They draw lots, and Ignis loses.
"Makes sense anyway," Gladio says, throwing his twig towards the fire. "You're the advisor. I'm just the muscle."
It's a reiteration, and so Ignis doesn't repeat his joke that it's a muscle that they're talking about, really. "Very well," he says, instead, and steels himself. "Wish me luck?"
Gladio grins, and slaps Ignis on the shoulder. "Good luck, champ."
It's not all that far from Ignis's room in the citadel to Noctis's set of rooms. Ignis is always tacitly permitted inside. He knocks nevertheless, and waits for Noctis to call out his permission to enter.
Noctis is on his sofa, in the main room, a comic book in his hand. "Specs," he says, and waves with his book to the desk. "I'm done, I promise, all my homework's right there if you wanna doublecheck."
"Glad to hear it."
Noctis returns his attention to the book, and then lifts his head again when he realises Ignis is still standing in the doorway. "What's up?"
"Ah." Ignis braces himself. "Noctis. Have you by any chance been given 'the talk' before?"
That earns him a frown. "The talk?"
Oh, no. "About girls?"
The frown deepens, and then he sees it click, and then Noctis sits up. His face goes into a vapid, unconvincing imitation of innocence. "No, Ignis, not at all, what could you possibly mean?"
Ignis relaxes. "Thank heavens."
Noctis chuckles, and slumps back against the cushions. "Sheesh, we have health ed class, Ignis, remember? They teach this stuff now, not like all those years ago when you went to school."
"Yes, well." Ignis crosses to the desk. Noctis has been at his school for a whole month, and all the reports say that he's very popular with the girls. Ignis isn't surprised; the fifteen-year-old heir to the throne, pretty-faced and stylish, with his aloof independence? Ignis should have been asking this weeks ago. "I'm under obligation to verify, that's all."
"Well, I'm good. Report back to whoever cares."
Ignis flips through the pages. Neat handwriting, despite Noctis's sloppy habits elsewhere. Well-formed sentences. The prince, if he keeps it up, will be an honour student.
He closes the book. "I'll, ah. Leave you to it, then."
"Suit yourself." Noctis is reading again, a grin on his face. "Tell Gladio I made you blush with my naive questions."
It's barely a month later, and they're drawing lots again, and somehow Ignis loses again.
"Huh," Gladio says, as Ignis eyes their twigs disbelievingly. "Well. Good luck."
This time is worse than last time. Last time, it was just a general, theoretical talk that had to be had. But Noctis seems to be getting quite close to this Prompto lad, and no health ed class at his age is likely to cover what happens between men. Or so Ignis suspects, and Gladio admits to having no recollection of being taught such things.
Prompto is there in Noctis's rooms, of course -- he's there all the time, these days -- and Ignis is about to use that as a good excuse to postpone his task.
But Prompto sees Ignis, and thinks it means he's being gently encouraged to leave.
"Ah, uh. That's my cue, buddy," he says, bouncing to his feet. "See ya tomorrow?"
"Sure," Noctis says, and he hits pause on whatever videogame it is they've been playing. "Can you find your own way out this time?"
"Hey, I only got lost once, y'know."
They both chuckle, together, and then Prompto swings his bag up onto his shoulder. He ducks past Ignis, looking a little intimidated -- good, Ignis thinks, intimidating might be useful -- and then he's out of the door.
Well then. No excuse after all.
After Noctis beckons him closer, Ignis sits down in the space Prompto vacated. He peers at the screen. Rifle Ninja TK-Ultra. Not a very edifying game, but then, Noctis does have plebeian taste when it comes to entertainment.
"Wanna try?" Noctis says, holding out the controller. "Blow off some steam, help me finish this?"
"Thanks, but I'll pass."
Noctis unpauses the game and proceeds to shoot some dozen ninjas in the face as they leap, in a way that seems quite un-ninja-like, into the path of his gun.
"So you and Prompto," Ignis says. "You've become close this year."
"Yeah? He's cool. Funny, though, we were in elementary school together but he wouldn't even say hi back then."
"Is that so?"
"Mm." Noctis spares Ignis a brief glance. "You're not going to give me some bad news about how he doesn't pass background checks or something, are you?"
"What? No." If anything, Prompto's background checks are almost suspicious in their lack of anything suspicious. Clean across the slate. "Merely wondering how close you are."
Noctis gives him another glance. "Huh?"
"Well. If you two are intimate, or likely to become so, then it is my duty to instruct you in--"
The game pauses, and Noctis sets down the controller. "Wait, you think he's my--Ignis, ew. He's my friend. We're not humping."
Ignis tips his head. "I see."
"We're not." Noctis snorts, inelegantly. "What, are you here to ask if I've had the gay talk?"
"Well, more or--"
"Oh my god please be joking."
"Noct. It's the Crownsguard's duty to--"
"Not to tell me how to hump my friend!"
Ignis holds up a hand. "If you do not need the information, fine."
"I don't!" Noctis slumps back in the chair. "Geez. Not everything is about sex, you know."
"I am aware of that." Ignis reaches out, and Noctis, after a confused moment, passes over the second controller and picks up his own. "Your father just wanted you to be well-informed, if it were necessary."
Noctis unpauses the game. "Well, it's not."
They shoot ninjas; it's quite simplistic, as games go, but it means that's easy for Ignis to contribute helpfully. Ignis shoots whatever pops into his line of sight, and after a few minutes helps bring down a floating airship apparently full of more ninjas, and then as the screen fills with congratulatory fireworks Noctis sighs and sets down his controller again.
"I get that it's not your fault, Specs," he says, and then he shifts in his seat, and leans hard against Ignis's side. Noctis does this, sometimes, and Ignis has decided it means forgiveness more than anything else. "But if Dad's that worried about me getting laid then he could just talk to me himself."
Ignis thinks about that, as he puts his own controller down. "At your age, your father was already in love with your mother."
"Yeah? I mean, I guess so?"
"I think he's expecting you to have a girlfriend by now, that's all."
Noctis grunts. "Yeah. I… it's just, I'm not into anyone at school like that."
At school, Ignis notes to himself. "Which is fine. Your studies should take priority, after all."
"Mm. But if I did like someone, could you imagine? I can't exactly just, just date. I bring someone home to meet Dad, it's practically a state function."
An exaggeration, but Ignis understands anyway. Noctis's position grants him many privileges, but freedom to flit from one romance to another is not one of them. And it's still possible he'll have to make a political alliance by marriage. On which note: Ignis clears his throat and asks, "about the Lady Lunafreya--"
"Luna? Oh." Noctis sits up, at that. "Luna's… she's special. I don't know if… I mean, I totally would, if she were here. But the Empire's going to marry her off, she thinks."
It's quite likely, considering the situation. "And how do you feel about that?"
Noctis shoots Ignis a look. "I'm not pining for her."
"I mean it, Specs." Noctis slumps against Ignis's side again. "I've had crushes, okay. It's not like that with her. It might be, if I ever got to be in the same room as her again. But it's not."
Interesting. "You've had crushes?"
"If your father asks, I won't give him names."
"Yeah, 'cause I won't tell you them." Noctis squirms, shifts, as if to get his head more comfortable on Ignis's shoulder. "But since you're gonna pry, yeah, okay, maybe crushes on a guy or two."
It's a little surprising, even though Ignis came here specifically to address this topic. "Not Prompto, though."
"No! God, no. He's--" and Noctis waves a hand, vaguely. "He's not sexy."
"And all your crushes are sexy."
"Damn right." Noctis chuckles, faintly. "I'm very picky, I'll have you know."
Ignis considers, for some time, Noctis's weight against his side. The videogame credits wind up and then loops into a sort of trailer for itself, the same few battle scenes looping over and over. Noctis doesn't make any move to turn it off. Ignis ignores it, and wonders what Noctis thinks of as 'sexy', and if Ignis knows any of those people. There are many charismatic and attractive people who frequent the palace.
"Don't try to guess," Noctis says, after a while, and then he yawns. "You staying here?"
It's a fair question. Ignis has had Noctis fall asleep on him before, a few times. It's no hardship, if Ignis has a report or a book to read. "To be your pillow? I'm afraid not, not tonight."
"Damn." Noctis stretches, and sits up. "Okay. I'm going to bed, then."
"Homework all done?"
"Good lad." Ignis ruffles Noctis's hair, just to make him yelp and bat Ignis's hand away. "See you tomorrow, son."
The question pops into Ignis's head every so often, over the next week or so, as he goes about his usual daily routine. The head steward is a tall, incisive man with a wicked sense of humour. The King's Chamberlain, Ignis's direct superior, is a warm generous man who could probably give Gladio a run for his money in the muscle stakes. Gladio himself, the main person Noctis trains in battle skills with, is confident and easy to talk to. The tutor who comes in to provide additional schooling for Noctis on governance and politics is intense and classically handsome. And then there are the men of the Crownsguard, all of them athletic and self-possessed and, frankly, Ignis concludes, it's a miracle Noctis's crushes were restricted to 'one, maybe two'.
Ignis is not that much older than Noctis, and yet on this point he feels years more experienced. He's had his first crushes, his first kiss, his first romance and break-up. All discreet, and with no hard feelings in the wake of it. She was a Crownsguard member, and Ignis a member of the Citadel staff, and the romance had been pleasant but inconvenient.
And Ignis has also noticed men, before. He's never acted on it, but there's no particular taboo about it here in Lucis, it's just uncommon. He's aware not everywhere is so liberal, and so, if Noctis visibly takes up with male lovers, there may be political repercussions.
Which Noctis will know already. Probably. But Ignis will still have to remind him, if Noctis actually becomes involved with a man.
There's an ever-growing pile of 'read these' documents from Ignis's tasks that he semi-regularly gives up on Noctis reading and summarises for him verbally instead. Noctis is smart enough to be able to use those summaries to convince questioners that he's at least skimmed the reports. It's fine for now; it won't be sustainable forever, because in perhaps one or two years there'll be too many reports for Ignis to summarise. Still, for now, Ignis doesn't mind the task. It keeps him sharp on those same details, at least.
"Specs," Noctis says, as Prompto gathers up his books, "what is it now?"
"More of these, I'm afraid," Ignis says, and he sets the day's reports gently on the pile. It teeters, and Ignis sighs. "Can you spare time? I think you need updating."
"Aw, but we--"
"It's okay," Prompto interrupts, with a chuckle. "We can go to the cinema tomorrow, dude."
"I guess. See you at school?"
"Sure." Prompto gives Ignis another nervous glance, as he pushes past. "Seeya."
As Prompto tugs the door closed, Ignis sorts through the folders, putting them into stacks. This one for foreign news. This one for agriculture. This one for economics. This one for--
"Alright," Noctis says, pulling out a chair at the table. "Gimme the short version."
"Niflheim is shaking its fists again."
Noctis snorts. "Alright, a longer version than that."
Ignis sits, too. It's been a very busy week, and summarising takes a long time. Ignis gets up, makes coffee, sits down again to continue, and within a few more minutes sees that Noctis's attention is so obviously dwindling that Ignis has to fight the urge to slip in some jokes to see if Noctis notices.
Instead, he stops.
"Mm?" Noctis asks, raising his head from where it was on his folded arms. "Are we done?"
"Is it worth me continuing?"
"Sorry. It's just really, really boring."
Ignis feels a pang of sympathy. Noctis does seem to have been working hard at school this week, and perhaps all the news at once is a bit of an overload. "How about this, then. If you can tell me three things from the reports, I'll assist on an expedition tonight."
That brings Noctis upright all at once, his eyes alight with anticipation. "For real?"
"Yes." And… ah. They can do that, this time. "Try to make them important things."
"Okay, okay. I think I got this." Noctis holds up a hand. "The wheat production in Leide is worryingly low due to worker shortages, and we're going to be lowering tax on imported grain to compensate."
"There's been some sort of hunter crisis to do with a big snake monster? And the HQ says we don't need to intervene yet, but we're keeping an eye on it just in case they need the Kingsglaive to step in. Yes?"
"And… uh. The city's road budget was too big last year so there's a surplus and it's going to the subway system instead. I don't know why that's a thing, isn't it all transport anyway?"
"Separately run, so the funds transfer has to be approved by the King." Ignis closes the top report. "I suppose that'll do. Please try and read the politics report, though, if you have time this weekend."
"I'll try." Noctis grins at him. "But I passed, right?"
"You did. Go get changed, and I'll meet you in the west gallery in half an hour."
It's been two months since they last snuck out. It's late spring now, so the day is a little longer and it's comparatively early. Then again, Ignis is planning on something rather unprecedented this time. A treat.
Getting out of the Citadel undetected is, to Ignis's perpetual concern, quite easy to achieve. The windows in the west gallery are floor to ceiling, and an agile young man can scramble through the gap beneath when one is swung open to full capacity. A twig, wedged in the edge of the frame, means the window can be closed behind them until it is mostly closed, and as yet they've never had anyone lock it in their absence.
From the Citadel through the gardens is trickier. When they were younger, there was an access tunnel with a few narrow gaps that could be wriggled through. Now, they have to slip through the patrols, pressing themselves up against the trees to avoid detection. Noctis claims he finds this fun. Ignis finds it both exhilarating and terrifying, personally, but it's a necessary step. The wall is easy to scale with Noctis's warping skills, at the one blind spot in the camera's surveillance, and Noctis can haul Ignis up with enough effort. That wall faces out into a quiet alley. It's so convenient that Ignis has regularly wondered if it's contrived, if someone -- Regis, quite possibly -- has arranged this route to allow for Noctis's little forays. If so, he's grateful, but it seems like he shouldn't ask, just in case.
The Citadel is in the dead centre of Insomnia. The hat brim is pulled down as far over Noctis's eyes as possible, and Ignis stuffs his glasses into his bag and suffers through the faint fuzziness that ensues. They take the subway, all the way out to the southern edge, and then it's only a half-mile to the gate.
"You're kidding me," Noctis says, as the gate comes into view.
"I am not." Ignis hands over the pass he's obtained for Noctis; a fake, but this gate is busy enough that it shouldn't be examined too closely. "Try to look casual."
It works; the guard barely even glances at their passes. They're out.
A bus takes people from here out towards Lestallum. Ignis leads Noctis onto it, and then off again two stops later, by a little farmhouse. Ignis flexes his hand, to reassure himself; a dagger forms in his grip, and then he lets it fade. Just checking. They're not unarmed. There are daemons out here, even this close to Insomnia. Sneaking out of the city with Noctis is already a terrible breach of the trust put in him. Not being able to defend Noctis would be beyond the pale.
Noctis is gawking upwards; the sky is blushed with pink, and some of the brighter stars are visible already. Ignis smiles, and nudges Noctis, and then points. Some four hundred yards away, down a small track, the runes of a haven glow faintly in the twilight. Ignis is relieved to see it; it's marked on the maps and is why he chose this spot, but still. The maps might have been wrong.
They unpack supplies. Pillows. Snacks. Canned soda.
Once he's gotten set up, Noctis sprawls out, arms tucked behind his head on the pillow. Ignis follows suit, and then they wait as the sky turns from amethyst to darkest blue.
Insomnia is a busy, vibrant city. There's no true night there; neon and sodium lighting scatters off the Wall and paints the sky a dull purplish grey, washing out the stars beyond. In the biggest city park -- where they usually sneak out to -- from right in the centre, it's possible to discern a fair scattering, mostly the usual constellations.
Ignis has often thought about aiming for bigger and better views. And so, now Noctis is older, here they are: somewhere where the night sky is simply spectacular.
He glances over at Noctis.
Noctis falls asleep at any opportunity that allows it, to the point where there were serious conversations about narcolepsy a few years ago. Except Noctis himself will argue against that; he never falls asleep at important points. He just likes sleeping. It's one of his favourite things to do, and even little catnaps of a few minutes are to be taken advantage of.
Out here, with a pillow beneath his head and in perfect peaceful surroundings, Noctis's eyes are wide open and utterly absorbed in contemplation of the sky above.
The moon, low in the eastern sky. The spriggan nebula, arched proudly overhead. A whole galaxy of stars unfurled above them. Multitudes, more than a city boy would ever credit existing. Stars not merely content to twinkle a demure white, but stars in a maelstrom of colours, red and blue and yellow and the whole of it dazzling to behold. The stars of the familiar constellations shine brightest, of course, but they're not joining together the few visible dots on the sky, they're overlaying a cast of millions of others.
"There are so many," Noctis says, his tone hushed and reverential. "It's beautiful."
It's easy to get lost in the view, but after a while Ignis checks his watch, squinting at the dial in the darkness. Long enough, especially when Noctis has school the next day, and there's the bus timetable to consider.
"Noct--" he begins.
"I'm afraid so. The longer we're gone, the likelier we'll be missed."
"I know." Noctis lets out a sigh. "Alright. I'm good."
Everything gets packed back into their backpacks, and they retrace their journey. Noctis is quiet, all the way back, but in a way that Ignis thinks probably just means contentment, and they slip into the west gallery having barely exchanged a word all the way home.
"Ignis," Noctis says, handing over his backpack, "that was awesome. I mean, I've seen photos, but it doesn't compare."
"It was marvellous, wasn't it? Next time, I'll try to schedule a meteor shower."
Noctis grins. "You do that."
"Yes." Ignis adjusts his glasses. "If anyone asks--"
"I've never been outside the city before, I know." Noctis takes off his hat, and ruffles up his hair at the back. "But seriously, Specs, thanks. You're the best."
And that, right there, is his reward. "You're welcome."