it into a room. Ignis, without a word of complaint at the expense, had paid for two days up front.
When Prompto finally woke up, it was nighttime. For a moment he could not remember when or where he was--his first thought was that he was back at his parents' house in the city, and the glow around the billowing window curtain was the light of Insomnia's wall. But then time caught up with him, and he was lying in a shabby motel room, still mostly dressed. The clicking drone of a fan filled the darkness, punctuated by occasional snoring. The light outside was nothing more than the old neon motel sign. A car swept by outside, headlights blazing through the open window, and the sound of its engine died away. The old, sticky digital clock on the bedside table read ten-thirty P.M. They'd slept right through the day.
"Noct? You awake?" Prompto reached out beside him, and felt nothing but cool sheet. The other half of the bed was empty. Slowly, the shadows of the room took shape. Gladio and Ignis were asleep on the other bed, Gladio with his book over his face and Ignis with his glasses still cradled in one hand. Prompto eased up from the bed, wincing at the noise the springs made, but it was soon obvious it would take much more than that to wake the other two. Prompto had his boots on and was almost to the door before he sighed and turned around. When he did leave, Ignis' glasses were on the bedside table and Gladio's book was back in his duffel.
Outside, the night air smelled like cool desert sagebrush, gasoline, and onions on a hot grill; the diner across the road was a hive of activity. Prompto took a deep breath, stretching broadly. He felt wide-awake and rested for the time of night, and wondered if Noct was feeling the same. Maybe they could get a soda and while the rest of the night away over a pinball machine. A glance upward told him otherwise. A pair of black boots dangled over the rooftop by the motel sign, their soles blood-red in the neon light. Prompto grinned, tugged on the wrist of his glove, and went around the back of the motel to find the ladder.
"Hey. Couldn't sleep anymore?"
Noctis, somewhere off in his own reverie, started at the sound of Prompto's boots on the rooftop. He relaxed back against the edge of the sign once he saw who it was, shaking his head. "Guess not. Don't tell Ignis, though. He'll think I'm an imposter."
"Nobody's telling Ignis anything for at least another five hours, by my guess."
Noct's smile was wry. "Yeah. You think maybe they overdid it?"
Prompto plopped down on the ledge beside his prince, swinging his legs out into the air. "I think maybe we all did." He glanced at Noct's face and then quickly turned away, staring hard at some imaginary speck on an unseen horizon.
"What?" Noct asked, frowning. "Are the bags under my eyes that bad or--"
"They... change," Prompto said quietly, still without looking at him. "Your eyes do. When... when the Six are talking to you. When you summon one."
Noctis made a little noise of surprise, his hand involuntarily going to his face. "My... eyes change?"
Prompto nodded. There was a picture on his camera that he hadn't shown to any of them, a picture of Noct touching Ramuh's last stone. In it, Noct's eyes were like hard garnets held up to the sun, his face like the stern marble of his ancestors' effigies. Prompto had not shared it, but he hadn't deleted it either. He knew it was important, just like he knew it terrified him. That other Noctis and the one sitting next to him were the same person, but Prompto could not stretch out his arms far enough to bridge the gulf between the two of them to make them connect in his mind. Sometimes, he thought it might cost him his life if he tried, and he would fall endlessly between the two sides of the same man, his hands closing on nothing but empty air.
"Glowing eyes? Pretty badass, huh?" Noct's attempt at nonchalance did not fool either of them, and Prompto wasn't having it.
"Pretty scary, actually." He took a deep breath, looked back at Noct. There was nothing unearthly about him now. It had only been the light of the neon sign in Noct's face, making a crimson sheen in his eyes, lighting little sparks in the ends of his hair. No ancient power from the start of time, no strange destiny burning him up from within. Just an old motel sign with half of the "O" flickering and sputtering, glass tubes plinking faintly as light-drunk insects crashed headlong into them.
Looking at Noct there, bathed in artificial incandescence instead of the memory of holy power, Prompto could not find it in his heart to blame the bugs. He felt like one himself. Even without the fires of fate to illuminate him, Noct was still well worth looking at, and Prompto was drawn to him like the moth to its certain demise.
"Yeah," Noct agreed. "It is."
"Beautiful, though," Prompto added, staring down between his ankles to the somehow very long drop to the ground below.
"They are, kinda--" Noct began, and then did a double-take. "Hey, wait. Did you just call me beautiful?"
"OfcourseIdidn'tdon'tberidiculous," Prompto said, in an eighth of the time usually allotted for so many words.
"Suuure." Noct leaned back on his elbows, grinning past the sign and into the sky. "Real convincing. I should have known it was time for another episode of Prompto Gets Personal."
"Ugh, shut up." Prompto kicked Noct's boot with his own. "That was a one-time special. It's your turn now."
"What, to get personal?" Noct put his hands behind his head, trying to get comfortable on the lumpy asphalt roof.
"Sure. Why not? Only fair." Prompto flopped on his back beside him. The rooftop was hot from the day's sunlight, and it warmed Prompto's back through his clothes. "Go on. Let 'er rip. I'm listening." Prompto expected a dismissal, maybe even a good shove. What he got was a thoughtful silence.
"It's kind of..." Noct began, and frowned at the sky. "It's... just don't laugh."
"I promise," Prompto vowed.
Noct took a deep breath. "So. It's about Luna."
Prompto leaned over to look at him, all attention now. Once, at the start of the journey, he might have been jealous. (Of Noct, or of Luna, he hadn't dared examine.) Undeniably, he had felt like he was on the verge of losing his best friend. Those feelings had crumbled along with Insomnia's wall. Now, Prompto would walk barefoot to the summit of Ravatogh if it he could deliver Luna safe to Noct's side. Anything to ease the strained worry in Noct's voice on the rare occasions he actually said her name. "Hey," he said, as gently as he could manage. "It's gonna be okay, Noct. She's all right. Gentiana said--"
Noct exhaled hard enough to ruffle his bangs. "No, not that, just... I wonder if I'm still going to marry her."
Prompto's encouraging nod slowed somewhat. He couldn't help but feel out of his depth about the whole arranged marriage thing. He knew Noct and Luna were close, knew they cared about each other and had known each other since they were children. That was all good, as far as he could infer from what he'd overheard. Such things were not needed for a royal match, but having them was quite satisfactory to all parties. The parties, of course, being kingdoms, not Noct and Luna personally.
All Prompto really knew about Luna as a person was the shape of her handwriting, the faint perfume that clung to her stationary, and that she liked dogs and was very pretty. And that she, like Noct, had probably never once been asked if she wanted to get married, and when, and to whom.
"I don't--" Prompto began, and swallowed back a sudden dryness in his throat. "I don't really know much about the politics, Noct. But, if we're going to take back Lucis, if we're going to fight the Empire--it would be an alliance thing, right? So... probably?"
Noct scowled so hard and so suddenly that Prompto at first worried he might have said something incredibly rude, or worse, foolish. "S-sorry, I guess I'm no good at this kind of thing. Ignis would probably be better, so--"
"So I'm going to have to kiss her in front of everybody and god," Noct said, putting both hands over his face, the back of his head banging down on the rooftop.
Prompto must have made a noise, because Noct glared at him hard through his fingers. "I told you not to laugh," he said, deadly serious.
"I'm not laughing, I'm just--" Prompto's brain took a second to roll backwards, like the Regalia backing up after missing a turn. "You're mostly worried... about kissing her? In the ceremony?"
"It sounds stupid when you say it like that."
"It's not stupid!"
"It is so totally stupid." Noct ripped off his jacket, punched it into a pillow shape, and shoved it under his head. "It's stupid, and it's going to have to be perfect, because it's going to be a big symbolic... thing and it was bad enough before but now it's--"
"Noct," Prompto said, as understanding dawned at last. "You haven't ever kissed anybody?"
Noct sat up so quickly it was almost a warp-strike, leaving a blue afterimage of himself behind. "Who in the hell would I ever have kissed?" he burst out, knotting his fist up in Prompto's vest. "When? When have I ever had a normal--" He loosened his grip on Prompto, sank down with his face on his knees. "Sorry. This is so-- I shouldn't have said anything."
"Oh," Prompto said, and waved his hands uselessly around Noct's shoulders. "It's... It's not hard, Noct. Really. You just--"
"Oh god." Noct buried his hands in his hair. "I don't know if I can deal with you giving me pointers about this, Prompto. Of course you have. We're twenty, for the love of Leviathan. You always had girls around you in school. You've probably already--"
"Noct!" Prompto exclaimed, already in an agony of embarrassment. His face was glowing even more than the neon sign, he had to put his cold hands to his cheeks to try and calm it down. "No. I haven't-- I mean, I've been kissed but--"
Noct made a strangled noise into his knees. "Is this confession shit supposed to be helping me feel better? Because it's seriously not helping."
Of all the things eating at Noct, Prompto had never expected this. "Of course I had girls around me, Noct," he said, his voice brittle. "Girls who were trying to get to you." Prompto had to laugh at Noct's bewildered expression, but it was nothing at all like his usual laugh, short and swift, like it scalded him on the way out. "Not that they gave a damn about you, either," Prompto went on. "You wouldn't know, because they never showed it around you, but those girls... they weren't like Iris, or Cindy ...or Luna. They only saw your name and your rank and me as a way to get to them. And trust me, they used every trick in the book to break down my guard and win me over, because they thought I was an easy step to the heir of House Caelum." Prompto was talking too much now, and he knew it, knew it by the way Noct was staring at him in open disbelief that was quickly turning to understanding, and then to dismay. "So yeah, I've been kissed, all right. I've been strung along and I've been lied to and I've been thrown away when they realized I wouldn't ever give them what they were really after." Prompto's fists were balled on his knees, and his eyes were burning because of course he was crying, because he never could help it, and that infuriating fact only made it worse. He swallowed thickly, dragged his arm across his face, and forced himself down a far harder march than the one that had brought them to the motel in the middle of the night.
"I might not be a King's Shield," Prompto said, in a waver that was hardening into something else. "But if you think that for one fucking minute I would have let any of those... those Crown City trust-fund bitches get their hooks into you--"
That was as far as Prompto got, though a few muffled syllables escaped before they were completely blocked by Noctis' sincere and utterly artless first kiss. Prompto was so stunned he forgot to respond, blinking bewilderment at the afterimages of neon light in his vision, his lungs full of the scent of Noct's hair. Noct had already started to pull away before Prompto's brain drew up even with his body, and he caught Noct's face in both hands to hold him there, clicking their teeth together in the process.
"Wait," Prompto breathed.
"I told you," Noctis said, his mouth still on Prompto's, his eyes--that so often blazed with immortal power--utterly unable to meet Prompto's ordinary blue ones. "I knew I'd be terrible at this."
Prompto had never in his life disagreed with anything more, and he disagreed with him long and hard and for several sustained minutes, until Noct was on his back on the rooftop, well and truly convinced. It wasn't difficult at all. In fact it was easy, too easy for Prompto to bring his leg over Noct's thigh, for Noct to pull Prompto's weight to bear on top of him. Noct's mouth opened to the kiss and he arched up under him, his body needing to be taught nothing. The neon sign glowed unheeded above them, and the ribbon of stars unraveled in the vast indigo sky beyond as Prompto showed Noct what he knew. The rest of it, they figured out together.
The persistent trill of Noct's cell phone cut through the most restful sleep either of them could recall in recent memory, deep and dreamless, curled up together on Noct's open jacket behind the sign on the rooftop. Prompto, not yet awake, pressed his face harder into the black satin lining.
"Oh god. Noct, whatever it is, make Gladio kill it."
Noct rolled over, finding first his pants, then his cell phone in the front pocket. "Gladio can't kill it," he said, squinting at the screen. "It is Gladio."
"Why is it so BRIGHT in here?" Prompto put his arm over his face. "What does he waaant--"
Noct scrubbed his hand over his face, willing Gladio's text message to come into focus, shielding the screen from the worryingly bright sunlight. Where the hell are you bastards it's nine thirty in the morning we've been looking all over hell and half of Duscae--
"Shit," Noctis said, suddenly as wide awake as a man who's just found out he's overslept after spending the night fooling around on a motel roof with his best friend. Because he was. Then said it again because once was nowhere near enough. "Shit. Prompto. Wake up. Get up."
"Buh?" Prompto looked at the sky, at the rooftop, at their clothes scattered around, and then at Noct. A blush spread over him like a belated dawn, from his ears and down his freckled chest, and for a few seconds Prompto lost control of his mouth. "Gngk. Nn--Noct--d-did we--"
"Yes," Noct said, flinging his boot laces around his ankles. "We did. And it's going to be the last thing we do if we don't get down now--will you put your shirt on already?" He threw it at Prompto with enough force for the tank top straps to wrap around his face. "Oh god. What are we going to tell them? They're going to know--"
"We just tell them we were talking and fell asleep." Prompto struggled to get into his pants without standing up. The ledge around the rooftop was barely two feet tall; in broad daylight it offered no concealment. "How would they know?"
Noct's ears were very red under his hair. "As the man who always knew exactly when to knock on the bathroom door and ask if I'm planning to take all day, Ignis has an uncanny knack for these things."
Prompto stopped stuffing his shirt into his pants long enough to give Noct a truly sympathetic look. "Oh. Oh man. I'm sorry."
"Fucking seventeen before I could manage to get off in peace--" Noct spluttered, shoving Prompto's vest into his hands. "Here. Don't forget your camera. And--" Noct caught Prompto's chin in his hand, kissing him with much more skill and confidence than the first time, but still considerable haste.
"Noct--" Prompto began, as Noct swung one leg over the access ladder and started down two rungs at a time, "I--I'd like to-- I mean I hope--"
"We got a long way to go, Prompto," Noct said, flashing him a fleeting smile. "Save some of it for later."
"R-right." Prompto glanced over the rooftop, beyond the shimmering road, where the Regalia was parked and waiting with two ominous figures standing beside it. "If we have a later."
"Oh, bless," Ignis said, looking up from his watch to see Noctis and Prompto sprinting in their direction. "They're running."
"Sooo, how long should we humor whatever lame-ass excuse they come up with?" Gladio asked, grinning knowingly at Ignis. They'd had a very pleasant morning, taking their time over coffee in the diner. Ignis had managed to finish a whole crossword.
"Oh," Ignis said, smiling serenely as he unlocked the car, "About thirty seconds less than we wait to tell them they were on the roof above our room, and the window was open."
Chapter 12: Gourmand
And now back to MTV's ROAD RULES: Duscae Edition!
The dead dualhorn lay on its side in the dust, eyes just beginning to glaze. Ignis stepped gingerly between its sprawled legs and studied it with an expert eye, fingertip pressed to the bridge of his glasses.
"Yes," he said, once he was satisfied with his inspection. He indicated an imaginary line on the beast's flank. "I think right about here, if you would, Gladio."
"Sure thing," Gladio said, heaving his sword over his shoulder. "Stand back." With a sharp exhalation he brought the blade down, cleaving the dualhorn in half right across the hindquarters. "Phew! Lot easier to do that when they're already dead. He's all yours, Ig."
"Right!" Ignis said briskly, stripping off first his gloves, then his jacket, and finally his shirt, folding them neatly over a nearby shrub. Down to his trousers and slim black singlet, he waded into the dualhorn carcass, flicking his daggers out as he went. "Now, then." With an expert twitch of his wrist he buried the blade to the hilt and then pulled down, slicing away a large flap of monster hide. "Here we are."
Gladio leaned on his sword to watch, eyebrows up in interest as Ignis rooted around in the dualhorn with his knives. "So what have you got there?"
"See this long loin muscle here?" Ignis indicated the spot with the tip of his dagger. "It's very rarely utilized by the dualhorn, so the meat's extremely tender. Quite the prime cut. Ideal for those steaks you like so much. Now over here--" Ignis paused for some more knife work, which made some wet squelching noises inside the monster, "This bit's marbled, you see, but tougher, so it's ideal for stew--" Ignis paused, looking around. "Here!" he said, when he located Noct and Prompto standing a few yards off. "Would you two like to see as well? It's fascinating, really."
Noct struggled to keep his expression blank. Ignis was bloody up to his elbows, happily cutting a long, wet strip of meat from the dualhorn carcass. "No," Noctis called back, waving a hand. "It's fine... we'd just be in your way. Right, Prompto?"
Prompto was staring hard at his phone screen, even though there was nothing there but his app list. "Yeah," he said. "Just... go to town, Iggy. We're good over here."
Ignis shrugged, as though he could not imagine missing out on such a treat. "Suit yourselves," he said, and went back to it. "So Gladio, in terms of the organ meat, if you can get into the gut cavity, the liver is especially--" Ignis had to raise his voice to be heard over the splorch-crunch-shrript of his butchery technique. A severed artery sent a splash of blood up on his cheek, but he paid it no mind, utterly content in his work.
Prompto, on the other hand, had gone an uncomfortable shade of watery green, like a half-open cup of store-brand yogurt left in the back of the fridge and forgotten for at least a week after trash day. "You know," he said, unable to even fake looking at his phone anymore, "I don't think I ever wanted to know how steaks are made."
Noct winced as Ignis hauled out dualhorn viscera as though it was nothing more than a garden hose. "How did you think it was made?"
Prompto put a curled fist to his mouth and looked hard in the other direction. "I had sort of hoped that a mommy steak and a daddy steak who love each other very much did some kind of special hug."
"Ah, drat it all," Ignis said, in a casual tone that everyone knew meant something unspeakably horrible had happened. He stepped back from the dead monster, handkerchief clapped over his nose and mouth. "Sorry! Sorry everyone," he called out, muffled by the fabric. "Nicked the musk bladder by mistake-- just stand clear, it'll air out in a moment."
Gladio got halfway through an oath before realizing he really didn't want to have his mouth open anymore, reeling away from the noxious yellow cloud rising up from the dualhorn. The breeze picked it up and smacked it right into Prompto and Noct who recoiled, gagging, from the stench.
"Scuse," Prompto staggering on his heels, eyes streaming. "Just gonna go puke now--"
"Like hell you are." Noctis shoved him none-too-gently aside in his haste to get away. Friendship was one thing, but a man had his limits. "Princes get to puke first."
The rain thudded down on everything alike in the wetlands: on the shallow, muddy pools, on the already-soggy clothing of the Prince of Lucis, and on the massive, glistening corpse of the gigantoad he'd just killed.
Prompto's lip curled as he tried to get the slime off the front of his tank top, but only succeeded in smearing it around more. "Okay. That was disgusting."
"Yeah." Noct shuddered in agreement. "I don't know if I can ever unsee that tongue."
Prompto had a long, full body twitch. "I know, right? It wrapped it around me and ugh. Ugh. Eeeugh. I'll never feel clean again. Bleghh, smelled like eight million dead flies."
"Well," Noct said, wiping his engine blade on the wet grass to try and clean it off. "I guess at least this is one thing we won't have to--" He was cut off, just then, by the distant sound of Ignis' excited shout from across the meadow. Something something toadsteak something skewers something somewhat gamey but something something delicacy. Prompto and Noct looked at each other in horror.
"Oh, God," Noct said.
"No," Prompto said. "Ignis. He can't seriously--"
"He's totally going to make us eat it," Noct finished, in sepulchral tones.
The rain pummeled the dead amphibian, making a hollow drumming sound on its warty belly. Some pocket of gas inside it gave out with a massive farting sound, and it began to collapse like a startled soufflé as Noct and Prompto stared at it.
"I've been considering vegetarianism, actually," Prompto said.
"Oh yeah? How long you been doing that?"
"As of thirty seconds ago."
"No kidding? Me too."
"Wait wait wait--" Prompto said, as Ignis started to hand Noct his bowl of curry. "Put it back down a sec. I want a picture."
"With your phone?" Ignis said, as Prompto bent down to get the most flattering angle. "Not your camera?"
"Yeah." Prompto tapped through several filters. "I've been doing some posts on Instasnap and it's easier to use my phone for those. Everybody loves seeing your dishes, Ig."
"Everybody?" Gladio growled.
Prompto, happily engrossed, missed the note of warning. "Sure. I've got tons of new followers since I've been doing food shots. I think some of them are Nifs, even."
"I do hope you haven't been showing our faces in any of those shots, Prompto." Ignis scattered mint on Gladio's bowl without even looking at it, too busy giving Prompto a wickedly sharp side-eye.
"Duh," Prompto said. "I'm not that stupid, Ignis."
"Good thing," Gladio said, taking his bowl. "Because if you had location services on, that could be really bad."
Prompto went very still. "Ah," he said, in a small voice. "Yes. Location. That would... that would be bad."
"Prompto." Ignis put his head to the side in a way everyone in the party had recently learned to dislike. (Except for Noct, who had learned to dislike it before he was ten.) "You don't have location tracking enabled on your photo app, do you?"
There was a very long, very telling pause. Prompto looked down at his phone. Scrolled through several menus. Made one deliberate tap. Looked up brightly at the others. "...No?"
Ignis sighed, Gladio put his face in his hand and groaned.
"No wonder we've had Nifs on our ass every ten seconds, they're following this idiot's feed--"
"Can't be helped now," Ignis said, as Noct, waiting none-too-patiently this whole time, finally got his bowl of curry. "Least said, soonest mended."
"It's not all bad, you know!" Prompto insisted. "Tons of people like hearing about Ignis' cooking. See, I just got a comment... someone named NotArd2Guess wants to know if you can make the truffle risotto vegan-friendly?"
It was a clear, bright morning even under the leaves, and the sky above Cauthess was a fathomless shade of blue. It was the kind of day that inspired one to a lazy walk, a day when it seemed nothing could go amiss. Noct had just gone to investigate something bright under a clump of bushes when the chitter of birds and forest creatures stopped at once, and Ignis looked sharply at the sky.
It could not be seen, not yet. But the low drone was unmistakable. "Magitek engine," he said, in tense warning to his companions. "It's clo--are those oranges?!"
Noctis nearly dropped them, having come up behind Ignis to take a better look at the sky. He had not expected to be subject to a sudden fruit interrogation.
"Ah!" Noct looked down at the lumpy citrus in his arms as though he didn't know how they'd managed to end up there. "Um, yes? I think so? I just found them over there? Under a, um, orange tree?"
"Ha!" Ignis snapped his fingers, his eyes alight. "That's it!"
The other three shared a knowing look, and Gladio winked at them.
"That's what?" he said, because it was his turn.
Ignis was busy reaching into his jacket for his notebook, so he didn't notice everyone's mouth moving along with his as he said, "I've just come up with a new recipe!"
"You know," Prompto said to Noct and Gladio in a whisper, as Ignis scribbled happily, "We don't always have to say that's what every time, do we? I mean, we all know what it is."
"Come on," Gladio said, cajoling. "Look at him. It's adorable. I'm not going to spoil his fun, are you?"
"No," Noctis said, looking over Gladio's shoulder, "but those eight magitek troopers coming this way probably will."
"Ah, Ignis?" Prompto said, whipping out his pistol. "Carnage before cooking, right?"
"Indeed!" Ignis said, trading his notebook for his knives, and lunging towards the battle with an eager smile. "And one of them better damn well have some vanilla extract in his pockets, hadn't he?"
Chapter 13: Ink
(You're looking for a hero, but it's just my old tattoo)
"It must have hurt," Prompto said, as Gladio wrung out his tank top in the hotel sink, trying to get one more day out of it before surrendering to the inevitability of a coin-operated washing machine.
Gladiolus looked at Prompto, standing behind him in the doorway, reflected in the bathroom mirror. It took Gladio a second to realize what Prompto was talking about. Only when he saw the way Prompto's eyes went--almost involuntarily--to the feathers illustrated along his shoulders and back did Gladio understand. "Oh," he said with a smile, and dunked his shirt into the soapy water for another rinse. "Ha. Yeah. It did. Tattoos hurt."
Gladio was used to answering questions about his ink. With so much of it on so much of him, it always attracted attention. He wondered, swishing his laundry in the sink, which question Prompto would ask. How much it hurt, perhaps. Or what the pain was like. Or how long it took. Those were all the usual ones. Maybe Prompto, never still, would ask if it was hard to sit for the needle for hours on end.
Instead, Prompto said only, "I know."
Many days later, Gladio would think back on that tone of Prompto's voice, on the way his hand closed carefully around his wrist, and at the strange, unnerving stillness of him standing there. Gladiolus would know then what it was, what it meant, where it came from. But in the moment, he had only a vague foreboding, an unsettled feeling that fell across him like real bird, not one made of ink. Something sharp-clawed and ticklish that would not stay on his shoulder for long.
"I mean," Prompto said, and there was a split-second of visible effort in his face, as of something being assembled, something put forth in urgency. A façade, a one-man militia mustered into fighting ranks. And then the moment was gone and it was the usual Prompto there, lopsided grin and freckles, body swaying to some constant internal melody. "It would have to hurt, yeah? It's a shitload of eagle. Can I touch it?"
"It's just like normal skin," Gladio said, and held out his arm. Though he had a creeping suspicion that Prompto knew that, and Gladio was being diverted away from something very important and very private. Even more private than ink buried in the skin.
Prompto obligingly traced a finger over a feather on Gladio's forearm, following its chiaroscuro contour over the ropes of muscle and tendon below. "I've been thinking we should all get some matching tattoo, you know? Commemorate the journey? Wouldn't that be cool?"
"Pssh. No way I'm getting a tattoo out here in the boonies. It'd probably be some crap in a bad font done by some moron who wouldn't know an autoclave from his own mom. Like wherever Dave gets that hot mess of his done. "
"Haha, yeah." Prompto stepped back to let Gladio hang his wet shirt up on the towel rail. "Anyway, you all done? My turn for the shower."
"And I see now you've met the other Prompto Argentum," Ignis said, without looking up from his game of solitaire. Noct, curled up in the bed furthest from the lamp, had been asleep for hours already.
Gladio frowned at the shut bathroom door. From behind it came the hiss of the shower and faint strains of Prompto singing some tuneless rendition of a pop song.
"I guess I have," Gladio said. "What's with that?"
Ignis shrugged. "Prompto thrives on pleasing others. If he's found the best way to do that is to be an extrovert, then that is what he's worked very hard to make himself become. We're both aware of his strained relationship with his family. He would hardly be the first neglected child to recreate himself in such a manner. But from time to time, the effort must catch up with him. And you have the little glimpses like just now. At the least, that's my theory."
"Never woulda guessed it," Gladio admitted. "How did you figure it?"
Ignis carefully laid the king of hearts over his more martial dark compatriot. "My dear Gladio," he said, with a soft little smile at the spread of kings: the hearts, the diamonds, the clubs, the swords. "It takes one to know one."
(I try not to post more than one of these a day but...my hand slipped.)
Chapter 14: Laundry
It'll all come out in the wash.
Gladio's dirty socks were missing when he woke up, and so was Ignis. It was a mystery with only one conclusion, and Gladio followed the smell of fabric detergent around the Coernix station to a battered steel door in the back of the building. Faded paint on the door might once have read "laundry room," but now had been reduced to incomprehensible hieroglyphics. The unmistakable clunk and swish sound of a washer in full swing behind it, however, made any such labeling redundant. Gladio didn't bother to knock before walking in.
The room was little bigger than a closet, and had clearly once been the gas station bathroom; though there was only a toilet-mounting-shaped ring on the floor and the urinal, while still present, had been completely mummified in duct-tape. A battered coin-operated condom dispenser still hung on the cinderblock wall. (1 gil, assorted colors. Its peeling label declared that its wares did not merely balloon but truly fit the male form, whatever that was supposed to imply. Gladio figured the last male form it been called upon to fit was long dead by now, and probably had been dead before the war started.) The laundry soap dispenser next to it was somewhat newer, and the single washer and dryer sat under it, along with signs that directly informed any patrons that the station was not responsible for lost or stolen items (and indirectly informed anyone else that whoever wrote the sign had a shaky grasp of apostrophes and their usage.) Every corner of the room was occupied by harvester spiders in various stages of life (mostly desiccated, a few alive), and the single fluorescent light bulb above was cluttered with dead moths. The drain in the middle of the floor was little more than a rusty stain on the cement.
In the middle of this fine example of Duscae roadside atmosphere was Ignis Scientia, Chief Advisor and Strategist to the heir of Lucis, sitting--in a warped plastic lawn chair--as neatly pressed and coifed as though he was waiting for some formal audience in the palace. A glossy magazine lay open across his lap, a can of coffee was in his hand, and his boots were propped up on the washer that was just now lurching into its final spin cycle. The crisp, spicy scent of Ignis' aftershave was a pleasant counterpoint to the mildewy smell of the room, and he must have smelled Gladio's own, because he didn't look up before he spoke.
"If you want your socks, Gladio, you'll have to wait another thirty minutes. Twenty, if you're willing to pony up the extra change for the ultra cycle on the dryer."
Gladio just laughed, letting the door close behind him. "I got enough socks. Am I intruding on your nice quiet moment in here?"
Ignis took a long sip of his coffee and looked around at his unlikely retreat. "It has been rather nice, I must admit. I have not once had to mediate a fight between the washer and dryer over what to play on the radio, and none of the spiders have tried to run off into combat without instructions or sunscreen or sufficient potions in their pockets."
"I'm surprised you haven't got them all organized into teams and cleaning this place up."
Ignis spared him a cool glance over the rim of his glasses. "Gladio," he said, "the wash isn't even in the dryer yet."
"Ha! So there's plenty of time for that yet, I guess?"
"Exactly." Ignis uncurled from his chair in a long and indulgent stretch, something his training would not allow him to do in front of his Prince, but that did not concern him in front of a fellow retainer. "Where are the other two? Not still in bed, I hope."
"Nah. Doin' their hair, and having a fight over the mirror. That dinky camper bathroom ain't even big enough for Prompto by himself, much less both of 'em, and the product fumes could kill a man. It's like a high-school girl's bathroom in there."
"Pssh." Ignis wiped a thumb over the dusty instructions printed on the top of the dryer. "As if we ever went to public school. That sort of thing is for the populace, not civil servants."
"It's not for princes either."
"No, but his Majesty wanted Noct to have something close to a normal childhood. Or at least, as much as he could provide."
"And that worked out great, didn't it?"
Ignis didn't reply, but his mouth tensed as though he wanted to do so. Instead of getting into an argument where they both were on the same side, he opened the door of the dryer and peered inside. "Here," he said, scattering some change on top of the machine, "Go and get another box of those dryer sheets, will you? It's none too fresh in here."
"Surprised there's not a dead raccoon in it," Gladio snorted, but jimmied the coins in the detergent vending machine and jostled all the knobs until it finally spat out a dented box.
"It's my understanding that raccoons have been extinct beyond the wall for decades and therefore not often in need of laundering, but yes, I see what you're saying. Did you get them? Just hand them to me, I want to wipe this thing out." Ignis, still bent over the dryer, waved a hand behind his back.
Gladio looked at the box he held, looked at Ignis' waiting hand, and then looked--for a much longer moment--at Ignis' perfectly-tailored pants stretched taut across his ass. "Sure," he said, dropping the box in Ignis' hand. "There's a fee, though."
"There's a what?" Ignis asked, unable to hear clearly with his head in the dryer and the washer in its last frenzied throes beside him. He didn't need to hear the smack that followed (though in Gladio's opinion it was a really nice one), because it sent him halfway into the dryer with a clang of metal and a startled yelp. "Of all the--Gladio!"
"Yeah?" Gladio said, grinning at Ignis as he emerged from the dryer. "What?"
Ignis' scowl was made somewhat less effective by the flush of color in his face and the puff of dryer lint in his hair. "I hardly think this is the time."
"It isn't." Gladio waved a hand around the room. "And the location isn't much either. But I'm not so sure we're in a position to be choosy."
Ignis allowed himself a tiny sigh, the least little flare of his nostrils. "We're not in any position, Gladio. Much less the one you're thinking of."
Gladio's eyes narrowed even as he raised his voice. "Oh? Like you're not thinking of it, too?"
"Of course I--" Ignis realized they were both nearly shouting, because the washer had come unbalanced and was banging on the floor and wall with a racket like a malfunctioning magitek trooper set loose in a submarine. It dwindled to a halt just as Ignis got the lid open, and the buzzer went off. The laundry room descended into ringing silence. Gladio said nothing, arms folded, leaning on the wall as Ignis tossed various bits of wet clothing into the dryer.
"I suppose all this black makes it simpler to do the wash," Ignis said. "No need to sort the--"
"Don't you dare change the subject," Gladio said, reaching past Ignis to shut the washer lid. "Things were the way they were in Insomnia, but we both know--"
"We both know," Ignis said quietly, adjusting the dials on the dryer, "that our first duty is to our prince. Not to the country, not to a cause, and most assuredly not to each other. To Noct. It has been that way since the beginning, a charge given to us by Regis himself, and nothing has changed in that regard." He closed the dryer door as though he would like to close the discussion as well, his motions efficient and mechanical as he slotted coins in the tarnished chrome tray, pressed the start button. The dryer started up with an obliging rumble, and Ignis was suddenly caught between it and a wall of Gladio at his back.
He closed his eyes. "Please, Gladio," he said. "This is hard enough as it is--"
"I don't think you have any idea how hard it is--"
"Yes I do, because it's digging into my back."
"That's not what I meant."
"Well it makes a rather compelling argument." Ignis turned around, not that it was much better that way, because now they were face-to-face. He put his hands on Gladio's chest, fingers carefully splayed over the insignia on his tank top, as though striving to cover it up or push him away, but unable to do either. "Gladio. We knew better than this when we were eighteen. I have nothing but the fondest memories of that time. But it could not last, and we both agreed about that. It was foolish, and unprofessional, and dangerous and--and--"
Ignis was already having trouble keeping his voice even, but then Gladio shifted his weight just so, his hipbone pressing Ignis back into the rumbling dryer, and Ignis broke off his argument with a sharp gasp. With Ignis' weakness now exposed, Gladio moved in to strike, his mouth hot and open against Ignis' throat. Ignis smelled like expensive aftershave and crisp linen, but there was nothing prim or proper about his moan of longing, and it wasn't the motion of the dryer that rocked him up against Gladio.
"Tell me again," Gladio said, teeth closing gently on the soft skin of Ignis' earlobe, "how this is a bad idea."
Ignis had his fingers up under Gladio's tight singlet, dragging his manicured nails down over Gladio's ink-covered spine. "This is a terrible idea."
"Yeah," Gladio agreed, drawing Ignis' leg up around his hip, backing him onto the dryer. "I know it is."
"Don't stop," Ignis breathed.
"The hell took so long?" Prompto asked, as Gladio and Ignis stepped under the camper awning, Ignis tugging on his gloves, Gladio with the laundry bag slung over one shoulder.
"Ah, you know how these provincial launderettes are," Ignis said, with an airy wave of his hand. "Seems to take forever and forty gil to get anything approaching a dry load."
Prompto shrugged, already rooting around in the laundry bag for two socks that sort of matched. "Yeah, ok. Sorry. I don't know much about all the ins and outs of laundry, Ig."
Gladio's mouth bunched up as though he was fighting hard to keep it from doing something without his permission; Ignis, a bit pale, coughed the world's tiniest cough into his fist. "Yes," Ignis said, and then when that didn't seem quite enough he added, "Indeed."
"Is that Ignis back?" Noct called out, still inside the camper. "Does he know he took all my pants?"
"Yes, of course, Noct." Ignis said, batting Prompto out of the way to pull Noct's black combat fatigues out of the bag. "I can count, and they were all in rather dire condition."
"I'm in dire condition. I've been sitting around in here all morning in nothing but my---nevermind. Just give them to me." Noct's arm emerged from the just-cracked camper door, hand waving impatiently until Ignis hung his clothes on it. His arm and the pants both vanished, the door snapped shut, and there was a moment of furious rustling. When the door opened again Noct was standing behind it, tucking in his shirt. "Seriously," he said, stomping down the camper steps, running both hands through his hair as he strode off to the car. "I spend five minutes too long in bed in the morning and it's the end of the world, but you're screwing around with Gladio in the laundry room for like two hours."
Ignis was, in that instant, forced to call upon all his many years of training in order to keep his expression in place. He managed to do so after a mad scramble, but it was a near thing, and the result was rather severe. Gladio, on the other hand, contracted a wild fit of coughing and had to take a minute behind the camper to compose himself. "Sorry--" he gasped. "Swallowed a--"
Ignis' expression was suddenly very alarmed.
"--bug," Gladio finished, and Ignis remembered to breathe again.
"Aw, don't yell at Noct, Ig," Prompto said, mistaking Ignis' strained expression for annoyance. "He just feels like he woke up early for nothing. You know how it is when you try your best to do what you're supposed to but it doesn't work out." Prompto took a step back from Ignis' sudden glance, and the light flashing dangerously on his glasses. "Ah, well," Prompto amended, "maybe you don't but--"
Ignis smiled, laughed a little helpless laugh. "On the contrary, my dear boy," he said, sharing a meaningful look with Gladio as he emerged from behind the camper. "I know it all too well."
Folks, the world seems to have descended into wholesale higgledy-piggledy in a very short while, and I honestly don't know how it's going to turn out for us. I'm sure we're all looking for things we can do to help, and sometimes in those moments stories can seem rather frivolous. I've had some guilty moments wondering if I should keep spending my time doing this silly thing when my country has turned into a giant mattress fire. But I believe, and have always believed, that stories are of desperate importance--and have been since the first bison was scribbled on the first cave wall. They tell us not only who we are but who we can be, they both comfort and give courage. So I'll carry on, as we all will carry on. May we all fight for the light as bravely as our ffxv boys--in the best ways we can--and may we also take the time to bang some hot piece of tail on top of a truckstop laundromat dryer when we get the chance, because life is too short to do otherwise.
PS: from a real vending machine in a real gas station bathroom (which also had the duct-taped urinal) on a real road trip I once took:
Chapter 15: Delirium
Fourth wall? What fourth wall? I haven't even found the first wall yet. I'm never getting my map completion now...
"Well, that was a bit of a bad step you took," Ignis said, in his latest contender for understatement of the year. "Are you all right, Noct?"
Noct glared at him, because he couldn't talk. Talking would mean getting some... stuff into his mouth. And it was bad enough with it clinging to his hair and his clothes and his skin, up in his nostrils and under his nails. It was sticky, and made him feel deeply uneasy. It was also pink.
"Those are some really wild looking mushrooms down there," Prompto commented. "And humongo. At least they broke your fall, right?"
Noct continued glaring. He was covered in a fine coating of bright pink, faintly luminescent powder, the same color as the large, fuzzy mushrooms he'd unwillingly found at the bottom of the cave. In the underground darkness it gave him a soft glow. He'd left a gleaming trail of it when he clambered back up onto the ledge where the rest of them were waiting.
"Come now, don't be sulky," Ignis said. "Just a bit of fungus spores. At least it doesn't smell bad." He whipped a black handkerchief out of somewhere and started to dust Noct off, scattering a bright pink cloud all around him. "As a matter of fact it is quite pleasant. Sort of a toffee-apple-popcorn sort of affair, what? Quite unusual, for a mushroom."
"I know what it doesn't smell like," Gladio said, edging away from the rose-colored fallout. "A king's tomb. I think this hole's a bust, fellas."
"Ugh," Noct gasped, when his mouth was finally clear. "Maybe it smells good up here. But down there it's---it's pretty overpowering. Like being shoved in a clown's underpants. Thought I was gonna pass out before I got back up."
"And none the worse for wear." Ignis looked at his handkerchief--which was glowing like an afterburst of fireworks and smelled strongly of burnt saltwater taffy--and wisely decided to leave it on the ground. "Which is more than I can say for this, though."
"Maaan," Prompto hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. "Now I'm totally craving popcorn and you know there's nowhere around here to get any."
Ignis had been looking a trifle put out by the loss of his handkerchief, but at that, he brightened immediately. "Aha! I daresay I've just come up with a new--"
"Ignis." Noct held up his hand. Somewhere, a burst of triumphant music dwindled into an aborted squawk (but it was only Prompto making sound effects again). "I'm sure we're all really thrilled you've figured out popcorn but I really, really want to get back to the motel. And shower. For a week."
"He's got a point, Ig," Gladio agreed. "Let's ride."
"It was actually popcorn balls," Ignis muttered, as his party departed without him. "With salted maple glaze and a brown butter sauce, and I will make them and eat them all by myself."
"Gonna eat them by yourself in a cave if you don't keep up," Gladio called back.
Ignis sighed, and climbed up after. Maybe he would have a cup of coffee back at the hotel. The mushroom smell had given him a headache, and he was beginning to feel downright cross.
It wasn't a long ride to the motel, not by chocobo, and there was no worry that they would fail to get there before full dark set in. Noct's chocobo made a few fluttery noises at the strange odor clinging to his rider, but apart from clicking his beak at Noct's hair a few times, bore him without complaint. Which put Ignis' mind somewhat at ease. Surely, he thought, if the strange spores were harmful, the chocobo would have objected more thoroughly.
Halfway to the hotel, he was proven wrong.
"It's really pretty here," Noct said, apropos of nothing. They'd dragged themselves over a large swath of countryside that day, had little to show for it, and nobody felt much like conversation. Ignis and Gladio traded glances over their chocobos, but let it pass without comment. It had been a long day, they were all tired. And the countryside did have a certain rugged charm, not that much of it could be seen in the gloaming.
"Yeah," Prompto agreed, more for his inability to leave a statement unacknowledged than for any real agreement. "It's... nice."
Noct had slowed his mount to a walk, something that usually meant he'd spied the gleam of treasure, or some interesting herb Ignis might fancy. But they were on bare ground, and nothing seemed a likely candidate. Instead Noct was gazing off into the middle distance with bleary eyes and a dreamy smile.
"So many lights," Noct said, in a voice that was just as far away.
Ignis' eyebrows sank below his glasses in a worried frown. "Noct," he said. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Mmmm," Noct said, and automatically nudged his heels into his Chocobo's ribs. Roni, with a confused little kweh, sped up to a halfhearted trot. The others followed, rather more closely than usual, so they were not far off when Noct said something about moogles and then slid from his saddle into a heap on the ground.
"Noct!" Ignis was off his mount before she had stopped running, throwing the reins to Prompto as he went to his knees beside his unresponsive prince. "No---god. He's burning up with fever. Gladio!"
"Get his chocobo, Prompto!" Gladiolus ordered, reaching down and hauling Noct's limp body across his saddle. "Give him to me, Ig."
"Does he need an antidote?" Prompto asked, trying to hold two anxious birds and rummage in his pockets at the same time. "I've got one--"
"It won't do much without Noct's powers," Ignis said, one foot already in Amarant's stirrup. "We'll have to make do on our own. Quickly, now!"
Never had such a small distance felt so long. The lights of the outpost seemed to draw back, rather than closer, as they pressed their chocobos as hard as they dared. When they at last broke into the protective circle of light, their winded mounts refused to go a step further. Lulu, Gladio's towering female, practically shook her rider and passenger off her great gray back, eager to be rid of the double burden. Prompto's Figaro set at once to grooming Roni's white head-feathers, perhaps sharing his distress at his fallen rider, or to clean off any traces of the strange smell he'd brought with him. It was just as well the birds were so self-sufficient, because they got little more than a hasty pat of thanks and a promise of some greens later from Prompto.
"All right," Ignis said, shouldering the motel room door open and taking stock of the situation in a two-second glance. "Fan, bathtub--good. First thing is to minimize the spread and get his fever down. Gladio, get him on the bed. Prompto, strip him down."
Prompto was shocked motionless. "Stri--whaddya--you mean--everything?"
Ignis put his hand on Prompto's shirt, the hand became a fist, and Prompto's nose was suddenly a scant two inches from Ignis' blazing green eyes. "Did. I. Stutter?"
"No sir!" Prompto squeaked.
Ignis' grip did not relent. In fact it tightened. "I'll expect you to obey my orders immediately and to the letter," he said, "Unless you fancy having a royal funeral out in the woods tomorrow morning." His eyes narrowed dangerously, his voice ice-cold. "And let me make my meaning plain right now when I say I did not bring a suit for that. Are we clear?"
"Good," Ignis said, and let him go. "Try not to crumple or disturb his clothes any more than you must. We've no idea how potent this business is or what it might do to us. Gladio!"
"On it," Gladio said, opening the window and turning the fan to face outside. "Prompto, how long are you gonna take with that? Is this your goddamn wedding night?"
"He's heavy, okay? And he keeps twitching--" Prompto, having gotten Noct's jacket off, struggled to get him out of his shirt.
"I don' wanna wear a sombrero," Noct insisted, to no one present.
Gladio swore something that was at once blasphemous, sexual, and scatological, and then took matters into his own hands. Which resulted in a loud tearing sound, and the untimely death of one t-shirt. Ignis winced.
"That's one way of doing it. Try not to ruin the boots, though, he doesn't have a spare pair."
"Honestly," Prompto grunted, trying to get a boot loose, his own shirt pulled up over his nose and mouth to block any stray spores that might be lurking in Noct's cleats, "Last time I undressed him it was a lot more fun than this."
"I'll run a tepid bath to--" Ignis did a double take. "What was that, Prompto?"
"You heard me," Prompto growled, flinging Noct's boot triumphantly to the floor.
"That we did," Ignis said, eyebrows threatening to vanish up into his hair. "Quite."
"So it's not your wedding night," Gladio chuckled.
Prompto sent the other boot after the first, face flushed from exertion as well as other things. "It's not, and it's not yours either, and how about we don't pretend anyone is surprised about any of this because no way you haven't known--"
"I'm surprised," Noct said, and got everyone's attention.
"Noct?" Ignis asked, leaning over him, "Can you hear us now?"
Noct rolled away, smiling happily. "'Cos I thought moogles were extinct."
"Think that's a no," Gladio said, and divested Noct of the last of his clothes--his underpants and glove. "Get that tub running, Ig," he said, gathering his naked and delirious prince into his arms. "Sooner we get any traces of this stuff off him, the better."
"Right. Prompto, put his clothes outside. Better just wrap them up in that comforter."
"Well then," Ignis said, rolling up his sleeves, "It's been a while since I had to give this one a bath, let's hope I still remember how."
Twenty minutes later Noct was clean, dry, wrapped in a fresh comforter, and Ignis was furiously researching on his phone to find out what kind of spores he'd been exposed to. Even with them removed as best as they were able, and some ordinary pain and fever meds forced down his throat, Noct's fever remained dangerously high.
"Find anything?" Gladio asked, and then grunted, because Noct had just punched him again. "Mph! Son of a-- "
"Gladio," Ignis warned.
"Son of a noble queen and very fine lady of sainted memory," Gladio said, rubbing his jaw. "And he's hit me like three times now. What does he think he's doing?"
Prompto tucked Noct's hands under the blanket, again. "I think he's racing chocobos now."
"Huh. I guess that's better than the fishing he was doing earlier."
Prompto gingerly poked at a large bruise blooming on his cheekbone. "Yes," he said. "It is."
"Not funguars, not vesperrooms, not Ipsen's mottled mock-maloboro mushroom, for the love of all that's sacred--" Ignis shoved up his glasses and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "Ugh. The smell of that stuff is still in my lungs. I begin to see what Noct meant."
"Like being at a carnival only you're out of money and tired and it's like four hundred miles back to the car and your balloons got away and the carny laughed at you cos you were too fat to ride the carousel and then you cried about it behind the porta-potties and ate a bunch of crap to feel better but that last corn dog didn't sit too good so you wind up yurfing up right in front of the chocobo ride and all the toddlers start screaming at you," Prompto said.
Everyone stared. Even Noct's mutterings ceased for a moment.
Prompto blinked at the sudden silence. "What?" he said, and then laughed uneasily. "Heh, it's not like that happened to me or anything!"
"I should hope not!" Ignis was horrified.
"For one thing," Prompto said, "It was actually in front of the duck pond."
"Stop," Gladio put his hands to his head. "Before you give me a secondhand shitty childhood just from proximity."
"Boom, boom boom," Noctis said, his eyes unfocused on the ceiling, hands twitching under the covers. "Oh no, overheated again... not a deadeye shooter, no. Can't shoot... are-one trigger, el two-- no wait...Goddit wrong..."
"Uh," Prompto said, easing back in his chair, "Is he getting worse? And is it because he's going to get better?"
"This is better than that million shades of broken mirror zenogias stuff he was on about a minute ago," Gladio said, chin in hand.
"Chocorooms!" Ignis shouted, and then sat down again immediately, blushing furiously at his phone. "No, sorry. That's a candy. Thought I had it. Damn."
Prompto's face was scrunched into a worried squint. "Are we getting some side effects of our own here? I feel a little dizzy and I think I just hallucinated Ignis shouting about chocorooms."
"Yes," Ignis said, at once. "That's exactly what you did. I'm sorry Prompto, but this is insidious stuff, and you can't be certain of anything, no matter how ludicrous or unlikely it may be."
"I'm going to open the door." Gladio started to rise, but then Noct's hand shot out from under the covers and nearly yanked him into the bed on top of him.
"You have got to try this tart." Noct said in an awed whisper, to Gladio's left shoulder. "It's like... It's like... and I'm not too sure who this Squarenix guy is? Izzis his cafe? Is Square his first name? I dunno. But he makes a mean quiche."
"Oh my god," Prompto breathed. "He's dying, isn't he?"
"Everyone," Ignis said, and put down his phone in defeat. "I've been able to find nothing about Noct's condition. While I hope he will yet pull through, we must steel ourselves for the worst and make it our solemn vow--"
"Yes." Prompto bit his lip, eyes bright, fists clenched. "We'll carry on his dream to reclaim our--"
"No." Ignis had never looked more grave. "We have to make sure nobody ever finds out that the Heir of Lucis went to his fate muttering inanely about moogles and fresh fruit flans."
"Surely it's not that bad, Ig," Gladio said. "I mean it's not like--"
Noct bolted straight upright in the bed, arm outstretched and pointed directly at Ignis, eyes wide open.
"Ah've jost come ahp with a neu recipeh!" he announced, and then flopped back into the pillows, limp as a deflated parade balloon.
There was an awful silence. Prompto looked at Gladio, Gladio looked at Prompto, and both of them looked at Ignis, who had gone the most extraordinary color either of them had seen on a human being.
"Oh my god," Prompto said, his tiny voice made tinier by the fact that he had both hands over his mouth. "Was that... was that--"
"Was that supposed to be me?" Ignis thundered, at a volume that would get them thrown out of any better establishment.
"OhmygodIm'gonnadie," Prompto wheezed. "I'm gonna--" He never got to say what he was going to do, because he laughed so hard he fell off his chair and lay there, still laughing, beating his fist against the threadbare carpet.
"I sound nothing like that," Ignis said, offended right down to the red soles of his shoes.
"Yeah," Gladio roared, between fits of laughter, "He sounds more like you than you usually do!"
Prompto said nothing, because he had snatched one of the pillows Noct had dislodged from the bed, and had stuffed his face into it in a vain attempt to stifle his laughter.
"It's not funny," Ignis said, as the other two gasped for breath. "It's not--stop that. Have either of you-- Noct could be dead--"
Noct ruined this argument by snoring, which sent the other two into fresh peals of laugher. Gladio was face-down on Noct's comforter, openly weeping.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Prompto gasped, and with a tremendous effort managed to get his face in some semblance of order. "How... how is he?"
"He's a lot better than you two are about to be." Ignis stepped over Prompto's prone body and put the back of his hand against Noct's forehead. A long moment passed. Finally Ignis stepped back and took off his glasses. "Gentlemen," he said softly, "It seems the worst..." He paused, then, for approximately ten years, eighteen development cycles, at least one change of executive producer and several of artistic direction, an upgrade to a totally different graphics engine, five character makeovers in which at least one person got turned into a dog, and three hundred and seventy two story rewrites before concluding, "...is past."
Prompto puffed out the breath he'd been holding, still hugging his pillow. "Phew! Well, after all that the least we could ask for is a happy ending, amirite?"
"At least," Gladio snorted. "Is it safe to let him sleep, Ig?"
"I think so," Ignis said, replacing his glasses with a shaking hand. "But we'd best keep him warm and comfortable. Prompto, you brought in his bag, correct? We should get him into his pajamas."
"I brought in his bag," Prompto said, "But I didn't even know he had pajamas."
"Not like we ever bother with them," Gladio agreed.
Ignis clicked his tongue in dismay, putting Noct's bag on the end of the bed and unzipping it. "Of course he has pajamas, because I packed his pajamas. If he insists on going around in his underthings like the rest of you godless hooligans I can't be blamed for--" Ignis simply stopped talking, staring down into Noct's black designer-label duffel with an inscrutable look on his face.
"Ignis?" Prompto prompted. "Everything ok?"
Ignis reached down into the bag, his expression curiously still. Something inside Noct's luggage was jingling. He pulled out a t-shirt--a garish confection of white and yellow and printed in an absurd font--that none of them recognized. Bits of bright paper confetti fluttered down from its folds.
"Ignis." Gladio's voice was none too steady. "Tell me that's what his pajamas look like."
"There's some... things in here," Ignis said, tightly. Carefully he laid out a few of them: a brightly colored lure they'd never seen in Noct's tackle box, a handful of plastic 'coins' printed with a moogle on one side and a chocobo on the other, some kind of VIP voucher, a slightly crushed takeout box with a half-eaten berry custard inside, more confetti, a live chicobo that peeped brightly at all of them before scampering out of the window with astonishing speed, and a black velveteen jacket luxuriously embroidered with dancing moogles. This last one seemed especially to put the kibosh on Ignis' courage, and he did not investigate further. "I'm just.... I'm just going to put all these back in here," Ignis said, and did so. "They're Noct's things, after all, and he should find them just as he left them."
"Apart from the baby chocobo," Prompto said.
"There is no baby chocobo," Ignis said, and zipped the bag closed. "What there is is a hallucinogenic and hitherto unknown type of fungus to whose spores we all have been exposed to varying degrees, Noct most of all, and it's playing havoc with our senses. We're going to go to bed, all of us, and forget all this. When we wake up, the world will make sense again."
"But that dessert--" Prompto started.
"The dessert is illusory and even if it wasn't it's Noct's and you can't have it." Ignis took a deep breath, and then them each by one shoulder. "Repeat after me. We saw nothing, because there was nothing--"
"But it pooped on the comforter--"
"No," Ignis said, "Chicobos." His voice took on a more pleading tone. "Please, Prompto."
"Yeah," Gladio agreed. "It's not as if anyone would believe you actually made it with Noct, much less without managing to fall off a roof or the bed or a moving vehicle or anything, right?"
"All settled, then," Ignis said, and surreptitiously kicked some confetti out of sight under the bed.
"I dunno," Prompto said, with reluctance. It had been a very cute chicobo. "I just feel like we're missing something really important. And possibly limited-time only."
"Kupo," Noct murmured, and slept on.
Chapter 16: Manners
"All right, listen up, the lot of you."
Ignis' voice brought all the early-morning activity in the hotel room to a halt. Prompto paused over his duffel with a half-eaten granola bar in one hand and his socks in the other, Gladio leaned out of the bathroom door half-shaved, and the wadded-up heap of blankets and pillows on the bed made a Noct-like noise from somewhere in its depths.
"Wow," Gladio said, switching off his trimmer. "What's the long face for, Ig?"
"It always looks like that," said the Noct/Blanket hybrid, somewhat muffled by nature. "What else is new?"
"What's new," Ignis said, tilting his glasses exactly half an inch up his nose, "is that as of today our quest has a new and complicated wrinkle, and we are going to have to adjust our behavior accordingly, or suffer the consequences."
Prompto swallowed a bite of granola bar he had forgotten to chew, and regretted it immediately. His voice was rather scratchy when he asked, "What is it? Are there dangerous monsters on the way to Caem?"
"More like dangerous Imperials," Gladio corrected.
"Dangerous loss of sleep," said the blankets.
"Far worse," Ignis said, in the sternest of tones. "We shall be traveling in the company of a young, impressionable, fifteen year old girl."
"Oh!" Prompto said.
"Huh," said Gladio.
"Five more minutes," said the Blanket King of Lucis.
"No," said Ignis. "This is serious. I know we've all rather... let ourselves go--" Ignis Scientia had never let himself go anywhere, not without a reliable map and a good idea of when he would be back and someone to pick up his mail in the meantime, but he felt for morale it was best to include himself. "--but it cannot continue under these circumstances."
"What circumstances?" Prompto asked, all innocent. From Noct's blankets there was a protracted groan, as at something dreaded and known all too well.
"I'm so very glad you asked," Ignis said, his gaze slicing around the room. "Let's start with the obvious, shall we? I believe these are your ratty knickers on the windowsill, Prompto? Though they hardly deserve the name, seeing as how they're more like an old dishrag held together with three elastic bands."
Noct's voice had joined in on the last three words, and the blankets clenched tighter, as though the occupant was trying to get himself in the fetal position. "God. Why did you ask, Prompto? It's like a recurring nightmare. I'm fifteen again."
"Those were, um, airing out." Prompto said, snatching his underwear out of Ignis' hand and stuffing it into a random spot in his bag, his face beet-red.
"I'm sure. And I'm sure this massive pile of empty meat jerky bags and protein bar wrappers over here on the table was also just airing out?"
"Hey, I was gonna get those," Gladio said, more defensive than he ever bothered to be in battle.
"No you weren't, because you never do, but points for trying."
"Make him stooooopp," Noct moaned, as Gladio, beard still half-trimmed, hurried to gather up his mess of empty cup-noodle containers and beer bottles.
"And just to make this as brief as possible," Ignis said, ticking off items on his fingers. "No belching, no open-mouthed chewing, no inebriation, no references to any personal anatomy, no wandering around the hotel room in nothing but a hand towel and a bracelet because you can't find your pants in the disaster zone you call your luggage--"
"I did that like once," Prompto cut in.
"No farting, no wedgie picking, no yawning, no booger wrangling, no referring to yourself or other people as your bitches, no comebacks about anyone's mothers, no using all the toilet paper and not telling anyone and expecting more to somehow materialize from thin air, no public urination, no morning-breath competitions, no sexting, no leaving the toilet seat up, no towel whips, no comment about the size of the Catoblepas' testicles, no licking your plates after dinner though yes I appreciate it and it's highly complimentary even if barbaric," Ignis took a deep breath, "and for the mercy of the gods, try to monitor your language."
"My language is fucking fine," Gladio said, trying to cram four pounds of trash into a one-pound capacity wastebasket.
"It is," Ignis said, "atrocious, as is most of this group's behavior. While I am grateful for your tireless efforts to appear to be ordinary road trippers rather than an exiled king and his retinue, I suspect it's gone a bit further than subterfuge and into outright sloth. I must insist on the best behavior around Iris. She is very young, she's been through a great deal of trauma, and if I'm not mistaken she's carrying a torch the size of Ifrit for you, Noct, so try to maintain a gentle and chivalrous distance without leading her on or hurting her feelings--"
"I'll just stay here, is that far enough?"
"And above all, I expect no less from all of you than the demeanor of noble knights to a lady of quality from an ancient and honorable line. Is that clear?"
"I have the same ancient and honorable line," Gladio snorted, finally getting back to his grooming routine, running his clippers around his beard with a practiced hand. "How come none of y'all go all chivalrous for me?"
"Because you have the manners of a behemoth in rut," Ignis snapped. "And I know you still think of your little sister as a rough-and-tumble young tomboy, but might I remind you--"
"You don't have to remind me of anything," Gladio shot back. "My eyeballs work just fine."
"Right, so we're all agreed. Solemn vow, everyone. Prompto?"
"Noct?" Pause. "Noct. ...Noctis." Sigh. "Your Highness."
Noct's arm emerged from the blankets in a passible salute. "Sure, My Highness's honor, or whatever."
"Good. Let's do this right."
For the first day, the effort held up considerably well. It was only towards evening that things started to unravel, when Noct wanted to stop and fish up something for dinner. He had thrown out his one hundred and first cast when Ignis felt--owing to the lateness of the hour and Iris' politely stifled yawn--that one hundred had been quite enough.
"Noct, I think it's about time to call it a night--"
Noct's lure had just snagged on a tricky bit of underwater driftwood, and he scowled as he tried to yank it free. "Yeah? Well I think it's about time for you to suck my dick--Ah fuc--I mean--darn."
Ignis groaned in dismay.
"Sorry, Iris," Noct said, and meekly reeled in his lure.
Ignis put his face in his hand. "Forgive us," he said to Iris in an undertone. "I'm afraid all this time on the road has had a detrimental effect on Noct's manners."
"It's fine, really," Iris grinned. (Actually it was more than fine; she was delighted. They'd all been rather stiff earlier, as though they'd been washed with too much starch in the load.) "Remember, I grew up around military guys. I'm used to it."
"Still," Ignis said, quite pained. "We shall all endeavor to do better."
At least, Ignis hoped they would.
His hope was in vain.
"Sweet Shiva's schoolgirl panties!" Prompto emerged from the bathroom with his hand over his mouth, face clenched like a fist. "Gladio, what did you do in there? And what have you been eating so I don't ever do it? Smells like a dead gigantoad stuck in a sewer pi--oh, sorry Iris, didn't know you were in here."
"Yes," Ignis said, icily. "That much is obvious. Also Gladio they do put fans in there for a reason."
Gladio was unruffled, flopped on the motel bed reading with Iris bouncing on the bed beside him. "Told you that toadsteak had gone off."
"Hey guys," Gladio said, pointing out the side of the Regalia, "Check it out. Big herd of mesmenirs down in the valley there."
"Woooow," Prompto said, reaching for his camera. "I've never seen so many at once! What are they doing? Fight--" He broke off suddenly, his ears going pink. "Uh, yeah. Fighting. That's what they're doing. They're ...totally fighting."
"If you think that's fighting," Gladio laughed, "It's no wonder you never get laid."
Prompto whirled around in the front seat to defend his honor. "I know what they're doing I just didn't want to point out monsters bangin' their nasties in broad daylight when we've got Iris in the... back seat right there yeah way to blow it Prompto. Hi, Iris."
"Guys, let me in," Prompto pleaded, jiggling the motel room door. "It's not funny."
"Actually it is totally funny," Noct called back, from inside the room. "At least you've got a towel?"
"This isn't a towel it's a washcloth now let me back innnneuuughah! Ha! Iris! Hi."
"Is everything ok out here?" Iris asked, from across the hall. She had poked her nose out of her own door to see what the fuss was about.
Prompto spent a long moment looking around the hall of the motel, as though he hung out naked in them all the time as an avid hobby and the architecture of this one was particularly compelling. "Yeah. Yeah. It's fine."
Though smiling, Iris had the kindness not to laugh. "You sure?"
The full extent of Prompto's flush of color was easily visible, even as he pressed his back to the door and made the most of a very small amount of terrycloth. "Um," Prompto said, several octaves higher than usual, "Sure. Yep. They're just being... you know. Guys."
Iris bit her lip to keep from giggling, which she felt Prompto might take the wrong way. "I know. I heard. Hey, don't mind Glady, he's just teasing you. Used to drive me bonkers, but I figured him out pretty quick. Need a hand with him?"
"Oh. Um. Re-really? That--"
"Don't look at him, Iris!" Gladio thundered, from behind the door. "He'll put you off guys forever!"
"I will not!" Prompto turned around to yell at the door, forgetting that he was temporarily inconvenienced in the matter of clothes. "I just-- I... oh."
"No he won't!" Iris yelled back. "And he's got a nicer ass than you do!"
There was an infuriated pause, and then a noise like the approach of thunder before Gladio ripped the door open with a roar of outrage. Prompto, spying an opening and blushing all over the ass in question, made it back in the room by ducking in under his arm, but he was no longer Gladio's target.
"Take it back," Gladio said, glowering in Iris' doorway.
Iris folded her arms, utterly unruffled by his display. "It's true. He's got freckles. You don't have freckles. Just that one really crappy tattoo you got when you were sixteen and lied to the--"
Gladio swelled up like a rogue bomb that had been whacked one too many times. "Take. it. back. Ir. Is."
Iris considered it. "Nnnnnnnnnope," she said at last, and shut the door in his face.
"Hey!" It was Gladio's turn to rattle a doorknob. "Don't you go making comments like that about Prompto's ass! Or mine! And anyway I had it removed! The tattoo! Not my ass!"
Ignis, just then returning from his trip downstairs for a paper, took one look at the aftermath and then several deep breaths to ease his blood pressure. "Sorry, Iris."
"So," Iris said, leaning forward in the back seat so Ignis and Prompto could hear her up front as well as Noct and Gladio beside her. "I just wanted to say thanks for having me along, guys. I know I probably cramped your style--"
"Of course not!"
"Who'd want to be stuck alone with these guys all the time, anyway?"
"--but," Iris continued, "I've had a really good time. And thanks for being so nice. I know it was hard."
"Well," Ignis said, allowing a pleased note to come into his voice, "I'm afraid we've all been rather rough and tumble, but as long as you've enjoyed yourself, I suppose there's no harm in--" Ignis broke off with a shout, slamming on both the brakes and the horn as a battered old pickup truck shot across the intersection in front of them, missing the front bumper of the Regalia by a matter of inches.
"Of all the--Oi!" Ignis reared up in the seat, fist clenched. "Where did you learn to drive, you bloody great wanker?! Your mum's homeschool for chocobo buggery?!"
No one so much as breathed for several seconds, as everyone, even Noct, gaped at Ignis in unrestrained wonder. Ignis fell back into the car, the hand over his mouth nowhere near enough to cover his appalled expression.
"Wow." Iris said, "That was awesome."
"I don't-- I'm so terribly sorry, Iris." Ignis looked as though he had inadvertently murdered her favorite pet, or possibly a family member. "And all of you. That was uncalled for."
"Looked pretty called for to me," Gladio said.
"Yeah." Prompto nodded. "I mean, he didn't even look. I wouldn't have stopped at wanker, either."
Noct rolled his eyes. "When do you ever stop at wanking?"
"Gentlemen, please," Ignis began, but it was too late.
"Did you really have a crappy butt tattoo, Gladio?"
"Ask me that again Prompto, and your next photo is going to be an x-ray of your broken spine."
"He totally did. It was supposed to be a sexy moogle girl but it looked more like some kind of prostitute cat."
"Iris!" Gladio sounded utterly betrayed.
"Hey," Iris said, punching her brother none-too-gently on the arm. "Don't dish it out if you can't take it, you big brick shithouse."
"I suppose it's true about chivalry being dead," Ignis said, and once more put the car on the road to Caem.
Chapter 17: Balladeer
...maybe if you hum a few bars?
The fact that something weird was going on with Gladio had not escaped either notice or comment in his absence, being a subject that the three of them returned to several times a day, especially when other avenues for talk were exhausted. The only time he was not discussed openly was when they were slogging through ancient ruins on a wild chocobo chase, as they all felt it might be a little bit rude to Aranea and a disservice to Gladio to bitch about it in front of her. But even then they could not resist the occasional interjection about how having their tireless tank around again would be nice.
Mostly it was for his skill for stabbing things, often it was when they couldn't get the fire going in the Vesperpool's driving rain, and always in the middle of the night, when the muggy days turned to chilly nights, and the loss of their (giant, warm, not snuggle-adverse) fourth member was most keenly felt. It was, they told each other, just because he kept the tent cozy and would have loved to see that beauty of a sapphire snakehead Noct had fished up that day, but no man managed to fool himself or his friends. They were not meant to be three, the balance was off, and they all missed Gladiolus for no other reason than the fact that they wanted him to be there. So they bunched their sleeping bags together as they tried to ward off the cold seeping up from the ground, layered all their clothes, and complained bitterly.
The result was, of course, that in the days they passed together in the Vesperpool the three of them became even more closely-knit than before--a thing they had previously not thought possible--and appreciated Gladio far more in his absence than they ever had done in his presence. As the days added up, they said his name more wistfully, and often wished out loud that he was there. It was, they all agreed, the only thing missing from an otherwise satisfactory venture.
Their last night in the Myrlwood, Noctis threw out a cast towards the hidden cascade by their campsite, savoring the familiar whizzzz-plonk of a good throw, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment. "You know," he said, reeling the lure back with the meditative patience of the practiced angler, "I think this queen had it right."
"The rogue, you mean?" Ignis had just finished cleaning the utterly gorgeous platinum trout Noct had caught for their dinner, and it lay in the foil gleaming and ready for the coals in a bed of mushrooms and shallots. "Quite the hideaway she has here, I must say."
"Yeah," Prompto agreed, breaking down his tripod after a long shoot to capture the late afternoon mist rising up from the falls. "This little spot? And the woods? I mean, minus the monsters it would be just about perfect. You thinking royal summerhome, Noct? Cos I am."
Noct didn't answer. He was humming to himself as he wound his lure back in, but it was no pop song from the Regalia's radio, no inane earworm of Prompto's that had lodged in his head. This was something ancient and still and minor-key, and a melody that Ignis at least recognized. But neither of them were quite prepared when Noct sang, in a surprisingly warm tenor:
She hid her shadows and her heart,
She fiercely fought the rising dark,
Her crown she doffed for cowl instead,
And slumbers in her leafy bed.
The last note lingered in the mossy rocks. It seemed the whole forest was listening, straining towards the singer in some tremendous effort to hear him. Noct didn't notice it, nor Prompto and Ignis staring at him, instead idly throwing another cast. "I used to know them all when I was a kid," he said, with a shrug. "All the verses for all the kings and queens of Lucis. It's funny the way I'll think of one out of nowhere."
"I don't think I've ever heard you sing before," Prompto whispered, in something close to shock. "I didn't know you could sing."
Noctis tsked as something nipped at his lure but then changed its mind, and spared Prompto a tiny glance from the corner of his eye. "Of course I can sing," he said, as though he was reminding Prompto of something obvious, such as the sky being blue. "I'm a King of Lucis."
"Prompto," Ignis said, tucking the crinkly packet of trout into the fire and arranging a comfortable blanket of coals over the top, "before the modern age, and in fact before most people knew how to read, the whole of Lucian history was kept in songs. It's easier to remember things that rhyme, and it put the past within easy reach of their least citizens. They're a treasured part of Lucian history and especially the line of kings, so of course Noct would know them."
"See?" Noct was rooting around in his tacklebox for something that better suited the fading light. "Singing. It's kingly. Right up there with posing for paintings, not cutting off people's ears when you knight them, and smashing champagne bottles on boats."
Ignis poked at the coals with that night's officially designated stick-for-the-fire, and added, "Some of the songs, in fact, are still on the books as permitted to be sung only by those of royal blood, though of course no one pays any heed to such things any more. Just like taxation of mead and sumptuary laws."
"Sing another one," Prompto said, looking at Noct as though he was some amazing mechanical bird. "What's another one? What's the one for the Wise? Or the Pious? Ooh, no, do the one for the Tall!"
"If you think," Noctis said, pulling a long streamer of gooey algae off his fishing line, "that I'm singing another King's verse not a mile away from a Queen's tomb, you've thought wrong." He made a face at the green wad of lake-muck now on his hand, and shook it off into the water. "I may not give a damn about them much, but I know the rules."
"Aww," Prompto said, disappointed. "But I want to know them all. It's kind of crazy-making, you know? Visiting all these tombs, not really knowing anything about the king inside. I mean, you get the sparkly twinkly boof--" Prompto made a twirling hand gesture that was the generally accepted international sign language for armiger, "--but there's never any inscription or anything for the rest of us. Even the effigies are all the same. I mean if it was me, and I had a song? I'd have that crap engraved all over my tombstone."
"Well," Ignis said, dusting off his hands, "We'll just have to come up with one for you, what?"
"Yes," Prompto said firmly, eyes shining. "Ohmigod, yes. And I will sing it all the time. And we should all have one!"
"Great," Noct said, with a little flick of the end of his fishing rod, "King Noctis' barbershop quartet."
"We'd need Gladio for that," Ignis said, with a fond wink at Prompto. "I'm only a baritone, and Prompto is a very fine tenor, but we're nothing without our bass."
"No bass in here," Noct said, unable to resist the obvious pun. "Just trout. But." He looked back over his shoulder at the other two, and smiled. "Whaddya say tomorrow we go and get the band back together?"
"You mean it?" Prompto said, sparkling like the fireflies that had just started to twinkle around the lakeside. "We'll go find Gladio?"
"Yes, I daresay he's used up all his vacation time," Ignis agreed, as all of them seemed to breathe a little easier at the thought. "And in my opinion, it's long since time we got this outfit back in tune."
NB: Hey, it's surprise poetry hour! Sorry, it's a thing I do. Let me just say, if any of you know both FFXV and my original work, Evensong's Heir, *coughbuymybookcough* that in my opinion Noctis Lucis Calem is the dovingest dove that ever thought of being a Dove, and I couldn't help but let him prove that here. Just like Ignis is a flawless Lark (all Larks are flawless TBH, it's required for the job), and Prompto could not be more of a Thrush unless he put on some eyeliner and went in for surgery. (I already thought so, but when he started singing in the Steyliff Grove dungeon--properly singing instead of the other stuff he does--and his voice was so surprisingly nice and sweet, well. I very nearly came undone.) Gladio, for his part, is probably signing up for an OC shift as a Godsword right now, and if you're a lawyer for Square-Enix you uh, didn't see that. In all seriousness, I don't know if I could slap them all in Valnon--that's a little bit of bold-faced thievery even for me--though in full disclosure it's just a hop, skip, and a jump from there to Ivalice. But these boys will always have a costume change waiting for them in the Temple of Valnon if they ever want it. (In other news, I love love love the Myrlwood Falls campsite and if I could I would be camping there right now with my real life chocohoes.)
Also! I owe you all comment replies! I'm on it. ♥
Because of course, I wrote a verse for Noct's place in the Line of Kings. If anyone cares. It should be said he's the only king to have other people mentioned in his verse.
* * *
With his three knights his kingdom won
Though dearest price left all undone
He bought the future from the past:
The darkest light, he is the last.
* * *
Annnnnd I'mmmm gonna go lie on the floor now.
Chapter 18: Trim
Just a little off the top.
(He's gonna need one, because at least in my playthough I think I spent about seven or eight months of Noct's time just racing chocobos alone.)
Ignis was a man skilled in many forms of combat, though he declined the use of most weapons save for his preferred daggers and lances. The others, he said, were merely for familiarity's sake, should he have no other choice but to pick up a gun or a sword. Noct had always thought this was redundant and ridiculous, because even if Ignis was stripped down to his underwear and locked in a bare room, he'd be able to take on all comers with nothing but his downright lethal hairy eyeball.
It certainly wasn't a thing one could ignore. He'd been giving it to Noct for the better part of a day now. Ignis tried to keep it to himself, but it was not unlike trying to conceal a fully customized autocrossbow under a light summer sundress. Noct kept catching it when Ignis didn't think he was looking: in the Regalia's rear-view, across a gas station parking lot, over the top of a diner menu. And now it was there again, just as Noct put the finishing blow on an enormous hundlegs that had at least twice the designated amount of limbs, if pure twitchy skitteryness was anything to go by. Noct wasn't going to actually count to be sure.
"What?" He burst out at last, as the Ax of the Conqueror scattered into a fall of light from his hand. "For Shiva's sake, Ig, what the hell is it?"
Prompto stopped shaking bits of centipede out of his shirt and looked at Noct in wonder and surprise, for he was utterly impervious to Ignis' secret weapon and showed no sign of even knowing it existed. He got it in full force several times a day for any number of reasons--noisily chewing gum, fidgeting incessantly with some bit of stitching coming loose on his boot, getting smudgy fingerprints all over the passenger-side mirror as he tried to check his hair in it--and so far it had not had one molecule of effect on his behavior. As far as Noct was concerned this was nothing short of supernatural power and he wished fervently he had it himself. Ignis giving him that look was like having a bucket of live ants poured down his spine.
"Heh," Gladio said, shouldering his sword. "Busted. Even I can tell something's eating you, Iggy."
"Well if you must know," Ignis said, dusting flecks of insect chitin from his gloves, "it's long since time you had a trim, Noct. You're looking downright weedy."
Noct collapsed into a heap on the ground, landing with a large crunch in a pile of broken hundleg limbs. "That's what's bugging you? I need a haircut?"
"Need might not be strenuous enough a term," Ignis said, with a frown of concern. "Dire emergency, more like it."
"My hair is fine. Seriously," Noct said. "I don't know why you'd think--"
"Only because you've worn that ballcap five times this week already, and that usually means you can't be arsed to do your hair."
Noct looked shifty. "Yeah, well. Prompto was taking too long in the bathroom."
"Hey, leave me out of this!"
"Don't worry," Gladio said, cheerily, "we will."
"I'll do what I can tonight," Ignis said, stepping past an outraged Prompto on his way back to the path. "You'll need the services of a proper barber before long, I daresay, but I'm loathe to leave you in the hands of one of these provincial establishments. Their signage alone is enough to put the fear of the Six in me, I shudder to think what they'd do with a pair of shears."
Noct groaned. Right up there with Ignis 'helping' him clean up his room and Ignis 'suggesting' that a diet of steak sandwiches and tater tots was not balanced no matter how evenly the tater tots were distributed on the plate, Ignis messing with his hair was something to be avoided at all cost. The lecture and resultant fight was inevitable.
"I think I'll just spend the night up here with these dead bugs, if that's okay with you."
"Come on, your whineyness," Gladio said, picking Noct up by the back of his jacket, "At least it means we'll get a hotel tonight. Hey Ig! You mind to give me a trim too?"
"I didn't bring a machete," Ignis sniffed, "but all right."
"Is it really that bad?" Prompto asked Noct, who now had the air of a man on the way to his own funeral. "Is he too rough or--"
"No," Noct said, in downright sulky tones. "I just... don't like having people touch me."
"Well that's a lie," Prompto retorted. "Because yesterday in that gas station bathroom you told me to--"
"That's not what I meant!" Noct shot back, color rising in his face. "It just... well, wait. You'll see soon enough."
"I am holding still."
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry. In that case we must be experiencing a very squirmy earthquake."
Noct growled, and clamped his hands to the side of the hotel chair. He was shirtless and shivering with more annoyance than cold, a towel around his shoulders. "I could just grow my hair out," he said, as Ignis gathered a lock of black hair between his fingers and gave it a critical eye. "That would look kingly."
"Kings," Ignis said, with a tsk, "use conditioner. Have you been putting extra product in this without washing it first? It's a fright."
Noct put his face in his hands. "Yes," he admitted. "Yes, I'm a terrible person and a terrible king. I don't use conditioner and I haven't flossed in a week and I bite my fingernails. My citizens call me a tyrant and cry out for my overthrow in blood and fire. Now just cut my hair already before the mob gets here with the pitchforks and torches, so my head won't go on a spike still needing a trim."
"This is amazing," Prompto said to Gladio, in an awed whisper. They were ostensibly playing blackjack on the opposite bed, but it had been Gladio's turn now for ten minutes while they watched the show, cards forgotten on the coverlet. "Is it always like this?"
"I've only ever seen it a couple of times," Gladio admitted. "In this type, anyway. One time Noct got carried away in magic training and singed his bangs clean off, refused to go to the salon after. He can take pain and suffering like a concrete wall, but don't poke him or lecture him. Turns him into the biggest baby."
"And don't," Noct said, with an effective hairy eyeball of his own, "talk about me like I can't hear you."
"Well, I'll do my best with it," Ignis sighed, and rolled out a neat traveling barber case of combs and shears on the table. "But I shan't be surprised if it all falls out, the way you're going."
"You know, I hate to put you through this, Ig," Noct said, reaching to pull off his towel. "Let's just--"
"Put your ass," Ignis said, frostily, "right back in that chair. This instant."
Noct sighed, and obeyed. He didn't feel it safe to do otherwise. Ignis kept his scissors very sharp.
"We could take your mind off things by talking about how shit your physique is," Gladio offered, knowing Noct was stuck in place and out of range. "Seriously, Prompto, can you even see any deltoids there?"
"Wouldn't know a deltoid from the broad side of the Wall, but yeah, whatever you said. Can't see 'em."
"I'm going to kill all of you in your sleep," Noct said, serenely.
"There," Ignis said, after nearly an hour of further sniping and snipping, in which Noct gradually accumulated a fine dusting of cut black hair and Ignis had to threaten more than once to tie him in place. "I think that will do."
"I know I'm done," Noct said, standing up at once and making straight for the bathroom to wash off the debris.
"I suppose it's too much to ask for a tip," Ignis sighed, wiping off the shears on Noct's discarded towel.
"You're lucky he lets you do it at all," Gladio said, taking Noct's place and shaking a hand through his hair. "Just knock off an inch or so, Ig."
"So, I don't understand," Prompto said, as the shower came on with a squawk of pipes. "Looked like you were super gentle to me. Why's he hate it so much?"
"Well," Ignis said, and then paused for a long moment, sliding his fingers through Gladio's hair, scissors flashing. "I suppose the first time it was... rather a bad experience for him and he hasn't forgotten. That's all."
"Doesn't sound like that's all to me," Gladio growled, turning his head so Ignis could get around his ears. "What did you do, stab him in the head?"
Ignis had gone a very discreet shade of pink. "It would be impolite and unchivalrous and certainly disrespectful to my liege to say anything further."
"Oho," Gladio said, eyes sparkling. "This has gotta be good. You can't leave it at that."
"It's not like we'll tell," Prompto urged. "What did he do? Fall asleep?"
"No," Ignis said, in a very small voice. "He, um... well he was very young at the time, not yet through his teens, and at that age we can't always control... certain.... physical... reactions."
"Oh my god," Prompto said, somewhere between aghast and aroused. "You mean he got a--"
"I think we're all very clear on what he got," Ignis said. "Please don't make me spell it out."
"You're shitting me," Gladio said, and his head tilted as though he wanted to see Ignis' face to determine if he was telling the truth.
"I assure you I'm not and please hold still. Suffice to say Noct got half a haircut and he spent the next two months avoiding me. It was four before he'd look me in the eye again. And now I think he makes himself as difficult as possible to pay me back for it."
"Or he's afraid of it happening again," Gladio observed, sinking back into the chair with a contented sigh. "You got good hands, Ig. Can't blame him for--ow!"
His point made, Ignis let go of Gladio's hair. "So. That's that and keep it to yourselves, thank you."
"No wonder he wouldn't let that masseuse in Galdin Quay get his hands on him for more than a minute," Prompto said, in sudden understanding. "Oh, man. Poor Noct."
"Poor Noct what?" Noctis said, glaring drippily at them from the cracked bathroom door.
Propto sat up with a yelp of surprise; Ignis cut a large chunk out of Gladio's tousled mane and was obliged to spend the next five minutes fading it in.
"Poooorrrnoct," Prompto said, in something like desperation, "For um, having to put up with Ignis' haircut! I mean, the lecturing and the... touching--"
Gladio kicked him, and Prompto shut up abruptly.
"Oh, yeah." Noct shrugged, toweling his hair vigorously. "Eh. It's all right. At least it doesn't give me a boner anymore. Gladio you want the shower next? It's all yours."
"Uh," Gladio said, which Noct took for an affirmative, flopping on his bed in his towel and yanking his blanket over his head. Within five minutes he was sound asleep.
"Well," Ignis said, in mildly shocked tones. "I never expected that."
"That he'd admit it?" Gladio asked.
"No." Ignis put down his scissors and folded his arms, looking supremely put-out. "That I'm insulted."
"It's okay, baby," Gladio said with a laugh, standing and dusting hair off his pants. "You always got me."
"I suppose I do," Ignis sighed. "Ah, well. Prompto? Anything you want while the chair's still open?"
Prompto shook his head, hands tucked firmly between his knees. "If it's all right with you, Ig," he said, blushing furiously, "I think I'll pass."
Chapter 19: Quicksilver
Five-foot-seven and bulletproof.
The pack of coeurls was not even their hunt target. That was a griffin, a quarter of a mile down the rise, and it was for that fight that they'd prepared. Just evade anything on the way, Ignis had said. Don't waste your spells or ammunition on the small fry. A sound plan, he would later admit, with one vicious, snarling exception.
Gladio was the first to break out of the underbrush, pacing the rest of the party at a light jog through the morning drizzle. They were in good spirits in spite of the rain. It had been blisteringly hot in Lestallum and the cool night they'd spent under the stars (and Ignis' exceptional breakfast) had refreshed them and put them in an adventuresome frame of mind. They felt they could take on anything Eos could throw at them.
Unfortunately, the first thing it threw was seven hundred pounds of hungry fur and teeth, and it sprang soundlessly at Gladio from behind without the least warning. Gladio had no chance to defend as the coeurl's razor claws ripped through his clothing and flesh alike with appalling indifference. Gladio screamed--a noise that no man there had ever heard him make before or even have thought him capable of--and the sound turned the blood to icewater in their veins. Gladio was down before they even fully realized what had happened, with his blood spreading a more sinister darkness on his rain-slick leather. Noct broke into a flat sprint, lance materializing in his hand, to get to his side. Ignis shouted out some advice or strategy that Noct did not pause to hear. Prompto fumbled to get his camera back in his vest and draw his gun with his shaking hands.
The coeurl's hunting strategy had worked without a hitch. Its prey sufficiently slowed, the rest of the pack moved in for the kill.
Prompto later could not recall exactly how long he was the last man standing. He fought the way he usually did--by getting the hell out of the way of better combatants and firing support from the perimeter. His sense of time was unreliable in battle, so it could have been mere seconds or several minutes before he noticed that Noct was pinned down next to Gladio's slumped body and Ignis--eyes glazed with confusion--was flailing his daggers at friend and foe alike, without plan or comprehension. Noct could have warped out of his predicament, but that would mean leaving Gladio unprotected among several hungry, circling cats. His blows grew weaker as the arms of his ancestors exacted their price from his own strength, and the coeurl batted at him with one massive paw as a cat would toy with a mostly-dead mouse.
It was him, Prompto realized, or nothing. Removed from the moment, the very idea would be the stuff of nightmares. (Indeed, Prompto was never entirely all right with any cat larger than a breadbox from that day on.) But with every ounce of his strength and concentration focused on how the hell to get the four of them out of their predicament alive, Prompto simply did not have time to be afraid. In fact he felt an eerie calm settle over him, a strange detachment as he measured the time remaining in his friends' lives with a kind of ruthless practicality. Ignis or Gladio might have automatically put Noct first, as they were trained to do, but Prompto regarded every life as equal, with the exception of his own. He would find a way to save them, even if it meant slowing a coeurl's jaws with his own body.
Ignis would be fine a little longer, Prompto determined. Inflicting confuse on him was usually the last mistake any monster ever made, because while Ignis would take the occasional swipe at his companions, it also stripped him of his natural reserve and caution. He was a furious blur of knives and his own injuries only infuriated him more; one cat lay dead at his feet and two others, both bleeding heavily from his attacks, eyed him warily. Prompto put him at lowest priority and moved on.
Gladio was unconscious but not dead, or Noct would have brought the wrath of all the Astrals down upon their heads. The fact that the Immortals had not yet seen fit to interfere in the battle gave Prompto a tiny bit of hope, but Gladio's still face was nothing to be glad of. He needed a Phoenix Down as fast as possible, which Noct could not give him while his whole effort was spent to keep the pack leader off them. She was twice the size of the others, she wanted her prey, and her patience was wearing thin. Noct summoned his shield, but it shuddered under the weight of her paw, and Prompto made his decision. It had barely taken him a second, and he was already running to close the distance between them.
The valiant went back in his holster as he ran; and for once the weight of the auto-crossbow did not make him stagger as he brought it around. He jammed one hand against the firing mechanism, wrenched back the auto-throttle with the other, and felt the engine inside the weapon whine in dismay. If we make it out of this alive, Prompto thought, unable to differentiate now between his heavy bootsteps and his own thudding heart, Cid's gonna kill me.
The moment seared itself on Prompto's vision, more permanent than any photograph. Noct's shield was going pale at the edges as he fought to keep his consciousness. Gladio's blood was all over the wet grass, impossibly bright red against the green, gleaming in the borrowed light of Noct's magic. And the coeurl above them both, with her strange beauty and her velvety-soft ears, her black lips drawn away from her teeth, her shining claws extended as she reared back to slice Noct open through his fading defenses. She was a queen of her kind, savage and cruel, her gold fur shading to white with age. For the most fleeting of seconds, Prompto was almost sorry.
Then he skidded forward on the grass, leveled his crossbow at one gleaming eye, and unloaded four hundred rounds of searing hot ammunition straight into her muzzle. It was nothing the weapon was ever meant to do, and it backfired with a deafening bang, smoke curling up from the vents as everything inside it shut down. Ears ringing, Prompto heard only a thin, distant thread of the beast's dying scream, saw Noct's mouth move in the shape of his name.
"Hang on," Prompto said, though all he heard of his own voice was a strange buzzing, as he dragged his pistol out of its holster, sighted his shot through the tall grass, and picked off the last coeurl hounding Ignis. It was already weak, and three shots did the job. Then Prompto flopped back in the wet grass, thinking how nice the falling rain felt, as the gray sky and the whole world it enclosed went black around him.
The worst headache of his life woke Prompto up. It was not so much a headache as an earache, and it rang through his head with the force of all the palace bells in full cacophony. His groan of pain was involuntary. Someone touched his shoulder, there was a crunch like broken glass and the cold, crushed pine-needle scent of Noct's healing magic, and then both the deafness and the pain began to recede. An item, of some kind. Echo Screen? Potion? Maybe just a Remedy to cover all the bases. Prompto couldn't be sure which it was, but it made him feel like a new man.
"Prompto? How're you feeling?"
Noctis' voice, somewhere very close. Prompto opened his eyes. They were back at the campsite, and the afternoon shadows stretched long red fingers across the fields. The morning rain had gone, and with the approach of sunset the sky above them was fast ripening to crimson. Prompto was on his sleeping bag, drawn up beside the fire, and Noct was kneeling over him with a worried look on his face. Something smelled delicious, and Prompto wet his lips to speak.
"Is... Ignis making curry soup?"
"Ha! I think he's gonna be fine, guys."
"Gladio?" Prompto had never been so glad for the sound of Gladio's laughter. Gingerly, he rolled up onto his elbow, felt Noct's supporting hand at his shoulder. "You're okay!"
One of the camp chairs had been pulled closer to the stove, and Gladio was sitting in it, tank top in one hand, looking wan and tired but plenty alive. In the light of the cooking lantern, Ignis was rolling gauze around Gladio's shoulder with an expert touch.
"Easy, Prompto," Noct said. "You've had a busy day."
"He has, at that," Ignis added. "It's a wonder he didn't concuss himself right into some permanent tinnitus. Still, you are quite the hero of the day, and I think that merits your favorite dish, what?"
"Huh," Gladio said. "I think damn near dying would merit me a giantass steak, actually."
"Shush. Giving us all a fright like that, I should put you on nothing but cup noodle for the week, except you wouldn't mind and I shudder to think of the ghastly effect all that sodium would have on your blood pressure." Ignis closed the lid of the first aid kit as though closing the discussion along with it. "Hungry, Prompto?"
"Oh my god I'm starving," Prompto said, realizing he was, and struggling to stand up.
"Stay," Noct said, getting up instead. "I'll get it for you. We'd all be pretty bad off if you hadn't pulled that stunt."
"All of us apart from the auto-crossbow, which suffered an untimely death at your hands," Ignis said, ladling soup into bowls. "Not that I'm not grateful."
"Eh," Gladio shrugged--carefully--around his bandages. "Cid'll fix it up in no time."
"Ahh," Prompto said, his face feeling hot in a way that was not the fault of the campfire, "It was nothing none of you wouldn't have done and better."
"There's no need to be humble," Ignis said, and dished up an extra-full bowl for Noct to take over to Prompto. "It was some very quick thinking on your part. I'm only chagrined that I was of so little use myself."
"Well, that's his name, ain't it?" Gladio tossed a wink in Prompto's direction. "Quicksilver."
"You guyyys," Prompto said, pleased and pink all the way to his ears. "You're gonna make me blush."
"Weren't blushing when you were blowing that cat's damn head off," Gladio said, after a loud slurp of curry. "Not that I saw it this time. But I know you're all business when you want to be."
"Hey, what do you expect from a guy who's so..." Noct paused theatrically as he handed Prompto his soup, "...mercurial."
"Oh very good, Noct," Ignis said, pleased. "You were listening in composition class after all."
"It's really... no big deal." Prompto looked down at his soup, with its extra portion of meat and two sprigs of mint because Ignis knew he liked it, and thought his emotions might get the better of him.
"Come now, let's stop complimenting the boy and let him have his supper." Ignis dished up his own plate last, and settled into his chair with a satisfied noise. "He's going to go downright gooey if we keep it up. Though now I'm reminded of those old service revolvers we used for our firearms training back in the day. You remember, Gladio?"
"Hell yes." Gladio had a fond gleam in his eye, as though recalling an old love. "Those Quicksilvers had a kick that would damn near take your thumb off, and nothin' under the Astrals was ever so much of a pain to take apart, but damn could they hit a target."
"There's a Quicksilver gun?" Prompto said, spoon still in his mouth.
"I never heard of it," Noct said.
"Sure you have," Gladio said, and his empty bowl clattered as he put it down on the rocky ground. "It's in every old war and gangster movie you ever saw. All your bodyguards up until you were twelve probably used 'em, Noct. Before the Valiants got more popular."
"Wonder if I could find one?" Prompto said, his eyes shining at the thought. His name had been something of a sticking point in his grade school days (bad enough being fat and quiet and spectacled, but nobody named their kids Prompto anymore), so the idea of having a classy weapon share his name was infinitely appealing.
"Ah, they're probably not enough for you now," Ignis said, kindly. "You've come rather far in a very short time, as that maneuver of yours today indicates. But who's to say? I imagine someone with a good head for mechanics could engineer one of those old revolvers into something quite special."
"Gotta take that auto-crossbow back to Cid for repairs," Noct said, carefully piling all the carrots in his curry to one side of the bowl. "Maybe he'd have some ideas?"
"Or Cindy," Gladio said, with a wink. "You might even get her to say more than four words to you."
"I'm sorry but I think I hit my head really hard today or something?" Prompto said, in a tiny voice. "And I'm dreaming? Because you're all being really really nice."
"S'yeah," Noct laughed, elbowing Prompto in the ribs. "Cos without you we'd be dead."
"Regular abuse will resume tomorrow," Ignis said briskly, rising from his chair. "But in the meantime there's plenty of leftover curry, Prompto, and I can't help noticing that your bowl appears to be empty."
I had a request for Hero!Prompto and that slotted in nicely with my preexisting plans for this installment! Also, fukkin coeurls, man. I'd rather take on a party of ten drunk Yojimbo on their way back from a party after their favorite football team lost the championship than fight coeurls. A hundred solid hours of gameplay and I ain't never heard Gladio make that noise until this weekend. O_O Also, would you believe I wrote this fic yesterday and then last night I was poking through my ascension menu and found Prompto's Recoil skill, which I hadn't yet unlocked for him but is basically what I wrote him doing in this. And here I thought I was bein' original.
In case you're new to FF: The quicksilver is a recurring gun--it's Vincent's default weapon in FF7 and he's the character I most associate with it, though it predates him. In my headcanon it's a piece of standard ShinRa Turk equipment. Prompto gets his later in the game, of course. ^_~
"It's quite fascinating," Ignis said, as though they'd all been carrying on this conversion for some time now, which they hadn't. "From an evolutionary standpoint, anyway."
"What's that, Iggy?" Gladio asked, tossing his chocobo's reins back over the saddle. It was obvious nobody else was going to rise to the bait--it was not quite seven in the morning and he suspected both Prompto and Noct had been dozing on the ride over. Noct was yawning openly as he dismounted, Prompto squinted at the breathtaking scenery above Calatein's Plunge and yet didn't even bother to take out his camera.
"Consider the humble chocobo," Ignis said, scritching Amarant right under her beak and making the crimson bird's eyes close with pleasure. "Thoroughly domesticated and flightless, but with sufficient muscle mass to carry riders."
Gladio didn't seem to share Ignis' sudden interest in avian biology. "Eh, breed something selectively for a few thousand years and they'll come out like you want them to."
Prompto slid off Figaro's shocking-pink back with less grace than usual, gave Gladio a wary look. "What the hell did they do to get you, then, big guy?"
Gladio bristled. "Hey. In my family we appreciate ladies with a little meat on their bones, all right?"
"Funny you should mention that," Ignis mused, clearly having a separate conversation than the rest of them. "Meat, rather. Not ladies. Take, for example, the chocobo's beak. It is that of a bird of prey, without question. Sharp and hooked for both catching a live meal and then taking it apart. And yet it would seem they are content with nothing but greens."
Unaware that she was the subject of such scrutiny, Amarant tipped a bright eye at a caterpillar inching along the asphalt by her toe, and snapped it up. Lulu, instantly jealous of her nestmate's tidbit, came over to see if there was anything more.
"With the occasional embellishment," Ignis added, and patted his bird to congratulate her for her find. "But to maintain such a powerful physique on so little....It's testament to the remarkable power of the humble vegetable. Hmm, Noct?"
Noct did not answer, but slowly adjusted his cap brim with only his middle finger.
"They did seem to like pecking at leftover bits of hundlegs," Gladio admitted. He spied another fat caterpillar on the rust-pitted railing of the parking spot, and tossed it to Lulu. She caught it out of the air with a kweh of delight and then looked adoringly at her rider, all her gray feathers puffed out. "And they sure enjoy a tasty bug now and then. But I guess after all these generations being kept, they're happy with a good radish."
"Better them than me," Prompto said, scratching his belly. "Let's get this over with and head back to the outpost. I don't think that bowl of oatmeal took this morning. I could demolish a stack of pancakes about now."
"Me too," Noct said, idly stroking his mount's white neck. Being a male chocobo, and therefore smaller, Roni didn't think it wise to pester the females for their snack, but kept a sharp eye on them in case anything happened to fall in his direction. "Let's go murder whatever we're here to murder and then get about four orders of bacon."
"To split?" Ignis asked, with just a little bit of force to suggest that had better be what Noct meant.
"No," Noctis retorted, because it wasn't.
"Who's king?" Noctis said, and the argument was over.
Ignis sighed. Selective breeding had its downside. As did the average monarchy. Which was basically the same thing.
"Death before pancakes, fellas." Gladio said, waving a hand at Lulu to tell her that he wanted her to stay safely out of the way. "Let's go."
"Murder managed!" Prompto said an hour later, twirling his gun triumphantly. "I solemnly swear I am up for some pancakes."
"I should revoke your pancakes for being such an enormous nerd," Gladio said, looking at the massive dead sahagin lying on the riverbank, its hide heavily scarred from previous battles that it had escaped. "Except that was some fancy shooting."
"I could go for a blueberry short stack myself," Ignis admitted, shaking out his gloves. "And now that this monster is taken care of, I see no reason to walk to get it. Noct, do be good enough to call the birds."
"They're already on the way," Noct said, pointing at some colorful tail feathers moving rapidly down the hillside towards them. "Maybe they got spooked?" He took off his cap, raked his hair back, and put it back on. "So, anything we can scavenge from this thing, Specs?"
"The scales, I suppose," Ignis said, considering. "And perhaps the liver, though with a specimen this size, it might have accumulated a few too many toxins over its lifetime for it to be wise to eat. But considering how this beast has ruined the local food chain, I think it only fair to leave it here for the natural scavengers to--" Whatever else Ignis was going to say was obliterated by the strident warking of four excited chocobos, who rushed down onto the gravel bank like a feathery tidal wave.
"Hey, Figgy!" Prompto said, holding out his arms. "I'm glad to see you too, budd--"
Figaro pelted right past Prompto, jostling the other chocobos in his haste to get to the river. Or, more importantly, to the dead sahagin, which they tackled like a team of post-game blitzball players on an all-you-can-eat buffet. Within seconds they had ripped the lizard open and were busy eating whatever they could get their beaks into. Which seemed to be everything.
"Gracious," Ignis said, which was more than the rest of them could manage just then, staring at their normally-placid mounts going berserk over bits of sahagin meat. Lulu outright shrieked at Roni when he tried to nab some morsel too near her claim, and Amarant and Figaro got into a shrill argument over some choice bit of tail meat. With beak and claw they tore the sahagin to bloody shreds, rejoicing over it as any pack of ravens would feast on a battlefield.
"Wellp," Gladio said, balling his fists on his hips. "Guess that answers your question, Ig. Prompto, get off me."
"Oh my god that's terrifying," Prompto said, still trying his level best to climb up Gladio, as though he was some kind of mullet-wearing tree. "Look at them go! We sleep next to these things? They could eat us!"
"Highly unlikely," Ignis said. "It would seem they prefer fresh carrion, of a specific type, and perhaps only in certain seasons, such as mating or when they have chicks to raise. I very much doubt they'd be interested in eating us."
"But just to be on the safe, don't go rubbing any turnips behind your ears before bed," Gladio said, and forcibly removed Prompto from his shoulders.
Noct winced as Lulu started jumping up and down on the lizard's exposed ribcage to crack it open. The sound of breaking bone ricocheted around the river valley. "Guess we're lucky they like us," he said.
As if to prove Noct's statement, Roni came trotting over from the carnage, hooked beak and white face feathers all smeared with blood, making a pleased clicking noise in his throat. With obvious pride he bent down and dropped something wet on the ground by Noct's sneaker. It was one of the sahagin's eyeballs.
"Aw," Ignis said. "A present. Now be polite, Noct. He picked that out just for you."
Noct looked at the eyeball (which looked back at him), and then at his mount. Roni made a happy chirp of encouragement--as if to say I know I shouldn't have, but it made me think of you and I had to get it--and Noct burst out into a helpless laugh. Roni put his head on Noct's shoulder, delighted his gift was so well-received. "Hey now, who's my big sweet opportunistic predator?" Noct asked no one, and hugged his bird around its fluffy neck. "Who's the best feathery death machine a guy could ever want? That's right! It's you."
"Seems we're all real popular," Gladio said, as Lulu presented him with a broken sahagin rib that she'd cleaned to a shine, and Figaro--with considerable effort and no small amount of pride--dragged over one of the beast's huge fore-claws and deposited it on Prompto's shoes.
"Why, thank you." Ignis looked at the gleaming dorsal scale that Amarant had put in his hand--with a large chunk of sahagin meat still clinging to it. "It's what I've always wanted, darling."
"Thanks, pal," Prompto said, giving Figaro's shoulder a shaky pat. "I'll uh. I'll save it for later, ok?"
"Good girl," Gladio assured Lulu, who danced in a proud little circle at the praise, the mighty queen of her little flock.
"Is it safe to ride them, you think?" Prompto asked, though his teeth.
"I don't see why not," Ignis crooned, to his chocobo. "They seem quite calm now, and why shouldn't they? Everyone feels better after a nice meal, don't they? Yes they do."
"Come on, guys," Noct said, swinging up into Roni's saddle. "I'm starving and the good parts of that lizard are already gone. Let's go take out the pack of omelets harassing that diner up the road."
"It's funny that it should happen now though," Ignis mused, after they'd ridden for some way. "They've shown no sign of such behavior before."
"Well, maybe it's like you said before," Gladio said. "Something they do when they've got young, or mating season."
"I don't think these birds have any chicks, or Wiz wouldn't rent them out," Ignis said. "So that leaves--"
"Hey!" Prompto shouted, as Figaro gave a sudden lurch under him and jumped directly on top of Lulu from behind, nearly squashing Gladio in the process. Lulu shook him off with a sharp rebuke, vestigial wings flailing, and Gladio swore as he and Prompto struggled to regain control of their mounts. Meanwhile, Noct's Roni drew up alongside Amarant with an amorous croon, and Amarant shook her tail feathers and made a clicking sound that was downright flirty in reply.
"Um," Noct said.
"Oh dear," said Ignis.
Chocobos! They are cute! But stink a bit. And are basically big yellow velociraptors. I've always loved writing about them, so this was extra fun.
Our Chocobros' Chocobos:
Noct - Roni, White Male -- Named after Edgar's middle name (ff6) but mostly for Bart's ancestor (Xenogears), because all our FF7 chocobos always had Xeno names
Prompto - Figaro, Bright Pink Male -- Named after another chainsaw-wielding blond hottie in this franchise
Ignis - Amarant, Crimson Female -- Named after Amarant (ff9), but also for the color and because it's a classy name for a bird
Gladio - Lulu, Gray Female (dominant) -- Named after Lulu (ffx) and also because it's Cajun for ghost, and she's gray. (He had her in teal at first but it was too bright for both of them.) Also because how cute is this giant man and his giant bird and he calls her Lulu? (answer: the cutest.) He'd love to have a black one! But that is a Thing for Kings.
SPEAKING OF CHOCOBOS: If you're going to Katsukon weekend after next, be on the lookout for a party of Final Fantasy Ginjinka on Saturday. I'll be the fat chocobo. ^_^ I'll have a bag of other people's items and I can hold your stuff for you, but it'll cost you. Come up and say hello! (or Kweh.) Meanwhile, fic updates and replies might be spotty as I'm busy gluing yellow feathers to everything in sight. (I'm also making a moogle and assisting with a tonberry, so things might be a bit harried until after con.)
Chapter 21: Poet
Maybe they should look it up on.... Google.
Prompto Argentum wasn't sleepy. It was a fact that could not elude whatever poor bastard was stuck in bed with him, which in this case was Noct. Because when Prompto wasn't sleepy, he was squirmy, and talkative, and generally a pest until he either wore himself out or woke up everyone else. Noct was hoping it would eventually be the former.
"So the other day?" Prompto was saying, in a hushed whisper so as not to disturb up the occupants of the other hotel bed, who had been quiet now for twenty minutes or more.
Lucky bastards, Noct thought, half-listening to Prompto's ramble.
"...I snuck a look at one of the books Gladio's always reading? And you know what it was?"
Noct sighed and pulled the blanket halfway off his face. "If I say yes, will you let me go to sleep?"
"Are you sleepy? Oh, sorry, you're always sleepy. I envy that, you know? I can't ever sleep in the car. But it makes the drive go faster, right? If you--"
"Prompto." It was hard to work the tone of a dire threat into a whisper, but Noct managed. "Just tell me what the hell was in Gladio's book." With this lead-up, Noct thought it had better be nothing less than some really filthy porn.
"Poetry," Prompto said, and smooshed his face into his pillow in a show of disbelief. "Like, the really crusty stuff, man. Thees and thous all over the place."
Noct was intrigued, in spite of himself. "Really? He doesn't seem the type."
From the other bed came an ominous rumble, like a behemoth disturbed in its sleep. Or Gladio. Which, Noct considered, might be worse. Prompto dropped his voice down to the barest breath.
"Seriously. And he reads the same ones all the time. Bet he's memorizing them. But it made me wonder. D'you think he... you know, just reads it? Or does he..." Prompto let the question hang.
Noct pondered the idea, not even sleepy anymore. "What kind of poetry would Gladio even write, though?"
"Dunno." Prompto hunched up in silent laughter, struck by a sudden thought. "Maybe it's about noodles."
Noct had to put a hand over his mouth, but a fragment of his surprised laugh escaped anyway. Ignis muttered something in his sleep as Noct and Prompto tried--and failed--to get control of themselves. Suddenly the notion of Gladio writing noodle-poetry was the most hilarious thing either of them had ever heard of, made all the worse because they were trying to be quiet.
"What the hell even rhymes with noodle?" Prompto wanted to know, tears in his eyes.
"Moogle," Noct whispered. The word came out as half a laugh in the dark motel room, and Prompto and Noct clung to their pillows and each other as they tried to shut themselves up. Which only made everything that much funnier.
They'd almost managed to rein it in when Prompto said, "Doodle," and then the whole bed shook with their stifled giggles. Prompto kicked his feet to make up for the noise he couldn't make with his mouth, and in the next bed, the behemoth roused with an angry snort.
"Keep it down, you two," Gladio grunted. They could see his shadowy form move around in the dim motel room, and waited until it was still again.
"We should go to sleep."
"Good night, Prompto."
They gave it a good try for a minute or so.
"....Oodles of poodles." Noct said, and they both exploded into howls of laughter that they could not even begin to contain.
Gladio sat up with a roar and yanked the bedside light on, glaring red-eyed at a sheepish (and still giggling) Noct and Prompto in the other bed. "What is this," he snarled, "a goddamn slumber party? Do we need to paint our toenails and listen to mixtapes and talk about cute boys? Are we all twelve year old girls here? Huh? Well are we?"
Noct had his pillow crammed over his face; Prompto had the blanket pulled up to his nose. In spite of the sudden brightness and Gladio's rage they still had not entirely managed to stop laughing, though now it had a slight note of panic to it.
"Gladio," Ignis groaned, one arm over his face. "What are you on about?"
"I'm on about three hours' sleep and five hundred miles and I'm not up for this bullshit, that's what I'm on about."
Ignis made a noise of annoyance and rolled over.
"Sorry, Gladio," Prompto said, and elbowed Noct.
"Yeah," Noct echoed. "Sorry, man. Just a little punchy."
Gladio was not convinced. "You sure? I mean, I can go get my copy of Torama Beat and we can stay up and do all the quizzes and then argue about who gets the pullout poster of Cor Leonis, if that's how it's gonna be. Cos I don't want to miss whatever's so much damn fun."
"Oh, go to sleep and quit shouting," Ignis grumbled, whacking Gladio with a spare pillow without bothering to look.
Gladio gave Noct and Prompto one last baleful glare before turning off the light and settling back down. A few moments of concentrated silence passed, though everyone knew no one was actually asleep yet.
Prompto caught the gleam of Noct's open eyes and mouthed the word noodle at him; Noct shoved him because he couldn't tell him out loud to shut up and quit making him laugh.
"Guuyyyys," Gladio warned, at the sound of motion from the next bed over.
"I've been thinking of making a strudel," Ignis announced to the darkened hotel room, and the result was absolute pandemonium. Gladio turned on the light again, but it didn't make a dent. Noct and Prompto laughed until they were crying and gasping for air, and Ignis had tickled himself so badly with his contribution that the only noise he could make was a sustained giggle.
Gladio yanked the coverlet off the bed and snatched up one of the pillows. "...I'm sleeping in the car."
"That's pretty far," Noct wheezed.
"But we'll know where you are!" Prompto put in, and then was waylaid by a case of hiccups.
"Now Gladio," Ignis managed. "No need to do anything... bizarre."
Gladio slammed the door behind him.
"Make it quick," Gladio panted, his face drawn with pain, skin pallid under a sheen of sweat. He held his arm out, and with gritted teeth and furrowed brow, tried to brace himself against what was to come. "Just... get it over with, Ig."
"It's already over," Ignis said, holding a pair of tweezers which, in turn, gripped what was probably the world's tiniest thorn. "You are the biggest infant, honestly."
Gladio let out his breath with a gasp, mopped a hand across his forehead. "Look, I can't stand having stuff stuck in me, all right?"
"That's the very first I've heard about it," Ignis said, so drily that it could have turned all the wetlands around them into barren desert.
"You know what I mean," Gladio said, tugging his bracer back on. "Thorns, insect stingers, splin--Prompto if you don't stop laughing I'm gonna come fold you up like an origami funguar."
"Well it's your own fault," Prompto said, wringing out his tank top with both hands and then shaking it over the campfire, stray droplets making the logs hiss. He flopped it on one of the chairs along with all the other clothes they were trying to dry out. "If you didn't go around talking to strange women in gas stations we wouldn't be in this mess."
"Hey, Iggy's the one who dropped the Regalia's keys in the lake--"
"Which I would not have done if Noct could manage to keep his hands on his own frog," Ignis said, adding quickly, "and that's not a euphemism. I mean I'm blaming both of you, and I'm blaming the actual frog." Surgery done, Ignis began unbuttoning his own soggy shirt. "Anything to say for yourself, Noct?"
"I've been looking for a very small key in a very large lake all afternoon," Noct said, pouring a generous amount of water out of his boot. "Anything I say you would regret now, and I would regret later."
"At least we found the keys," Gladio said, with the air of a man who has successfully shifted blame elsewhere. "Even if it did mean me having to uproot a whole patch of thorny lake-weed. Could have been bad if someone else got to 'em first."
"Who else was going to find them?" Ignis said, in open wonder. He was even wetter than the rest of them, throughly drenched to his hair, and muddy all over his thighs and back. Noct had put him flat on his ass in the water--thus the loss of the keys--and his patience had suffered markedly as a result. He flapped his shirt to get the water out of it, and it was by no accident that most of it landed on Gladio and Noct. "Did you expect a catoblepas to make off with our car on a joyride? Does the empire employ a salvage team of magitek scuba-divers? Was it--"
"Something is stuck to my leg," Prompto said, with a quaver in his voice that was fast rising into panic. "Guys, something is stuck to meeeeeee. Oh god, what is it? Whyissomethingstucktome!?"
"Calm down, calm down, Sweet Gilgamesh. They're gonna hear you clean back in Insomnia." Gladio dropped to one knee beside Prompto. "Lemme see."
Prompto, with a whine barely held back in his teeth, extended his leg for Gladio to see. "What is it? Is it poisonous? Am I gonna die? Is my leg gonna rot off? I heard there's these amoebas and they get up in your brain and they eat it and--"
"Then that explains what happened to you sometime in grade school," Gladio said, but he had braced Prompto's foot against his thigh, and his fingers were far more gentle than his tone as he examined the dark blob on his freckled calf. "You're fine. Don't be such a baby. It's just a little leech."
"Bigger or smaller than your thorn?" Noct wanted to know, pulling his shirt off over his head.
Gladio ignored him. "Here. Just push your fingernail up against the head to loosen the mouthparts--" Prompto made a noise like a distant siren and looked like he was going to swoon, so Gladio did it for him. "...And it pops it right off. See?" Gladio unceremoniously tossed the leech into the fire. "Get Iggy to slap some anitiseptic on that, it'll be all right."
Prompto flopped back onto the rune-carved stone of the campsite, ribs heaving. "Sorry give me a second I'm just not used to having things eating me for lunch it's a very traumatic experience--"
"Yeah? Better get out of your pants and skivvies then, make sure you haven't got any others having you for dinner. You too, Noct."
The thought of having more little crawly things sucking his blood put Prompto on his feet immediately, stripping down to his skin without even a thought for modesty. "Gladio please don't take this the wrong way but will you check my ass shuttup stop laughing just get them off if there are any I hope they're aren't any are there any no don't tell me--"
"Uuuughh this is the worst trip ever," Noct said, slapping his wet socks on the ground as he stood up. "But I think I'm good. Ignis, want me to check you over? ...Ignis?"
Ignis was still standing rigidly by the camp table, shirt in one hand, a look of terrible calm on his face. "I'm so very sorry?" he said, in a dim, small voice. "But I'm afraid it's taking every fiber of my being to keep from screaming right now."
Ignis' tone got Gladio's attention immediately. "Ig?--You're clear, Prompto, just put on a towel already, I don't need to see your business bouncin' around--Iggy, you okay?"
Ignis blinked at Gladio twice as he considered the question. "No?" he said, and then fainted dead away.
Gladio shot forward with an oath and manged to catch Ignis' body before he cracked his head open on the rocks. Noct stepped back in stunned disbelief. He'd barely seen Ignis so much as flinch before, much less pass out.
"What the hell--?"
"Noct," Gladio growled, easing Ignis down beside the fire. "Give me a hand. Prompto, get that first aid-kit. And his glasses, before you step on them. And put some pants on, for Ifrit's sake."
"Please tell me that Ignis doesn't have some kind of leech phobia," Noct said, as Gladio undid Ignis' belt buckle with telling familiarity.
"No," Gladio said, yanking Ignis' pants down to his hips, "He has a completely insane and mindless terror of leeches. Or any small blood-sucky thing. Want to watch him have a seizure? Say the word "bedbug" to him in a vulnerable moment. Idiot. No wonder he passed out. He'd probably been hyperventilating for ten minutes instead of just sayin' something. I only hope he hasn't got any... oh, merciful Shiva."
"Augh," Prompto said, coming over with a pair of clean shorts over one shoulder and the first-aid kit in front of his less-than-privates, and Noct thought the exclamation summed things up nicely. "Okay--first of all that man has a truly impressive personal grooming regimen but--wow that's.... that's a lotta leeches, you guys."
"In that case," Noct said, trying to count the fat, squirmy bodies attached to Ignis' thighs, and having to quit when he went--queasily and unwillingly--into the double digits, "I'm really glad he's not awake for this."
"You and me both," Gladio breathed, getting Ignis' pants down to his ankles. "Because he'd be clawing all our faces off if he was. Now let's get them all off him before he comes around. And that would be easier if he didn't insist on wearing sock garters--"
"I got it," Prompto said, going for Ignis' shoelaces. "You guys just get started up there."
"I could hit him with a little bit of lightning?" Noct offered. "Zap the bastards right off him?"
Gladio shook his head. "You kill them like that, and gods only know what they'd spit up in his bloodstream. Just use your fingernail. Or as much of your fingernails as you haven't chewed off. Don't rush, and for fuck's sake don't squeeze any of them. I think the worst of them are up here on his thighs. You okay down there, Prompto?"
"Yep," Prompto said, and with a grunt of grim satisfaction, threw a leech into the fire. "Not so bad when they're not actually attached to me personally."
"I always thought you needed salt for these things," Noct said, trying to focus on the task and not think about Ignis unconscious, or Ignis afraid of something, or how humiliating and awful this would be for him if he was awake. In fact, it was better not to think of Ignis as being vulnerable to anything at all, because that thought turned into a strange and formless terror down in Noct's belly, and he did not want to let it grow.
"You watch too many old movies," Gladio said, and tossed a particularly large leech into the flames, where it popped like some horrible black marshmallow. "Phew. That's all the big ones, anyway. Let's flip him over."
"Here," Prompto said, scooting closer to the others, his pants on again at last. "He's clean from the knees down and I doused the spots with alcohol." He handed the bottle to Noct. "You get the ones up here, and I'll put bandages on these."
"No," Gladio said, shaking his head. "Wait. Noct, just hit him with a potion when this is done, will ya? That should close these wounds up. I don't want him to know how many there were. He'd never sleep again."
"Got it," Noct said, and threw another leech into the fire. "Son of a bitch," he added, for good measure. "That's what you get for trying to eat my friends."
"Heh, you tell it, Noct." Prompto's laugh was a bit forced. "Though I don't think leeches have ears."
"Ignis would know," Noctis said, "but I don't want to ask him in case he passes out again."
"We'll keep this between us, then," Gladio said, smoothing his hands over Ignis' ribs to make sure he hadn't missed anything higher up.
"I'll put some water on to boil," Prompto said, padding barefoot over to the stove. "For coffee, and maybe some instant noodle or something. Not gonna make him cook after this, that's for sure."
"There. That's all of them, Noct," Gladio said, with a noise of satisfaction as the last parasite went flying into the fire. "Get that potion on him, and I'll grab a blanket."
Noct was left alone with his insensate advisor, lying too-still and bleeding in a damp patch on the rock. "It'll be okay," he murmured, even though he never before in his life had said anything to console Ignis, and he wasn't even awake to hear it this time. "I'll take care of this." He grabbed a potion from his soggy jacket on the nearby chair, and broke it open one-handed. Green sparks of healing magic overpowered the light of the campfire for a moment, and Noct felt himself smile as Ignis' countless small wounds knit themselves back into whole, unmarked skin. It was not often he felt his powers were more of a gift that a burden.
"That's better." Gladio emerged from the tent and handed Noct one of their blankets. "Here. Get that around him. He'll be all right now. Just let him come around on his own. Phobias are one thing, but there's no telling how much blood those bastards got out of him. Plenty of spots looked like the leech had already gone. We just got the stragglers. You can't feel them bite you, you know? I think that's what he hates so much about it."
"Poor Ig," Prompto said, and without really intending to do so, he reached down and took Ignis' limp hand in his own. "He does so much for us."
"I know," Noct said quietly, folding the blanket over Ignis' naked and frighteningly mortal body. "He always does. And we give him such a hard time for it."
"We could maybe try to be a little nicer," Prompto suggested.
Gladio grunted his agreement. "Yeah. Let's go easy on him the next couple of days, at least."
"Go easy on him," Noct shook his head. "He'd hate to hear that."
"Yes, I would." Ignis said, blinking up at them all. His voice rose weakly from his throat, he put one hand to his face. "What on Eos just--" He looked around slowly, taking in their expressions, the mostly-empty bottle of rubbing alcohol, the sodden pile of his own clothes, and the fact that he was sitting bare-ass on the rock with only a blanket between him and the whole world. "I... don't want to know, do I?"
"No," Gladio assured him, "You don't."
"Ah." Ignis sat up and dragged the blanket around him, stretching his bare feet towards the fire. "I can only assume your intentions were noble. Because I would rather not be the subject of any of Prompto's more candid travelogue photos."
"You passed out," Gladio said, dismissively. "Couldn't leave you lying there in wet clothes, you'd get pneumonia."
"It was just exhaustion, I bet," Prompto lied, with disquieting smoothness. "No biggie! Here. I made some coffee, it's probably not as good as yours but..."
"I know exactly why I passed out, there's no need to coddle me. But I appreciate you not bringing up the reason." Ignis took a sip of the coffee and coughed, eyes watering. "Yes. Thank you, Prompto. That's very... bracing."
"Glad you're okay," Noct said, while Prompto rushed to catch the kettle before it boiled over, and Gladio went to find some dry clothes for Ignis. "You had me worried."
"Did I, now?" Ignis drank a little more coffee, cautiously. "Well. My apologies, Noct."
"No, I don't want you to apologize just..." Noct tried to sort out his thoughts, and couldn't manage to make them form into words. "Thanks," he said, finally. "For everything."
"Ah." Ignis was rather taken aback by this and he swirled his coffee in his cup for a long moment. "Well. I mean. Erum." He cleared his throat. "I must say, though, if you wanted to get me naked and then make me blush, Noct, there are surely more fitting occasions."
Noct laughed, but it was as soft and fond as his smile. "No offense, Ig? But I think I've seen quite enough of you for a while."
Based on an all-too-true story. Except I never found the key. And then a catfish stole my car.
NB: Also tattoos don't bug Gladio, (obviously) since it's not some foreign sharp fragment that sticks in him and gets stuck under his skin like a splinter, which is what he can't deal with. And modern tattoos don't work that way anyhow.
Chapter 23: Valentine
Return to last rest point?
"This is not my idea of a fun Saturday night," Prompto said, wringing out his dripping plaid. It made no difference, as it was soaked again immediately. "Just so you know."
"I don't think it's anyone's idea of a fun anything," Ignis said. He pulled off his glasses to wipe them dry, realized that absolutely nothing on him was dry, from his suit jacket to his socks, and then just put them back on again with a resigned sigh. "But we shall have to make the best of it."
"Nearest campsite's that way," Gladio said, pointing through what had to be the thickest, thorniest patch of underbrush in all of Cleigne, not that much of it could be seen through the rain and the deepening dark. "Couple of miles."
"Camping?" Prompto wailed. "In this downpour? We'll drown."
"Now now, Prompto," Ignis tsked. "Don't be ridiculous."
"You tell him, Ig," Gladio said.
"Hypothermia will set in long before any of us drown," Ignis continued, as Gladio's smug expression melted away. "And if I'm not mistaken this will turn into sleet long before we manage to reach the campsite."
Prompto made a sound that was very nearly a sob, but had an extra effect of his teeth chattering.
"How far is the nearest haven?" Noct had been leaning against a tree in the hopes of keeping some of the rain off, but as far as he could tell all he'd done was give the roots a good watering.
"There's a rest area about an hour north of here," Ignis said, trying to shield his phone from the rain. "But at this hour, we'd be taking our lives in our hands to drive there. It'd be well after dark before we even made it to the main highway."
"We can sleep in the car?" Gladio suggested. "I mean, if we want to ruin the upholstery and be attacked by daemons any second."
"Still," Ignis said, sadly. "I'm afraid it's our best option. We'll take turns awake on watch."
"What I wouldn't give to be back at Taelpar," Prompto sighed, slicking back his hair. "I didn't appreciate that warm bed enough last night. You coming, Noct?"
"How far away was that, do you figure?" Noct asked. He peered over the dripping trees as though he could see beyond them to the friendly lights of the motel. "Taelpar?"
"We've traveled quite some way since then." Ignis shook his head. "It's even farther than the--"
"Everybody touch me," Noct said suddenly.
Gladio was so startled that his sneeze died halfway through. "What?"
"Don't argue, just--" Noct reached back to them with his left hand and waved it impatiently. "Just grab on to me." It was a sign of their training that they did as they were told and each put a hand on his arm, bizarre as the order seemed to be. Only Ignis had any inkling as to what was going through his Prince's head, and the uncertainty in his voice was not comforting to the others.
"Noct. You can't possibly be thinking of--"
"Hang on," Noct said, and with a sharp exhalation of breath, he folded space around them with a crackle of magic. Two distant points on the map touched, like letters on the opposite pages of a closing book, and suddenly they were falling out of the air about a foot and a half above the tire-worn pavement of the Taelpar Rest Area. The landing was not particularly graceful for any of them. Prompto was screaming when they left, when they arrived, and only stopped when his ass hit asphalt.
Noct's answer was an unsteady wheeze, the most he could manage while still on his hands and knees.
"Was that a warp strike? Is that what that always feels like?" Prompto made a face as though he'd eaten something impossibly sour.
"Yes," Ignis said, climbing up the nearby gas pump to get to his feet, "That's exactly what it was. As well as rash, foolhardy, impossibly dangerous, and Noct I could kiss you for doing it."
"Please don't," Noct gasped, still on his face on the pavement. "I have to make oxygen choices right now."
Gladio could not manage to add anything to the conversation, as he was busy being quietly sick behind the rent-a-bird.
"I changed my mind," Prompto said, clinging to the ground as though afraid he could be ripped off it again at any second. "You can keep that. I don't want it. I think I left my balls in Malmalam Thicket."
"You wanna go back for them?" Noct panted, mostly on his feet by now. "We can go back for them. Inna... inna minute."
"Mother of Bahamut, no." Prompto dusted gravel off his jeans. "I'm staying right here."
"I think a hotel room might be more comfortable, Prompto." Ignis straightened his cuffs, shook out his jacket. "Though at least it's not raining here-- Gladio are you all right?"
"Sure," Gladio said, and then dove behind the chocobo meter again.
"I'll just get us checked in," Ignis said, and set off briskly towards the motel service window.
"Come on, Prompto." Noct bent down to pull him to his feet, not that he was very steady himself. "Don't worry about your balls. You'll have a lovely singing career."
"I hate you," Prompto said, still clinging to him for balance. "Gladio, you gonna make it?"
"Yeah," Gladio said, dragging a hand across his mouth. "Man. Now I know how everybody in the 'Glaive stays so trim. That'll put you off a few meals."
"You get used to it," Noct said. "Let's go find that warm bed."
"Is it just me," Prompto said, taking note of their surroundings for the first time, "or are there a lot of cars here tonight?"
"And is it just me, or is Ignis still talking to the desk clerk?" Gladio frowned all over his face. "I don't like the looks of this, fellas. What's up, Ig?"
"There's a slight issue," Ignis said, the restrained note in his voice indicating that the issue was more than slight.
"Don't tell me they're full up," Noct said. "I'll have died for nothing."
"We can always stay up all night in the diner," Gladio suggested. "I mean, I'd sooner die, but whatevs."
"They're not full up," Ignis said. "They have one room, and I have reserved it for us. However it might be a little.... cramped. It's a single suite, but I'm afraid it's all they had. There've been widespread power outages due to the storms, and many locals have come to stay here for safety until they can get their lights up again."
"No wonder the place is packed," Gladio said. "It's not a twin bed, right? We'll be fine."
"Hell, I'll sleep on the floor," Prompto offered. "Really, Ig. It's not gonna be worse than all of us squeezing in a tent. How bad can it be?"
Once Ignis opened the motel room door, they had their answer.
"So," Noct said, taking in the massive, satin-sheeted bed, the heart-shaped hot tub in pride of place, the fringed lamp shades, and the overabundance of red velvet everything, "The one suite left was actually the honeymoon suite."
"Um. Why are there mirrors on the ceiling?" Prompto wanted to know.
"I'm sleeping in the diner," Gladio said.
"Don't be ridiculous," Ignis said, yanking him back through the door. "As Prompto so kindly pointed out earlier, it's still bigger than the tent. As a matter of fact that bed is bigger than the tent, and not half an hour ago you were willing to take turns sleeping in the car and watching for daemons. And suddenly a bit of tacky fringe is too much?"
Gladio considered it. "Yes," he said.
"Fine," Ignis snapped. "More room for us. But bring in the luggage before you go."
"The luggage," Gladio repeated, with a meaningful motion of his eyebrow.
"Yes, the luggage, it's in the ca--" Ignis broke off as realization struck. "Oh, bollocks."
"Oops," Noct said, with a wince. "Sorry."
"Okay," Prompto said, ticking off items on his fingers, "All of us sopping wet and cold, no dry clothes, stuck in the honeymoon suite with a hot tub and only one bed... this is starting to sound a teensy bit contrived, you guys."
Noct nearly rolled his eyes right out of his head. "Yeah, because the rest of our plot makes so much sense."
Ignis began carefully peeling off his gloves. "T'would seem the gods find amusement in putting us in awkward positions."
Gladio shuddered, but that might have been only due to his clammy leather. "Don't say position. You'll give them ideas."
Ignis gave him a sharp look. "Would you rather I said in a tight squeeze?"
"No," Gladio said, with feeling.
"Look, you guys can argue about it," Noct said, attempting to extract himself from his wet coat. "But I'm freezing, and right now that hot tub could be shaped like the goddamn Nif flag and I'd still get in it."
"Yeah, I'm with Noct," Prompto kicked off his boots in the only corner not occupied by overstuffed red leather chairs.
"I suppose we're all past modesty at this point," Ignis sighed.
"If I'm going to do this, I need a drink." Gladio pulled his flask from his jacket. "Actually, I think we all need a drink." He took two, just to be on the safe, and passed the flask to Ignis.
"Greeeat," Prompto said, sending his tank top after his boots. "Because the only way to make this less dodgy is for us to all be drunk."
"It will get us warmer faster," Ignis argued, "And I for one have no intentions of nursing you lot through a case of the 'flu. Also, I would punch my own mum for a gin rickey right now. But this will do, thank you, Gladio." He knocked back a shot, coughed delicately, and handed the flask to Noct. "To your good health, your highness. I'll get the bath running."
Noct looked uneasily into the flask, but he'd been shaky ever since warping them through hell and half of Cleigne, so he gave it his best. Which still left him choking on the burn of whiskey, his eyes streaming. "What is that?" he asked, handing the flask to Prompto. "Paint thinner?"
Prompto, if aware everyone was watching him intently, showed no sign of it. He sniffed the flask, shrugged, and tipped it up. And up. Gladio's expression went from amusement to alarm as the reaction he expected from Prompto didn't come, and as he put back a not-inconsiderable amount of Gladio's liquor without batting an eyelash.
"Hey, hey, hey! Prompto! Save some for the rest of us!"
"It's not paint thinner," Prompto said, returning Gladio's flask to him. "But it might as well be. Seriously big guy? Chocobo Joe Black Label? Doesn't Noct pay you enough for decent bourbon?"
"Good god, man," Ignis said, as Noct gaped at his best friend and Gladio weighed his flask with a worried expression. "Where'd you learn to drink like that?"
"Psh." Prompto showed no effect from the liquor except that he'd gone a fine shade of pink right up to his ears, quite unlike the chilled red they'd been earlier. "I self-medicated out of my dad's liquor cabinet until I was fifteen and got busted. Needed to quit anyway. Too many calories. You can all stop looking at me like that."
"Shiva," Gladio breathed, screwing the lid back on his flask. "Remind me never to get in a drinking game with you. Or a who's-got-the-most-tragic-backstory game with you."
Prompto giggled as the bourbon began to take effect in spite of its relative cheapness. "Trust me, you'd lose both. Got this thing going yet, Ig?"
"Yes, that's done it," Ignis said, turning off the faucet. "Now I just believe it's this button and--"
The hot tub started up with an ominous rumble, sending a frothy torrent of bubbles around its glossy crimson walls. The four of them, still half dressed, looked at it. And then they looked at each other. Uneasily.
"Another shot?" Gladio offered.
"So then I said to him," Gladio said, pointing unsteadily at Noct, "I says: You can say what you like about the Prince, but that's no way to talk about your mother!"
This was obviously the funniest punch line any of them had heard within the last fifteen minutes, which was about as much of the conversation as any of them could remember clearly. They'd been in the hot tub a while. None of them were too solid on how long. Things got a little hazy around the second hour mark, but at some point someone had the foresight to order a pizza from the diner, which they had mostly eaten by now. Ignis was drunk enough that he didn't make a comment about Noct taking off all the peppers on his slices.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Noct announced, gesturing with his pizza crust, "That's the King's Shield for you."
"No ladies here," Gladio said, chortling into one of the beers some genius had thought to order along with the pizza. (Oh wait, he was that genius.) "Obviously."
"Though I'm sure we're all relieved Prompto did not actually leave any of his anatomy behind him in the Malmalam Thicket." Ignis said. "Which would have been dashedly inconvenient."
"Seriously!" Prompto agreed, mock horrified. "Like, what if some monster got it?"
Noct, at this point, put on a truly brilliant pantomime of a mandrake discovering Prompto's abandoned genitalia, using nothing but a discarded pizza crust and two garlic sauce lids for props, and the result was that Prompto nearly drowned himself laughing before Gladio hauled him up by one elbow.
"Prompto," Gladio said, sternly. "You're drunk."
"Yes," Prompto agreed, leaning soggily on Gladio's chest. "Thank god. Because this would be really embarrassing otherwise. Your pecs are surprisingly pillowy, has anyone told you?"
"So I gotta wonder," Noct said, tossing Prompto's ersatz testicles back in the pizza box, "What the hell kinda business does this place get to have a room like this? I mean, who comes to the scenic Talepar Rest Area for their honeymoon?"
"The desk clerk," Ignis said, adjusting his glasses (which was all he was wearing, apart from his necklace), "says it's very popular with hunters."
Gladio idly patted Prompto on the head. "I suppose it's hard to get a private moment between all the monster murder and dropping dog tags all over creation."
"Gotta take some time to drop some panties instead," Prompto said, and stifled his laughter in Gladio's chest, which was apparently very ticklish.
"And also something called Valentine's Day," Ignis continued, raising his voice to be heard over the splashing. "Which apparently is some kind of festival day beyond the wall."
"Valentine's day?" Prompto quit trying to motorboat Gladio's chest, to Gladio's acute disappointment. "What's that about?"
"Lupercalian nonsense, I expect," Ignis said, waving a hand. "Flowers, chocolates, optional characters sleeping for 30 years in a big neon purple coffin in some abandoned mansion basement."
"HA!" Prompto shouted, and then put a hand over his mouth in apology. "Sorry, Sorry. It's just it's usually me doing that."
"Ignis," Noct said, scolding him with an unsteady finger, which somehow kept winding up on Ignis' nose. "You know they fine us every time we do that."
"Yes," Ignis said, primly. "I know. But I'm drunk, and I don't care. I never get to make the jokes."
"Guuyss," Prompto said, flopping back on the hot tub wall and kicking his feet with a noisy splash. "There's a sign over here that says you're not supposed to use the hot tub for more than twenty minutes. Or while drinking."
"Does it say anything about Kings?" Noct wanted to know.
Prompto read the sign over a few times, which was tricky, because his head was upside-down. "...............Nope."
"Then I say we can stay in as long as we goddamn want," Noct said, regally. "I'm sorry. We say that. Like, the Royal we."
"Oooh," Prompto laughed, still hanging out of the side of the hot tub. "Gettin' all kingly up in here."
"Yes," Noct agreed. "We are. Gladio. Toss us one of those beers."
Gladio did, but it was not his best throw. Noct missed, and the can sank to the bottom of the tub with a muted glorp. Everybody went in to retrieve it and as a result several things that were not remotely a can of beer were grabbed under the water, which resulted in Prompto shrieking, Noct going a brilliant shade of red, and Gladio getting slapped by Ignis and then kissed to apologize for it.
"You know that moment?" Prompto mused, to nobody in particular, as the water on Gladio and Ignis' side of the hot tub got considerably warmer and certainly more agitated, "That moment when you look back and go, Yeah, this was when shit really went off the rails?"
"Yeah?" Noct said, deciding just then that--purely out of royal concern for his loyal retainer and certainly nothing more--he better check for sure that Prompto hadn't left any of his anatomy behind in Malmalam Thicket--including his actual behind.
"I think we passed it about twelve pages ago," Prompto said, and helped Noct find it.
Dawn arrived, and nobody was happy to see it. It was greeted with a chorus of hungover moans, Prompto asking repeatedly why they'd all let that train run him over, and Noct apologizing to all of them for whatever breaches of protocol he'd made the night before. Repeatedly. On their faces. By request.
"Something's beeping," Gladio said, burrowing under the pillows. "Why is something beeping? Noct. Didn't you outlaw beeping already?"
"That's my camera," Prompto said, trying to pick out shapes in the mirrored, red-velvet blur of the room. One shape looked like Ignis, sitting on the leather sofa in his wrinkled and still-damp suit, Prompto's camera in his hand. "Ignis. Are you deleting pictures off my camera?"
Ignis shuddered, and hit the button again. "Does Gladio have an interesting mole on the inside of his left thigh?"
"Ahaha yes he does," Prompto said, and then went a little gray around the edges, and not just because the room went swimmy when he tried to sit up. "It's shaped like a--Wait, how do I know that--"
"Ah-ha," Ignis said, and deleted another photo before doing a double take at the camera, glasses raised in disbelief. "Good god, how did you even manage to take this while you were--? I'm almost sorry to destroy such a work of photographic mastery," he said, and then did so. "Almost."
"Heyyyy," Prompto tried crawling in Ignis' direction, but the bed was roughly the size of an Insomnia city block and the sheets were slippery. "What... what are you doing... You can't--"
"Let me see," Noct said, getting up and dragging most of the comforter with him, to Prompto's loud dismay. Not that he had anything to be dismayed about, at this point.
"You're not seeing anything," Ignis said, deleting pictures with extreme prejudice.
"Wait, go back one. Am I wearing pepperoni on my--"
"No," Ignis said, and erased another photo. "You are not. And I must ask you all to never speak of this again."
"Like the thing where Noct fell into that batch of hallucinogenic mushrooms?" Prompto asked, stealing a pink heart-shaped satin cushion from under Gladio's arm and using it to defend his honor.
"Yes," Ignis said, testily, "Except I already asked you to never speak of that again and you just spoke of it again, so now I have to ask you not to speak of it again, again."
"My head hurts," Noct groaned.
"My ass hurts," Gladio echoed, from under the pillows.
"Yes, well," Ignis said, his eyebrows raising precipitously at the latest picture, "Considering what I just saw it doing, I can't say I'm surprised about that." He pressed the button one last time, and handed the camera back to Prompto. "There. I'm sorry, Prompto, but you must realize that I cannot allow such things to exist. The damage it would do to the royal family's reputation--"
"And yours," Gladio muttered.
"And mine," Ignis insisted. "Now. I suggest we all get up, take about four remedies each, get all the pizza crusts out of the hot tub, and hire some chocobos to ride back to the car. The sooner we put this night behind us the better."
Gladio grumbled something about what Ignis could put in his behind (and in fact his remarkable capacity for such), and got his damp, wadded-up leather pants thrown in his lap for his trouble.
"I'm going to get a coffee at the diner," Ignis said, opening the door and letting in a searingly bright slice of daylight, which they recoiled from like Daemons at dawn, complete with some hissing. "Several coffees. Possibly more coffee than one should wisely consume in one sitting. Which I will drink. And when it's gone, I'm going to do it again. I'll expect you all to have joined me by then, because you won't want me to come get you." With this final threat, he shut the door behind him.
"Come on, fellas," Gladio said, shaking out his trousers. "We can't go home, but we don't hafta stay here."
"I'm glad I barely remember most of last night," Prompto said, furiously clicking through his camera, "Because I'd be really mad about losing all my--how long have I had a deleted pictures folder on here?"
They stared at each other. Prompto clicked through the folder, his eyes widening further at every new image.
"You should empty that," Noct said, mechanically. "You know. Not keep that stuff taking up space on your camera."
"Yeah," Prompto agreed, not doing it. "I mean. Only a terrible person would keep these to use to his advantage."
"If he was a terrible person he'd probably just passcode lock his camera," Gladio said, pulling on his boots. "I wouldn't know, of course, since I am not nor have I ever known a terrible person. By the way, and not that it has anything to do with anything, you know how these days you can get a photo printed on a cake?"
"Back in Insomina, yeah." Noct said. "Not that doing that would be a sole reason for taking back our country, or anything."
"Not the only reason," Prompto said, making a few deliberate taps on his camera screen. "So, when exactly is Ignis' birthday?"
Chapter 24: Spelunker
Courage comes in all kinds.
The first time they went under, in the Keycatrich Trench, Prompto wasn't too thrilled about it. But the passages were dry and often quite spacious; they had seen plenty of human habitation in the past, and most of Prompto's fears were purely daemon-related. Something might jump out at him, and if it did, he could shoot it. Fine. It was manageable, Prompto told himself, so he managed. Barely.
The same held true for most of their sub-tellurian expeditions, until they started probing the caverns around Daurell Springs. Those places were wet and small and undisturbed by humans, where water sank deep into the old bones of Eos. The fears they stirred in Prompto's belly were something altogether different, a kind of primal terror that he couldn't quite whistle past with his usual self-deprecating laugh. It was not the monsters that scared him, and that realization hit Prompto hard. Those places underground would frighten him even without the monsters, and that was the worst of all.
First of all, they were wet. And not wet in the sedate drip of groundwater on a photogenic stalactite, or wet like the frozen cold of the grotto behind Calatein's Plunge. The caves of Schier Heights were cut by swift and still-running freshets, or rotted out from within by the acidic seep of slow-pooling groundwater. They cut their levels into the cave walls, and left inch after descending inch of razor-sharp tracery of whatever rock they could not chew away. Reach out a hand to steady yourself after a slippery step on the clay-slick cave floor, and it was like putting your hand on a row of knives. Prompto's fingers were cut to pieces almost at once, and even his gloves were sliced across the palms. As soon as a potion knitted up one batch of cuts, one bad step would result in another. They tried to avoid touching the walls at all, which meant there was nothing to hold onto at a bad step. Prompto's boot found a lump of clay that looked like a rock but gave away as soon as he put his weight on it, sending him skidding waist-deep into the ice-cold stream that ran the length of the cave.
And that was just the first fifteen minutes. They could still see the morning light from the cave mouth at their backs.
"Okay, guys?" Prompto said, as Gladio reached down to help him up to help him back on the narrow path. "I don't mean to be a complainer, or anything, but this is some fucking garbage."
Gladio made a noise in front of him, as though he wanted to laugh at that but turned it into a dismissive snort at the last minute.
"I'm sorry," Ignis said, a little further up the path, carefully picking his way along after Noct. "Should we have specified that in the informational pamphlet?"
"Tour Scenic Lucis with the Prince's Entourage in Exile," Noct said in his best announcer-voice, pausing to frame the dripping cave between both hands. "See amazing sights! Spend seventy-five percent of the time soaking wet, cold, hungry, lost, and/or tired! Some exclusions apply. The remaining twenty-five percent of the tour will be divided between stupefying boredom and abject terror. See local Crownsguard recruiter for details. Who can resist that, right?" He lowered his arms and attempted to hug some warmth into himself though his jacket. "Man, what are you even talking about? I'm having a fantastic time. I'm sure glad I'm not lying on a sofa playing Ehergeiz II and eating my weight in chips and salsa."
"I--" Prompto began.
"Hate you guys," they finished for him, in unison.
Prompto was surprised into a laugh, in spite of his shivering misery. "Okay, okay. You know I don't really, right? But dang. I gotta switch up my incidental dialog if you've already got it memorized." He inched along the slick rock ledge until he'd joined the others in a slightly larger chamber, their lights bouncing around on the mineral-encrusted walls and slimy floor. "How far are we crawling up Titan's asshole today, Noct?"
Noct considered the forking path ahead. "Large intestine?" he asked, pointing one way, "Or small intestine? I gotta say, both ways look pretty shitty to me."
Ignis clicked his tongue and made a tiny sigh; he didn't approve of toilet humor. "It will be easier to explore the smaller area first. We can at least eliminate some--Gladio, shush. That wasn't an arse joke."
"This entire place is an arse joke," Noct said, squaring his hat down on his head. "Okay. Let's go."
Go was fairly optimistic, as their progress, already slow, sank to an interminable crawl. Prompto's willpower was tested with every narrow passage and precipitous drop, and by the oozing, evil things that boiled up from the cave floor at regular intervals, hell-bent on the intruders' immediate and painful demise. Time lost all measure and Prompto lost track of the turns, the falls, the fights. Half the time they could barely stand upright, and in the lowest rooms Gladio was almost bent double.
Prompto was putting one foot dully in front of the other until they came to a fissure in the rock barely a foot and a half wide, and his courage deserted him utterly. He had just stepped sideways into the crack, and while the dripping walls pressed against him and his lungs filled with the stench of mud and mold, he found he could go no further. It was not that the crack was too small-- Gladio was already halfway through it ahead of him--it was that his body simply refused, flat out, to obey. Just past Gladio's bulk he could see the small room ahead and the passage beyond: a wet hole no higher than Ignis' knee. They'd have to crawl on their faces to get through it. Prompto's knees seemed to evaporate at the idea, leaving him clinging to the wall like a bat.
I can't, he thought, and didn't realize he'd also whispered it aloud until he heard Gladio make a sound in front of him. It was testament to Prompto's misery that he didn't even care that he'd been heard, and he resigned himself to the inevitable teasing and the very real possibility that it might put him in tears. He put his face to the wall, eyes shut so he wouldn't see the cave smothering him from every angle, and tried to remember how to breathe. Why is it so hard to breathe I can't breathe let me out I can't breathe--
"Yo, guys," Gladio said, the first they'd spoken in some while. His voice was startling and loud in the close space. "I think this one's gonna be too snug for me. Ig, why don't you take Noct and check it out, see if it opens up at all ahead. I'll secure our rear with Prompto. Better if nobody's alone down here, even me."
"Surely--" Ignis began, but something from Gladio--a gesture, a look--must have changed his mind, and instead he said, "Understood. We'll be back shortly, unless you hear screaming, in which case do be so good as to find another way round to catch us up?"
"Got it. C'mon, Prompto. Throw 'er in reverse."
Prompto barely heard any of it, too busy working his mind around the horrible fact that having gone as far as he could go, he was now going to have to backtrack. "Okay," he said, in a voice that was too tiny to be believed (and he felt too awful to care), and groped his way back into the previous room. He emerged into the space with a gasp, wondering how it could have felt so small before. Compared to that crack, the little chamber was practically palatial. He bent down with his hands on his knees, trying to process anything besides the deafening roar of blood in his ears, the rattling percussion of his pulse. The room was spinning. Or Prompto was. One of them was certainly not standing still the way it was supposed to be.
Something warm and soft and heavy fell on him, making everything go dark, and if not for Gladio's arm around Prompto's shoulder it would have put him right on his ass.
"Sit down," Gladio said, and made a noise as he did so himself. "We're all muddy, doesn't matter where."
Prompto folded in on himself like a faulty tent, ending up mostly in a seated position with his legs crossed. He tried to ignore the clammy feeling seeping up from the ground and through his back jeans pockets, and patted at whatever had landed on his head. Satin lining and leather met his chilled fingers. Gladio's jacket. For the first time in hours Prompto smelled something that was not damp cave or his own fear, enclosed in a gentle, warm darkness that was utterly unlike the unlit corners of the cave. The jacket lining smelled like leather and sunshine and aftershave and clean sweat, and Prompto felt his lungs inflate fully at last.
"What... what are we doing?"
"Me?" Gladio asked, from nearby on Prompto's right, "I'm having a breather. You're having a panic attack. Keep that on your head. Open it up at the bottom if it feels too close. Breathe as slowly as you can. Ten minutes. I'll time you."
"I don't think I said, ask me a bunch of questions, I think I said for you to shuttup and breathe." Prompto felt Gladio's hand on his head, far more gentle than his words. "C'mon, Prompto. Stay with me. Deep breath. Slow."
Prompto did his best. It still felt like he couldn't inhale as much as he wanted, but at least now that thought didn't give him heart palpitations. The second breath was incrementally better, and the third moreso.
Gladio's hand slid down Prompto's shoulders to rest at the small of his back, a sturdy support. "That's it. Good job."
"Why--why are you doing this?"
"Why am I helping a comrade in trouble? I dunno, cos I'm not a total dick?"
"I'm not in trouble," Prompto said, bitterly. "I'm just a complete chicken-wuss. Can't even keep my shit together because oh noes I'm under ground, god. Pathetic." Prompto sniffed loudly, trying to keep from getting any snot on the inside of Gladiolus' jacket. He hoped Gladio thought his nose was just running because of the damp, but it was not a very high hope.
"Quit talking shit about my bro, or I'll have to knock some manners into you," Gladio said, in his best barroom-brawl growl.
Gladio sighed, and the sound was of complete weariness. "Look. I hate caves too. I can't waif my way through these shitholes like you guys do. Do I look like a goddamn elf to you?"
Prompto lifted up a corner of the jacket to peek at him. "Uh. Can't say that you do. Not even a super-muddy one."
"This is a nightmare," Gladio said, in a matter-of-fact voice. "I know it, you know it, we all know it. Sorry I didn't notice sooner how hard a time you were having. Too busy trying to keep my own balls attached and didn't notice you'd stopped cracking jokes about an hour ago. Shoulda known something was wrong."
Prompto slid the jacket back so it rested over his head, like a hood. "You said I was being annoying."
Gladio shot him a sideways look. "Yeah," he said. "'Cos you were."
Prompto struggled to keep his mouth in a flat line, and wound up blinking hard at his muddy jeans when he couldn't manage.
"Aww, stop. Don't give me the lip wobble. I can't. You're worse than Iris." Gladio yanked the jacket collar back over Prompto's eyes. "Look," he said, and suddenly he was the one who couldn't meet Prompto's gaze. "Prompto. We all do things to get a grip on our fears. I give them the old tough guy act. Noct pretends he doesn't care about them, or about anything. Ignis... is Ignis. But you--you say your fears out loud so you can laugh at them. So we can laugh at them with you. It's what we're all feeling, but you pull it out and hold it away from us so it turns into a joke. You make it safer for all of us to admit. I'm not used to being able to do that. To say I'm scared. I sure as hell wasn't raised that way. I didn't know it might actually make me stronger, owning up to it." He heaved a heavy sigh, kicked a wet clot of clay off his boot. "I never said thanks for that. So, thanks."
"Gladio," Prompto said, but then his throat closed up on him and he couldn't say anything more.
"I shoulda said this before," Gladio said, almost to himself. "I guess I kept hoping someone else would, but that's the real wussy bullshit, and it ain't on you. Me and Ignis... and even Noct... We've had years of training--mental and physical--for this trip. Or a trip like it. For a fight. It's been our whole lives, and sometimes it's still almost too much for us. What did you get?" Gladio snorted in disbelief. "A two-week firearms course and a black jacket. Sweet Bahamut, kid. If you had any sense you would've run for the goddamn hills by now, but you're still here, every day. Sometimes I think you're the bravest of all of us. Or the craziest. Maybe both."
"You son of a bitch," Prompto said, face in his hands, voice thick with unshed tears. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."
"Don't get used to it. And give me back my goddamn jacket, it's freezing in here."
"Gladio," Prompto said, as the King's Shield pulled his coat back on, "...Thanks."
Gladio smiled, and cuffed Prompto on the back of the head. "Shut up," he said, fondly. "And get your game face on. You're a Crownsguard, fer Shiva's sake. On your feet." He stood, and hauled Prompto up beside him. "Besides, I hear Ignis coming this way, and if mom thinks I've been giving you a hard time I'll never hear the end of it."
Prompto heard Ignis' voice too, as well as Noct's, and by the time they sidled through the crevice to join them, Prompto almost had his face back together.
"Naught but a dead end, I'm afraid," Ignis said, flicking a blob of cave-muck off of his lapel, and then making a face at the clean spot he'd made. "Bother," he sighed. "I'll have to do the rest of it now."
"Big pool down there, " Noct said, scraping his sneakers against the nearest rock, and shaving off several pounds of mud in the process. "Might be good cave fishing. But no tombs. No treasure. Oh, wait." Noct got a sudden look on his face, rooting around in his coat pocket. "There were lots of these, though. Here, Prompto. Put that in your scrapbook."
Prompto blinked at the strange stone lying across the torn palm of his glove. It looked like a flower, curled in on itself, with a feathery blossom on one end and a segmented stem. Time had turned it black, and it flashed in the light of Prompto's clip-lamp. "What is it?"
"Some kind of pre-historic sea life," Ignis said, getting most of his lapels back to the proper color. "The cave beyond was full of them. I suspect this whole area was a kind of shallow sea, many eons ago, and the detritus of that ocean life is preserved in a copious fossil record. Though to be honest, I have trouble enough getting air down here, and I try not to think about it being underwater, now or ever."
"Thanks, Noct," Prompto said, running his thumb over it. "It's really cool."
Gladio leaned over Prompto's shoulder to get a better look. "Bourgueticrinida iaculumae," he said, knowingly. "Big feathery squishy-slimy sea-bug tentacles, Prompto. You'd love 'em."
"Hey," Prompto said, folding his fingers defensively over his treasure. "It's not a squishy bug now. It's a rock, and it's totally badass."
"Yes, well," Ignis said, with a speculative look at Prompto, "time has a way of doing that to the squishiest of things."
"And I'm keeping it," Prompto continued, entirely missing the look Gladio and Ignis exchanged. "Even if I can't pronounce Bourganue- uh, Bougainvillea---whatever you said."
"Come on, guys," Noct said, reaching out a hand for them to take. "I'll warp us back to the entrance. I don't know about you, but I've had enough fun for today."
"God, I hate this," Gladio said, making a face as he put his hand on Noct's arm.
"Now, Gladio," Ignis said, as blue light started to coalesce around Noct's hair and fingertips, "Don't be such a big girl's blouse."
"Ignis, you shut your who--"
They vanished, Prompto's laugh lingering behind them.
You know the old adage, "Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; it's all material"? I feel like between this and the leeches and everything else I'm proving it with this series. (I don't like caves either. Not anymore.)
Chapter 25: Specter
The wrong king, and too late.
cw: This is a Dark Ride.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"There's somebody down there," Prompto said, leaning back away from the campfire and peering suspiciously into the darkness beyond the glowing circle of runes. "Down by that old fence line."
Their usual after-supper conversation died away as they all turned to look, Ignis shielding his eyes from the light of the fire to see. "I don't see any-- wait. Yes."
"I know," Gladio said, carefully putting his plate down on the ground. "He's been there a while now. Just watching us."
"Do you think he's in trouble?" Prompto said, starting to rise, but Ignis waved him back down again.
"If he wants our help, he'll ask for it." Ignis narrowed his eyes, his expression grim. "Otherwise, I fear too many things out there in the dark would gladly lure us from the safety of a campsite. I would not put it past a daemon to put on a human guise for that very reason."
"But he might think we're daemons. Or Imperials." Prompto turned to Noct for support. "Noct, shouldn't we go check?"
Noct wasn't looking at the shadow pacing by the forest's edge, but at his companions, something like confusion in his face. "You can see him?"
Prompto blinked at him. "Of course we can see him. Why wouldn't we--"
"Noct," Ignis said, his voice taut, something vast and unspoken in his expression. "Is that--"
"I'll handle this," Noctis said, putting down his half-eaten stew, boots crunching on the rock as he strode over to the very edge of the little plateau. The blue light of the campsite's runes outlined him in an otherworldly glow, but he did not cross their line. "You, out there. What do you want?"
It was an odd greeting, Prompto thought, even for Noct. But it seemed to work for the stranger, as he turned and then immediately made his way right to the campsite. By this time the others had joined Noct at the edge, and Prompto couldn't help but notice the way Ignis flexed his gloved fingers, as though expecting any moment for Noct to call a dagger into them. Gladio, less patient, had brought over the heavy mallet he used on the tent pegs.
Prompto wasn't sure what about the stranger could inspire such caution. Standing below them in a battered black jacket was a man of roughly middle-age, with a graying beard and mud on his boots. He wore a brimmed cap that he took off as he approached, looking up at the top of the campsite and squinting against the glare. He seemed exceptionally ordinary, and even with Gladio's scowl and Ignis' caution, Prompto could not see what about him could inspire such wariness.
"I saw the car down by the road," he said in a Duscae drawl, wringing his hat anxiously in his hands. "Sorry for botherin' ya'll but, is the Prince with you, by any chance?"
"I'm the Prince," Noctis said, and ignored Ignis' sharp breath and Gladio's baffled stare.
"Yer majesty!" The stranger went at once to one knee, even though it cost him a grunt of effort to do so. "You're a sight for sore eyes, if I might be so familiar, sir."
Noct waved away the stranger's formality and informality with one gesture. "Don't worry about that," he said, and his tone had softened. "How can I help?"
"We'd about given up hope of reinforcements," the man continued, rising unsteadily. "Been holed up along the ridge in an old farmstead an awful long time. Right by a break in the barricade. Damn Nifs keep hittin' us every time we poke a nose out; we don't dare come out but after dark and hardly a'tall even then." He raked a hand through his unkempt hair, as though he would like to put his cap back on, but didn't dare re-cover his head in front of his liege. "Don't suppose you could lend a hand, you an' your knights? It's not for us, y'see. But we'd like to get the lady of the farm and her little girl out and safe behind the line, and a few extry blades would be enough to keep them bastards back long enough."
"We'll be there first thing at dawn," Noct said. "Will that be soon enough?"
"I reckon it will, sir!" The man's voice was heavy with gratitude. "I'll go back and tell the others, it'll put their heads up to know the Prince is comin' himself. We're much obliged, sir."
"What are you talking about?" Prompto hissed, to Noct. "Go in the morning? They're in trouble! We'll go right now or--"
"Mind your tongue 'round your king, Prompto," Ignis said sharply, and so dumbfounded Prompto in the process that he couldn't manage to speak again until the stranger had bowed several times and offered his good wishes to Noct and the line of Lucis, and departed for the trees again.
"Let's go to bed," Noct said, when his shadow had vanished into the larger darkness beyond the campsite. "I'm done."
"And we'll have an early start and a long day tomorrow, if I'm not mistaken," Ignis sighed wearily. "Come now, Prompto. Shut your mouth before a moth flies in it, and help me get the dishes together."
Prompto's face switched between outrage and confusion until the two became hopelessly intermingled, settling at last into bitter resignation. The other three knew something they weren't telling him. He could forget, sometimes, who he was and who they were. When they were laughing or bleeding together, when they drank out of the same stale water bottle or shared the same hard ground at night, back to back to keep the chill away. But then the truth interrupted the camaraderie and Prompto was knocked twelve steps down, looking up at a stranger on a throne, with a glowering knight and a cold chamberlain blocking his view. Prompto's stew turned to ice in his belly and he did as he was told.
Like a servant, he thought. Like a commoner.
"I'm sorry, Prompto," Ignis said, stacking the dishes. "But I could not risk you saying too much."
"Oh no," Prompto shot back. "Wouldn't want my big mouth to ruin anything for you guys."
Ignis put a hand on Prompto's tense shoulder. He knew the boy lashed out when he was hurt, like a wounded animal, and Ignis could not blame him. "It isn't a secret," he said. "Only something hard to say. It'll make sense tomorrow."
Prompto inhaled to retort, but never managed to say anything. Noct had slumped down by the fire after the stranger left and had fallen asleep where he lay, right on the bare rock. He didn't even stir as Gladio bent down and scooped him up into his arms, too exhausted to notice as Gladio carried him into the tent. How could he be so tired, when he'd been fine a few minutes ago? Even for Noct, the shift was remarkable.
"Get some sleep, Prompto," Ignis said, kindly. "I'll finish up here."
Dawn broke foggy and cold, and they were already on the trail up the ridge when the sun finally trickled down through the trees. Prompto was still tasting the bitter dregs of last night, but as the hike wore on they started to fade. His brain became preoccupied with other thoughts.
Like the fact that the path was heavily overgrown, and at times it vanished entirely into scrub and brush. Like how the cheerful whistling of birdsong was nothing like a warzone, and squirrels rustling in the trees stopped now and then to stare at them in wonder, as though they'd never seen people before and had no fear of them. Like the realization that the barricade the stranger said he was protecting was an old, rusted length of hastily-erected steel sheeting, commonly put up during the war thirty years ago and remaining, here and there in broken lines, all over the landscape from Duscae to Cleigne. At places along the path the panels had fallen over entirely, and once an entire herd of deer, startled by the intrusion, sprinted through the gap and into the forest beyond. Prompto thought about the things the stranger had said, and while the sun climbed higher and the morning grew warmer, he felt a chill he could not reason away.
Something hard to say, Ignis had said, the night before. Prompto could not shake the feeling that it was nothing he wanted to know. The others certainly did not offer any explanation, and followed Noct along the intermittent trail without question. There was no conversation, not even when the cool dawn resolved into a perfectly glorious morning all around them. Prompto considered taking some pictures, but then the idea came to him unbidden that they might show more than he wanted to see, and he kept his camera in his pocket. A word and an idea haunted the edges of his mind, but he closed his eyes to it, and tried to pray it away, as he would the thing itself.
"I guess this is it," Noct said, and his voice was enough to make Prompto jump.
"I'm not sure what else it could be," Ignis agreed. "Let's have a look round."
They stood on the edge of what had once been a clearing, though now it was knee-deep in brambles and pierced here and there with saplings. A split-rail fence wandered drunkenly through the tall grass, leading to a gray-faced old farmhouse gently decaying among the trees. The boarded-up windows peered warily at the strangers from under a slumped porch roof, and a riot of late daffodils--a great dynasty sprung up from some humble flowerbed decades ago--spread out a yellow carpet to greet them. No birds sang.
"What are we looking for?" Prompto asked, and then was strangely grateful when nobody answered him. Instead he simply followed their lead, poking his nose here and there with a strange dread of what he might find. The barn was full of rusting farm machinery and sacks of seed that had sprouted where they lay; the well was missing its roof and frame and only the broken fieldstone wall--and a steep drop--remained. Prompto, unable to stand it any longer, climbed up the groaning porch steps and tried unsuccessfully to peer in the windows. The front door was blocked by a large sheet of corrugated steel, rusted and pockmarked with holes that spread beyond it and into the splintering wood siding. Up close, Prompto could see that the divots covered the entire face of the house. Machine-gun fire.
"Help me get this loose, Ig," Gladio said, working to pull the steel sheeting away. Even rusted and abandoned, it was firmly attached. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to keep it on.
"I'll help too," Noct said, and Prompto, not sure himself why, left the three of them to it without a word.
The grass was high and brown around the back of the house, and Prompto's flannel was very quickly covered in clingy seeds and the detritus of seasons past. He pushed through all of it without a pause until he came to a storm cellar door under a thick papering of old leaves. The latch was unlocked, but the hinges yowled with disuse as Prompto pulled up the door. A damp, earthy smell breathed up out of the dark basement, and lopsided wooden steps led down to an unknown termination. It was exactly the sort of place Prompto would usually work very hard to avoid, and that he knew he had no business going into alone. He'd seen enough horror movies to know; he'd shouted at the idiot on the screen often enough, up too late in front of the TV with Noct, pillows over their faces.
What the hell are you doing? Don't go in the basement! Don't you hear the music, for fuck's sake?!
But standing at the top of the stairs, Prompto wasn't afraid. Or even curious. He was just impossibly, crushingly sad, for no reason he could name. He clipped his flashlight to his belt, and went down the stairs.
"Where's Prompto?" Noct asked, stepping back from the half-opened steel panel and wiping his sweaty face with the collar of his t-shirt. It might have looked decrepit at first, but the barricade was surprisingly sturdy. Gladio had gone to the barn to look for something to use as pry bar.
"Oh dear," Ignis said, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief and putting his glasses back on. "I hope he hasn't gone far, I don't want him to be the one to find--"
Ignis was interrupted by a tremendous bang that reverberated across the clearing with a report like Ramuh's thunder, ricocheting across the hills and bringing everyone running to the back of the house. Gladio sprinted over from the woodshed with a length of old metal pipe still in his hand. They found Prompto there alone, leaning against the back of the house with both hands over his mouth and his eyes screwed shut, breathing as though he'd just run a marathon. He didn't answer any of their questions, only shook his head and choked back a shuddering sob. The noise they heard had been the sound of both of the metal storm cellar doors being thrown back with force and slamming into the ground. With them flung open to the daylight they could see Prompto's footprints on the dusty stair treads: One set, going down, the other--much more scrambled and with the occasional frantic handprint--coming up.
"I don't know how I got down there," Prompto gasped, falling forward onto his knees. "I would have had to step over one of--" He shuddered violently. "I don't know. I was just there and I saw them and--goddamnit Noct, you could have just fucking told me, I mean I knew but you could have... could have.... something."
"Prompto," Noct said, but then nothing else as Prompto flopped back against the splintery siding, still gasping for breath, tears making clean streaks through the dust on his face.
"I'm okay," Prompto wheezed, though he clearly was not.
"I'm going down," Gladio said. "Prompto, stay up here--"
"No," Prompto said. "God, no. I'm not staying up here alone."
"Nevertheless," Ignis continued. "You shouldn't have to see--"
"See them?" Prompto retorted, some of the fire coming back to his eyes. "I found them. It's a little too late for me not to see them now." He dragged an arm across his face. "I can still see them. I think I might always see them."
Noct walked over to the steps and looked down. "How many?" he asked, as though steeling himself.
"I don't know," Prompto pushed himself off the house, and shakily but decisively refused the hand Gladio offered him. "A dozen. At least, and there was--" His face scrunched up and the words wouldn't come, but he staggered towards the cellar doors, and led them all down.
Fourteen skeletons were in the farmhouse basement, lying mostly where they had fallen, among shattered crockery and rusting weaponry. Their yellowed skulls grinned eerily in the flashlight beams, their empty eyes stared blankly at the four men who looked now on their sad remains. One lay full length at the bottom of the stairs, one hand outstretched on the lowest step, the small bones of his fingers scattered carelessly in the dust. Twelve of them wore the fragmentary remains of black clothing, but most of it had rotted away, leaving only a tarnished scattering of brass buttons with the old Crownsguard insignia and--mixed hoplessly among them--an uncountable number of Imperial army bullets. The damage they had done was plain, written irrefutably in in the splintering of a rib-bone or a shattered eye socket. The basement wall and the concrete floor were brown with stains that told a horrible story whose denouement none of them could change. At the back of the basement, huddled in a corner, was a body in civilian clothing, and in a moth-eaten blanket in her arms lay another set of bones, pitifully tiny. It was there that Prompto's footprints indicated his hasty retreat, but he knelt down beside them now without flinching, and rested a hand on one surprisingly well-preserved boot.
"I think she brought me down here," he said softly, looking into the empty skull. "No way in hell I would have come down here alone otherwise. But she wanted to be found. She wanted her daughter--to--to be..." Prompto's voice dwindled; he put his face in his hand.
"Border patrol," Ignis said, holding up a button to see it better. "Thirty years ago they were all that stood between Lucis and Niflheim, and as the empire advanced, they were forced to abandon the lands beyond the wall, leaving many outlying homesteads unprotected."
"Not this one," Gladio said, with a note of somber pride. "They've kept her safe all this time."
"Safe?" Noct swore, furiously. His hands were balled into useless fists. "They're dead."
"Noct--" Ignis began.
"He thought I was my dad," Noct breathed, leaning his head back as though that would keep the tears in his eyes instead of letting them fall. "The ghost, last night. He thought I was my dad and he asked for our help because nobody was here to help them thirty years ago, because we let them down. Lucis let them down."
"He did not strike me as a spirit bent on revenge," Ignis said. "I daresay he sought only to serve his king, as he did in life. There was no malice in his request."
"Do you think he knew?" Gladio wondered. "That he was dead? Or was he stuck in the past, and just asking for help that he recognized?"
"I wouldn't presume to speculate what the dead know," Ignis said carefully, still looking at Noct. "Or what they desire. I'm content to leave them be as much as possible, and I hope for the same courtesy in return, to be honest."
"I'm not going to leave them be," Noct said, and glared around the cellar until his eyes lit on a rack of tools against one mossy wall. "I'm the wrong king and I'm decades too late, but I won't leave them like this." He snatched up a shovel from the rack and went up the stairs two at a time, back into the bright daylight.
"I'm going to help," Prompto said, his voice still thick with grief but his steps firm as he followed Noct up the stairs.
"I thought you said you didn't bring a suit for a funeral," Gladio said to Ignis, pulling another shovel and a pick down from the tool rack.
"No," Ignis said, looking sadly around the little root cellar. "It's a shame, since they deserve a full military service, but I suppose it shan't be a formal affair."
It took all day to dig the graves. Noct refused to make one trench for all of them, and so there were thirteen--one each for the fallen Crownsguard, and one for the mother and her child together--laid out in a neat row among the field full of daffodils. They took turns with the two shovels and the pick, unwilling to stop for a break together until the task was done. It was hot, grueling work, and Noct took off his shirt halfway through. For once, Gladio didn't give him any trouble about it. Noct's old childhood scar was a paler phantom along the lower half of his spine, and it stood out through the dirt and sweat on his skin like the memory of an unforgettable pain amid happier, fainter recollections.
The sun had started to slant down towards the hills when Gladio came up from the cellar with the last bundle in his arms. The dirt lay in soft mounds over all the graves but one, and Ignis had carefully seen to it that a layer of grass and daffodil bulbs was on each, to better spread over them in the days to come. They had no names, but they'd marked the places with flat stones from the well. Under one of them was the body of the Crownsguard who had fallen near the stairs, his black cap resting on his breast.
"Here you are, sweetheart," Gladio said, passing the sad little blanket down to Prompto and Noct below, blinking hard as he did so. "Rest easy, now."
Prompto put the child down in her mother's arms and then leaned back against the muddy wall of the grave, shaking his head. "I thought it would be enough," he whispered, fist clenched over his heart as Noct spread the first layer of dirt on them. "Why isn't it enough? It still hurts so much."
"It's gonna hurt," Gladio said, picking up the shovel one last time as the other two climbed back up onto the grass. "Things that you can't change always hurt."
"They're strangers." Prompto watched the dirt fall from his fingers, scattering it into the grave. "But I was thinking--" He looked at Noct and Gladio, and then shook his head, unwilling to say it.
"That you'd hope some strangers would show the same kindness to our own fallen," Ignis finished for him, a bundle of flowers in his muddy glove. "The ones we cannot bury; the ones we don't even know where they may lie."
Gladio made a harsh cough into his elbow and gripped the shovel handle until the tips of his fingers went white. Noct slowly pushed an avalanche of soil into the grave, his face as insurmountable as the Wall had ever been.
"Dammit, Iggy," Gladio choked, and ground the heel of his hand against the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed tightly. "Can't you ever keep your damn mouth shut?"
Ignis shrugged. "It seems not. My apologies, Gladio."
"Conquered kings don't get funerals," Noct said, in a flat voice. "They get their heads spiked on a city gate."
Prompto recoiled in horror. "You don't really think the Empire would actually--"
"They did this," Noctis said, waving his hand at the row of graves. "I know exactly what the Empire would do."
"Probably just threw my old man into a ditch," Gladio growled, shoveling furiously. It was the first and last time he would ever mention Clarus on their journey, but they all knew it would not be the last time he thought of him. "C'mon Iggy. Pick up that shovel and put your back into it."
"Yes," Ignis said, doing as Gladio said. "The light is fading. We'd best make haste; I've no desire to be here after dusk."
It was a somber group that returned to the campsite as the sun was setting. Without a word of confirmation they broke down the tent and packed up the car, ready and willing to drive through any amount of dark and daemons to get to bright lights and civilization for the night. Prompto sat in the front seat and hugged one knee to his chest. In the back Noct and Gladio had both fallen asleep; Noct slid over on the leather seat during a sharp turn and was now snoring gently against Gladio's shoulder.
"How long has Noct been able to see ghosts?" Prompto asked, startling Ignis out of his meditation on the flickering highway lines.
"I've never asked," Ignis answered, discreet as always. "But you know his past as well as I do now; and that leaves a man with plenty of scars, many not of the flesh. I can't abide the smell of lilac because it reminds me of my mother. Noct can see ghosts. These are just things we carry with us."
"I'm going to carry today a long time." Prompto stared hard at the dirt under his fingernails. "We all saw this ghost, though."
"I suspect he wanted very much to be seen," Ignis said, and made a turn towards the glow of the Coernix station's lights in the distance.
"I think I know why Dave keeps going after those dog tags," Prompto sighed, watching the distance unravel in the side-mirror. "Do you think it's true? What Noct said about his-- about the king?"
Ignis' hands tensed on the wheel. "I'm afraid it's very likely to be true, Prompto. Or perhaps even something more horrible. I'm sure it's worse for Noct and Gladio, not knowing what has become of their fathers' remains. I daresay, though, before this is over, they will take back double for what they've suffered."
"It won't change anything," Prompto murmured. It was only under his breath, but Ignis heard him.
"Do you think we changed anything today? Those who are dead are still dead, we merely moved a few old bones. Would you call it worthless?"
Prompto didn't answer, not until nearly a mile had gone by. "It mattered to the ghost, I suppose," he said. "And... it mattered to me."
"Then it had merit to all of us," Ignis said. "And strange as it is to say, I have never before felt so much love for you all as I did today. It's my honor to travel in the service of so great a king, and among such compassionate, noble comrades. And that includes you, Prompto."
Prompto could say nothing at all, though his mouth made several aborted attempts before giving up entirely.
"And if you so much as mention what I said again," Ignis said, glancing at Prompto as he turned the Regalia into the outpost parking lot, "I swear I'll gut you like a bloody herring."
I meant to come back with something lighter, but sometimes these things happen. (Katsucon was great, but we lost one of our parakeets while we were gone, and we're still struggling with the grief and the guilt. I think that really colored this chapter, even though it's been an idea I had for a while.)
You might not have noticed, but there's now a companion fic to RDD: The B-Sides. It should update often, though maybe not as often as the main fic. If you need some cheering after reading this, maybe Prompto and Noct getting frisky in a swimming pool will do that for you.
Next fic will be something stupid about noodles or such, I promise. ♥
Chapter 26: Payday
Well, it was supposed to be a bachelor party.
"Says this hunt only comes out at night," Noct said, smoothing the flyer out on the sticky plastic tabletop. It wasn't that the table hadn't been cleaned properly, only that it was after nine in the morning in Lestallum. Everything was sticky. The edges of the flyer curled up from the humidity, and Noct had to keep wiping his hands on his pants. "So we've got like, twelve hours. What do we wanna do?"
"As your retinue, we are of course at your disposal." Ignis sat in the cafe chair like a man doing his level best to pretend that his thin silk shirt wasn't clinging to him like a drowning sailor. "But if I may offer some suggestions: the local antiquities society has a fascinating exhibit on the subject of spoons throughout Lucian history; the Lestallum Players are putting on a street performance of Lord Avon's Odin, King of Baron at eleven on the overlook--"
"Oooh," Gladio said, with genuine interest.
"...The Traditional Handicrafts Preservation League is offering a free introduction to the art of potholder weaving--"
"Wow," Prompto said, in a tone that suggested anything but.
"--and the community college is sponsoring a lecture by an esteemed mushroom expert. Beyond Funguars. 2 p.m., Kramer Memorial Auditorium, Q&A with reception to follow."
"Fungus, huh," Gladio said, twisting his hair up into a ponytail to get it off his neck, "Maybe someone'd know about those weird mushrooms that Noct--"
"Ixnay on the ushroomay," Ignis said, and put down the (badly photocopied and very limp) brochure he'd picked up at the tourism cart. "So! Quite a number of options."
"Yeah. A number of bad options." Noct edged the brochure away from his hunt flyer, as though afraid that its incredible lameness might be catching. "Is there even an arcade around here?"
"I'm afraid the contents of your phone are a more advanced arcade than any we'd find here," Ignis sniffed.
"And I'm out of King's Knight actions for another five hours," Prompto said, with some annoyance. "I'm not spending ten crystals to buy more. Game's a racket. Did six gatcha pulls this morning and not. one. rare."
"Okay," Noct said, "Let's do this as a king and his council. Ignis, what's your personal suggestion?"
"I was a bit interested in the spoons," Ignis said, wistfully.
"Absolutely not. Gladio?"
"Right." Gladio started to outline vague shapes with his hands, as he did when describing a shapely female figure or the comparative merits of iambic tetrameter. "So, Odin, King of Baron is actually one of Lord Avon's several problem plays, in that it can't be entirely classified as a tragedy due to the third act's change in--"
Noct made a noise like a game show buzzer and turned to Prompto. "Save me, Quicksilver."
Prompto was thoughtful a long moment, in which Gladio pouted and Ignis muttered something about how they should try eating their soup with a stick next time they wanted to say spoons were boring.
"Probably wants to go take a picture of a brick or something," Gladio sighed. "Come on, Prompto. What's your brilliant suggestion for killing time in this hellhole town? Wanna do a photoshoot of an interesting wall? Or maybe some trash? There's lots of photogenic trash lying around here, just waiting for its big break. Let's hear it."
Prompto did not rise to the bait, giving Gladio a look that was cooler than anything else Lestallum had on offer. "Tequila shots," he said.
Noct slapped both hands on the table. "Winner."
If there was one thing Lestallum had in abundance, it was bars. Due to heavy patronage by the plant workers, almost all of them were deserted before five p.m., and they had their pick. Gladio seemed to know a thing or two about the best local establishments, and shot down the first three suggestions (The Gimme Cat, Limit Break, and Seventh Heaven), and finally agreed to stop at a little place called Darklighter's, by merit of the fact that it was dimly-lit and had air-conditioning. The owner, an ex-military character who'd earned both his commission and a prominent limp fighting Nifs with the Crownsguard thirty years ago, greeted Gladio by name and set them up at the end of the bar.
"Everybody here seems to know you," Prompto said, pulling out a taped-up barstool and climbing on. "Did you spend a lot of time in Lestallum when you were on your own?"
"Yeah, kinda," Gladio said, and then dropped the subject like a handful of molten cheese as the bartender, not one to stand on ceremony, brought over shot glasses, a salt shaker, several slices of lime, and an entire bottle of 10,000 Needles Tequila. "C'mon. You guys have done this before, right? Salt, shot, lime, that order."
"How do you do the salt?" Noct wanted to know.
"On your hand, if you're a barbarian," Ignis said, distributing the limes on cocktail napkins (which were not provided by the bar, he had them in his shirt pocket). "And off a friend, if your friend is particularly easy. Personally I'd rather have some on the edge of the glass."
"Hand for me," Prompto said, and licked his knuckles before reaching for the shaker. "Set us up, Gladio."
Four shot glasses went up, then down, and then there was a focused silence as every man attended to his lime.
"Wow," Noct said, looking down at his empty glass. "That was... easy."
"Dangerously so," Ignis added.
Noct nodded his agreement. "How long before we feel it?"
"Oh," Gladio said, smiling fondly as he poured another round, "You'll know."
"Hold. still," Prompto said, taking Ignis by both shoulders as though that would keep him in place, giving him a look that was meant to be stern but only came out bleary. "You're not holding still. I can't do this if you're not holding still, because you may not have noticed but I am drunk."
"We noticed," Gladio said, making a little tower out of discarded lime slices.
"I am holding still, you're the wobbly one," Ignis said, his head cocked awkwardly to the side. "Just hurry up, it's going to come off--"
Prompto lunged forward and licked a stripe of salt off of Ignis' neck before downing the shot Noct held out to him, finally getting to his lime to general cheers.
"I guess that means Ignis is particularly easy," Noct giggled, as his advisor brushed salt off his (more undone than usual) shirt collar and tried to pretend he wasn't blushing.
"Nothing of the short," Ignis said, in an accent that had deteriorated wildly with every shot. "I am shimply being a good sport."
"Oww," Prompto said suddenly, rubbing his face. "Ow ow ow."
"What's the matter with you?" Gladio asked, very red in the face and down the stripe of chest visible in his open jacket. "Because I don't think any of us should be feeling any pain right now."
"Got lime juice in my eyes," Prompto said. "Ugh, that stings. Hang on, I'm taking these out." Prompto pulled out a small case from somewhere in his vest pocket, and to the surprise of everyone except Noct, popped out his contacts and plopped them in it. "Ah, that's better. Probably due for a fresh pair, anyway. These were getting itchy."
"You wear contacts?" Ignis said, in inebriated wonder. "I had literally no idea."
"Used to wear glasses," Noct said, licking salt off his last lime. "When we were kids. He was fat, too."
"Nooooct," Prompto said, trying to put eye drops in and swat Noct at the same time, and failing at both. "Don't bring that up!"
"Prompto? Fat?" Gladio said, as Prompto blinked hard at the faded plastic banners hanging from the bar ceiling, trying to keep his eye drops in. "You never said anything about that!"
"Why would I say anything about that?" Prompto asked, waving his hands at Gladio while still looking up. "Seriously. Big guy. When I met you I thought you were the living embodiment of a 'No Fat Chicks' t-shirt."
Gladio was taken aback by this revelation. "Are you saying you thought I was a-a--body-shamer?! I'm so hurt. I would never--"
Noct glared at him. "You body-shame me all the time."
"That's my job," Gladio said, and cuffed his prince affectionately on the back of the head. "Also, it makes you make a cute mad face. See, you're doing it now. Mad-face! Lookit it. It's so precious. Like a pissy kitten. A pissy kitten with under-worked biceps."
"You're buying the next round," the pissy kitten told him.
"Prompto I am appalled." Ignis seemed to have lost any grasp of punctuation or personal space or basic enunciation, and he draped himself over Prompto in a supplicating embrace. "I've said terrible things to you? About putting on weight at the Crow's Nest? And I'm so desperately shorry. I'd simply assumed you were always the precious skinny bitch we all know and love today. And that's awful of me. It must have been such a struggle. Really? Managing one's weight and making positive lifestyle choices can be such a challenge? And to have done it all on your own at a young age? If I'd known I would never have said shuch a thing."
"Ahahaha it's fine it's fine Iggy really get off me." Prompto struggled to stay on the bar stool; Ignis was a good deal more man than Prompto was used to having to hold up on his own.
"Also I should tell you," Ignis said, in what would have been a low voice except that Ignis didn't even have an indoor voice when he was sober, "I rather liked that. The salt thing. You should try it. I mean, I'll do it. On you. If you hold still. Can you hold still? I'm not sure. We'll try. But inna minute. I've got to go to the loo."
"Not by yourself, you're not," Gladio said, taking Ignis' arm. "I'm not fishing your face out of the urinal if you fall in. Order us another round of salsa, Prompto. We'll be right back."
"So I've been meaning to ask," Noct said, waving the empty chip basket at the bartender for a refill. "Gladio and Ignis... would you?"
Prompto, just now getting back up on his barstool, sat down heavily. "Oh, hell yeah," he said, with feeling.
"Both? Or either?"
"I'm not picky," Prompto said, in what had to be the sentence least likely to be contested by anyone who had known Prompto Argentum for more than five minutes. "They're both hot."
Noct carefully navigated a fresh and over-laden tortilla chip into his mouth. "Really? Ignis, sure, but Gladio doesn't seem your type."
"I have a type?" Prompto looked at him, and not at the salsa bowl, therefore missing it entirely with his chip, which crunched uselessly into the bar. "Noct. Warm and breathing and willing to have me is pretty much my type."
"I'm so flattered you picked me, then," Noct rolled his eyes. "Since you're sooo hard to get."
"You're an outlier and should not be counted," Prompto said, and bumped his shoulder against Noct's. "Ignis, I mean, who wouldn't do Ignis, amirite? But Gladio? First time I met him and at the start of this trip? Totally terrified of the man. Now, though..." Prompto trailed off thoughtfully.
"Yeah, now?" Noct urged him.
Prompto sighed a heavy sigh. "I would ride that goddamn tank clear back to Insomnia," he said reverently, to the row of bottles in front of the bar mirror (and presumably, their lost homeland beyond it).
Noct very nearly lost a good quantity of his cola all over the bar. It wasn't what he had expected, and it struck them both so funny that they were still laughing and making sexy artillery noises when Gladio and Ignis came back from the bathroom.
"Sorry to take so long, this idiot was trying to make me a father." Gladio put Ignis back on the bar stool where he sank down, gently smiling, with his head on the bar. "What's so funny? You drinking without us?"
"Excuse me," Prompto said, mock-affronted. "We, sir, are high on life."
"And an entire bottle of Tequila," Noct added.
"And an entire bottle of--" Prompto did a double-take. "Aww, is it gone? That means we have to go do our hunt."
Noct stared at him. "Our hunt."
Prompto nodded. "Yes, our hunt."
"Rogue pack of flans." Ignis' voice was muffled as he left his face on the bar, but his arms still worked as he pointed vaguely in the direction of the road out of town. "Or meringues. I don't think they've been baked. So probably a flan. Not pudding. Anything can be a pudding. Proper pudding isn't squashy, you know. It's drunk. Like me. Because of the brandy. And full of raisins. Not like me. Can't stand the ghastly things. And why in the name of all that's sacred can't you find suet anymore at even the most respectable grocers?" He sat up suddenly with a gasp. "Gelatins! That's what they are!"
"Why do we have a hunt I am drunk," Noct demanded, taking Prompto by the vest lapels. "You! You suggested this! We could have been looking at spoons!"
"So you're saying you can't hunt drunk?" Prompto asked, amazed. "I thought you'd be good at it."
"I--" Noct paused. Considered. "...really?"
"Mmmhmmm," Prompto said, resting his hands on Noct's belt. "Really, really good. At hunting. and other things. Drunk."
"I'm not a tank. You were making tank sounds."
"I like sports cars best. Fast. Sleek. Get all in them and vrrrrooooom." Prompto at this point was nearly in Noct's lap.
"Ahaha Ah. Oh. Well," Noct shivered, and tried to cover it with a cough, "in that case--"
"Guys," Gladio said, hauling them apart none-too gently. "Listen. I'm the most sober one here, and believe me when I tell you that's a terrifying thought, but Prompto's right. We gotta get moving if we're gonna make this hunt, plus the factory workers will be coming off shift soon."
"And that is a problem how?" Ignis asked, pushing himself up off the bar. "I've noticed, Gladio, you're being especially careful that we should avoid the ladies in this town, and I can't help but feel it's particularly shushpis--such--it's dodgy."
"I haven't--" Gladio looked shifty. "I haven't done anything like that. I just want to keep Noct out of the crowd, you know."
"You left us for a while, and you took that terrible noodle-shilling job because you said you needed money for Iris, but--" Prompto put his hands to his face. "Oh my god Gladio did you knock up a girl? You totally had a secret romance didn't you?! That's why you left only now it fell apart because of your duty to your king even though you must still love her and you're trying to avoid her to keep you both from hurting more only you have your sense of honor so you promised to help with your unborn child though as the king's shield your place is at Noct's side and know you can't ever be the father or the husband you want to be but you're still trying and oh Gladio I'm so touched and also I admit kinda turned on but you could have just said--"
"No!" Gladio burst out, clapping a hand over his face. "The hell did you do, Prompto, swallow a complete DVD set of As The Crystal Gleams? What is that bullshit?"
"Well then," Ignis said, pulling himself soggily upright. "I think it's past time that you explained yourself. Otherwise we'll all just speculate things that might even be more contrived than whatever is hatching in Prompto's cactuar-infested brain. And it will give us all a moment to sober up. What exactly where you doing while you were on your own here?"
Gladio looked at each of them, and even drunk as they were, he could tell there was no escaping them. "I was... I was working. To make some money for Iris, since she got out of the city with basically nothing. Like I said."
"Which is how five minutes after we were reunited you spent nearly a quarter of an hour extolling the virtues of cup-noodle, until poor Prompto thought you were having a stroke." Ignis managed to fold his arms after a couple of practice tries.
"Noct thought he was having a stroke," Prompto clarified. "I thought he was a magitek clone. Like, a robot they'd used to replace the real Gladio? A Robo-gladio. Robolius?"
"That explains why you lit him up with a bolt spell right in the middle of the bit about quality ingredients," Noct said. "I did wonder."
"Shut him up, didn't it?"
"We're getting off track," Ignis said, his gaze surprisingly focused for a man so drunk. "You were working. Elaborate."
In the distance they heard the shrill whistle of the Exineris plant, signaling the end of the main day shift. Gladio tilted his head to it like a dog hearing a command it didn't really want to obey, and broke out into a cold sweat.
"Tick-tock," Ignis said, ominously. "Out with it, or we'll ask around ourselves. I'm sure any of the lovely women here in town would gladly assist us."
"Okay. Look." Gladio put his hands on his hips, his eyes on the floor. "I was working, and with my... job I got to know a lot of the ladies here. Like... as a reputation. I've got one, here. And I don't want to attract any attention by running into anybody who might have... known me. In my other job. It might look bad for Noct."
"Gladio," Ignis said, one hand fluttering to his chest. "Are you saying you were a prostitute?"
"What? No!" Gladio shot back, and then jabbed a finger in Ignis' chest. "Not that there's any shame in that, and by the way it's attitudes like that that are incredibly harmful to the hard-working people in the sex industry--"
"Gladiolus," Prompto said, in drunken shock, "I hope you know, we would have helped you out. You didn't have to do that. You didn't have to go and put on the red light, or wear that dress tonight. I mean the metaphorical dress, you didn't.... actually wear a dress, did you? Not that there's anything wrong with that of course just wow if you did I'd love to see it cos you'd look amazing--"
"I was a dancer!" Gladio roared at them, before Prompto could get any further on another tangent and possibly a copyright infringement. "Bah.Ha.MUT. You assholes are terrible! I was a goddamn dancer at the Gimme Cat and in two weeks I made more money than I would in six months' hunting with you guys. Enough so I don't have to worry about Iris and the others for a while. Ladies at the plant get paid fantastic money and they tip like you wouldn't goddamn believe. Nothing else to spend it on here but booze and boys."
"Just a dancer?" Ingis was not willing to let this go. "Because if I need to get tested or something you'd better tell me."
"The only thing I got lucky with was a steel pole," Gladio growled. "And it was a professional and reliable partner and it respected me in the morning."
"You were a pole dancer?" Prompto said, his eyes sparkling. "Wooooooooooow that's so physically demanding, you know? I bet you were awesome."
Gladio was a little taken aback by this. "Oh," he said, and then seemed to be at a loss for words for a minute, blushing and tugging on his unkempt ponytail. "Well I... I guess I was pretty good. I mean, the ladies loved it. They paid real well."
Noct was looking very hard at his crumpled hunt flyer, frowning at the posted bounty on the bottom. "...How much?"
"Ohhhh my goooood we have sooooo much moneeyyyyyy," Prompto sang, taking up double fistfuls of gil and letting the bills flutter back down to the hotel bed, which was carpeted in enough gil to buy half of Lestallum, easy. "Gladio-daddy-o making it raiiinnnnn!"
"A most profitable venture, I must say," Ignis said, banding together stacks of bills and arranging them in a neat pile on the coffee table. "And entertaining, as well. Quite a bit of talent in this town." He tapped up a few calculations on his phone. "Even accounting for the house cut, and the expenses of eyeliner and body spray and a shockingly pricey sparkly thong, not to mention our own contributions to the evening's entertainment, you've more than set us up for the foreseeable future, Gladio."
"No more night hunts," Noct cooed, from under the blankets, the money, and Prompto. "I get to sleep instead of stabbing homicidal desserts for loose change."
"I can't believe you made me do that again," Gladio said, stepping out of the hotel bathroom with a wet washcloth and attempting to get most of the glitter off his skin. "Worse, I can't believe you came to watch."
"I can't believe how fabulous you were on that stage," Prompto enthused. "How did you make your hips do that... that thing?"
"Practice," Gladio answered, twisting the washcloth in his ear.
"Oooh," Prompto pulled out his wallet. "Can I get a lesson? Do you take credit cards?" Prompto leaned over and swiped his LucEx card down the cleft in Gladio's abs like he was ringing in a purchase. "Ching! Looks like you do! ...Just email me the receipt."
"Prompto." Gladio arched an eyebrow down at him. "Has anyone ever told you that you're thirsty as fuck?"
At this, Prompto burst into effervescent giggles and hooked a finger in the very tiny waistband of Gladio's equally tiny thong. "Has anyone ever told you that you're really slow to catch on to the obvious?"
"Here I thought I was the easy one," Ignis said, thumbing through a wad of banknotes, impervious to the show.
Noct made an incredulous noise from under the blankets. "Like hell you are."
"Come now, I did let Prompto do that bit with the tequila salt, didn't I?"
"Aw man," Prompto said, briefly distracted from Gladio's thong. "Now I want another shot. Those three peach bellinis I got during the show have worn off already."
"Not sure mine ever kicked in," Noct grumbled.
"Darklighter's is still open," Gladio said, with a little shrug. "He does a nice huevos rancheros for the swing shift crowd. Anyone hungry--not like that, Prompto. I mean, actually hungry."
"I am actually hungry," Prompto whined, his fingers still getting very friendly.
"Bit peckish myself," Ignis said, tidying his stacks. "And I daresay we can afford it."
"Yeah, all right, I'm in," Noct said, kicking off his blanket and several thousand gil in the process. "Put your pants on, superstar. I'll buy you a drank."
"Money in the bank," Prompto said, and fanned himself with a crisp handful of bills.
"Indeed. The First National Bank of Gladio," Ignis said, and swatted Gladio across his sparkling ass. "Open for business."
Gladio sighed. He smelled like a cheap moscato and hairspray, and there were sequins up his ass-crack. "I wonder if the cup noodle guy is still hiring."
The bar called Darklighter's is an inside joke around here-- Zax Darklighter was the surname (and spelling) I gave to Zack Fair before SE retconned a name for him in Crisis Core etc. Biggs Darklighter, of course, is the Star Wars character, so I thought with the constant Biggs/Wedge jokes in classic FF it would be fun for Zack to have a SW last name. And I still like it better than "Fair," but this shit's not up to me. (Also I will take "Horatio Reeve" with me to my grave because "Reeve Tuesti" ugh W.T.F.) Anyway! When I brought Zack back from the dead for the fic Redemption Day, he eventually wound up buying the villa in Costa Del Sol from Cloud and opening a bar there (called Darklighter's). It's also the beach bar the FF8 gang goes to in the fic Menage a Triad, when Squall loses Zell to Irvine for the night in a bet. On purpose. Basically what I'm saying is when you've been writing Final Fantasy fic as long as I have (like 20+ years *crumbles into dust*) you invariably build up your own little mythos and you amuse yourself by referencing it all the time. Like 10,000 Needles Tequila! Which I invented in like, 2002, and now teefury has shirts about it. Fandom is a funny thing. (I don't honestly think I got ripped off for that, since tequila actually COMES FROM a cactus, but it was really weird when I saw it.)
tl;dr: yes that bartender is totally my NotDead!Zack in an uncredited role.
BTW, if you actually want to read any of these fics, they're all on my website (http://www.bishink.org) either under the main fic pages or the archive for the old stuff (or the graveyard for the god-help-you-it-was-1998 stuff). If you think there's something from my back catalog I should put on Ao3, let me know! I haven't wanted to do it since I don't want people to think I'm updating RDD when really it's just some of my oldass Xenogears fic. ^_^;
Chapter 27: Rations
Ignis + Gordon Ramsay gifs = my OTP
"I must confess," Ignis said, looking down at the half-eaten protein bar in his hand, "This tastes nothing like proper biscuit dough."
"Cookie," Noct corrected, sitting on a rock and chewing glumly. "We call them cookies here on Eos, Ig."
"I call them unpalatable," Ignis said, wrapping up the remainder of his with a shudder. "And a sad reward for a morning's hike. I think they're quite possibly the most disgusting thing I've ever put in my mouth."
Gladio inhaled as though he was about to say something, but Ignis shot him a hot look and he meekly went back to eating his lunch, poking his boot toe at a tussock of grass by the trail.
"It's better than nothing?" Prompto offered, crumpling up his wrapper and sucking a gluey bit of the stuff off his back teeth.
"That's debatable," Ignis sighed. "But I suppose if it keeps us from fainting with hunger, we don't have much choice."
"It's what they sell out here," Gladio said, with a shrug. "Not a lot of options in the gas stations. Better nutrition value for the size than a bag of chips or mini donuts."
"Dooonutts." Prompto made a soft moan of longing and sprawled back in the grass, overwhelmed by the thought. "Stop, Gladio, you're killing me."
"I don't know how you can eat those things, Prompto," Noct said, creasing his empty wrapper between his fingers. "The chocolate frosted ones? They're like tiny black holes."
"It was bad enough not having them," Prompto said, miserably, "But now when I fire off a gravisphere all I'm going to think about are chocolate donuts, and it's going to get me killed."
"Much more of these things and you won't live long enough for that," Ignis said, putting his unfinished bar into his pocket. "Ugh, that's as much as I can stomach at one go."
"Well I think you should be grateful I bother to get them at all," Gladio said, rather put-out that his offering was subject to so much criticism. "And you said we needed to cut back on the jerky, Ig."
"I did, and I still say that." Ignis shivered. "Have you looked at the nutrition information on that rubbish? Nothing but bovine bungholes and sodium."
"Jerky," Prompto sounded like he might start to cry. "Black-pepper teriyaki flavor sticks..."
"Whaddya want us to do, Ig?" Gladio stuffed his empty wrappers in his pockets. He'd eaten three. "Carry around a kitchenette? Gonna make us little boxed lunches to take with us? Hot dogs cut up into little octopuses? Rice balls in the shape of Kenny Crow?"
"I'm not eating anything shaped like that bird," Noct said with feeling, shredding his wrapper into little foil strips.
"Don't be ridiculous. We haven't the time for that." Ignis looked aggrieved by this admission. "And of course there's no use carrying anything perishable, and the cooler in the car is already at capacity. It must be something we can bring along for emergencies. Something quick and tasty and portable that doesn't taste like artificial paste dunked in shellac."
"If you're not going to eat the rest of yours, I will," Gladio said. "I swear, I think you're as picky as Noct sometimes."
"Noct eats anything that's soft, bland, and not a member of the vegetable family," Ignis said, irritated. "Just like a bloody toddler."
"I'm sitting right here, Ig," Noct said.
"I, on the other hand have standards," Ignis continued, ignoring his king (much in the same way his king ignored any carrots on his plate). "And I fail to see why we should spend our days--possibly our last days--choking down this... supplement and being happy about it."
"Oh!" Prompto sat up quickly, his back still covered with bits of grass and leaf-litter. "Have you come up with a new--"
"Don't rush me, Prompto," Ignis said, cutting him off with a gesture. "I'm working on it."
The fact that Ignis was working on it was the last thing on Noct's mind when he woke up, three days later, in the camper outside the Burbost Souvenir Emporium. The rain drumming on the roof of the camper had a decidedly sleety sound, and the small windows with their ratty screens were all thick with condensation. Noct had been up way too late the night before trying to kill a giant snake that had not made prior funeral arrangements with its next of kin, and was therefore none too keen on the idea. (They killed it anyway, of course, but it took several hours, and the accompanying downpour had not quite washed all the snake-blood off of Noct's jacket.)
Noct groaned at the gray morning and the unpleasant sound of icicles forming on the striped camper awning, and burrowed back down under the old Lucian Army wool blanket he was sharing with Prompto. Ignis would be coming in any minute to wake them up, to drag them out into the cold, wet weather, to sludge through another cave or fight some other monster who was bound and determined to live another day. And Noct, to put it mildly, was unenthused by the prospect. So what if the monster had eaten a few hunters? Was that really so bad? No, it was not really that bad, he decided. Who hadn't wanted to eat a hunter now and then? Noct was quite sure it wasn't his place to judge. So he snuggled under the warm weight of Prompto's arm and went back to sleep, sure it would only be for a few precious minutes.
When he woke up again, he knew that wasn't the case. It was still rainy outside, but the grayness had a different texture, the rain was at least two degrees away from snow instead of only one, and more than anything, Noct actually felt rested. Next to him, Prompto was rubbing his face and groping blindly for his phone under the lumpy pillow.
"Mmmwhatime is it?" Prompto asked, and then answered his own question by finding his phone. "Gotta be at least... holy Shiva, it's almost ten!"
"Oh my god," Noct said, shoving himself up to his elbows. "Ignis let us sleep in. He must have died in his sleep."
Prompto sat up and sniffed the air. "Well then his ghost is haunting the kitchen, because something smells amazing."
Noct smelled it too: honey and flour and vanilla, and no small amount of butter. "He's been baking," Noct said, in a tender tone of voice that normally only a bait store could inspire in him. "What is it? Cookies? It smells like cookies."
"No wonder the camper is so cozy," Prompto said, wrapping the blanket around his shoulders. "Wow, it's just like Yuletide morning! On commercials, anyway. My Mom can't cook to save her life. We always had pop-tarts."
"I see you two are alive in here," Ignis said, pulling back the door curtain that marked off the bedroom from the rest of the camper. He brought with him the warm glow of incandescent light, and the delicious smell increased tenfold. "Want some breakfast? I've got rejects that need proper disposal."
"If that's your rejects I'm smelling, I can't imagine what the good ones smell like," Prompto said, wandering into the kitchenette. He was still in his plaid flannel lounge pants and yesterday's tank top, and his hair resembled the nest of a chocobo with particularly poor housekeeping skills, but tempted by that delectable odor, he didn't care.
"They smell the same, Prompto." Ignis handed him a plate full of lumpy baked odds and ends, definitely of the cookie persuasion and loaded with bits of pecan and dried apple. "They just didn't cut up neatly into bars. Don't eat all of it, half's for Noct."
"Then he better move fast," Prompto moaned, through a mouthful. "Ofmggggg these are goooood."
"Glad to hear it." Ignis made shooing motions at him. "Now go sit down and quit crowding me. I've got another batch coming out, and this is barely a one-arse kitchen as it is."
"Can I have some of that coffee--"
"It's on the table. Scoot." No sooner had Ignis gotten Prompto out of the way that Noct emerged, and the King of Lucis was shoved ungently after Prompto so that Ignis could get the oven door open.
"You guys are late to the game," Gladio said, putting his book down on the tiny tabletop and pouring coffee for them both. "That's is his third flavor this morning. There's already been a peanut-cashew one and a double chocolate."
"Where are those leftovers?" Prompto wanted to know.
"You snooze you lose, kid," Gladio said, with a burp.
Noct sank down next to Prompto on the hideous orange plaid seat. "So, any idea why he's gone on a baking bender? He's not pregnant, is he?"
Prompto choked on his coffee.
"They're our rations," Ignis said, thunking down a plate full of cranberry-orange bar-ends. "So do be so kind, Prompto, as to share these and make sure you don't eat four thousand calories in one sitting. Like Gladio did."
Gladio's second burp was a bit more pained.
"Rations?" Noct stopped chewing one of the apple bits long enough to reach for a cranberry one. "You mean, no more of those slab things Gladio calls food?"
"Hey, I happen to like protein bars," Gladio said, and at Ignis' look, added quickly, "Of course, these are better. Much better. Way better. I'll stop talking now."
"These," Ignis said, straightening his glasses even though he still had his oven-mitt on, "Are whole-grain, organic, calorie-dense and filling. Just the thing when we can't stop and need a meal quick to hand. And they don't taste like the bottom of a shoe. They'll last several weeks and we'll stop spending all our ready cash on something that came out of an extruder."
"Fan youf fo a feanut fuffer favor?" Prompto asked, one in each hand and up to three in his mouth. "Afking for uh frend."
"The peanut butter ones were my first try," Ignis said, whipping down a plastic container filled with foil-wrapped bars. His expression was triumphant and would have been more so without the broad streak of flour across his nose. "I started before Gladio got up."
"You've been holding out on me!" Gladio said. "I mean, I can't eat any more or I might die, but it's the principle of the thing."
"Yes," Ignis said, and arched an eyebrow at the crumb-covered plates, the crumb-covered table, and the crumb-covered King of Lucis and his (also crumby) retinue. "Which is why I've gone over to the shop across the way and purchased an extra container for all these..." He pulled down several more boxes, and waved them by their noses on the way to the countertop, "...and a padlock for the lid."
"A padlock?" Prompto was so upset that he actually swallowed before talking. "What, you don't trust us?"
"In a word, no." Ignis put his hands on his hips. "But I will not lock them up if--and only if--you all can behave. I've taken an entire day out of our itinerary to stock us up for this, and I shan't do it again if you lot stuff your faces with a week's worth of rations as a midnight snack. If you can't control yourselves it's back to paste bars. For you."
"For us?" Noct echoed. "What about you?"
"I can make my own batch in half an hour," Ignis said, coolly. "And I will put carrots in them."
Noct had never looked so stricken, not even when he heard of Insomnia's fall. "You wouldn't."
"Carrot cake ones," Ignis said, putting his hands on the table and looking Noct right in the eye. "With walnuts."
"So," Ignis continued briskly. "If you want me to keep making them in flavors you'll all eat, you'll keep your little fingers out of the stock and I'll let you have all the end-bits in my make-up batches. Agreed?"
"Yeah, sure," Gladio said.
"Deal," Prompto nodded.
"Why would anyone put carrots in a cake?" Noct said, nearly in tears over this grave perversion of everything good and decent in the world.
"Good," Ignis said, and whisked up the empty plates with one hand, waving them to the other end of the camper with the other. "Now get the fuck out of my kitchen."
Chapter 28: Storage
It's in here somewhere...
"So how does it work?" Prompto asked, apropos of nothing, while Ignis was trying to arrange all their belongings in the Regalia's trunk--a steep challenge considering how little trunk there was and much of it was taken up by the car's roof.
"How does what work?" Noct asked back, doing what he knew to be best in these situations, which was to stay the hell out of Ignis' way. They were both sitting on the hotel's veranda rail, watching Gladio and Ignis argue. It was not yet six in the morning, and already blisteringly hot. Even the insects couldn't be bothered to do more than wheeze gently in the grass.
"This would help if someone had the sense to send us on this trip with an SUV instead of this glorified roller-skate," Gladio said, standing impatiently by and holding most of a campsite in his arms, while Ignis surveyed the ten inches of space he had to play with.
"It would also help if we weren't trying to fit in five Mesminir horns, his Highness' collection of iron shavings, and half a dozen brown trout," Ignis retorted, and moved the cooler over again.
"Your armiger," Prompto clarified to Noct, his mouth bright orange from the Phoenix soda he was drinking. "You just... pull out whatever weapons we need when we need them?"
Noct shrugged. His own soda was grape, and his mouth was a dull purple as a result. "Basically."
"You keep your fishing poles in there, too?"
"Well, they sure wouldn't fit in the car."
"But how does it--"
"Magic," Noct said, nonchalant, as he slowly peeled the Phoenix sticker off his bottle.
"That doesn't really tell me anything."
"It's hard to explain," Noct said.
"You don't know how it works, either. Do you."
Noct stuck the soda label on the thigh pocket of Prompto's pants. "...Nope."
Prompto sighed, making his bottle produce a low, foghorn whistle. Across the parking lot, Gladio and Ignis were getting into a terse argument about how many iron bangles counted as too many. Gladio implied that it was no more or less than carrying around a full mise en place set and a goddamn bundt pan, and tensions quickly soared higher than the temperature.
"I think it's like the warping," Noct said. "Only you give me your weapons, and I can put them... away. Like I guess it's a pocket dimension? And then I reach in and get them when we need them. Same for the potions and stuff. The ones you keep on you are just if I can't get one in your hands fast enough."
Prompto considered this.
"It would certainly help if somebody didn't always buy cup noodles by the case--"
"Hey, I'm not the one toting around a gravity-fed iron-slash-fabric steamer and four jugs of distilled water--"
"You can't fill a quality clothes-iron with tapwater, Gladio, don't be barbaric."
"So," Prompto said at last, as Gladio and Ignis' argument started to dissolve into personal insults regarding the relative physical volume of beer versus that of depilatory cream, "Couldn't you just keep, everything in there?"
Noct choked on the last, lukewarm dregs of his soda. "You mean... everything?" He wiped grape soda off his lower lip. "The camping stuff and the luggage?"
Prompto nodded. "And the food, and the hunt prizes... I mean, we're running out of space for those giant crab claws, and they're getting a little funky. "
Noct wrinkled his nose. "You've got a point."
"Seriously, do you even have any hair follicles left that work?!"
"At least I know personal grooming doesn't stop at my waistline, because your ridiculous half-sasquatch look isn't doing you any favors, darling--"
"Annnnnd it might shut those two up," Prompto added.
"That's worth anything," Noct said, fervently, and hopped off the railing. "I'll give it a try."
"Ahhh," Ignis sighed, as the Regalia shot off down the road like a gleaming bullet, "It's like driving a whole new car. Peculiar how it makes a difference in the handling, what? Having so little in the trunk. But are you quite sure you're all right with this, Noct?"
"Yeah I'm fine," Noct said, sprawled out in the back seat with his arm across his face. "I'm not as dizzy anymore. I think it was just... shoving everything in."
"I gotta say, gonna be real handy," Gladio said, the most he'd spoken for a while (as he still hadn't quite forgiven Ignis for the sasquatch comment). "Won't have to carry camping stuff, or firewood, or beer--"
"I just am perhaps slightly concerned that it might be too much for you," Ignis said, peering at Noct in the rear-view. "You're not organizationally minded, you know. In the heat of battle, it may prove challenging to--"
"Ignis," Noct said, sitting up. "Are you telling me I need to clean up my brain?"
Prompto made a snort of amusement. "Hey, we've all seen your old apartment, man."
"Remember the time he gave the whole floor ants?" Gladio chuckled.
Prompto's eyes widened. "Do you think he could get like, inter-dimensional brain ants if he doesn't keep it clean in there?"
"I of course can only theorize about the full function of your armory," Ignis said, before Noct's expression could become more annoyed. "Not having personal experience with it myself. But--"
"My dad kept the entire 'Guard and the 'Glaive equipped with everything from broadswords to brass knuckles for like forty years," Noct growled. "I think I can stand to carry a couple spare undershirts and some CDs. And seriously, Prompto, brain ants?"
"Fine," Ignis said, in a high-pitched sigh that usually meant it was anything but fine, and they'd all be sorry and wish they'd listened to him. Except that nobody yet had picked up on that, which meant it didn't tend to work that way. Instead they roared on towards their destination, while Noct thoughtfully sorted his fishing lures in some vast, empty room in the back of his mind.
The first couple of scuffles they got into were promising; Noct got his companions equipped and buffed with his usual speed, and perhaps only a slight hesitation when something unusual was called for from the selection of potions. Prompto was feeling ingenious about his idea and Noct was feeling downright smug, but then they sprang what turned out to be an entire metropolis of cactuars, and things started to go awry. Starting with Prompto's ammo.
"I could be wrong but is this thing shooting raspberries?" Prompto clicked his tongue against his teeth and scowled furiously at his Valiant. "And now it's jammed. I mean, really. I think this is actually jam?" He licked the side of his gun. "Yes. Jam." He made a face, still smacking. "And now I'm all sticky."
"Shit," Noct breathed, dropping down from the sky behind him. "Sorry... reached in there when I was still warping and I think I... knocked something over."
"Can you... knock something over in there?" Prompto narrowly avoided a blast of cactuar spines, and with a burst of light he was holding his auto-crossbow instead.
"Just... use that until we get these things cleared up," Noct said. "And don't tell Ignis--"
"Sorry, Noct?" Ignis called from across the battlefield. "Any reason why you've asked me to start using my kitchen knives in combat?"
"Same reason he just gave me a tent pole?" Gladio shot back, though luckily he still had his shield in his other hand, and was able to fling it up just in time to deflect a whistling barrage of thorns.
"Dammit," Noct said, with feeling, and tried again.
"A dash of salt improves many things, Noct, but I can't say it does the same in battle." In lieu of his knives, Ignis had been left brandishing his rock-salt grinder. "Unless we were up against giant slugs."
"These aren't even my socks," Gladio said, shaking a pair of red and brown striped ones that said STUD on the side.
"Give me those!" Prompto said, racing across the battlefield and dodging cactuars along the way. "My lucky socks!"
"Dammit, dammit, dammit," Noct had broken out into a sweat. "Why is everything--ugh, what even is that?"
"My moisturizer!" Ignis shouted, as Gladio hosed a cactuar in the face with it. "Do you have any idea how much that costs?"
"Why is it in a squishy bottle like that?" Noct wanted to know, even as he frantically rummaged through his armiger for weapons. "How do you know it isn't mayonnaise?"
"Because my mayo is artisanal and does not contain rosewater and sunscreen," Ignis snarled, doing his level best to bludgeon a cactuar with a burlap sack full of gysahl greens. "This is intolerable. Noct, could you manage something useful?"
"Now they're all full of holes," Prompto wailed, holding up his thorn-shot socks.
"You're gonna be full of holes in a minute," Gladio said, batting away cactuars with a large pink surfboard that Noct hadn't even known was in there. "Dammit, Noct! Give me something with an edge already!" The surfboard exploded into sparkling crystals, only to be replaced by Gladio's beard-trimmer, and Gladio used several words just then that none of them had ever heard put to such extraordinary use.
"Oh, thank Ramuh," Ignis said, as he tossed away the helmet of an Exineris thermal-suit and cracked open the cold can of Ebony that had appeared in his hand. "At least I can die happy." He chucked the empty can at the nearest cactuar, but it only served to annoy the thing further. "Anytime you want to equip me would be grand, Noct."
"Nnnnnuuuguhhhhh!" Noct put forth his most tremendous effort yet, but all Ignis had to show for it was the propane tank from his camp stove, and Prompto's hairspray.
"Okay, wow," Prompto said, unfolding the center flap of the copy of Girl Next Door (April '56, Oh My Oracle!) that had just landed on his head. "Noct? I hate to break it to you? But your Angel is the Centerfold."
"That. Is. Photo. Shopped." Noct snarled, as everything from megalixirs to cans of spam appeared and disappeared in his hands.
"Didn't stop you from buying it at the gas station, I see," Gladio said, having trussed up a cactuar with the cord of his trimmer and was now deliberately shaving all the spines off of it. "And how would you kno--Ahaaaaaaa Sweet mother of Ifrit!"
"AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH THAT'S RIGHT BURN YOU RUDDY LITTLE BASTARDS!" While they were arguing Ignis had discovered both a new recipe (charred cactus tacos) and that a propane torch and Prompto's industrial-strength hairspray could be combined into a terrifying homemade flame-thrower. Great gouts of fire reflected in his glasses as he laid everything around him to utter ruin, and his laughter as he did so was several miles away from sane.
"Looks like Iggy's got it covered," Prompto said, feverishly paging through the magazine to get to the Grease-Monkey Goddess: All Hot and Bothered in Hammerhead feature he'd seen on the cover. "Guess we can just sit out--aw, bitches!"
"There's your gun," Noct said, in breathless triumph, replacing the magazine with Prompto's Valiant, and Gladio's trimmer with his sword. "And your sword. Got it. I just had to sort everything... it's the triangle button."
"It's the what?" Ignis asked, and then clicked his tongue in disappointment as he got his daggers back. "Aw, pity. I was rather having fun."
"Having fun using up all my hairspray!" Prompto said, feeling injured that he'd never know now the three things Cindy Aurum could never resist (and if he had them or perhaps could get them grafted on somehow). "Man, all they have out here is fukkin Aqua-Net."
"Forget it," Gladio said, wading into the remaining cactuars, his greatsword mowing them down like a scythe. "Let's clean this up and get something to eat. Prompto's gunfire still smells like raspberry jam and it's starving me to death."
"Ignis," Noct said, looking down at his plate. "What is this?"
Ignis arched an eyebrow at him. "It's toast," he said, and there was something about his tone that indicated there was a silent comma, bitch on the end of his statement. "What about it?"
"It's just... it doesn't look very much like dinner." Noct said, as delicately as he could manage.
"Doesn't it?" Ignis said, in an unimpeachable tone. "Are you sure?"
Noct shook his plate a little and the bit of toast scooted around on the melamine surface. There wasn't even any butter. "Uh, yeah?"
Ignis sniffed. "Does it look more or less like dinner than that utter debacle this afternoon looked like a proper combat?"
"Does it look like my stove propane tank, which is empty now because we had to fight for our lives with nothing but it and Prompto's embarrassing socks?"
"I said I was sorry," Noct muttered.
"Does it look like my kitchen cooler, which I discovered this evening with everything inside in complete higgledy-piggledy, and all my ingredients floating in an inch of Gladio's body spray?"
Prompto sniffed his toast. "Yeah. That's definitely what I smell."
"I'm not sure the Timber Rebellion scent is really me," Gladio said. "Maybe I should try the Desert Pirate one."
"Maybe you should all try listening to me," Ignis said, swelling like an annoyed cockatrice. "I said this was a bad idea--"
"Hey, I got it sorted out," Noct said, holding his toast out to the fire to try and burn some of the cologne fumes off of it. "So there were a few hiccups."
"A few hicc--" Ignis began, but then was so strangled by indignation that he couldn't manage to say anything more.
"Yeah, next time, maybe less hiccups," Gladio said, speculatively rubbing his toast on one wrist.
"Seriously, dude," Prompto said, and pointed to his limp hair. "Do you want me to look like this? The rest of the trip? I don't think so."
"Next time," Noctis said, with a look that would have been completely kingly if not for the fact that his toast had just caught on fire. "Let's see one of you guys do it. Seriously. Just yank some weapons out of nowhere, it's cool. It doesn't have to be me all the time. How about slapping some remedies on you when you get poisoned for the seventeenth time in one fight? No prob. Go to it. I'll watch. Anybody? No? Okay. Conversation over."
With that, was nothing to do but beat the sparks out of Noct's toast. And for Ignis, with a noise of resignation, to pull out his notebook and add yet another item to his very long list of Things We Will Never Discuss Again.
In the comments for the last chapter I got to talking with folks about what all is in Noct's armiger, and I can't help but feel that getting that skill down was something of a challenge. (I imagine that this actually takes place earlier in the game, but let's just say Noct didn't trigger this scene until he was going back in time or what the jack ever.) Also we at last have the debut of Ignis' Toast, Bitch recipe, which is a running joke in my playthough and how everyone knows when they done fucked up and good. It uh... normally does not have Gladio's body spray on it.
* Apologies to The J. Geils Band, though frankly I think Luna's the one who needs the apology.
Chapter 29: Crimson
It's not mere fashion.
Prompto watched a rivulet of water as it trickled down past the tent flap, pooling just under the upturned toe of his boot before making a dash towards the center of the tent. It didn't get far. Ignis was on watch, and suffocated the errant dribble with an already muddy towel.
"Bother this weather," Ignis said, in the closest thing to annoyance that he would allow himself, as he mopped up the latest puddle under their discarded shoes. It had been raining two days straight, and they were far from the relative comforts of a camper or hotel. Instead, they had been sleeping with only the thin tent bottom between them and the cold ground, and the incessant rain thudded against the roof of the tent like overturned buckets full of soggy, dead bumblebees. The tent smelled like mildew and wet socks, and the only thing worse than the weather was the general mood of its inhabitants. Their clothes were hung up in the front of the tent, where they would not drip directly on anyone's head, but no one believed they would be dry by morning. In fact they would be just as unpleasant to put on in the morning as they had been when they were taken off. Possibly more so. Each man looked at his damp clothes as a prisoner would the gallows outside his barred window, as a fate both dreaded and unavoidable.
"I'd give a dukedom and my firstborn heir for a hot shower right now," Noct said, huddled in his blanket in the corner of the tent furthest from the opening. "Aren't there any evil faeries around granting wishes for babies anymore?"
"A little more respect for faerie tales, if you please, Noct." Ignis folded the towel and then tucked it carefully back under their shoes, in hopes of damming any further floods. "And I'm afraid that you are the offspring that was offered in barter, generations ago, and therefore get little say in the matter."
"I can offer mine," Prompto said. "I'm okay with that. Hot shower and hotel room, for one kid. A steal."
Gladio made a scoffing noise. "That evil faerie better have plenty of patience, then. Because you're not gonna be a father of anything at the rate you're going. You ain't gettin a baby out of Noct's ass."
Prompto gave him a look that was downright murderous, his good temper as soggy as his hair. "I've got as good a chance of that as you do getting one out of your own goddamn hand--"
"Guys--" Noct began, but their king's plea for peace went unanswered.
"I could see what I could get out of your face instead--"
"I'd just as soon blow a behemoth, they smell better--"
"Get one in rut and they're almost as easy as you are--"
"Guys," Noct tried again.
"That's enough," Ignis snapped, and his voice shut down the argument when Noct's could not make a dent. "Any more of that and you'll be sleeping outside, is that clear?"
Gladio and Prompto settled into a sullen silence, glaring at each other.
"We're all tired," Ignis said, tugging on the sleeves of his shirt as it hung limply from the tent roof. "We're all wet, we're all cold, we're all sick of the weather, of wet underthings, of each other. Let's just try to be decent to each other, shall we?"
"C'mon, Iggy." Noct lifted his head. "You've got four guys in their underwear crammed in a tent with a typhoon outside. Gladio hasn't had a beer in twenty-four hours--"
"Thirty six," Gladio corrected.
"And we've been on nothing but spam sandwiches for three days straight. You're lucky we haven't killed each other."
"No," Ignis said, far more dry than the weather had been for ages, "You're lucky I haven't killed all three of you." He turned on the lantern in the middle of the tent, and then sank down next to Gladio and tried to wring out the hem of his black singlet. "But Prompto, if you do get any takers for that first-born, I'd love a good hot coffee and a newspaper."
"Everything bagel with smoked salmon and this goddamn much--" Gladio held up three fingers as a measure, "--cream cheese on it."
"Having my kingdom back would be great, too," Noct put in.
"I think you guys are banking too much on my going rate per kid," Prompto said, with a wince. "I might get us a hair dryer and some instant oatmeal, but that's it."
"Come on," Gladio cooed. "Don't sell yourself short, Prompom. How many half-behemoth or royal assbabies are in the offering these days?"
Prompto kicked him. Ignis pointed at the tent flap, and Prompto subsided, reluctantly. There was a pause in which every man appreciated the richness of his own misery.
"Anybody wanna play King's Knight?" Prompto offered.
"My battery's been dead for hours," Noct said, scooching closer to Gladio to steal some warmth. Even down to his skivvies, the man was a giant furnace.
"Yeah, I know," Prompto sneezed. "Mine, too."
"Somehow mankind managed to entertain itself for eons before the advent of free-to-play mobile games," Ignis said, though he had at that moment been thinking wistfully of the satisfying feel of a cheap ballpoint pen on a newsprint-paper crossword.
"Banging rocks together," Noct said, trying not to shiver visibly. "Inventing pottery. Murdering each other over beads. Freaking the fuck out about fire. Yeah." He rolled his eyes, and inched his bare toes under the edge of Prompto's blanket. "It was a great time, prehistory."
"Telling stories," Ignis said, pretending his sniff was one of propriety and not that his nose was running. "Come now, surely we can come up with some way of taking our minds off of things."
"I'd suggest getting off," Gladio said, "But I wouldn't want to come between Prompto and his various imaginary girlfriends. Especially Miss B. Hemoth."
Prompto made an inarticulate noise of rage and sprung at Gladio's throat, an unwise action in the best of times, and for two solid minutes the tent was in chaos. It was brief and violent and the end result was that the tent flap blew open, everything got wetter than it had been to begin with (themselves included), Prompto got a black eye and Gladio got a split lip and Ignis called them all several things that they had never heard before, didn't quite understand, and didn't dare ask him to repeat for clarification. Shoes, punches, and tantrums were all thrown. It was not a proud moment for any of them, and it fell apart in mingled shame and frustration.
It's a difficult thing for four men to ignore each other inside a small tent, but they did their level best. The tent roof had a definite list now; Gladio's fist had warped one of the poles. In better times they might have played cards, but nothing makes a bad mood worse than the suggestion of getting along, and nobody attempted it. Ignis cleaned his glasses. Noct pretended to be asleep. Gladio pretended to be somewhere else, possibly a sunny beach on a deserted island. Prompto held a cold bottle of Potion to his swollen eye and picked chunks of mud out of the cleats of his boots.
"Why are they red?" Prompto asked suddenly, forgetting, for just long enough, that they weren't speaking to each other.
"Huh, it's cos I punched you in the--"
"Noct," Prompto said, "Tell Gladiolus that I'm not talking about my face and in fact I'm not talking to him right now, or again ever."
"Uh, he can hear you himsel--"
"I meant," Prompto continued, "The bottoms of our shoes. Why are they red? Cor's were too, right? All the Crownsguard's are. Everything else is black, but--"
"Blood," Ignis said, and it got everyone's attention. He looked back at them in mild surprise. "What, did you think it was for fashion? A splash of color? You are all familiar with House Caelum, I trust?" He chuckled darkly. "Not so much as a button without a tale behind it."
"Though some people might just bitch about it being boring old black," Gladio said, pointedly not looking at Prompto, who just as pointedly did not look back. "No respect for history."
"You can't respect history if you don't even know what it is," Noct said, swatting Gladio's arm. "And even I don't know. Go on, Iggy. Why are they red?"
"Oh," Ignis raised a haughty eyebrow. "So you want storytime now. I thought it was all just banging rocks together."
"Anything's better than waiting for these two to get into another fight." Noct flung his blanket around himself like a mantle, and bodily dragged Prompto over into his lap as though he was just an additional layer.
"He started it," Prompto grumbled, but Noct put the blanket over his head to quiet him and it worked, just like calming an agitated chocobo.
"Whose blood was it?" Noct asked. "The king's?"
Gladio shrugged. "Their own. Y'see--"
"Please, Gladio," Ignis held up a hand. "I think I'd better tell it."
"Hey, how come--"
"Because," Ignis pressed, "I can't count on reliable narration for a man who thinks The Blademaster is an awe-inspiring epithet worthy of anything more than derisive laughter."
"It is totally badass!" Gladio protested, at considerable volume.
"Totally stupid," Prompto said, under Noct's blanket.
"Speaking of imaginary girlfriends," Ignis breathed, to the far corner of the tent.
Gladio went as red as the soles in question. "Hey!!!"
"Keep it up, you three," Noct said, with dangerous authority, "And it's going to be your blood all over everything."
"It was," Ignis said, putting Gladio back on his ass with one finger in the middle of his chest. "Crownsguard blood. On the shoes. The sixty-third king of Lucis--and don't make that face at me, Gladio, it's a very nice new scar even if you did get it falling through a glass table at the Gimme Cat in Lestallum. You know you don't have to make up things for our sake, don't you? Ah, damn, now I've lost my place. Quit distracting me. Where was I?"
"Sixty-third king," Prompto said, poking his nose out for air.
"Right." Ignis gathered himself up as much as a man in briefs and sock-garters could manage, pausing a moment to put his finger on the start of the tale. When he found it, he peeled it away with a slow, satisfying expertise, as though carving a lemon rind away from the fruit in one bright spiral. "It was a cold Yuletide, when the snow lay thick over the city. Even within the wall, there was no escaping the howling of the wind, or the howling of wolves. Autumn had passed with only sorrow for a harvest, for the war that year had been long and bitterly fought, and the fields around the city had been sown with corpses in lieu of grain."
A gust of wind blew hard against the tent, sending raindrops against the canvas with a noise like distant drums. Without knowing it or meaning to, they had all drawn a little closer together under the fitful light of the lantern.
"In spite of things, the King sought to cheer his people with the Yuletide festivities, and called for mummers and players of all kinds to come to the city to put on entertainments, and for a while to take the thoughts of all away from their troubles. But in such times, trouble is never far. On the longest night of the year, when bold daemons dared stare up at the city wall and death herself walked the street in bare feet and a beggar's cloak, one troupe of mummers put off their masks and donned the garb of thieves instead. But it was not coin they sought, but a King's life."
As though the Astrals themselves were listening to Ignis' tale, a long, slow roll of thunder echoed down from the mountains.
"Enemy assassins," Ignis continued, while lightning made pale shadows on the tent roof, "sent to murder the King in his very own bed. But it would not be so easy to reach him, for his loyal guards stood by. Though the war had drained their numbers, it had not lessened their devotion. Still, they were caught by surprise, and before the alarm was raised more than a dozen lay dead in the snow with their throats slit."
In the tent, his audience hardly dared to breathe; even Gladio, who had heard the story at his father's knee every Yuletide.
"The intruders thought their work done, and stole on to higher chambers, but they had made a grave error. They had not counted the youngest of the 'Guard, four apprentices knighted only that day. Not a minute before the attack, their commander had sent them to warm their cold hands by the watch-fires a moment. Sensing trouble, they returned to find their fellow-guards slain, and it did not take them long to sort out what had happened. For on the cold flagstones were the footprints of the perpetrators, where their blood-soaked shoes had left a trail leading on into the citadel. In a flash they followed it, and their swords were sharpened with the whetstone of vengeance, and though they were only four in number, they set upon their enemies with a bravery often wished-for by the veteran of a thousand battles. For they had no thought in their hearts but to save their king, and save him they did, for the last assassin died still a hands-breadth from the king's chamber door. So it was that on their first night under the banner of the Guard, four new knights saved all of Lucis; and from that day on wore the soles of their boots painted a bright crimson to honor the Crownsguard who, with their life-blood, had shown them the way to do so."
Silence in the fusty, damp tent. It was broken by the noise of Ignis tapping on the darkened screen of Prompto's phone. "And that, by the by, is the basis of your King's Knight game, watered down into a micro-transaction monster-clicker. You should have been told the real story long since. Because when you are shod as a Crownsguard, you stand upon the blood of all those who have gone before you." Ignis gave them a good hard look. "But go on and tell me how you lot were reduced to petty squabbling over a bit of bad weather. I'm sure it's every bit as noble a tale."
"All right, you told it better." Gladio heaved a heavy sigh. "Sorry, Prompto. I was bein' a dick."
"Me too, big guy." Prompto gave Gladio's tattooed forearm a fond pat. "Sorry, Noc--"
The King of Lucis answered him with a snore, sound asleep while still sitting up, chin on his breast.
"That one would sleep through an assassination," Gladio said, though softly, as not to wake him.
"Probably roll over and ask the murderers to give him five more minutes," Ignis said, and Noct did not stir as Ignis gently lowered him down to the ground and pulled the blanket over his shoulders. They tucked themselves around him in a warm, protective circle, and even with the warped roof and the drippy clothes the tent became cozy as one by one they drifted off to sleep after him. The rain carried on through the night but they didn't hear it, arms around their king as they slept, their red-soled boots lined up by the tent flap like a watchful guard.
Chapter 30: Bubbly
A broken bone, a forgotten luxury.
I got the following Anon ask on tumblr: This is sorta from the kink_meme, but as it turns out Coleman makes portable/inflatable hot tubs. What if Noct has one stashed in the arminger that he completely forgot about until after one long and annoying dungeon crawl where they're all left dirty and half frozen.
It was always the last damn fight, Noct thought, as he staggered up the cave incline towards the dull glow of light that promised an escape, at last. Always when they were tired and disheartened and cold, always when the prize had been claimed and the worst seemed to be behind them. He could swear the little daemon bastards waited until the last minute to spring something on them. An ambush. A sudden dead end. A booby-trapped corridor. It had been the last one, this time. A hail of boulders from the ceiling, and Noct had only survived because Gladio had been there, shield raised, to protect him. It hadn't come without cost.
Noct glanced over his shoulder, and winced with guilt that was entirely his own, and pain that wasn't. It was his fault. He should have seen this one coming.
"Don't give me that face," Gladio said, his own white with pain, his steps uneven as he tried to make it look like he wasn't leaning on Ignis with his good arm. His other one, the skin blackened and mottled with bruising around the bicep, hung awkwardly at his side in a sling Ignis had rigged up from his suspenders and a bandanna from Prompto's seemingly-endless supply. "This is still better than having a pancake for a Prince."
"You sure you don't want a potion, anything?" Prompto asked, not for the first time. Gladio only grunted a negative, but Ignis answered for him.
"No healing magic before I've had a chance to set the bone." Ignis looked around, saw the light of the sky, and nodded. "Just a few more steps now, Gladio."
"Heh." Gladio's face shone with cold sweat. "I'm fine. Still got one whole other arm."
"Here," Prompto said, sweeping dead leaves off a low slab of rock right by the cave entrance. They were within the fall of sunlight now, though it was fading fast as the sun slipped towards the horizon. "You can sit here. Ignis, do you need a hand?"
Ignis eased Gladio down with the care of placing a spun-sugar garnish atop a cake, and reached for the collar of his jacket to take it off. Gladio stopped him with a sudden gesture that, even with his sound arm, made him narrow his eyes in pain. He said nothing, only looked into Ignis' face a long moment. Ignis, understanding, nodded once.
"Actually," Ignis said, leaving Gladio's shirt alone for the moment, "I think the best use of our resources will be if you two go on back to the campsite and get it set up for us. We'll be along shortly."
"But, whuh–" Prompto began, confused, but Noct plucked at the trailing hem of his plaid and headed for the cave mouth.
"Sounds good. C'mon, Prompto, let's go."
Together they crunched off through the previous autumn's detritus towards the gleam of haven runes in the distance, glowing brighter with every step as dusk descended.
"I don't get Ignis sometimes," Prompto said, walking backwards for a few steps as he looked behind them. "Once he gets that set, just a couple of potions and we're back to Full Metal Gladio, right? What's with splitting us up now?"
Noct shoved a branch out of the way, too tired to bother walking around the shrub. "You ever break a bone?"
"Fell down the house steps and broke a toe once," Prompto said, with a little shrug. "When I was twelve. Still sticks out a little funny. But that's all."
"Nothing like an arm or a leg, though? Badly? As an adult?"
"Nope. Why d'you–"
A flock of birds roosting for the night around the cave entrance exploded upwards in a startled cloud, as a sharp cry rang out through the twilight. Gladio's voice, stripped raw with pain, short and involuntary and awful. Ignis had set the bone.
"That's why," Noct said, with a weary sigh.
Prompto slowly lowered his hands from his mouth. His mud-smeared face was pale under the tangled constellation of his freckles. "Oh," he said. "Gladio. He didn't want us to see that."
"Or hear it, either." Noct pressed on towards the campsite. "C'mon. We'll act like we didn't. They should still be a little while. Gonna take more than one potion for that."
The haven was a tall one, up a steep collection of rocks to the little plateau. Gladio would never have made it with his broken arm, and even Noct and Prompto, drained as they were, found it something of a challenge. They made it to the top and flopped down on the cold, damp rock, breathing hard, as night closed in around the forest.
"So," Prompto wheezed, picking pine needles off his elbows, "You know how to pitch the tent?"
"I kinda hoped you did."
Prompto put his face down. "Sure. In my pants. This, not so much."
"God, we suck," Noct said.
Prompto couldn't help but agree. "Woulda been nice to have everything set up when they get here," he sighed. "Put some water on for cup noodles and coffee? Have the tent ready? We could all just go to fucking bed."
Noct frowned up at the patchy stars appearing through the tree branches above them. It would have been better if he'd been the one injured. Ignis would have dinner lined up and ready, Gladio would have a fire built and a cozy tent waiting for them. He thought, not for the first time, that his main use on the trip so far had been to get his friends hurt. The noise of agony Gladio had made still echoed in his memory. He wished he could do something to help, to offer some comfort. Instead he just rolled onto his feet. "C'mon. I can at least get everything out of the armiger."
Prompto dragged chairs and equipment into place as Noct summoned it out of the air, his eyes closed and his face tense with concentration as he sorted through everything he carried for them. A heavy slab of folded material landed on the ground and Prompto reached out to open it up, thinking it was the tent.
"Mmm?" Noct had just produced a camp stove and a cooler out of thin air, and was swaying a little with the effort.
"This isn't the tent."
Noct steadied himself on one of the chairs, and came to look over Prompto's shoulder. "Huh. It sure felt like the tent. What the hell is that?"
"Inflatable mattress? A raft?" Prompto kept unfolding it until the object revealed itself. "A… A hot tub."
"I forgot that was in there," Noct admitted. "I stuffed it in at the last minute."
He glared up at Noct, and there was an accusatory note in his voice. "You've had a hot tub in there all this time and you haven't told us?" He began to fold it back up again, shaking his head. "I guess we can't sleep under it, so put it back and–"
"Wait," Noct said, and there was a sudden light in his eyes. "I've got an idea."
"That's it, Darling," Ignis said, still offering Gladio his shoulder, though it was not needed as badly as before. "We're almost home for tonight."
"I'm not dying, Iggy." The color had come back to Gladio's face, and his mended arm was only streaked with yellow, faded bruising after a liberal application of every potion in Ignis' pockets. The bone would ache for a few good days, and his knees were still weak from the leftover adrenaline, but it was nothing compared to what it would be like without a king's magic. "You don't have to break out the sweet-talk."
"I was talking to myself," Ignis retorted, but looped his arm around Gladio's waist all the same. He was exhausted. While his knowledge of first-aid and basic medicine was more than rudimentary, setting Gladio's arm had taken all of his mental strength and most of his physical, as well. And that after a long, wet, cold slog through a dungeon. They'd reached the edge of the campsite, and he looked up at the far ledge in grim anticipation. "God. I'd sell myself to a brothel for a hot bath right now."
"Not much chance of that," Gladio said, heaving himself over the rocks, still favoring his injury. "I don't think Noct's got either a bathtub or a brothel in 'em."
"That's where you're wrong," Prompto said, appearing at the edge to pull Gladio up to the top, although owing to their difference in size, Prompto wasn't much help. Gladio had one knee on the top of the ledge when he stopped, stunned, by the scene in front of him.
"What the hell–"
"About time you got here," Noct said, chest-deep in frothing water, his arms stretched out across the side of the fully functioning hot tub, which had been set up a safe distance from the campfire. (The extension cord ran off the edge of the campsite and down to the electricity deposit, and it was probably better Ignis didn't get a good look at how it was rigged up.) "We've been up and running for like, twenty minutes now."
"Oh, well done," Ignis said, too surprised and delighted to even pretend at his usual nonchalance. "I'd completely forgotten you even had that thing!"
"Just the trick for a sore wing, right big guy?" Prompto said, pulling the kettle off the coals. "Got some water here for noodle, or tea, or whatever."
Noct toasted them both with his tin camp mug, full of wine from Ignis' 'cooking' stash (which usually meant the bottle he polished off himself while making dinner). "Personally, I recommend the '32 burgundy."
"Noct," Gladio said, greatly moved, and with an obvious effort to keep his voice even, "I hope you know that right now? I'd walk right back into that cave and break another arm for you."
"I'd rather you just set up the tent, honestly." Noct jerked his thumb at a heap of canvas and poles on the other side of the campfire. "Because trust me, it's uh… not in my skill set."
"But apparently setting up portable hot-tub parties in the middle of the wilderness is," Ignis said, though he was already unbuttoning his shirt.
"We did try," Prompto said, holding out his reddened palms for proof. "But funnily enough, neither one of us could hammer tent pegs into solid rock."
"It's a knack," Gladio said, happily. "Pour me some of that wine, and I'll show you how it's done after dinner."
"Noodles in three minutes, guys," Prompto announced, balancing spoons on all the lids before peeling out of his mud-caked tank top.
Noct spread his arms out in invitation, for both accolades and for the other three to join him. "…Who's your king, guys?"
Chapter 31: Talent
There's got to be something Ignis isn't good at.
(Prompt from Ekala on Tumblr!)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Algebra," Prompto suggested, after a moment's thought. It had always been the bane of his existence, anyway.
"No way," Noct said, shutting him down immediately. "The man could solve for x even if x was nothing but a location on a treasure map."
"So you say." Gladio was at the caravan’s table, and he was annoyed. He had a large pile of map scraps and was trying to assemble them into something of use. So far all he'd managed to do was make one large pile into several smaller ones. "How about... folding fitted sheets?"
Prompto winced aloud. "Oooh, good contender. Noct?"
But Noct shook his head, unmoved. "Nope. Look, I'll save you some trouble. It's not going to be anything academic, domestic, historical, or etiquette--uh--al."
"What does that even leave?" Prompto wondered, bewildered.
"Sexual," Gladio suggested.
Noct went a faint shade of pink. "Okay, not that either."
"What on Eos are you three doing?" Ignis poked his head out of the camper and wiping his hands on a ratty gray dish towel that was provided as part of the so-called 'linens.'
"Trying to come up with something you're bad at," Prompto said, polishing a bit of grime off the front of his phone screen. "Oooh, hey, do you know how to play Bridge? Like, only women over forty know how to play Bridge, right?"
Ignis sighed. "This is ridiculous."
"Ah-ha!" Prompto rose to his feet in triumph. "So you don't--"
"I played Bridge with my aunt every Thursday night for seven years," Ignis said, lantern-light flashing on his glasses. "As well as Cribbage, Hearts, Pinochle, and five card bloody stud."
Prompto deflated back into his chair, but he was not completely defeated. "Come on, there has to be something you're not good at. Volleyball. ...Knitting. Playing piano? Making fudge!"
"Citadel team captain for four years, I prefer crochet, only passable as I switched to violin when I was nine, and of course I can make fudge--would you rather torama-butter or black-walnut?"
Prompto put his face in his hands.
Gladio chuckled to himself. "Keep it up, Prompto. You're bound to find something eventually. A'course, I've only been trying myself for about ten years. No luck yet."
"Nnnnnggghhhh." Prompto dragged his hands back down over his face, and turned to Noct. "Noct. You'd know if anyone does. There's gotta be something, he's human, right?"
Noct didn't answer Prompto directly, but instead leaned towards Ignis, chin in hand, body draped languidly over his chair. "Darts," he said, like an endearment.
Ignis flinched. "I--I'm fully aware of the rules for play, of course." He cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses, fussed with his cuffs. "Would--would you like to know about tournament rules or casual play, or perhaps the historical--"
"Can you play darts?" Prompto demanded, eyes ablaze.
"I can throw a dart, of course I can throw a dart--"
"But he can't hit a target with one," Noctis purred. "Not to save. his. life."
"Your highness," Ignis said, pained.
"Ha!" Gladio slapped the table, jostling all the map bits into a mess. "Astigmatism's a bitch, huh, Iggy?"
"We got one!" Prompto crowed, hands in the air. "I bet there's more, right? What about--"
"Before this charming little game continues," Ignis said, in a voice as cold as Shiva's veggie-crisper drawer, "Let me first assure you of some things I can do. Which include but are not limited to: garroting. blunt-force cranial trauma. inflicting major lacerations. construction and detonation of incendiary devices. digging very large, deep holes and then filling them in again. forging documents. disguise. having absolutely no idea what became of Prince Noctis or his companions when they all mysteriously vanished from Eos, never to be seen again." He smiled a very slow smile. "I'm very, very good at all those things."
A chill wind blew through them in the wake of this announcement, as though Noct had just unleashed the most powerful ice spell in his arsenal.
"WELP," Noct said, standing up and stretching. "I THINK IT'S TIME FOR BED NOW."
"Yeah, me too, real tired!" Gladio shoveled all the map bits into his pants and headed straight for the camper door. "HEY Noct we don't spend enough time together how about I sleep with you tonight--" he put his king in a headlock, adding in an undertone, "...I'll take first watch bolt the door sleep with your sword arm free."
Which left Prompto alone with Ignis. Deadly, dangerous Ignis. Prompto swallowed hard a few times before venturing to ask one last question.
"...Is it too late to ask for the fudge?"
(And then Ignis made fudge, and they had it with tea while he taught Prompto how to play bridge.)
Chapter 32: Complexion
Ignis saves face.
There was never enough room, in Ignis' estimation. Whether it was a posh suite on the Quay or a run-down motel with prewar-era powder-blue tile--as in this case--there was never sufficient space on the bathroom vanity for everyone's personal effects. Especially of the cosmetic variety. Especially with this crowd.
Noct was a man who was used to being judged on his appearance, which had best not be anything short of immaculate, and it showed. It showed in the industrial-sized can of expensive salon-exclusive hairspray, the tooth-bleach strips, the even more expensive cologne, and the gold and ebony-trimmed shaving tools--and that was only what he carried himself, and not what Ignis kept on hand for his use. (Noct tried, valiantly, to pretend he was completely casual and low-maintenance, just a normal, down-to-Eos heir to a royal destiny with unspeakable powers, but then he would nearly have a panic attack when his hair was rumpled by a light breeze. Hardly surprising, Ignis thought, when you've been stalked by paparazzi your whole life and assumptions were made based solely on your missing buttons or the state of your fingernails. But it was damnably inconvenient on the road.)
Prompto carried less than anyone, but that hardly mattered. He had a habit of detonating in the bathroom every night, and somehow it made his comparatively modest collection of toiletries seem twice the amount. The result was that his socks and underpants and towels and toothpaste and various hair products (they always seemed to feature an eye-assaulting color scheme and someone yelling on the label: MANGO TANGO FANDANGO SCREAMING HOLD HAIR WAX, for example) could always be found scattered over a wide area at all times, and especially after he'd showered.
Gladio--while he would appear to be the sort of man who would wash his feet, hair, and balls all with the same bar of store-brand soap--was arguably the worst. First with an assortment of beard-maintenance equipment that could have kept the Fulgarian himself trimmed on a daily basis (and Gods help you if one comb attachment was found out of its assigned place on the countertop). And then there was the copious bathroom real-estate taken up by his coordinated collection of body-wash, deodorant, shampoo, and hair-product, all the bottles arrayed with military precision and all scents calibrated to complement one another. The result was like some kind of olfactory fellatio, and it worked. To Ignis' chagrin. Gladio always smelled like a freshly-rained-on pine forest populated solely with leather-clad lumberjack bears running some kind of artisanal BBQ operation.
And Ignis himself, always the last in for the night, looked at his travel bag, and the already-overcrowded counter, and sighed. He tidied up Prompto's mess, zipped the embossed leather case of Noct's kit, and had just started tending to his own complexion when the door to the bathroom was blocked by a confuse spell in human form.
"Yes, Prompto?" Ignis said, not looking away from the mirror. "Something I can help you with?"
"Forgot my phone," Prompto said, snaking his hand through the door and around Ignis' waist to reach the back of the toilet, where his phone lay among a nest of jelly bracelets and uncapped hairspray.
Ignis paused, fingertip still full of cleanser, waiting until Prompto had gone and he could carry on in peace. But Prompto didn't go, only picked up his phone and studied Ignis' reflection with interest.
It was a struggle not to sigh again. Ignis tried not to do it too much, it made him hyperventilate, but sometimes it could not be helped around this crowd. "I'm washing my face," he said, with a tone that would have seen anyone off. Anyone except Prompto Argentum.
"You've got like, six things here," Prompto said, and picked up a bottle.
"Yes," Ignis said, bristling at the idea that he carried as much around with him as everyone else in the party (he absolutely carried as much as everyone else). "And?"
Prompto put down one bottle, picked up another. "What's it all for?"
"My face," Ignis said, and in the hopes of getting rid of him, added, "Where's Noct and Gladio?"
"Went over to the diner to pick up our dinner order. You don't need all this, do you? Your face looks fine. You're not a giant freckle-bomb, like me."
A-ha, Ignis thought, having figured it out. He wiped off his cleanser lather with a wet cloth, and switched to the next bottle of product. Prompto had been left alone. Prompto was bored. Prompto was curious. And, most of all, Prompto was self-conscious about his own face. (And he damn well should be, Ignis thought, because if he kept riding in an open car all day with no sunscreen he'd look like Cid before he turned thirty.)
"Prompto," Ignis said, moving to his toner (the nighttime one), "you sit next to me for approximately twenty-seven hours a day, how is it possible that you've never looked at my face?"
"Of course I've looked at your face," Prompto said.
"Without managing to see it, clearly," Ignis answered.
"I know exactly what you look li--" Prompto began, and Ignis, with a sigh (that was three now, he'd have to stop that before he gave himself a case of hiccups), reached out and caught Prompto's chin in his hand.
"Obviously not. Look."
"I thought it was rude to stare--"
Prompto, his eyes watering from the nearness of Ignis' green-eyed stare, looked, and finally he saw. Saw the fine texture of old scarring on Ignis' face, shallow pits and fainter spots among his freckles (and he did have freckles, as well as a mole or two that both pleased and perplexed Ignis by turns), but mostly what he had was a face, and while Ignis had come to terms with it and thought it was all right, it was far from perfect.
"There," Ignis said, letting him go when he was satisfied that Prompto had gotten his point. "What do you say to that?"
"I'd say that puberty must have been unfairly hard on you," Prompto said, reaching up to touch Ignis' cheekbone and then curling his hand away before it got him into trouble. "Is it all--?"
"Acne? Mostly, yes. It nearly ruined me when I was a teenager. Imagine trying to look mature and professional in the bloody royal council chamber when you've got a massive outbreak of pimples." Ignis turned back to the mirror, and applied toner with practiced precision. "I couldn't bear it. You take drastic measures when you're young and foolish. It's a wonder the scars aren't worse."
"You don't still get it now, do you?" Prompto said, reading the back of Ignis' (daytime) toner bottle, as though after such a close inspection, he felt the need to avert his eyes.
"Nothing like that. But scars are scars, and if I don't keep at it my rosacea will have me looking like a bad strawberry."
"But... you're so good-looking," Prompto said, and he was still reading, so he missed the startled motion of Ignis' hand, dribbling a good quantity of toner into the sink. "I just thought you just... were, you know."
Ignis laughed. "Nothing comes without effort, Prompto." He waved a hand at the crowded bathroom counter. "Obviously. Look at this mess we make. It's like backstage at a ruddy drag show back here, I swear to the Six--"
"How would you know what that's--"
Ignis didn't let him finish, taking the dollop of serum he'd just dispensed onto his finger, and swiping it down Prompto's nose.
"Augh!" Prompto flapped both hands at his face, startled. It was cold. "What's that?"
"Moisturizer. It won't kill you."
"Yes, but I have sensitive skin," Prompto said petulantly, peering over Ignis' shoulder to see himself in the mirror.
"Oh, you do not. I've seen you layer so much bug spray on your face one would think you were trying to get a gloss coat."
"This smells good," Prompto said, after rubbing the stuff in.
"Ought to," Ignis breathed. "For what I pay for it."
"What's this thing do?" Prompto asked, picking up something else. "Is it a shave--no. It's got a puffy thing on it. What's with the nubbies?" He clicked a switch and the whole thing started buzzing, and Prompto began to blush. "This isn't--uh?"
"No, it is not. It's for my face." Ignis, in spite of his tone, in spite of himself, in spite of Prompto running down the charge on his sonic facial brush, was no longer annoyed.
Prompto was so earnest in his curiosity, his questions. He had called Ignis good-looking, and clearly thought it just one other element that made up Ignis Scientia: elements that were by no means natural and that Ignis worked very hard to make appear effortless. His cooking, his combat, his clothing--and even his complexion. Prompto had no way of knowing about the times he'd burnt his toast or fallen on his ass during training or the hours spent poring over fashion glossies. Just like he wouldn't know about the time he'd gone to council when he was fifteen, caked in drugstore foundation, to cover a miserable outbreak of spots. He wouldn't know that Ignis' uncle, with the quiet discretion of a King's Strategist, had spoken to one of the citadel's volunteer tour guides, and arranged for him to get in the elevator with Ignis and to mention, in an offhand way, that he worked a lot with makeup on the side, and would Ignis like some tips?
(Ignis had known it was his uncle's doing; he recognized his trademark subtlety. And who else would know the hobbies of all the Citadel workers, including the guy who turned out to be the most famous female impersonator in Insomnia?)
The makeup tips were luckily unneeded, since the skincare advice saved his life. Or at least his face. Though the scarring from Ignis' first clumsy attempts to take care of it remained, and he was sometimes convinced it was the first thing anyone saw. He watched Prompto studying his own nose in the mirror, glancing now and then at Ignis' to see the difference, and smiled when Prompto asked him what he thought he should be using.
"I'm sure the town apothecary will have whatever you need," Ignis said, putting everything back in his bag. "I can offer some suggestions. Not that you need much. You look fine. I'm jealous, frankly."
"Of my skin, maybe," Prompto said, with a sigh of his own. "But can we talk about my hair? Seriously. The stuff weighs like eighty pounds and I have the world's worst cowlick. My stylist spends an hour texturizing it every time I go in, and it still damn near needs superglue to do anything other than just falling over. I had two looks when I was a kid: hair in face, or hair completely in face."
"Hence the freak-out in anything more than a light dewfall," Ignis said, as he zipped his case.
"Hence," Prompto said back, with a grin. "I guess we all got our vanities, huh?"
"That we do," Ignis said, and clicked off the light. "Though between you and me, I'd rather a bit more counter space in this one."
Chapter 33: Palmistry
Infinity in the palm of your hand.
In many ways, Ignis Scientia's job defied description. While "Prince's Advisor" seemed to sum the thing up nicely (and, he noted to himself, should probably be upgraded to "King's Advisor" next time he worked on his resume), it failed to really encompass what it was he did, and was expected to do. When pressed for more information--at a boring social function by someone who really didn't care and was only passing the time by asking, Prince's Advisor, tell me, what does that entail--Ignis would rattle off something about keeping Noct informed and offering sound advice on everything from appropriate formalwear to declarations of war.
But really, in the privacy of his own mind, what Ignis did most was notice things. Notice inconsistencies in a diplomat's promises. Notice uneasy shifts in international relations. Notice dodgy treaty wording and missing buttons and who spoke to whom at which nonprofit's gala and when Noct's fridge was running low on milk. Keeping his eyes open was ninety percent of his job. (The other eight percent was knowing what to do with what he saw, and maybe two percent was keeping Noct fed and watered and turned towards the sun on occasion.) He was, far more than an advisor, an observer. And he took his calling seriously.
Which is why, barely five minutes after the alarm went off that morning, Ignis noticed that Noct's hand was bothering him. At first he discarded the observation; Noct had probably slept on it badly and it had gone numb on him. But after watching Noct get dressed left-handed, open and close his empty hand, and rub it with a wince when he thought no one was looking, Ignis knew the matter was more serious. Noct was in pain, though he would never admit it. And that's what his advisor was for.
"Gladio," Ignis said, poking his head out of the bathroom door while drying off his hair, "could I persuade you to pop over to the diner and bring us all some coffee and breakfast? Better to get an early start today."
Though his job description was much more clear (punch people for Noct on command, especially anyone who tried to hurt him), Gladio was no shirker on the observation front himself. He immediately put down his magazine and picked up Prompto by the back of his shirt. "Sure, Iggy. C'mon, Prompto. I'll need extra hands to carry stuff."
"But--I haven't done my hair--"
"It's fine," Gladio said, pushing Prompto out of the door in front of him. "It's the Crow's Nest, not a cotillion."
Ignis waited for the door to close after them, and then brought the first aid kit with him out of the bathroom. "How long has it been hurting, Noct?"
Noct jumped, guilty. He'd been sitting on the edge of the bed, morosely kneading his palm with his knuckles, thinking somehow that no one would notice. But he knew there was no arguing around Ignis' expression. "Since yesterday afternoon," he admitted, and then tried to shrug it off. "Shouldn't have pulled that dumb stunt with Gladio's sword one-handed, I guess!"
"Hm," Ignis said, unconvinced, and sat down on the opposite bed across from him. "Let me see."
Noct might have put up a fight, once upon a time. Might have insisted he was fine. Might have carried on until it became such an obvious handicap that there was no denying it. But they were far enough on this journey together that they'd done that song and dance several times already, and they both knew it only made matters worse. So Noct sighed in resignation, and held out his right hand for Ignis to take. Ignis' grasp was gentle, but firm, as though he was holding an injured animal but didn't want it to scramble away. He bent Noct's fingers down, felt around his wrist, tested the extension of his thumb, and frowned thoughtfully all the while.
"Is it that bad?" Noct grinned at Ignis' seriousness. "It's just a sprain, you don't have to give me an autopsy, Specs. Throw a potion on it and--"
"It's not a sprain," Ignis said, rummaging around in the first aid kit. "It's arthritis."
Noct's smile vanished. "It's... what?"
"Arthritis. Probably the degenerative variety, if I had to guess. I'm not a doctor." Ignis found what he wanted and spread a cold dollop of ointment across Noct's knuckles. The smell of menthol seared the air. "It's nothing dire yet. But make sure you stretch your hand every day, and especially before and after you fight. I have some painkillers if the ache bothers you."
Noct stared down at his hand as Ignis massaged the ointment in, leaving a blissful wave of cool numbness behind. "It's what my dad had. Isn't it."
"And his father before him, and any king or queen who would wield the powers of the gods. Though you do not have the strain of raising and maintaining the Wall, I would say you bear more ancestral arms now than any king in recent memory. They will extract a price from you as long as you carry them. You must take care, Noct."
Noct was quiet for a long time as Ignis worked over his hand, coaxing the pain away with his fingers. When he spoke, his voice was uneven. "I'll age faster than the rest of you," he said. It was not a question.
"Very likely," Ignis said, as easily as he could manage. There was no need to be maudlin about the fact. "But if you keep yanking out your white hairs and leaving them on the bathroom counter, you won't live long enough to find out. Besides, you'll only make them grow in faster."
Noct scowled, unmoved by Ignis' attempt to make light of the situation. "I can't stand it," he admitted. "I have to finish this soon, or--" He broke off, and did not complete the thought out loud. But Ignis knew what he was going to say.
You fear that your strength will wane too quickly, before you can put an end to this. You fear needing us too much. You fear dying not young, but poorly, with work yet to be done. You fear leaving too much to us.
"Did you know in Altissia," Ignis said, turning Noct's hand over in his own, "They say the lines upon your hand foretell your fate?" He traced a fingertip over Noct's palm. "This one is your intellect. This, your heart."
Noct peered over his own hand as though he'd never seen it before, interested in spite of himself. "That one's pretty deep."
Ignis let his touch become more of a caress, but a fleeting one. "I would guess then that indicates your great capacity for love. This I believe is your life line--" Ignis broke off as he ran his finger over the line around Noct's thumb, realizing it was faintly sketched, full of fractures, and ended far too soon. "Of course, I'm not entirely sure of the proper technique and it's all flummery anyway--"
"Don't." Noct said, and closed his hand around Ignis'. "You know what it means. It doesn't take a fucking fortune teller."
"I'm going to get old too fast, just like my dad." Noct's eyes were closed tightly; his throat worked hard between his words. "And I'm going to get weak and I won't live longer than--"
"Noct." Ignis' voice brought Noct's to a halt, and he held Noct's hand in both of his. "Listen to me. Destiny and duty are one thing, but it is for no man to know his fate before his time. Not even kings. Ravatogh could erupt this afternoon before teatime and wipe us all off the bloody map. Some random Thursday Gladio might square off against an opponent he cannot defeat. And Prompto could walk into traffic at any blessed time because he's looking at his phone, again, instead of where he's going. Death is a certainty for us all, but its timing and ways are infinite in number and always unknown until the moment Etro comes to take our hand. She knows our hour, and will keep it. There's no need to reach out for her before that."
Noct looked up at Ignis, trying to smile, though his eyelashes were wet. "And what about you? Gonna go out in an accidental camp-stove explosion?"
Ignis waved him away, but did not let go of his hand. "Pfft. I'm going to outlive all of you. I don't need to look at my hand to tell me that. Looking at you three day in and out tells me that plainly enough."
"Of course," Ignis continued, with determined carelessness, "it may only be three or four minutes longer than the rest of you, the way things are going, but--"
"Oh, wait. There is one thing I remember." Ignis looked down at their hands again, and opened his up beside Noct's. "There. You see that line on mine, how it matches up against yours?"
Noct wasn't sure he was willing to let that last insult slide, but he looked at their hands gamely enough. "Yeah? What's that mean?"
Ignis turned his hand over, folding Noct's against his own. "It means," he said, "that no matter the future, I will be with you, always. To whatever end." And then he bought Noct's hand to his mouth, and pressed a kiss of fealty between his knuckles. "My king."
And Noct did not need to say anything at all.
The sound of the door opening startled them both, but Ignis fanned out Noct's fingers in his hand and gave them a disdainful look, clicking his tongue at them as Gladio and Prompto came in the door with their arms full of takeout containers.
"And that," Ignis said, as though finishing some long discussion, "is why you need a decent manicure. Your nails are a fright, and they won't get better if you keep biting them."
"Hey, I only bite them to keep them short," Noct insisted, without missing a beat. "I don't gnaw them down to the quick or anything--"
"The gods gave us nail clippers for a reason--Ah, Gladio. There you are. Did you remember to get sugar and creamer packets? Oh, bless you."
"Are you doing manicures?" Prompto asked, peering at Ignis over his stack of white styrofoam containers. "Can I get one? I've always wanted one!"
"Of course," Ignis said, twitching the edge of the blanket over the first-aid kit before it could attract notice. "It'll be a pleasure to give one to someone who isn't trying to climb the walls while I do it." He gave Noct a pointed look, and Noct shuddered all over.
"Uggh. It's the filing. I just can't."
"Eh," Gladio shrugged, passing around coffee for everyone. "It's not my favorite part, either."
Prompto stared at him in open disbelief.
"What?" Gladio said, pulling boxes out of Prompto's arms and checking the contents before spreading breakfast out on the coffee table. The smell of fried potatoes and bacon neatly obliterated any lingering medicinal odor in the hotel room. "C'mon. I've got a little sister. I've had more mani-pedis than your actual mom."
Ignis made a fond noise into his coffee. "The matte copper pedicure Iris gave you that one time was especially fetching."
"Yeah, I liked that one too." Gladio grinned at Prompto. "That was after the time she painted my fingernails in bumblebee stripes and then told me she didn't have any polish remover. Had to wear my dress uniform gloves on duty for three days. Made her stick to doing the toes after that. Till she told me my feet were too big and I took up too much of her polish." He rolled his eyes. "Girls."
"Pass me some of that bacon, Prompto," Noct said, scooting down the bed. "You guys can have your spa day if you want, but I'm starving."
"Do try and have some of the omelet, Noct," Ignis said, wearily. "Man cannot live on bacon and coffee alone."
"Hey, I'm happy to dedicate my life to trying," Prompto said, loading up the container lid with bacon and toast before handing it back to Noct. "Live for today, right my man? For soon we may die... or however that goes."
"Close enough," Ignis said. "But ideally, not this very afternoon." Still, Ignis could not help but notice--as Noct and Prompto started a friendly argument about the ideal bacon ratio of chewiness to crunchiness--that Noct was no longer favoring his hand. His smile and his laugh both came readily, and if from time to time he glanced at the faint lines across his palm, he did not linger over them. Ignis knew his king well enough to know he was feeling better. His heart was lighter, and as a result, so was Ignis'.
Sometimes, Ignis thought, it was good to notice the important things.
Chapter 34: Forecast
It never lies.
"There's a storm coming," Noct said, without looking up at the sky, which was a brilliant, unfettered blue above the mountains. Prompto squinted up at it, trying to find so much as a wisp of cloud. But the day shone on all around them, as temperate and pleasant as could be desired, warm in the sunshine and chilly in the shade. The only hint as to the altitude was the Wennath River giggling through the massive tumult of glacier-strewn boulders, its clear waters only a few degrees warmer than the ice-pack high up above Callatein's Plunge. Prompto thrust the chunk of ore he'd found into the river to rinse it off, and even though the stream itself came from the Vesperpool and was supposed to be the warmer of the two waterways, his hand went instantly numb to the wrist.
"I don't recall anything about storms in the weather bulletin," Ignis said, polishing his glasses on his shirt-cuff. "But I'm given to understand they can crop up quite suddenly this time of year. I trust your senses more than I trust these provincial meteorologists."
"Prediction's got nothing to do with it," Gladio put in, adding, with a regretful sigh, "I hate to say it, but we should probably head beck to Burbost for the night. I was hoping we could camp instead, maybe let Noct get a little fishing in."
"Maybe eat some of Noct's fishing," Ignis corrected him. "But I'm afraid that's not in the cards. If these upland squalls are anything like I've heard, he'd need to be ice-fishing, and I daresay we haven't the equipment. To say nothing of the small matter of freezing to death in a tent." Ignis put his glasses back on. "Let's make our way back to the car."
"So what," Prompto said, trying to shake some feeling back into his hand, "First Noct can talk to ghosts, now he's making weather predictions? You going full-on Esper on us, man? Here's your rock, by the way."
"Nah." Noct held the chunk of ore Prompto gave him up to the light, sparking flashes of blue down in the depths of the raw stone. "Nothing like that. My back's fucking killing me, though."
Prompto was puzzled, but only for a second. Still, by the time he remembered the faded scar along Noct's spine, everyone else was already on their way back down the trail, and he had to run to catch up. Noct rarely talked about his old injury, and Prompto could only remember one time, late at night, that Noct had told him the full story of how he'd come by it. Though the mark the Marilith's blade had left on him was comparatively small, that was only because Noct himself had been small at the time. It would have been a bad wound on an adult, but no more. As a child, it had almost severed him in half. Multiple spinal surgeries and a long period of recuperation had given him back use of his legs, and now the scar was just a jagged, pale line in the small of Noct's back, not much longer than the span of Prompto's hand.
But the ordeal left a different kind of mark on the Prince of Lucis, one far larger than the one he kept hidden under his shirt. The rambunctious heir to the throne vanished from the halls of the citadel, and in his place was a wary changeling who talked little and disliked being touched. And who, apparently, could feel the weather change in his bones, like a battle-worn knight three times his age.
"Is it bad?" Prompto asked, following Noct up the steps to the parking spot, steps that Noct was taking one at a time instead of his usual two.
"Yeah," Noct admitted, which meant that not only was it bad, it was bad enough for him to own up to it.
"Would a potion help?"
Noct pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head.
"I know what will," Gladio said. "Leave it to me. Pedal to the metal, Iggy."
The Souvenir Emporium was uncommonly busy, as the conventional weather reports had caught up to the warning Noct had felt hours earlier. Locals stocked up on supplies as the shop regulars listened intently to the radio, which at this point was making noises about accumulated feet, not inches.
"They often overestimate these things," Ignis said, as they paid for the use of the caravan (and breathed a mutual sigh of relief that it was available). "Spring storms like this will blow up, pile up, and then melt away in no time. Double to nothing it'll all be gone by noon tomorrow." Then, in direct opposition to his easy assurances, he put enough ebony on the counter to last him through a solid week of heavy consumption. Ignis Scientia was not a man who took chances.
"Better safe than sorry, eh Iggy?" Gladio said, with a knowing grin.
Ignis' retort was as much in his face as in his voice. "If I have to get snowed in with you lot, I'm going to need to be heavily medicated."
"Do you think we'll get snowed in?" Prompto asked, with barely-concealed excitement. "Maybe even get the day off?"
"I don't care what we get," Noct said, leaning hard against the counter, his face white with pain. "As long as it gets here fast."
"C'mon," Gladio said, his eyes narrowing as he glanced at Noct. "Let's get settled in, you guys."
Even Noct, hurting as he was, could not resist the contagious air of excitement in the camper as Ignis unpacked the supplies and they set to the pleasant work of battening down the hatches to wait out a storm. Ignis put the kettle on and Gladio pulled the extra bedding down out of the upper cupboards. The color leeched out of the sky with the approach of sundown, rather than filling it, and the light vanished early behind the swift-moving armada of dark clouds boiling up from the west. Gladio ordered Noct out of his clothes and onto the back bed, but from the look on Noct's face, Prompto was pretty sure it wasn't for anything fun, and he was right.
"Hrnnngh! Gladio I don't fucking bend that way, I told you--"
Gladio mopped his hair out of his face with his arm. "If you were doing your stretches every day you wouldn't be stiff like this."
Noct held on to the edge of the bed and scowled. "When have I had time to--OW."
"Make time," Gladio said, bluntly, and bent Noct's leg back again, foot braced against his chest. "You always gotta learn shit the hard way, don't you?"
"Um," Prompto said, leaning over to Ignis, who was looking through their tea packets for something suitable, "what are they doing?"
"Physical therapy," Ignis said, with a sniff. "Well. Gladio's particular brand of it, anyway, which is rather more physical than therapy." He lowered his voice, so only Prompto could hear him. "Don't be fooled, though. They both know it's Noct's injury that's at fault, and no amount of calisthenics will keep it from hurting from time to time. But particular little charade seems to make them both feel better about it. Neither Gladio nor his father were there the night Noct was attacked, you see. And I assure you it is a fact that stung Clarus' pride to no end. Gladio was still barely a boy himself at the time, and yet he inherited that guilt as surely as he inherited Clarus' strength of arm and bad temper. It is not in the nature of a king's shield to see his king suffer in any way."
From the bed, Noct made a noise of pain and told Gladio to go do a few things that would have been insulting enough without his choice selection of adjectives. Gladio replied that even he wasn't tall enough to do that to a kujata, suggested maybe Noct should stand on his shoulders to do it himself, and then continued kneading his grimacing king into a pudding. "At least," Ignis amended, with a tiny cough, "To suffer in anyway directly caused by anyone else. And when Gladio's done working him over, most of the pain will be gone. He's a merciless masseuse, but a good one. Ah! Here it is." Ignis found the tea he wanted, lifted the kettle off the uneven stove burner, and poured a measure of hot water into a teacup. The smell of springtime filled the air.
Prompto stopped mulling the tangled relations between a king and his retainers--love, duty, guilt, casual enjoinders to go fuck the nearest wildlife--and leaned over the cup to sniff it. "Wow, what is that?"
"Black tea with sylleblossom. An export of Tenebrae, hard to come by even in Insomnia, and, between you and me, the surest way to sweeten the mood of our liege." Ignis could not have winked at Prompto, it was far too swift and subtle for that, as he spooned sugar and cream into the cup. "Here. I'll let you give it to him. Gladio should be nearly done wringing the life from him; this will give it back."
The mug was one of the mismatched collection that belonged to the camper, a hideous, chipped green thing with an outdated Exineris logo, and far too lowly for the contents. Prompto balanced it carefully in both hands as he edged back to the bed. Noct had ceased most of his struggling, and Gladio's broad hands moved over his back with firm and familiar competence, as comforting in his own way as Ignis' careful tea selection.
"Good news," Gladio said, with a smack on Noct's ass that didn't seem in any way to be therapeutic.
"You're going to kill me and put me out of my misery?" Noct grunted, face in the mattress.
"Sorry, no. Etro comes for us all, but she's not likely coming tonight. Still, I've got that knot out of your back, we've got a roof over our heads, and Prompto's brought you some tea."
Noct lifted his head, and Prompto could see, in his face, the moment he smelled what was in the teacup. He took a long, grateful sip as Gladio went to wash pungent muscle-rub off his hands.
"I must look bad, for sylleblossom tea," Noct said, breathing in the fragrant steam.
"I guess I knew you didn't like getting massages?" Prompto said, sitting down cross-legged beside him. "I thought it was just cos you don't like being handled."
Noct shrugged. "I don't. But not because of Gladio. But when you're just a kid and everything hurts and you've got doctors treating you like a side of behemoth meat five times a day, it gets old real fast." He rolled his shoulder with visible relief. "Besides, those Galdin Quay guys couldn't massage a damn block of tofu, all this wimpy business--" Noct made a squeamish, wafting motion with one hand, and shuddered.
"I guess if Gladio's your frame of reference, they're probably a little too gentle for your taste."
"Bludgeoning's a little too gentle for my taste, after that. But it works. Pain's almost gone. The rest will go with the storm." Noct took another sip of his tea, and his eyelashes fluttered. "God, that's good. You ever had it?"
Prompto, trying not to think of a small, injured prince curled around himself in pain every time the weather shifted, shook his head.
"You gotta," Noct said, and put his cup in Prompto's hands. "It's the best."
Prompto wasn't sure what to expect; the tea smelled like perfume, almost too strong and floral to be food. But then his first cautious taste hit his tongue and it was creamy and sweet and simply heavenly. He made a strangled noise that was usually reserved for occasions when his pants were off, and wrapped both hands around the cup.
"Told you," Noct said, unsurprised. "They drink it like water in Tenebrae. It'll ruin you for anything else. Hey, Iggy! We got enough tea for another cup for Prompto?"
Ignis was attempting to discern if they had the ingredients for a nice stew, and perhaps a cobbler. He sighed at the interruption. "Noctis, you know that tea doesn't grow on trees--"
Noct leaned back past Prompto so he could be sure his look would reach Ignis in the kitchen. "Ignis. It's tea. It literally grows on trees."
"Yes," Ignis said quietly, but not so quietly they couldn't hear him. "Very expensive trees that grow very far away." But he got the tea box back out, and refilled the kettle. Noct grinned.
"Keep it," Noct said, as Prompto reluctantly tried to hand him back the mug. "I'll take the next one."
"Mnargh," Prompto said, and put his face in the cup. Noct stretched luxuriously, enjoying being able to move without hurting, and poked his fingers between the blinds to look outside.
"Hey. It's started."
"Mmm?" It was an effort for Prompto to pay attention to something other than the contents of the mug, but Noct opened up the blinds and let in a wash of cold blue light. Outside, the mountains were wrapped up in silence; not even daemons were stirring. In the outpost lights they could see the snow was falling thick and fast, sticking to the rocks and the highway railings, softening all the hard lines of the landscape. Prompto put his cheek next to Noct's so they could both see out the little window, wiping away the condensation every time their warm breath and the steam from the tea fogged the glass.
"It's so pretty," Prompto breathed. "It's different from city snow."
"Sure felt like it," Noct said, but for the first time, he didn't sound sorry for the pain. "I hope we get a lot."
"Yeah," Prompto grinned. "Me too. I want an epic snowball fight."
"I want..." Noct put his hand over Prompto's, but it was only to lower the mug, not to take it back. He didn't need to say what he wanted. Prompto understood, and closed his eyes as Noct covered Prompto's mouth with his own. His kiss was as hot and sweet as the tea, and Noct cradled the back of Prompto's neck with one hand, fingers in his hair. The whistle of the tea kettle did not startle them apart, but Noct put his head on Prompto's shoulder and slid his bare arms into the warmth under his vest, and held him.
There was a small, knife-edge voice inside of Prompto Argentum, and its cruel commentary was rarely quieted, but its protest that Noct was only cold was half-hearted, at best. Noct kissed the rise of Prompto's collarbone and the voice was suffocated utterly, as the landscape beneath the snow.
"Already piling up, isn't it?" Ignis had a tray with not one mug but three, all mismatched, all breathing fragrant steam. He scooted onto the bed with them to watch the snow fall, passing one cup to Noct and taking another for himself. Gladio brought the blanket from the back bed and sat down behind them, closing them all in the folds of the blanket like a living tent. The snow started to fall harder.
"Fifty gil says we get at least two feet," he said, slurping his tea with the same relish as though it were a cheap cup of noodles.
"Piffling," Ignis said, with a demure sip. "Two hundred on no less than three."
"Didn't you say this stuff would blow over?" Prompto asked wiping off the window so they could all see.
"My dear boy. I was attempting to ease my King's mind, as he was in pain. I don't invest in a case of ebony and make a giant vat of stew for something that blows over." Ignis sighed contently and sank down between Gladio and Noctis. "I don't see us going anywhere for at least two days."
"Sweet merciful Shiva," Gladio said, pressing his warm mug to his face. "I hope so. How's that back now, Noct?"
"Never better, thanks to your tender care," Noct said, and passed his mug--possibly even uglier than the green one--up to Prompto. "Hey. I owe you a couple of drinks out of mine. Good stuff, isn't it?"
"Worth every gil," Prompto said fervently, and with Noct in his arms, his friends at his back, and the storm blowing over them all, he felt like a battered cup made rich by what it contained.