Actions

Work Header

Begin Anew

Chapter Text

“Have you enjoyed your rest?”

The rumbling voice rolled over Noctis like a wave and he grumbled as he struggled to sit up and open his eyes. Beside him, Luna murmured sleepily and bussed her head against his elbow like an overgrown kitten. Shifting his arm, Noctis reached down to softly stroke her hair, staring out across the sunlit throne room towards the source of interruption.

He sat up a little straighter when he realized that Bahamut gazed fondly up at him from the polished marble floor. The draconian appeared more human than he had inside the crystal, fit inside the throne room like he always belonged there. Maybe he had.

Bahamut chuckled, laughter just as deep and soothing as his voice. “No need to stand on ceremony, little prince. You did as you were asked, and I have come to you with a reward.”

Noctis frowned, “I have Luna by my side and an eternity to rest. What further reward could I need in the afterlife?”

“Shiva said you might hesitate,” rumbled Bahamut, amusement coloring his tone. “But how can you enjoy afterlife, if you had barely lived in the first place? Your first two decades prepared you for war, and your third decade prepared you for death. I’m offering you a chance to truly live. Lunafreya as well.”

Under Noctis’s hand, Luna stirred, eyes fluttering open. Lips parting in surprise, she shot to her feet to bow to the Astral standing before them. Noctis felt his lips twitch with contained laughter as she babbled an apology.

“No need for that, child,” said Bahamut fondly. “I was just telling your prince of a chance I would like to offer both of you.”

“You’re sending us back.” Lunafreya’s voice was quiet, but certain. “I had hoped that Noctis would be allowed to return, but I had not dreamed that I would be included.”

Bahamut hummed in approval, and had his helmet not obscured all but his eyes, the duo would have seen him smiling. “After all you gave, it is only fair.” He paused for a moment. “I must warn you, there are some changes that come with this opportunity.”

“Well, nothing in life is free, even as king,” chuckled Noctis dryly. He reached for Lunafreya’s hand, grasping it lightly for strength. “As long as I don’t have to die by my own father’s sword, again, I’ll make do with whatever life you give me.”

“I, as well,” said Lunafreya, squeezing Noctis’s hand in sympathy.

Even from the throne, the duo could see the Astral before them nod. “A wise choice,” he said. “Some changes I will leave for you to find out on your own, but I will ease your path with a little knowledge, at least.

“You will never again be King and Oracle. Those positions and their powers were your sacrifice in the fight against the darkness. Already a new king reigns in Lucius. You may aid him, but your ruling lines have ended. With the end of your lines, the crystal has also lost its power. It is now nothing more than a glittering reminder of the past, and magic has returned to the Astral-granted boon that it once was.”

 Noctis bit his lip in thought, “A small price to pay, since all I ever wanted was a normal life.” He smiled gently at Lunafreya, tucked up against his side. “I’ll gladly return.”

“Hmm, normal is in the eye of the beholder, little prince,” the draconian rumbled dryly. He didn’t give Noctis time to respond, instead he gestured towards the gaping hole in the side of the room. “I trust you remember Carbuncle?”

Noctis grinned as the small creature padded out from behind the sunlit wall, stopping at the top of the rubble pile to sit expectantly.

“He will lead the two of you back to Lucius.” Bahamut’s voice echoed in the chamber but when Noctis looked back, the Astral was nowhere to be seen. “Farewell, little prince. Until our next meeting.”

Noctis must have looked confused, for Lunafreya giggled softly behind her hand. “Our lines were chosen by Bahamut to fight against the Starscourge. According to my lessons as Oracle, he likes to get involved with the lives of his chosen mortals. So I don’t think that fulfilling our destinies has affected that at all.”

“So we’ll just have our patron Astral by for a cup of Ebony and some gossip? That’s how this works?” quipped Noctis before he could bite back the irreverent words.

Lunafreya’s giggles broke into delighted laughter. “Not quite that informal, Noct! But I daresay we might see more of him since he’s no longer bound to the crystal. Shiva too, she took a shine to you in her years as Gentiana.”

“Huh, Bahamut was right. Normal is relative,” mused Noctis. “Well, Carbuncle’s waiting. Shall we go?”

Lunafreya nodded, tugging gently on his hand until they stood side by side in the bright sunlit gap. Hands joined and hearts beating as one, they took a step.

Sunlight swallowed them.

Chapter Text

Cool darkness met Noctis’s senses as he suddenly blinked awake, utterly alone. He lay staring at the ceiling for a moment, trying to puzzle out why the arching stone looked simultaneously familiar and wrong. Slowly, he became aware of the pulsing red glow of runes lining the walls, dimly illuminating statues and the sword lying heavy across his chest.

“Oh,” the former prince mumbled to himself, the quiet word still echoing in the chamber. “Well, he said I’d be returning but was non-specific on the how.”

Shifting the useless sword to the side, Noctis sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the burial platform. He grimaced at the tight pull of his formal suit and started unbuttoning the wretched thing as he made his way slowly to the closed tomb door. Kneeling down, he felt along the carvings at the base of the door for the latch that Cor had showed him so many years ago “just in case.” After a few moments of blind fumbling, his fingers finally caught on the latch and the door swung open to let the bright light of dawn stream into the stone chamber.

Noctis shrugged off his heavy coat and tossed it in the direction of the platform. The metal bits clattered against the stone, but he paid the sound no mind as he stepped through the open doorway and breathed in the fresh outside air. Before him stretched the city of Insomnia, glittering in the morning light. Startled, Noctis turned to look at his tomb and backed up a couple steps before full comprehension dawned.

“Those saps,” he breathed, tears pricking at his eyes. The open door of his tomb looked out from the overlook that he and his friends had so hurriedly climbed all those years ago. Scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand, he let out a ragged breath and looked once again towards his city. Though recognizable still, some of the skyline had certainly changed from the city of his youth. Noctis supposed that ten years of neglect and decay would bring down even the mightiest of buildings. The Citadel still stood tall in the center of the city, but many of the surrounding buildings were different. Farther out from the city center, there appeared to be places where reconstruction was still underway.

Noctis frowned. How long have I been gone this time? he wondered. Certainly several months, at the rate that construction appeared to be proceeding. Possibly longer. Well, whoever the new king was, they seemed to be taking good care of the city. Relief and a small amount of guilt rolled suddenly over Noctis, that he was free to make his own choices and that the cleanup effort fell to others.

Bahamet said you were free to help if you wish, he thought. I’d best take stock of my surroundings first though. I can’t really afford to rush into situations anymore, not without my guard at my back.

Chewing his lip thoughtfully, Noctis surveyed his empty tomb and his surroundings. Without his Armiger, he couldn’t very well take his faithful Ultima Blade with him. He would have to leave it where it lay and return when he had a proper sheath. Fortunately, he hadn’t been entombed completely unarmed. He smirked as he pulled his daggers out of his boots, flipping them in his hands. While they had been a secondary weapon at best, they had saved his life more than once when he was too exhausted to call on his magic. He’d expressed to Gladio once, when he was young, that he didn’t want to be buried with only one weapon, and his shield must have remembered.

Thinking of his friends, Noctis glanced down at himself and snorted when he realized that, underneath his formal coat, he had been wearing something that could best be described as “non-regulation.” He would bet actual gil that Prompto was the one behind the soft vintage chocobo t-shirt that met his eyes. Tears threatened again as he was reminded how his friends had cared for him through some of the most horrific hours they had ever faced.

He wasn’t certain he wanted to try and find them, to be honest. Bringing those terrible years to light could only bring them pain. Perhaps it would be best to find Luna first and approach his friends together.

Noctis had half-expected to arrive alongside Lunafreya, but when he awoke in his tomb he knew that she was likely halfway across the known world in a tomb of her own. If she even had one, he had forgotten to ask in the haze that followed the disastrous trip to Altissia. Well, what was one more adventure following after the former Oracle?

Chuckling to himself, Noctis tucked his daggers back into his boots and looked around the area one last time. He couldn’t very well take his formal coat with him, it was too recognizable. His pants were too tailored for the wilds, but they would have to do. At least his boots were sturdy and he had weapons, if he could get to an outpost maybe some bounties were waiting and he could earn a few gil. If he recalled correctly, Hammerhead wasn’t too far down the road.

Picking his coat up off the floor, he brushed it off and laid it across the top of the burial platform before shifting his sword back to its former position. It was a fight, but he didn’t glance back as he closed the heavy tomb doors behind him.

Halfway down the mountain pass he remembered he no longer had the key.

It took longer than Noctis remembered to reach Hammerhead. The sun rose high in the sky before the familiar garage came into view. Noctis was relieved to see that the fences and sentry posts from his last visit had mostly disappeared, leaving more modest protection from smaller wildlife. Bypassing the garage, Noctis hesitantly stepped into Takka’s, glancing warily around the familiar space.

“Welcome to the Pit Stop!” a familiar voice called to him from behind the counter, and Noctis froze before looking up to see Takka himself grinning at him.

“Uh, hey?” Noctis stuttered out, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. He hoped ten years in the crystal and a good shave in the afterlife made him nearly unrecognizable. When Takka didn’t say anything, Noctis relaxed and sat down at the counter.

“What can I get for you today?” Takka remained as warm and friendly as always, and Noctis was glad for that.

“A glass of water and some information. I’m afraid I don’t have any gil, lost everything to the wilds a few days ago.” Noctis had come up with his story on his long walk to Hammerhead. He would be a hunter down on his luck, trying to rebuild his life after the darkness. After all, it wasn’t too far from the truth.

Takka seemed to believe it at least. “Well, if you’re looking for work, I’ve got a few outstanding bounties. Nothing difficult, probably could be done in an afternoon. And if you bring in some fresh ingredients I’ll make you a meal on the house.”

A few minutes later Noctis found himself back outside with a bounty for Sabertusk shoved in his back pocket. The pack wasn’t too far outside the protective circle of Hammerhead, so Noctis took off in a light jog, alert for any sign of danger. He stuck to open areas, hoping that he would spot his prey in time to land the first blow. After a little while his persistence payed off and he saw one of the bony creatures slink from behind a rock, two more lazing in the sunshine beyond. Noctis grinned and pulled his daggers from his boots, twirling them in his hands to re-familiarize himself with their weight.

Then he struck. Even without his warping, Noctis had always been fast in battle, relying on speed more than strength to get him through unharmed. The first Sabertusk lay insensate on the ground before the other two had time to realize their danger, but then the element of surprise was gone. With a feral growl, one of the remaining beasts lept for Noctis, who dived out of the way a fraction too late and received a graze across his arm for his trouble. Spitting out a curse, Noctis rolled into a crouch and managed to bring a dagger up in front of his face just in time to block the Sabertusk’s frothing jaws. The weight of the creature drove Noctis backwards into the dirt and he growled with frustration. If only Gladio could see him now, down in the dirt with none of his fancy magic warping and the vile spittle of a Sabertusk dripping onto his face. With a disgusted noise he brought his other dagger up to slit the beast’s throat and shoved it to the side before the last Sabertusk slammed into him with what felt like the force of a thousand Garulas.

“Fuck.” Noctis spit dirt out of his mouth and push himself to his feet. Yep, definitely not his proudest moment. The Sabertusk stared back at him, bony tail whipping back and forth as it considered him. It growled as if to say “who’s the prey now?” but Noctis wasn’t having that. The moment the beast charged, Noctis turned and scrambled up the side of a nearby rock, using the greater height to launch himself at the Sabertusk, pinning it with both of his blades. Breathing hard, he waited for the creature to stop struggling before he finally relaxed.

Though the fight seemed only to have taken mere moments, it took the better part of an hour to gather the evidence that he had completed the bounty and to scour the nearby flora for edible plants. Noctis vaguely remembered what could be used in cooking and so gathered what he thought could be edible. Then he ended up carrying it all in his t-shirt because he didn’t have a bag of any kind, which was unavoidable because he needed gil for a bag, but that item was definitely moving a little closer to the top of the list. Right below food, because fighting made him ravenous.

The sun hung low on the horizon by the time Noctis stumbled back into Hammerhead. Takka took one look at him and silently pressed a potion into his palm, prying the stained t-shirt out of suddenly nerveless fingers. While Noctis tipped the foul-tasting medicine down his throat, the cook separated out the edible items from the sabertusk claws. With an amused huff of laughter he handed the shirt back to Noctis, who sheepishly put it back on.

“There’s laundry soap in the caravan outside, if you want to stay there for the night. The bounty should more than cover that. Give me a few minutes and I can get you a good meal too.” Takka dug around in his apron pocket and set a handful of gil on the counter in front of Noctis. “Here’s the bounty. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

“Thanks.” Noctis counted out the gil in front of him, marveling that he had earned so much so easily. 800 gil would certainly get him a night in the caravan, as well as some basic supplies. “I don’t think I can do any more hunts today, but will you have more tomorrow?”

Takka chuckled from his place in front of the grill. “I always have more hunts, friend.” After a moment, he turned back around, setting a fresh burger and fries in front of Noctis. “I think I ought to know your name though, if you’re planning on sticking around.”

Noctis, who had planned for this question as well, fell back on his old alias from childhood travel. “Sorrel.”

“Sorrel, huh.” Takka looked thoughtful. “You related to the king?”

The former prince almost choked on a bite of his burger. After gulping half his water to clear his throat he managed to gasp out, “No, why do you ask?”

“His family is all about plant names, is all. You looked familiar, I thought it might be a family resemblance. His sister used to be a hunter, came through here quite a bit.” Takka shrugged.

Noctis frowned, chewing mechanically while he thought. The only family he could think of that was in the line of succession and regularly used plant names was the Amicita family… he almost choked again. “Gladio’s king?” he burst out, before he could remember that he probably should know this and possibly act a little less familiar.

At Takka raised eyebrows, Noctis shrunk a little closer to his burger. “I’ve been out of the loop for a while and used to hunt with the guy. I didn’t expect so many in the line of succession had passed away.”

“You’ve been out of the loop nearly two years for that information to pass you by.” Takka tilted his head thoughtfully as he gazed down at Noctis.

Yeah, well, death will do that to you, thought Noctis, though he managed to huff out a dry laugh instead. “Well, after the lights went out I went a little nuts for a while. Didn’t come back to myself until a few days ago, somehow miraculously not dead.”

He could tell instantly that Takka didn’t believe him, but the cook only said “The will of the Six is mysterious” and turned back to his kitchen. Noctis finished his burger in silence and fled to the caravan as soon as he could.

Chapter Text

Stepping into the caravan made Noctis feel like he was stepping back in time, nothing changed except that he was alone. He half expected to see Ignis working in the small kitchen area, or Prompto lazing across the bottom bunk with his phone. He sat down at the table for a moment to take stock of the small space, regretting that he’d been too concerned before with playing video games to really become acquainted with the caravan’s amenities. In front of him stretched the small kitchen space with two sets of bunk beds and a tiny bathroom beyond that. Noctis frowned, he didn’t recall there being a washing machine of any kind, but if there was laundry detergent, there must be some way to wash clothes that wasn’t the tiny kitchen sink. Had Ignis ever done laundry in the caravan, or had he always waited for them to find a motel with laundry facilities?

Noctis couldn’t recall. He idly jingled the gil in his pocket and contemplated his options. He could do laundry now, laying around naked and cold while he waited for his one set of clothing to dry, or he could go back outside to the merchant and see if they had clothes and maybe even a bag of some kind. Soiled t-shirt aside, they’d probably had rougher looking hunters roll through. Sighing heavily, he pulled himself back to his feet, knee twinging a little in protest, and stumbled back outside in the direction of the weapons merchant.

The man in question grinned when Noctis stopped thoughtfully in front of the weapon racks. “I saw you take that bounty earlier, with nothing more than a couple of steak knives,” he said with a chuckle. “Come for an upgrade, or just browsing?”

“Actually, I was wondering if you carried any sort of bag? I’d rather not use my shirt as a sack again.” Noctis gestured vaguely at the stains on his shirt and the man’s laughter grew louder.

“Went foraging for Takka without a bag, did you?” he chortled. “Yeah, I’ve got a couple backpacks that will keep you from doing that again.” He rummaged around in the back of his truck for a moment before pulling out a couple of plain brown backpacks. Flipping them over so Noctis could see the back, he pointed at a set of curious padded straps where the pack would sit against the shoulders. “Made these so hunters could use back sheaths without overdoing it on straps. They can be adjusted to any size weapon, from your little daggers to the ridiculous greatsword the King hauls around.”

Noctis covered his smirk with his hand and a slight cough. Gladio did always have a flair for the dramatic.

The weapons merchant didn’t notice and kept on touting the various features of the packs, only stopping when Noctis picked one up and slung it over his shoulder. “I’ll take this one. Do you have any one-handed blades?”

They haggled over the price for bag and blade for a few minutes, but Noctis walked away from the merchant with enough gil left to hopefully buy a shirt or two from the gas station. It felt decidedly weird to have a blade strapped to his back rather than merely summoning it from whatever void his magic had once created. The backpack was cleverly constructed though, so the weight of the blade sat balanced across his whole torso rather than just his chest. Noctis was definitely impressed.

Stepping into the gas station at last, he breathed a sigh of relief and made his way over to where stacks of neatly folded jeans and t-shirts rested against the back wall. They weren’t much, but they’d definitely allow him to wash everything else in relative comfort. The kid behind the register raised an eyebrow when Noctis shoved two shirts, a pair of pants, and a messy pile of socks and underwear at him.

“Voretooth eat your supplies, mister?”

“Something like that,” said Noctis with a shrug. He pulled a book off a nearby display and held it up. “This any good?”

The kid squinted at the title, Learning Leide: A Traveler’s Guide - Second Edition, and nodded. “Yeah, that’s been published since the sun came back, so it should have all the geological changes marked.” Noctis must have looked confused, so he added, “Turns out having hundreds of daemons running loose doesn’t do anything good for the local landscaping.”

Noctis snorted in amusement and added the book and a can of Ebony to the growing pile. He winced when the kid read out his total, but handed over most of the rest of his gil. Small price to pay for comfort. Stuffing his purchases in his backpack, he had a sudden thought.

“Hey, in the caravan, Takka said there’s a way to wash my clothes. I don’t have to scrub things in the sink do I?”

“Nah,” said the kid. “There’s a little foot-pedal washing machine under the bathroom sink along with some soap, and a retractable clothesline in the kitchen. It’s pretty neat.”

“Thanks,” said Noctis, waving over his shoulder as he headed back out the door and jogged across the parking lot.

Inside the caravan once again, Noctis dumped his boots by the door and finally stripped off his filthy clothes, chucking them directly into the surprisingly spacious machine. It was a matter of moments to fill the thing with water and soap, so Noctis let the laundry soak while he took a quick shower and dressed in his new clean clothes. Then he settled into the table nook with his book and coffee, intent on a peaceful evening of reading and laundry.

Learning Leide turned out to be an entertaining, even colorful, look at the land surrounding the city of Insomnia. It detailed all the major outposts and settlements throughout the region, noting which ones had been most affected by the long darkness. Local flora and fauna were listed as well, long columns with numbers leading back to individual pages full of detailed photographs and vivid descriptions.

Noctis flipped through a few of these pages, a frown creasing his brow. Something achingly familiar about the photography nagged at him. It was almost as if Holding his breath, he turned to the back of the book, looking for the photographer credits. He laughed quietly when he found them, a grinning selfie of Prompto over his name and a short description. Noctis brushed his fingertips over the photograph, suddenly missing his friend.

“Prompto Argentum has been practicing photography since he first got his hands on a camera. When he’s not busy photographing wildlife, he focuses on portraits of friends and family. Favored subjects include King Gladiolus Amicita of Lucius and the Prince Consort, to which end his role as Chief Advisor proves extremely beneficial. Other works include Traversing Tenebrae and Investigating Insomnia, and Mr. Argentum is currently planning an exhibition series on the various royal tombs scattered across the kingdom.”

“Well, he’s certainly done well for himself,” murmured Noctis. “Chief Advisor and everything.” He felt a swell of pride for his friend, but also a twinge of worry. Ignis certainly wouldn’t have let that position go without a fight. So clearly, something had happened that made him unable to step into such a role. Hopefully nothing bad, but anything could have happened over the course of two years.

Trying not to dwell on those thoughts, Noctis returned to his laundry. He had more pressing concerns anyway, like trying to earn enough money to find Luna and not die by Sabretusk in the process.

—-

The next few days passed in a similar manner to the first. Noctis would wake up and head to Takka’s for a light breakfast before taking on a hunt for the day. When evening fell, he would roll back to Hammerhead to collect the bounty and lick his wounds. He thanked the Astrals for whatever small mercies allowed magical items like potions to still work in a world without the crystal. Somehow he thought he could feel Shiva’s amusement.

On the third day he learned why he had not yet run into Cindy. According to Leo, the kid who ran the gas station counter, she’d made a supply run to Lestallum and would be back by the end of the week.

“Unless she runs into Lady Aranea,” he added helpfully. “Then she might be gone a couple more days. But she’s always happier after, so I’m glad to hold down the fort until then.”

Noctis was a bit surprised by the news, but he supposed even someone as married to their job as Cindy could get swept off her feet by a dragoon as headstrong as Aranea Highwind. So he just hummed in acknowledgment and gathered his purchases for the evening: a notebook and pen set, and another Ebony. Honestly, the stuff was addicting and he probably should never have started drinking it, but it reminded him of his friends in the lonely caravan.

He was headed for the door when Leo called him back to the counter. “Hey, Sorrel, are you headed towards Three Valleys anytime soon?”

“Uh, I don’t think so, but I can try to get a hunt in that direction,” said Noctis, leaning on the countertop. “It’ll be a bit of a hike though since I don’t have a vehicle and I’m pretty sure the chocobo rental post is broken.”

Leo’s face scrunched into a frown. “Again? That thing’s never been the same since a flan tried to eat it during the dark. I should just ask the Wiz to replace it completely.” He sighed and scratched the back of his neck. “I got a call from Hunter HQ earlier. Apparently one of the younger hunters went into Three Valleys on a simple hunt and hasn’t called in for several days. Since you’re the only other hunter around, I was wondering if you would take a look.”

“Sure, though it might take a while since, again, no transportation.” Noctis shrugged. “Actually, about that… I noticed a motorbike out back of the garage. Any chance Cindy is selling it?”

“Maybe?” said Leo. “It’s been there as long as I can recall, but I’ve seen Cindy tinkering with it now and then. You’ll have to ask her when she gets back though, ‘cause I don’t really know. If you’re really hurting for a ride though, I can call the Wiz and try to get that Chocobo post fixed tomorrow.”

“Sounds good.” Noctis said, pushing away from the counter. “See you around, Leo.”

“Likewise, Sorrel. Let me know if you find the hunter, ok?”

Noctis nodded faintly in acknowledgment and headed back towards the caravan, mind going a million different directions. Instead of reading or mending his hunting clothes, he spread his new notebook out on the table and started making a list of everything he needed to do. At the top of the page he wrote, in large block letters, “FIND LUNA.” Tapping his pen against his mouth, he considered where Luna could have arrived, if she’d arrived yet at all. It was possible that she could be days, weeks, or even months behind him, though Noctis considered that unlikely. Since he had no idea where Luna’s tomb might be he wrote down Altissia and Tenebrae as possible locations.

Both were extremely far away, so Noctis sighed and wrote “Ask Cindy about the motorcycle” and “Buy camping supplies.” Prompto’s book had informed him that most of the former rest stops throughout Lucius were shells of their former selves, with little to offer besides gas, but the havens had survived the darkness. He’d have to figure out some simple camping recipes, but he figured it couldn’t be too difficult. Sure, as a teenager he’d burnt more pans than he liked to admit, and Ignis had always taken over out of despair. His friend had always cooked so effortlessly, and Noctis wondered how hard it could really be. If he failed he could always live off of cup noodles, but he didn’t relish the idea.

Noctis fell asleep that night to visions of Tenebraen pastries.

Leo’s request turned into a miserable task as soon as Noctis clambered onto his rented chocobo. The bird was friendly enough, but Noctis felt a twinge of longing for Soot, his loyal gray steed from so long ago. As the sun rose higher, clouds that had been gathering on the horizon started spreading across the sky, dimming the sunlight and threatening rain.

By the time Noctis reached the edge of Three Valleys, a light mist had begun to gather and the temperature had dropped several uncomfortable degrees. He shivered and mentally berated himself for not buying a jacket. Hunts payed good money and he could afford one now, he was totally buying one when he got back to Hammerhead. Rubbing his arms to keep warm, Noctis stood up in his stirrups to take a good look at the surrounding area. Many nooks and crannies were worn into the surrounding stone, and farmhouse ruins dotted the landscape. The mist cast a ghostly pall over everything and suddenly not all of Noctis’s shivers were due to the chilly air.

Jumping down from his chocobo into the abandoned parking lot, he cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, “Hello? Is anyone out there?” His voice echoed back, muted in the mist, and he strained to hear an answer. For a long moment there was no response and he was about to turn back to his bird when a frustrated shout rang out from across the road. Ordering his chobobo to stay, Noctis sprinted across the open landscape, drawing his sword as he ran.

Skidding around a dilapidated shed, Noctis nearly bowled over a figure running from the opposite direction. They both went sprawling in the mud, the stranger letting out a string of curses as they scrambled to their feet. Noctis hauled himself upright slightly slower, eying the stranger warily. They were a little taller than Noctis and slight in the manner of most hunters, dark hair cut close against their scalp but for a longer bit on top. A cowl scarf favored by hunters wrapped around their neck, and they leaned heavily on a broken polearm.

“Damnit, did they send somebody else already?” panted the stranger, eying Noctis suspiciously.

“If you mean, did Hunter HQ call Hammerhead in a panic looking for a missing hunter, then yes,” said Noctis, standing and trying in vain to brush mud off of his backside.

They frowned, “I’m not missing. That damn gigantoad over there ate my radio two days ago and I’ve been trying to get it back ever since. Lot of good it does me that the bastard up and vanishes the minute it sees a sliver of sunlight.” They jerked their thumb over their shoulder at a large grayish lump in the distance. “Plus it just broke my lance.”

Noctis snorted, “That would do it. Do you need a hand getting your radio back?” 

The hunter tilted their head, looking critically at Noctis. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being judged, but then the hunter shrugged and seemed to relax. “Yeah, sure. Two hunters might actually be able to bring the thing down. Just let me get my spare lance.” They tossed the useless stick down with a disgusted noise and stuck out their hand, “I’m Cade Aren.”

Noctis took their hand and shook it. “Sorrel.” He followed the hunter over to the shed, where they pulled a pile of supplies from under a couple of beams. “So… how did the gigantoad get your radio in the first place?”

“Well,” drawled Cade, picking up a lance and twirling it between their hands. “I was trying to call in to HQ, let them know that I’d found the beast, and next I know, it’s flicked the radio out of my hand with its Astralsdamned tongue and vanished into the mist.”

“Yeah, that sounds about par for the course with gigantoad. I had a friend lose their boxers to one once.” Granted, it had been because Prompto had strayed too far from camp one evening, but it had still been hilarious.

Cade gave him a flat stare before snorting out a laugh, “Right, that’s a new one. But you’re right, they’ll eat just about anything.” They twirled their lance again, before planting the end firmly in the ground. “So, let’s go get my radio back so Dave doesn’t come looking for my dog tags.”

“He would do it too,” said Noctis as they carefully made their way through the growing mist. “I used to bring him ones that I’d find out in the wilds.”

“He’s never mentioned you before,” Cade said, stopping behind a large rock and peering at their prey from behind its protective bulk. “Must have been a while ago.”

Noctis shrugged, eying the gigantoad and tightening his grip on his sword. “It was before the darkness fell, so he’s probably forgotten about me.” He was certain Dave hadn’t forgotten the crown prince bringing him handfuls of lost tags, with detailed reports on how he found them, but Cade didn’t need to know that.

“Fair enough.” Cade narrowed their eyes, studying the huge amphibian in their path. “You ready?” At Noctis’s nod, the hunter sprang forward, polearm outstretched to catch the beast on the flank. It gave a wet screech of pain and whirled around, disturbingly quick for a creature of its bulk. Cade’s lance didn’t catch like they intended it to and they went flying past the gigantoad’s gaping mouth, narrowly missing the sticky tongue that darted out to catch them.

Meanwhile, Noctis clambered up the rock that had been their hiding place, perching on the top for an opportune moment. As soon as the beast was distracted by Cade, he leapt forward in an attempt to drive his sword through its soft hide. Unfortunately, gigantoad hide is not as soft as it appears, and Noctis went rolling across the muddy ground. He sprang to his feet just in time to see Cade go soaring past him with a terrifying yell, using both arms to drive their lance forward. This time the weapon stuck, and the hunter crowed with delight as they swung up onto the creature’s back.

“Heads up, Sorrel,” they called, raising a vial above their head. “It’s about to get really cold!” With that they slammed their palm against the gigantoad, ice and snow whirling outward as the glass vial shattered. The blizzard was nowhere near as powerful as anything Noctis could have once made, but it was still impressive. Cade and Noctis managed to get a few good hits in while the beast was frozen, and by the time it thawed it was noticeably weaker, its movement’s sluggish and tongue lolling from its mouth.

“Let’s finish this,” growled Cade, jerking their lance from where it was still stuck in the beast’s side. “I’m sick of the wilds and would kill for a hot shower.”

“Aren’t you in the middle of actually doing that?” asked Noctis smugly, wiping his slimy blade off on the leg of his jeans.

Cade shot him an amused glance. “Cheeky.”

Noctis just grinned, then ducked as the sticky gigantoad tongue soared over his head. “Would you just die already?” he said to the beast as he launched himself towards its scarred flank. A few more solid hits, and the gigantoad finally went down. Cade stood by its enormous head, warily poking it with their lance, just to make sure. Noctis sat down on a nearby rock, trying to catch his breath.

“That was a good fight,” said Cade after a moment. They’d started field dressing the huge amphibian, getting ready to haul it back to civilization. “You move like some of the glaives I used to run with, did they train you or something?”

“Ah, something like that,” said Noctis warily. He hadn’t really thought about it that way, but his fighting style was certainly influenced by his former magic. He might need to be more careful in the future or someone could see his movements for what they really were, habitual warps and half-formed weapon summons twisted into a new, more mundane form. At least he hadn’t accidentally dropped his sword this fight, he’d done that once and almost been trampled by Garula for his trouble.

“The glaives are good people, excellent fighters,” said Cade with a smile. “That’s probably the only reason so many survived the dark.” The hunter made a happy sound and moments later pulled a slimy radio out of the gigantoad corpse. “Alright, let’s see if this baby still works.” Crackling and screeching a bit, the radio came to life under Cade’s hands.

“Hunter HQ this is Cade Aren checking in from Three Valleys, do you copy?” For a long moment, no reply came through besides spitting static, then a familiar voice echoed across the airwaves.

“Cade, this is Dave. Kid, I am glad to hear your voice. I thought I’d be scooping your dog tags out of some gigantoad’s turds.”

The hunter snorted, “I’m not that slow yet. It did get my radio though, which is why I couldn’t check in.”

“I take it you got your radio back, since you’re checking in now? Did the hunter from Hammerhead find you?”

“Yeah, Sorrel’s with me now. He helped take down the beastie.”

“Good, Takka and Leo spoke highly of him. Let him know he’s welcome at HQ anytime.”

“Will do. I should be back by the end of the week, let Pa know, alright?”

“He knows. He’s been sitting here breathing down my neck for the past two days, maybe now I can get some Astralsdamned sleep.”

Cade laughed, “Maybe. See you soon, Dave. Cade out.”

The radio clicked silent and Cade hooked it onto their belt. They looked at Noctis, who raised an eyebrow. “It’s getting pretty late, what’s your view on toad steak?”

It turned out that toad steak cooked over an open flame was gamey and nearly inedible. The two triumphant hunters ended up chucking the whole lot into the fire and sharing a ration pack instead. Somehow, even freeze-dried jerky was better than whatever that was. For the first time since he arrived back in Eos, Noctis didn’t feel quite so alone.

—-

A couple mornings after his adventure with Cade and the gigantoad, Noctis awoke to the rumble of a large vehicle as it rolled into Hammerhead. Peeking out the caravan window, he saw a familiar yellow truck pull up the garage and watched as Cindy leapt out of the cab, making a beeline for the diner. Throwing on a clean t-shirt and grabbing his pack, Noctis headed for breakfast himself.

Takka had grown to expect him over the past week, sliding a heaping plate of pancakes and a cup of hot coffee across the counter with a gruff “Mornin’ Sorrel.” Noctis merely grunted in greeting, tucking into the food. Just because he was up in the mornings now didn’t mean he had to enjoy it. He felt Cindy’s eyes on him, but now that he was actually in her presence, he wasn’t quite sure how to approach her.

She quickly solved the problem by sliding down the counter and perching on the bar stool next to him. “I’ve not seen ya around before, how are ya findin’ Hammerhead?” she said, voice cheery and chirpy as always.

Noctis took a swig of his coffee before answering. Cindy was the real test, if he could somehow keep her from recognizing him, he would be very lucky. He took a deep breath and prayed to the Astrals for strength. “My name’s Sorrel, I’m new to the area. Hammerhead’s nice. Plenty of hunting around and good food, too.” He raised his mug in Takka’s direction and the cook laughed.

Cindy hummed agreement. “I’m sensing a but…” she prodded.

“Yeah. Hammerhead’s nice, but traveling by chocobo really isn’t gonna get me very far, and I need to at least get to Lestallum.” Noctis shrugged, and saw Cindy’s eyes narrow.

“If ya don’t have transportation, how’d ya get here in the first place?” She sounded suspicious, and Noctis’s heart sank.

“Uh… I walked? I kind of woke up in the wilds with only a little memory of the past decade and the clothes on my back.” Noctis rubbed the back of his neck and tried his best to look sheepish. “I promise I’m not crazy or anything, all I really know is hunting.”

“It’s true,” Takka said as he came over with a fresh carafe of coffee. Cindy wordlessly held out her mug, and Takka continued talking as he poured. “He came in here about a week ago looking completely bedraggled with not a gil to his name. He’s already run half a dozen hunts for me, and helped Cor’s kid bring down a gigantoad simply because Leo asked him to check in on them.”

Cindy raised an eyebrow, “That’s a lot for just one hunter.” She turned back to Noctis. “Takka seems to think highly of ya, so I guess I can trust ya. Come on out to the garage when you’ve finished eating, I might have a job for ya.” Draining her second cup of coffee, she slid the empty mug back across the counter and headed out the door.

Noctis watched her go, then scarfed down the rest of his pancakes. Leaving the requisite gil on the counter, he too headed out the door into the morning sunlight. He found Cindy in the garage, tinkering with the motorcycle he’d seen and mentioned to Leo earlier in the week.

At his approach, the mechanic stood and ran the back of her hand across her forehead. Noctis noticed for the first time that she’d traded her long socks and high shorts for baggy cargo pants, tools already sticking from the various pockets. She crossed her arms and chewed thoughtfully at her lower lip as she looked Noctis over.

“Contrary to popular belief, I’m not stupid,” she said, making steady eye contact with the former prince. “Takka may not have recognized you, but he also wasn’t subjected to a hundred plus photos courtesy of one broken-hearted best friend.”

Noctis felt his heart drop somewhere in the vicinity of his belly and he opened his mouth to protest, but Cindy forged onward.

“I watched those boys bury you, so where the fuck did you come from?”

Chapter Text

It took the better part of a minute for Noctis to gather enough of his wits about him to form a coherent answer. When he finally spoke, it was slowly.

“Well… I was, in fact, quite dead.” He winced, that answer was not satisfactory in the slightest.

Cindy’s tone dripped with sarcasm, “Yes, a sword driven through your midsection will do that. That’s not what I asked. Tell me where you came from, and your answer had better be good.”

Noctis sighed and dropped heavily onto a nearby crate, “Would you believe me if I told you I woke up in my own tomb a week ago and walked to Hammerhead?” Cindy stared at him, arms still crossed and gaze hard. Noctis let out a frustrated huff and tilted his head back to look at the ceiling instead of his friend. “Last week Bahamut appeared to Luna and I in the astral realm and told us we could come back, he wanted us to truly live instead of fighting a war that we had been raised to die for.”

“I don’t see Lady Lunafreya anywhere.” Cindy’s voice was still full of suspicion, but it no longer had the hard quality that had tinged her question moments ago.

“That’s why I need transportation,” said Noctis quietly. “My best guess is she woke up in her tomb somewhere halfway across Eos and I’m gonna have to go find her. Not like chasing the Oracle is something I haven’t already done.” He chuckled to himself before looking back at Cindy. “I know it’s hard to take in, but please trust me. Until a week ago, I really was dead. I’ve got the scar across my stomach if you don’t believe me.”

Noctis did indeed have a jagged, ropy scar running from where his belly button should have been, up to his sternum. It had startled him, the first time he’d caught sight of it in the foggy bathroom mirror. It looked faded and old, small blessings from the Astrals, but still it remained to remind him of all that had been lost in the fight against the dark. He pulled the hem of his t-shirt up and looked at the scar, brushing sword-calloused fingers over the glass-smooth mark.

“Oh Noctis,” sighed Cindy, coming over to stand in front of him. She gently tugged his shirt back down, catching his hands in her own. “Were ya ever planning on telling anyone ya were alive?”

“I thought…” Noctis cleared his throat. “I thought it might be best if I found Luna first. The last memories my friends have of me aren’t very nice ones, and I didn’t want to bring all of that back to the surface. Not when they’re all doing so well for themselves in Insomnia.”

Cindy snorted with laughter. “Thirty-two years old and still a dumb kid. Ya do realize your friends would move heaven and earth to see ya again? They’d probably drop everything and come runnin’ the moment they heard ya were alive.”

Shaking his head, Noctis protested, “That’s exactly what I don’t want! They’ve got their own lives now… Gladio’s even king! I can’t ask them to come help me follow Luna across Eos, that’s not fair to them or the people they serve. Please don’t tell them I’m alive.”

“I won’t.” Cindy’s gaze was serious. “But sooner or later, you’re gonna have to. It’s not fair to your friends to let them think you’re dead when you’re not.” Noctis had to admit that Cindy was right, and he shrunk in on himself sheepishly. Cindy reached up and ruffled her hand through his hair. “I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when ya stumbled into the diner this morning, thought maybe my mind was playing tricks on me.”

“Nope. I’m definitely here.” Noctis poked at his own stomach to prove his point. “I’m sorry for startling you. I’d honestly counted on twelve years being enough of a difference that you wouldn’t recognize me.”

“No such luck, prince. I’ve got a mind like a steel trap, plus Prompto wouldn’t shut up about all his pictures of you. Still hasn’t, if I remember rightly. I think he may have published a memorial book for you and the Oracle.” Cindy laughed when Noctis pulled a face.

“He would do that… he always did express his feelings through photography. And Cindy,” Noctis paused for a second to make sure she looked at him. “It’s just Noctis now. My title died when I did, and it at least stayed dead.”

“Course it did. Ya never wanted to be prince anyway, to hear my grandfather tell it.” Cindy sat down in front of the motorcycle, going back to her tinkering. For a while it was quiet in the garage, and Noctis considered trying to get another hunt from Takka. Then he had a thought.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where they buried Luna, would you?” he called across the room to Cindy. “Since I showed up at my tomb, it makes sense maybe she would show up at hers.”

“Lunafreya doesn’t have a tomb, Noctis,” said Cindy as she tightened a bolt on the bike. “After the floodwaters receded, they never found her body. Closest thing to a tomb is probably the memorial at the old Tenebraen palace. I’ve heard pilgrims sometimes go there to pay their respects.”

Sighing, Noctis stood up and stretched, back popping as he raised his arms above his head. “I guess I’d better get to work earning more gil then. A trip that long is no joke and I definitely can’t make it all the way to Tenebrae on the back of a chocobo.”

Cindy chuckled, “Ya could, but it’s not really advisable. Nor will ya have to, when I’m done tuning this bike ya can have it.”

“Aw, really? Do you mean it?” Noctis grinned at the mechanic, who rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, it’s just been gathering dust for a decade, might as well get some use out of it.” Noctis hummed in agreement and made for the open garage door, but Cindy called after him. “Hey, wait, I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said I had a job for ya.”

“Oh, right.” Noctis spun around, kicking up dust. “What’s up?”

“You know how I used to send you looking for parts for the Regalia?” When Noctis nodded, she forged onward. “I’ve got a bit more business now, since it’s safer to travel, but a lot of good parts got lost in dangerous places during the dark. If I gave ya a list, do ya think ya could track down some rare items?”

Noctis thought for a moment. “I’m pretty sure I could. I might have to find a hunting partner, because even I’m not dumb enough to go rooting around in the deep places of the world alone.”

Cindy laughed. “Glad to hear ya still have your wits about ya!” She rummaged in one of her many pockets before holding out a creased and slightly greasy sheet of paper. “Now scoot, I’ll have this bike fixed up in a day or two.”

Noctis felt his lips curl into a fond smile as he took the list. “Thanks.” Cindy didn’t look up, just waved him out of the garage, a wrench already in her hand.

He may have complained, but Noctis really didn’t mind riding chocobos. He felt a fondness for the birds and enjoyed the freedom that they allowed. Although he knew he couldn’t make regular long trips by chocobo, the occasional leisurely excursion wasn’t out of the question. Since Cindy had told him it would be a few days before the bike was ready, Noctis decided it was high time to wander a little farther afield and see what had changed elsewhere in Liede. Plus he could get a start on the rather exhaustive list Cindy had given him. Havens still dotted the landscape, untouched by daemons or the dark, so no matter where he roamed he would have a place to sleep.

Leo snorted with laughter when Noctis observed this, picking through the limited selection of camping supplies in the gas station. “I guess if you enjoy sleeping on weird glowing rocks the havens are ok?” he said, trying to catch his breath. “Me? I’d rather find a nice motel with a soft bed.”

Once, Noctis would have said the same thing, but the idea of sleeping out under the stars in a haven held a nostalgic appeal now. He wondered if it would be lonely without his friends. Probably. Instead of voicing these thoughts aloud, he pushed a sleeping bag and a little camping stove across the counter.

“I don’t remember the runes being super bright, but maybe that’s because I had a tent.”

Leo shot Noctis a weird look, but took his gil anyway. “It’s your sleeping habits, Sorrel.”

Noctis chuckled softly. You don’t know the half of my sleeping habits, he thought as he went outside to his waiting chocobo.

The stove fit neatly into his backpack and the sleeping back strapped over the top with no trouble at all, so with the addition of some basic foodstuffs Noctis felt that he was prepared for a short trip into the wilds. Consulting his travel guide, he thought that he could easily make it to Longwythe by the late afternoon, then head towards Emmelle Haven for the night. One of the parts on Cindy’s list seemed to be in the nearby mines, surely an easy area to explore alone.

With a spring in his step, he mounted his chocobo, gently ruffling its feathered head. “Let’s go, Pom.” The bird squawked quietly at him, then they were off, the dusty countryside rolling by.

Noctis opted not to take the main roads, instead sticking to worn trails that wound slowly past collapsed barns and ruined fields. Even two years past the dark, the ravaged landscape held traces of daemonic presence in the way the ground sometimes buckled unnaturally with great scorch-marks scarring the soil. Though he knew that daemons no longer roamed Eos, Noctis couldn’t quite shake off the uncomfortable prickly feeling that crawled up the back of his neck whenever he passed a particularly large patch of upturned earth.

Traveling across the land rather than by road proved a longer path and night was quickly falling as Noctis rode into Longwythe. Sliding off Pom’s back, Noctis cracked his own and looked around the once bustling rest area. The motel, once a welcome (if a bit dingy) stop, lay in ruins. The upper levels had completely collapsed and the doors to the first level rooms stood open, gaping like missing teeth. Noctis shuddered and turned away, at least the bright lights of the diner still cut through the gloom.

At the thought of the diner, Noctis’s stomach made an ominous rumbling noise. He knew he could make something substantial, if not entirely tasty, on his camp stove, but the thought of crispy fries and a juicy burger was just too good to pass up. Checking that Pom had enough greens to satisfy him for a little while, he headed into the welcoming glow.

“You’ll probably be sharing the haven tonight.”

Noctis raised an eyebrow at the cook, momentarily distracted from his dinner. “It’s not like I own the campsite, why should I care?”

“Eh, some hunters are weird about havens,” the cook said with a shrug. “Just thought you might like to know there’s another hunter who passed through here this morning.  Said something about checking out the old mines, so I’m assuming he stayed at Emmelle since he hasn’t turned back up here.”

“It will be nice to camp with someone else, I’m not used to being alone.” Noctis stuffed the last of his fries in his mouth as the cook shot him a weird look. Fuck, hunters usually are alone for long periods of time aren’t they… thought Noctis, hastily chugging the last of his soda and leaving a handful of gil on the counter. He was out the door before the cook had a chance to ask if he wanted change.

Even in the dark, the dirt road leading up to Emmelle haven and the mines beyond appeared overgrown. Noctis thought back to the disrupted ground and scorch-marks he had passed earlier in the day and urged his chocobo to move a little faster. Pom qwarked with agreement, trotting a bit faster up the hill towards the glowing blue runes of the campsite.

The only sign of the other hunter that greeted Noctis and his mount was a dusty emerald motorbike parked at the base of the haven’s plateau. Noctis frowned, chewing his lip in thought as he stared at the lonely bike. Surely the owner had stepped away for a moment, he couldn’t still be down in the mines, that was a ridiculous notion. The former prince shrugged to himself, turning away to set up camp.

Of the times and places that made Noctis miss his magic, havens were the most abundant. He missed starting a campfire simply by raising his hand, crystal-granted magic resonating with the far older magic infusing the plateau. He swore he could still feel it, like a phantom itch in his palms and a phantom tug in his chest as he knelt down at the smoking firepit. Using plain, ordinary matches seemed almost sacrilegious, but a campfire sprang up under his fingers just the same.

Pom nudged her feathery head against Noctis’s arm as he stretched out beside the crackling fire, back against her soft flank. He chucked and reached up to scratch under her chin where he knew she enjoyed scritchings. The bird made a contented coo and fluffed herself out in preparation for sleep.

Noctis stayed awake a little longer, gazing up at the vast expanse of sky and wondering if Luna was doing the same. He fell asleep with a smile on his face, starlight playing gently across his skin.

The other hunter never appeared.

Chapter Text

Dawn arrived much too early in Noctis’s opinion and he flung one arm over his eyes with a groan. Behind him, Pom made an offended noise as she shuffled just far enough away that her companion slid unceremoniously onto the rocky plateau. Dreams still hung fuzzily in the back of his mind, a half-formed memory of Gentiana tucking something into a book, telling him to remember what he had forgotten. It didn’t make much sense, but he’d come to expect circuitous behavior from the glacian.

Noctis sighed, standing up and brushing himself off while sticking his tongue at the sleepy chocobo. She clacked her beak in greeting and Noctis rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Laugh all you want, but we should get moving soon.”

The fire at the center of the haven had burned down to embers during the night, and with the light of dawn they took on that ethereal blue glow so synonymous with havens. Noctis hadn’t set up much else camp-wise, just lit a fire and slept against his chocobo under the starry sky. He hadn’t expected to still be alone when he awoke, and worry gnawed at him when he saw the motorbike still parked at the base of the campsite.

Could it be that the hunter had met his end in or around the mines? Noctis wondered if he’d have to collect a dingy set of dog-tags to send back to Dave. It would be far from the first time, but somehow it seemed worse in this new daemon-less world.

Noctis shook his head to dislodge the morbid thoughts and popped a protein bar in his mouth for breakfast (chocolate peanut butter flavor, Ignis would disapprove). Pom chirruped hungrily at him, eying the end of the bar hanging out of Noctis’s mouth.

He snorted and dug around in his bag, pulling out the box of “Chocobo Crisps” Leo had recommended for overnight travel. “Like breakfast bars for birds” the kid had said, shoving the box at him. Unwrapping one of the food bars he tossed it in Pom’s direction, watching with amusement as she snatched her snack out of the air. She made quick work of her breakfast, tilting her head at Noctis as if to ask for more.

Glancing at the side of the box, he shook his head. “Greedy girl,” he said affectionately. “It says here a full-grown chocobo gets one meal bar. I’m not gonna stuff you so full you can’t run.”

If birds could shrug, Pom would have, but instead she merely bumped her fluffy head against Noctis’s shoulder with a contented coo.

“Alright, let’s get going” laughed Noctis, donning his gear and swinging into the saddle. “With any luck I’ll find that part Cindy needs before mid-afternoon, and I can get you a heaping dinner of greens at the diner.” He patted the feathers at the base of Pom’s neck and they were off, dust rising under the chocobo’s feet as they made their way down the overgrown road. Within moments they were in sight of the mines and, as expected, Pom refused to go farther than end of the rusted rails that lead into darkness.

Noctis didn’t blame her for not wanting to go into the inky black of the abandoned mines. He barely wanted to go himself, but he might as well grab the part for Cindy while he was out this way. And maybe briefly look for the missing hunter? Noctis had seen no sign of other humans around the area, in fact there had been an unnerving absence of any living creature. He had expected to see at least some wildlife, but not even birdsong broke the unsettling calm that blanketed the area between the haven and the mines.

He was not reassured in the slightest by the way Pom fled the area, eyes rolling until the whites showed. Laughing nervously to himself, he loosened his sword a bit, ready to snatch it at the first sign of trouble. There was no telling what kind of creatures had taken over the mines after the disappearance of the daemons.

To the great surprise of Noctis, the elevator that descended into the depths of the mines still functioned, though it was even rustier and more questionable than it had been over a decade before. It also served as an excellent indicator that someone was still below, as he had to call it to the upper level. He tried very hard not to think about all the possible things he could find down there as the pulleys and rusted metal screeched their painful way to a halt.

Descending on the rickety rusted elevator was one of the most harrowing things Noctis thought he had ever experience, including his own death. He screwed his eyes tightly shut and clung tightly to the grimy handrail, knuckles stark white against the brown and red. Just my luck that stupid part is on the lowest level, he thought with a shiver. And I have to take this thing back up, too. The elevator shuddered to a halt at the base of the mineshaft and Noctis stumbled out, grateful for solid stone beneath his feet. If he made it out of these mines alive, he wouldn’t be coming back ever again if he could help it.

The lower levels of the mine were dark and clammy, and Noctis shivered as he fumbled to zip his new jacket. It was a loose grey thing with a deep hood to ward off the rain. He’d caved and bought that and a traditional hunter’s scarf before his trip, as the weather rolled into the rainy season and the nights grew cooler. Now he pulled these up around his face, teeth chattering. He wasn’t used to being so cold, his magic had once protected him from the worst of the elements.

Not anymore. Noctis rubbed at his arms and moved on.

Cindy’s list had said the part was reportedly in the large chamber leading to the royal tomb, so Noctis made his careful way down the uneven path. For a little while all was silent save for his own footsteps, but about halfway down the tunnel the noises started. The soft rasp of scale against stone was unmistakable and left Noctis standing still and cold in his tracks.

“Aw shit,” he said into the darkness. Anything making that much noises and scaring off all the local wildlife had to be enormous and therefore terrifyingly dangerous. His voice echoed down the hall and the noises abruptly stopped. Muttering more curses under his breath, Noctis pulled his sword off his back and crept towards the large open room.

He was just peaking around the corner, trying to get a glimpse of his possible foe when he heard another voice. “Hey! Is somebody out there?” Across the room, slight movement caught Noct’s eye and he looked closer to see a pale hand waving from the narrow passage in the wall leading to the royal tomb.

“Yeah, I see you!” he called across the space. The sound of scraping scales still hadn’t started back up, but he wasn’t about to try to cross to the other hunter while a beast of unknown size and ferocity lurked in the shadows.

“Thank the fucking Astrals!” came the relieved response. “I’ve been trapped down here since yesterday. If I’d known there was gonna be a big-ass snake in these caves, I’d have brought backup! Fucking thing won’t stay still long enough for me to shoot it, I think even goblins were easier to hit than this, and they were tiny fast-moving shits.”

Noctis snorted, amused despite the danger. “You’ve got a mouth on you, friend.”

“You would too if you were trapped down here with a fucking Jormungand. Biggest one I’ve ever seen too, must have come down here during the dark and got too big to get back out.” The hand coming from the fissure in the wall waved vaguely toward the back of the cavern. “It’s probably over there somewhere, it only rears its butt-ugly face when I try to get out of this hole in the wall.”

“I fought one of these things once,” Noctis said slowly. “I’m fast and good with my sword, so I should present some of a challenge. If you can hit it without catching me, take whatever shots you can.”

“Excuse me,” said the voice, offended. “I’m the best sharpshooter in Lucis, of course I can hit it without hitting you!”

Noctis laughed as he stepped fully into the room, swinging his sword and taking a ready stance. “I have a friend who would take issue with that claim.” A loud rumble filled the room as a dark serpentine shape rose against the shadowed back wall. “Let’s get this over with and get the hell out of here, huh?”

“I’ve got no issue with that, buddy. Lead the way.”

Noctis heard the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked, and then all else was lost to the narrow focus of staying alive as the beast at the far end of the room rushed towards him, mouth open in a roar of utter fury. He only just managed to leap out of the way, rolling into a crouch as he hit the ground. Behind him, gunshots started to ring out, a familiar staccato in the rhythm of battle.

The Jormungand roared again, massive head swinging from side to side, searching out its prey. Noctis took in a long controlled breath, steeling himself before he launched himself at the scaly body. Light, quick strides carried him up to the head of the creature, where he was able to land a few quick strikes before being shaken off.

“Fuck you, you dragon prick!” Noctis screeched as he managed to twist in midair, righting himself and landing on his toes instead of hitting the wall face-first. He used the momentum to sprint back towards his foe, driving his sword towards its face. From behind the wall, the gunner took a few pot shots at the distracted dragon.

“Anybody ever tell ya you move like a fucking glaive?” The question was unexpected, and Noctis took his time to respond, whipping around the Jormungand as fast as he could, landing blows to any exposed point he found. The creature barely slowed and Noctis considered the merits of using one of his precious hoarded elemental spells. They were more expensive now that he couldn’t make them for himself and someone else had to do it with complicated machinery. But it was better than dying.

“Heard that a few times, yeah,” he said, pulling a vial out of his jacket pocket and bouncing on the balls of his feet, working up the nerve to begin his ascent. His new companion snorted with laughter, and a couple seconds later a barrage of bullets had the Jormungand roaring and whipping its head towards the crack in the wall.

Noctis saw his chance and clambered up the beast’s back. Raising his fist high, he smashed the fragile glass of a blizzard spell against the hard skull of the dragon. He breathed a sigh of relief as it grew sluggish, leaning back from his perch on its head to look around the room. The other hunter poked his scarf-wrapped head from around the corner of the wall, shooting him a thumbs up. Noctis felt his heart clench in sudden memory of Prompto, always so cheerful in battle. He forced the thought of his friend down, if he dwelt on it too much he would never make it to Luna’s side before rushing off to see his friends.

Instead of thinking too hard, he flipped sideways off the dragon’s head, a dangerous trick as it turned out because he landed on one leg, his bad knee hitting the ground with a painful jolt. He got back to his feet a little slower that time.

“Still think I move like a glaive?” he quipped at the hunter, who laughed at him while slowly emptying his clip into the frozen Jormungand’s face.

“Shit’s hard to forget. Those fancy flips and rolls are a dead giveaway. Also you left your sword embedded in the dragon’s skull like you can warp back to it or something.”

Noctis swore and scrambled for the dragon, who unfortunately chose that exact moment to break free of its icy prison, furious and breathing hissing flames. The force of the heat drove Noctis back several steps, and he muttered a handful choice words under his breath as he tugged his daggers free of his boots. “You know, I think I’m beginning to agree with you about the goblins. They were so much easier to kill than this.”

“Yeah well, they usually had friends,” said the hunter, pausing in his firing to slide another clip into his gun. “That made things a little less fun.” He raised his weapon carefully and suddenly the Jormungand was reeling backward, one of its eyes now a gaping hole. The hunter made a pleased noise and aimed again, taking off one of the beast’s whiskers with his next shot.

Using the creature’s distracted state to his advantage, Noctis took a few moments to breathe, rubbing his bad knee with one hand. He’d thought maybe the astrals had sent him back without the inconvenience of a bum knee, but apparently not. If he kept hitting it in battle, he might need to start wearing a brace again. The thought wasn’t encouraging.

Mustering his strength, he stood up and tested his weight on his leg. When his knee ached but didn’t buckle underneath him he breathed a sigh of relief. In front of him, the Jormungand hissed and spat with unbridled fury. Boiling spittle dripped from its mouth and steamed on the rocks below.

Noctis shuddered, gripping his daggers tightly. Sprinting across the open cavern he ducked into the dragon’s blind spot, clambering up the rough rock wall high enough to get a good amount of force behind his jump. With a savage yell he lept down on top of the creature, driving his daggers into its head and then holding on for dear life. Under his hands the dragon writhed for long minutes, each movement slower than the last, until finally it lay twitching on the ground. Its one good eye stared unblinking into the cavern and Noctis shuddered to look at it.

Climbing carefully down from his perch on the dragon’s head, Noctis wiped his daggers off on his jeans, sliding them back into his boots. It took a couple good tugs, but a moment later his sword too was free and sliding easily back into its sheath. Fight finally over, Noctis shoved off his hood, mopping his face with his scarf as he greeted the hunter he had saved.

“Little warm down here now,” he said with a laugh as he dropped his scarf and shot a grin in the hunter’s direction. When there was no answer, he turned fully in the hunter’s direction hoping the man was alright, and was met with an image that seared itself into his memory for a long time after.

One hand frozen on the scarf he had just pulled down off of his head and face, Prompto stood before him. His face a little more lined than the former prince remembered, but the same unmistakable chocobo-butt hair rising above it. The expressions that flickered across his face ran the gamut of shocked to furious and finally settled on horrified disbelief.

“N-noctis?” Prompto’s voice quivered and the man in question winced. He’d heard that tone of heartbroken betrayal before and it never boded well for anyone.

“Yeah, Prom. It’s me,” he said with a small smile, shrugging a little at his friend.

Faster than he could blink, Prompto was across the room and a welt was rising on Noctis’s face from where the gunner had slapped him. Eyes blinking back tears, Prompto managed to grind out words from between his clenched teeth. “How dare you!? We buried him! I dressed his corpse with my own two hands, and you have the gall to stand before me and call yourself ‘Noctis’?” His voice grew impossibly louder in the echoing chamber. “I was at his tomb just two weeks ago! He’s dead and no one can come back from that!”

Noctis found himself desperately shouting in answer, “They can if Bahamut sends them back!”

“Prove it then. Tell me something only Noctis would know,” snarled Prompto. Noctis privately thought that furious grief was not a particularly good look on his friend.

Taking a steadying breath, he said, “When we were seniors in high school, you spent two solid days convinced you were going to die because    you hit your head falling off the school roof. And…” Noctis headed off the rebuttal he knew was coming. “You were on the school roof because you were sure it was the only place you could get a decent shot of the glaive memorial for the school paper. You told everyone else you fell out of a tree.”

“Anyone could have seen me fall off that roof,” said Prompto weakly.

“But they didn’t.” Noctis sighed, then froze and hastily swung his backpack off his shoulders and onto the ground. Prompto gazed suspiciously at him as he rummaged around for a moment, before sitting back, already worn copy of Learning Liede clutched in his hands. He hoped that he hadn’t merely dreamed Gentiana… but no, tucked between the back pages of the book was the picture he’d taken with him to the astral realm. In his haste to return to life, he had left the picture on his empty throne. Gentiana must have known he needed it now.

With shaking hands, he held the picture out to Prompto. “This is the best I’ve got.”

Prompto pulled the rigid paper from Noctis’s fingers, tears welling in his eyes as he took in his friends lazing around their campground, his own face featured prominently in the selfie.

“No one else has this,” he whispered, sinking down to sit on the ground beside Noctis. “I never reprinted it, it felt wrong somehow. Gladio and Iggy and I are the only ones who knew which photo you took, or even that you took a photo at all.” He looked up, tears threatening to spill. “You really are Noct?”

Noctis nodded, not trusting his voice.

“Fuck. I’m sorry for slapping you.” Prompto sounded sheepish.

“Eh, I probably deserved it.” Noctis considered weighing his words carefully, but he’d never done so with Prompto, and it felt wrong to start now. “Especially since I’ve been back for a week and a half and if I hadn’t saved you from this giant snake you still wouldn’t know I’m alive.”

“I ought to slap you again just for that. What were you thinking?” Prompto pushed himself to his feet, then offered Noctis a hand up. When Noctis took it, he pulled him into a crushing hug. “It doesn’t matter, I’m just glad you’re back.”

“Me too, Prom.” Noctis buried his face in his friend’s shoulder, voice shaking. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

“Much as I want to catch up, I’d rather not do it next to this dragon corpse.” Though he protested, Noct made no effort to move, Prompto’s arms still wrapped around him.

“Yeah, lemme grab my equipment and we can haul ass out of here. I don’t wanna know if this snake had friends.” Prompto pulled slightly away from Noctis to eye the hole in the wall with distaste. “Ugh, I left all my stuff by the tomb, too.”

“Still don’t like small spaces?” Noctis well remembered his friend’s complaints about every cave they ever encountered.

“Nope.” Prompto said with a little shudder. “All the more reason to get out of here.”

Noctis snorted and let go of Prompto, giving him a little shove towards the opening. “Go on then, I’ll wait.”

It only took a few moments for the photographer to duck through the crack in the wall and grab his bag. Noctis eyed him skeptically.

“You know, I thought you’d have more stuff?” he said as they walked back towards the elevator.

Prompto shrugged, “I have a whole studio back in the city, but can only carry so much on my bike. Not everybody has an armiger like you.”

“I don’t even have one anymore,” chuckled Noctis, reaching up to tap the sword strapped across his back.

With a small hum of agreement Prompto punched the elevator button and the gate slammed shut as Noctis swore loudly. When Prompto shot him a concerned look, the former prince merely stared balefully out into the dark.

“Cindy’s gonna kill me. I forgot to pick up the part she wanted.”

“Was it this old thing?” Prompto rummaged in his bag and tossed a filthy hunk of metal in Noctis’s direction. “I found it in the snake chamber right before I got attacked. Thought Cindy might need it so I picked it up.”

Noctis caught the part one-handed, lost in thought. After a moment, the elevator came to a halt and Noctis decided to ask the question weighing on his mind.

“Are you still…” Noctis let his voice trail off. Last he’d heard, in those long hours before the final march to Insomnia, Prompto had still been mooning forlornly after the mechanic. Now though, Noctis was met with a laugh.

“Nah, I got over her a long time ago.” He shook his head, a smile on his lips. “I don’t have a death wish, Aranea would definitely kill me. Besides… I, uh… there was someone else, and Cindy knew it. So it never really worked out.”

Noctis considered this revelation as the two men stumbled out of the mines into daylight, shielding their eyes against the sudden brightness. Pom approached with a concerned squawk, but recoiled when she got near them, most likely because they still stank heavily of giant snake. When Noctis held out a hand to try and calm her, she puffed up in offense and stalked off.

“Guess we’re walking,” said Noctis, amused. “At least it’s not too far.”

The pair fell in step with one another as they made their way down the dusty road towards the haven. Birdsong had started to return to the area, no longer kept away by the fearsome aura of the Jormungand. Noctis watched his friend out of the corner of his eye, musing on how much he had missed. He wondered if Prompto had started a family, settled down in Insomnia, but when he asked as much the other laughed. Noctis didn’t like the bitter, humorless quality of the sound, so unlike his friend.

“No. The person I liked… the one Cindy knew about. They loved someone else and then they died.” Prompto spat the words out like they hurt him, and maybe they did. “I never really got over it, so no. No family, just Gladio and Iggy and their brood.”

“Brood?”

“Yeah, they adopted like… three orphans. Gave them all proper plant names and everything.” Prompto grinned at Noctis, who felt a little shell-shocked. “Belladonna is the oldest, she’s been named crown princess. Then there’s Laurel and Rowan. They’re twins, and quite a bit of trouble… what’s the matter, Noct?”

“Gladio and Ignis… Ignis isn’t chief advisor because he’s prince consort?” Noctis was having a bit of trouble wrapping his head around the concept. His shield and councilor had always been close, but this was unexpected.

“Well yeah, what else would he be?” Prompto had stopped walking and was looking at his friend with an odd expression. “He and Gladio have been married for nearly 15 years now. It’d be weird if he wasn’t prince consort.”

“Fifteen…” Noctis felt a little faint. All the time he’d made jokes about how they acted like an old married couple, and they had been… What else had he missed in the complicated disaster surrounding Insomnia’s fall? Prompto was looking at him really hard now, head tilted to one side.

“You didn’t know,” he said at last. It wasn’t a question. “They never told you. Those fucking idiots.” Prompto sighed, running a hand down his face in exasperation, suddenly looking much older than his thirty-two years. “I just assumed you never said anything because you respected their privacy, but you simply didn’t know.”

“To be fair,” croaked Noctis after the shock had passed. “I was kind of wrapped up in my own affairs around that time. School, politics, my dad dying from magic overuse… that sort of thing.”

Prompto sighed and looked away. “Yeah, I guess you were.” He didn’t say anything else on the matter. By this time they had reached the haven, ethereal blue fire sending smoke spiraling into the air. He dropped his bag by his bike, stretching his back with a groan. “Your chocobo probably won’t carry you until you’ve showered off the snake stench. I’ve got room on my bike for you if we sit close. We can spend the night here at the haven and then head for Insomnia in the morning.”

“I can’t.” Noctis sat down on the edge of the haven, legs swinging against the rune-marked stone. “I can’t go back to Insomnia until I’ve found Luna.” Prompto made a choked noise, but Noctis didn’t look up. “Bahamut sent her back too, and I feel like going home without her isn’t fair.”

“Then let’s find Luna.” Prompto’s voice was firm, and when Noctis glanced up at him, his jaw had a determined set to it. “I can make some calls, let everybody know I’ll be gone for a couple weeks. Goodness knows, Gladio has been riding my ass to take a vacation.”

Noctis stared at Prompto, relief and fondness washing over him in equal measure. Honestly, it was immensely flattering that Prompto would still drop everything to help Noctis with his personal problems. Even after everything Noctis had put him through. But… it wasn’t fair to his friend to ask him to tear himself away from his life to help Noctis chase after the former oracle once again.

“Thanks for the offer, but no.” Noctis took momentary pride in how his voice remained steady despite the ache in his heart. “This is something I have to do on my own. Just drop me off at Hammerhead and I’ll take it from there.”

Prompto stared flatly at him, expression unreadable. His jaw tightened, but he turned back to his bike without a word, tightening the straps on his saddlebags with a little more force than necessary. Though the sounds of evening lilted softly across the haven, the silence suddenly seemed oppressive, but Noctis couldn’t take back his words. Prompto had a life and a purpose. Noctis had an entirely different path. It wasn’t fair to either of them to pretend otherwise.

——

The silence stretched into the evening, even after the two set up camp, bedrolls laid out by the ethereal blue flames. It was only after they both lay staring up at the stars that Noctis finally spoke.

“I’m sorry I can’t ask you to come with me.”

Across the fire, Prompto raised his head so he could look at his friend. “You didn’t ask.” Much like his earlier expression, his voice was flat. “I offered.” He fell back against his bedroll with a soft thump. “My best friend, someone who I cared deeply about who I thought was fucking dead, miraculously appears to save me from certain death. Excuse me if I’m overwhelmingly grateful and want to do him a favor. Astrals, I’ll probably wake up tomorrow back in that damn snake cave and this will all have been a dream.” He went quiet again, but Noctis still heard him whisper to himself, “Fuck knows I’ve had enough of those…”

Noctis felt guilt roll over him. “I’m sorry, Prom,” he said again, not knowing what else to say. For Noctis, ten years in the crystal and two years dead had seemed a very short span of time, moments really, but for Prompto they had probably seemed an eternity. He had no idea how much his friend had changed, how many things now weighed on his friend’s heart. It pained him to admit how little he knew now.

Prompto, rolled onto his side and facing away from the warmth of the fire, heard Noctis shuffle around. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the tears that threatened as he heard his friend gather up his bedroll. Of course Noctis would expect him to be the cheerful, chipper soul he’d been as a child, but a decade of daemons and the dark had changed all of that. He was still cheerful, certainly, but his enthusiasm was tempered by years of hardship, loss and horror a stark counterpoint to uncaring glee. When Noctis had returned for those precious few hours before the march on Insomnia, Prompto had tried very hard to push his adult melancholy to the very back of his brain. He had presented the Prompto he thought Noctis would want to see in his final hours, a hollow echo of childhood. Though… even that had been a half-truth from the start.

But now Noctis was back, unexpectedly, and Prompto was so very tired of hiding. He sucked in a ragged breath, steeling himself. If Noctis couldn’t accept him as he was, as he had always been under a facade of boundless cheer… His thoughts spiraling, he barely noticed the thump of blanket and bedroll hitting the plateau beside him.

“Stop thinking and budge over,” Noctis’s voice sounded amused, but when Prompto looked up his face was serious, bordering on concerned. He settled his bedding right next to Prompto, curling up in the blanket so he faced his best friend. “This isn’t a dream and I’m not going anywhere quite yet. Get some sleep.” His voice had taken on the imperious quality of a prince and Prompto snorted in spite of himself.

“You’re not my king anymore, you can’t order me to do anything,” he said, but shut his eyes all the same. He fell asleep moments later, exhaustion catching up with him at last.

Noctis, however, lay staring past his friend into the campfire for quite some time, lost in thought and the aching tendrils of regret.

——

Prompto awoke the next morning to the unfamiliar weight of another person’s arm slung across his chest and a warm body curled snugly against his side. For several long, horrified seconds he could not remember the day before and wondered if he’d gotten drunk in Lestallum and ended up in bed with some random passerby, again. But the surface he lay on was the hard stone of a haven’s plateau and the embrace wrapped around him was old and familiar. He wiggled a bit and the arm tightened around him.

“G’ back t’ sleep, Prom…” muttered a long-forgotten voice.

Prompto responded automatically. “I gotta pee, Noct, lemme…” He sat bolt upright, dragging his companion with him. “Noctis!”

Now completely awake, the former prince glared at his friend. “Yes, it’s me, we established this yesterday.”

“Not a dream?” Prompto pinched himself and… yes he was awake because that really fucking hurt. The events of the previous day flooded back to him and he swayed a bit as he tried to make sense of the memories. There had been a snake and a cave, but most of all there had been Noctis, returned from the dead and kicking ass like he’d never stopped.

The man in question rolled his eyes, but he smiled all the same. “Not a dream.” He ruffled his hand through Prompto’s already sleep-mussed hair, then fell back against his bedroll, tugging his friend down to nestle against his side. “Go back to sleep, it’s barely dawn.”

Prompto wiggled again, managing to dislodge Noct’s arm as he rolled away. At the sleepy protests this action elicited, Prompto snorted and gently punched his friend’s shoulder. “I’m not going far.” Noctis mumbled something under his breath and, as soon as Prompto was no longer in grabbing distance, stole all of the blankets as he sprawled across both bedrolls. The sight was achingly familiar and the photographer blinked hard as he turned away.

Usual morning rituals quickly completed (mostly thanks to the lack of daemons), Prompto opted to spend a few moments leisurely stretching on the wide open plateau of the haven. He longed to return to his bedroll and curl up next to Noctis, but while his heart yearned for the closeness he knew it would be a bad idea for all parties. Taking a deep steadying breath he released it as he sank down into the first familiar pose, eyes closed as he felt the first rays of dawn’s light wash over his skin. Settling himself into the comforting rhythm of breath and movement he let anxiety wash away in the tranquility of the morning.

It wasn’t until the next major pose, bent almost double, hands pressed flat against the rune-marked stone, that he let himself think again. Opening one eye to look between his legs, he could see the still-sleeping form of Noctis behind him. He sighed and looked away. He had spent years coming to terms with the fact that he could never have more than friendship with the man, and then even longer mourning him. For Noctis to appear back in his life after he had finally accepted his death… it was nothing less than a cruel joke, and he felt that somewhere the astrals were laughing at him. He had come back, and so had Luna. They had each other, and Prompto was alone.

And Luna… he’d loved Luna for longer, even if from a distance. Prompto pushed himself downward, arching his back and facing the sky, sunlight glinting off of the tears he’d made no effort to stop. They had written letters back and forth until Insomnia fell and he had found himself in love with her understanding nature and gentle strength. He had been happy for her when she’d told him of her engagement to Noctis. If the two people he loved couldn’t be with him, at least they had each other.

He had a hard time finding that happiness in his heart now, over a decade later.

Behind him, he heard Noctis begin to stir. Well, he thought, rising into the final pose of the morning, if they are still out of my reach, I can at least help them find each other again. No matter how much Noct protests.

Chapter Text

Prompto only made a little token grumbling as he took Noctis back to Hammerhead. He knew his friend thought that what he was doing was for the best, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t complain about it.

Since Pom still wouldn’t approach either of them, the two men squeezed onto Prompto’s motorcycle, Nocis pressing close against Prompto’s back. Face blessedly out of his friend’s line of sight, Prompto shut his eyes for a moment before he started the bike, trying to retain some semblance of composure at the warmth of the other man against his back and the feeling of his arms wrapped securely around his waist.

It was a torture that Prompto prayed Noctis wouldn’t notice.

The ride back to Hammerhead was blessedly uneventful. The motorcycle pulled into the parking lot just in time for lunch at Takka’s, the proprietor himself greeting them loudly as they tumbled through the door. Cindy slid into their booth within minutes to greet Prompto and raise an eyebrow at Noctis.

“I see you’ve made a new friend, Sorrel,” she said, masking her grin behind her coffee mug.

Noctis, busily stuffing a burger into his mouth, freed one hand long enough to flip the mechanic off.

Prompto snorted through a mouthful of fries. Then he choked and Noctis had to pound him on the back until he regained his breath.

“Yeah, Sorrel here pulled me out of the Jormungand’s lair.” Prompto grinned at Noctis, who rolled his eyes. “Now he won’t let me drag him back to Insomnia for the reward due to the savior of the chief advisor.”

“I told you, I can’t,” muttered Noctis with a frown. “Stop pressing.”

“I get it.” Prompto said, making a placating gesture. “I did some thinking on the ride here and I want you to have something.” Digging in one of his many vest pockets, the blond pulled out a plain black flip phone. When he held it out to Noctis, the former prince stared blankly at the device for a moment before looking at Prompto in confusion.

“What am I going to do with that? Beam up to the mothership?”

Prompto sighed and wiggled the phone at his friend. “Just take it. It’s a burner phone with unlimited call and text. It doesn’t have internet or the ability to play games more complicated than blackjack, but it means we can stay in contact.”

Noctis took the cell from his friend gingerly, flipping it open to stare at the dimly backlit screen. “Dare I ask why you just happen to have a burner phone…” he scrolled through the contact list “containing 3 contacts named ‘Specs’, ‘Sullen Asshole’, and ‘Queen of the Chocobos’?” He laughed and held the phone out of the way as Prompto made a grab for it. “Nope, you gave it to me, so it’s mine now.”

“I’m gonna kill Iris,” growled the blond, slumping back in his seat with an air of defeat. “I’m pretty sure she’s the person who set up this phone. She’s the only crownsguard brave enough to insult Gladio via official equipment. Calls it ‘sibling perks’.” He huffed in a disgusted way and blew a stray hair out of his eyes. “I’m sure you can guess which contact is which.”

“No, I haven’t the faintest,” drawled Noctis, tucking the phone into his jacket. “Your highness,” he finished with a smirk.

Prompto’s eyebrow twitched and across the table Cindy snorted. “Right,” she pushed herself out of the booth. “Y’all have fun. Prompto, when you’re ready to head out, come find me in the garage. I’ve got a package that needs to get to Specs.”

“Sure.” Prompto nodded at Cindy, something serious flickering between them for a moment. Noctis looked back and forth at their faces and decided he didn’t want to know. In much the same way that he knew he didn’t want to know why Prompto carried a burner phone with only the crown as contacts.

The serious look dropped as soon as Cindy grinned and lightly punched Prompto’s shoulder on her way past. She was two steps out the door of the diner when she turned around and stuck her head back in. “Oh, Sorrel, your bike’s ready whenever you want it. Just come sign the paperwork and you’re good to go.”

Prompto watched his friend’s face fall as soon as Cindy was out of eyesight. Noctis groaned and planted his face onto the bare diner table.

“Well, I’m royally fucked,” he mumbled into the lacquered surface.

“You’re not fucking royalty, either,” shot back Prompto automatically. “In any sense of the words.” Noctis tilted his head to the side, staring balefully up at his friend. Prompto grinned down at him, leaning over to gently bump his shoulder against his friend’s. “Since you’re back from the dead, you’ll need new paperwork. I’ll have Cindy draw it up, she does good work.” He spoke quietly, glancing around the nearly empty diner. Takka was safe, but you could never be too sure about diner patrons when you were suggesting questionably legal activities.

Not that they were strictly illegal when condoned by Prompto, but still. Better safe then sorry.

Noctis had pulled his head off the table and was looking at his friend as if he’d grown an extra eyeball. “You’re going to ask Cindy to forge an ID?” he hissed. “That’s five different kinds of illegal.”

“Well, you can’t very well waltz into the Insomnia Citizen’s Bureau and tell them you lost your ID when you died, and oh by the way it’s simply a coincidence you share a fingerprint signature with our extremely dead former king. Besides,” he smirked. “It’s not illegal if I approve it.”

The aghast stare on Noctis’s face morphed into shock. “Power has changed you, Prompto. You’re terrifying.”

“I have to be. It’s part of the job description.” Prompto grinned at his friend, trying to turn the serious conversation into a joke. But Noctis wasn’t having it.

“When I get back with Luna, you’re telling me everything.”

“I look forward to it.”

——

Prompto was absolutely, positively not looking forward to it.

He certainly wasn’t going to tell Noct that, leaving the man in the diner with a hug that lingered a millisecond too long that neither of them mentioned. But merely implying that he held more power than he was strictly comfortable with and actually laying everything out for his best friend and former king to see… well those were two different things entirely. And if he was really honest, Noctis no longer had the kind of clearance to know most of it anyway.

One of the things Noctis no longer had the right to know about sat staring Prompto in the face, held in Cindy Aurum’s outstretched hand. The monthly field report, curated by Cindy and Takka, was written out in a way that Ignis could read it with his fingertips and accompanied by a digital recording that the former adviser could listen to at his leisure. Lately Prompto and Iris were the only ones Cindy would let courier the file, some unrest west of Ravetoh incurring caution. It could be nothing, it could be everything.

Starscourge may have been gone, but there were some who had capitalized on the dark who were unhappy with the relative peace brought by the dawn.

With a grimace, Prompto plucked the file from Cindy’s fingers and flipped through it. The standard printed file was several pages long, and the specially imprinted one even longer. He caught a few words here and there, a report of rumors coming out of Tenebrae, but he didn’t see anything worth worrying about immediately. As he turned to tuck the file into his saddlebags he considered how he might spin rumors of Noctis’s return should they come up in his absence. He hoped Cindy hadn’t put anything about Noctis in the current report, though he doubted it. She seemed content to let Noctis wallow in a bed of his own making, hadn’t even warned him that Prompto might be in the old mines. No one in Leide did anything without Cindy catching wind of it eventually, she had to have known.

Speak of the daemonthought Prompto, turning from his bike to find Cindy staring hard at him, arms crossed over her chest.

“You tell him yet?” she asked, jerking her chin in the direction of the diner.

“He outright told me he’s going to look for Luna, what do you think?” Prompto’s voice was steady, but Cindy had been present for too many long nights spent mourning the lost. She knew when he was putting on a front.

“I think that, if Luna really is alive, she’s not stupid.” Cindy’s face was almost pitying, and Prompto looked away. “Ya wrote her letters for nearly a decade, and you’re about as subtle as a brick to the face. If she doesn’t already know how ya feel about both of them, all anyone has to do is use the eyes the Astrals gave ‘em.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” muttered Prompto. He sighed and ran a hand through his travel-mussed hair, grimacing at the feeling of sweat and grime on his fingers. “I’m headed back to Insomnia for at least tonight, and might come through again tomorrow. If Noctis tells you where he’s headed, could you let me know? I’m not sure he will actually call me, even though he can now.”

“Sure thing. Ya finally taking those vacation days Gladio’s been hounding you about?” Cindy’s sudden knowing grin was bright with mischief.

“Maybe.” Prompto swung into the seat of his motorcycle with practiced ease. “Let me know when his new paperwork has gone through so I can verify it. I don’t want Ignis or Gladio catching it first.”

Cindy tilted her head in confusion. “Why? It’s not like he’s gonna be using his real name?”

“Because Sorrel Haud Amet was the name he used on our disastrous roadtrip,” laughed Prompto, leaning forward to rest his arms on the front of his bike. “I know he picked the damn name because it’s something familiar enough that he won’t blank when introducing himself, but its not like Ignis and Gladio won’t figure it out. I’m pretty sure Ignis is the one who came up with the name to begin with.”

“Ah.” Cindy’s grin came back, a little more feral than before. “And if the pair of them find out Noctis is alive, they’re likely to dump their kids on Iris and run off after him.”

Prompto nodded. “Yeah. They’re probably going to find out eventually, but it’s probably best if that particular reunion happens outside the public eye and away from sharp objects.” He went silent for a moment, then spoke again, quietly. “And they’re likely to do what I did at first: assume he’s someone merely pretending to be Noctis, rather than the former king himself. I’ve honestly no idea how they will react if that’s the case and I kind of want to avoid that as long as possible.”

Cindy hummed softly in thought, but said nothing on the matter, instead shifting to look towards the diner. “Ya best get a move-on then. I’ll see ya tomorrow. Give the boys my love, alright?”

“Sure thing, Cindy.” Prompto shot her a mock salute and then headed out of Hammerhead, Insomnia rising in the distance.

——

Despite two years of frantic reconstruction, Prompto had a feeling that crossing the bridge into Insomnia might never feel like returning home. Sometimes the feeling disappointed him, but very rarely it felt like an itch under his skin urging him to leave as quickly as possible. Perhaps not the best feeling for the chief advisor to have, but the city held few good memories for him. Sure, it was where he’d met Noctis and he had a home and studio of his own now, but most of his treasured memories had been made outside the walls in those few fateful weeks between the treaty and Altissia.

The adviser chuckled darkly at the thought as he parked his bike in the citadel’s garage. Maybe that was why he ached to go chasing after Noctis, to reclaim some of that carefree feeling they’d had on the road. He’d already tried to do that alone with his documentation projects, but it just wasn’t the same by himself, and he only had his rare days off anyway. As crown family, Ignis and Gladio couldn’t be spared at all.

Checking his watch as he entered the elevator, Prompto headed for the next floor up, making his way to the citadel training yards. Gladio and Ignis kept to a rather predicable routine, taking care of pressing official business in the morning before spending the afternoon in and around the training facilities. Instead of taking over the old royal apartments, the pair had claimed a section of the former glaive quarters as their home. Gladio cited proximity to the training yards, but Ignis had confessed to Prompto once that the apartments felt oppressive to his remaining senses.

Prompto didn’t doubt for one second that the decade-long residence of a certain chancellor had a lot to do with that decision.

Sure enough, he found the king of Lucis in the dusty training yards, facing off against three terrifying hooligans while his husband sat on a nearby railing, smiling into a mug of Ebony. They probably hadn’t been sparring long, but Gladio had already ditched his shirt and pulled his hair back into a messy bun to keep it off his neck. Across from him, Bell was conspiring with the twins in a tight huddle, her long dark braids hiding all of their faces from view so Gladio couldn’t attempt to read their lips.

Prompto smirked at the sight and went to lean against the railing next to Ignis. “Thought I’d find y’all here.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Cindy,” came the chuckled response. Ignis never failed to rib Prompto for the speech patterns he picked up whenever he went out to Hammerhead. “Did she have anything for me?”

Prompto hummed assent and passed the packet to Ignis, who skimmed his fingers over the summary page resting on top of the stack. He’d picked up the reading method during the first few years of darkness, desperate for any way he could receive information, and now he could read raised inscriptions faster than Prompto could read printed ones.

Even so, the summary was lengthy, so Prompto amused himself by watching the skirmish unfolding in the training yard. The twins, mischievous sprites filled with the boundless energy only ten year olds possess, were sprinting towards their father, training weapons drawn in a distraction maneuver. Rowan, for all the loudness of his ginger hair and unusually tall frame, took after Ignis in both demeanor and weapon choice. His daggers already moved like extensions of his arms, the wind over the blades merely a whisper as they lashed out. Gladio laughed and threw himself sideways out of range of his son’s strike, only to hastily block the blow from Laurel’s greatsword. Though more compact than her twin, she made up for her hight in sheer rage and strength. She would be a formidable foe when she got older, but for now her weapon glanced out of her grip to land in the soft dirt of the training yard.

“Aww, chocobo-droppings,” she growled as she dove after her sword. It was taller than she was, but she hefted it over her shoulder with ease, mimicking her father’s usual posture. The two circled one another for a moment, but then Belladonna came hurdling through the air, trident clutched in her hands and hair streaming out behind her. She had taken the acrobatics of Ignis’s fighting style and the bruising force of Gladio’s and blended them into something completely her own. Landing with a solid thump, she planted her polearm in the ground and used it to hold her weight as she aimed a spinning kick at Gladio’s ribs.

Prompto raised an eyebrow as the kick landed and Gladio stepped back with a pained grunt. “Bell’s gotten good at this,” he said to Ignis, who nodded, fingers still pouring over the report.

“If she wasn’t crown princess, she’d probably be in line for crownsguard training,” said Ignis, setting the report aside and tilting his head to listen to the continued sparring match. “Laurel too, though she mentioned the other day the possibility of following Amicitia family tradition and becoming a shield.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” laughed Prompto, taking in the small ginger figure charging back into the fray. “Honestly, I would have expected that idea to cross her mind sooner.”

Ignis turned to his friend with a frown. “She’s ten, Prompto. It’s a little early for her to make that kind of choice. I’d like my children to experience at least a little bit of childhood.” A beat of silence hung between them and then Ignis said, quietly, “unlike us.”

Prompto bumped his head up against Ignis’s elbow. “Yeah, that’s probably best.”

After a few minutes of quiet spent watching Gladio and his three children tumble across the dusty training yard, Prompto climbed up onto the railing beside Ignis. Resting his chin in his palm, he stared out across the open space, considering what all to pack for his trip back across Liede.

Ignis interrupted his planning a moment later. “You’re unusually quiet, Prompto. Gil for your thoughts?”

Taken off guard, Prompto almost blurted everything to Ignis, but he managed to hold his tongue at the last minute. Instead he sighed and picked at a loose thread on his pants. “I was thinking, while I was out at the mines, I’ve been taking one or two days over the weekends, but I need a real vacation.”

Ignis scoffed, “We all do, but you most of all. When you aren’t in meetings here at the citadel you’re off trying to publish books and organize your studio. Out of all of us, I would have expected this behavior from me, but you’ve run yourself positively ragged.” Ignis leaned over, bumping his shoulder against Prompto’s. “Take a break, we can do without you for a few weeks.”

“I’ll run it by Gladio too,” said Prompto, sagging with relief that Ignis hadn’t caught his hesitation.

“Run what by me?” Gladio’s voice boomed closer than Prompto expected and he snapped his head up to see the king mopping his face with his discarded tank top as he wandered over, children trailing behind like chocobo chicks. The twins were scowling but Bell had a shit-eating grin on her face and was twirling her trident over her head in triumph.

“I’m taking a vacation,” said Prompto. “Gonna take my bike down to Galdin Quay or something and chill for a couple weeks. Maybe check on the restoration progress while I’m there…”

“No you won’t,” said Gladio, frowning at Prompto and crossing his arms. “If you say you’re taking a vacation that’s what you’re doing. No work. Go get a massage and take pictures of the chocobos.”

Prompto almost felt guilty lying to his friends about his vacation, even more so when Gladio told him not to work and to go relax. Almost. Traveling with Noctis would be like a vacation, right? He could still stop off for a massage somewhere, take pictures of wildlife on the way. Hang out with his crush and search for his other crush… help them get back together. Nice and relaxing, nothing to worry about.

Right?

He hoped so.

——

The next morning he was back on the road, well-rested and with a proper sidecar full of supplies. He hadn’t heard from Noctis, but he expected that. The weather had taken a turn for the dreary, clouds hanging low against the mountains and a mist blanketed the ground. By the time Prompto reached Hammerhead his clothes had soaked through and he grimaced as a cold rivulet ran down his spine. Nothing like uncomfortable weather to start a journey.

He parked his bike under the shark awning, noting with some surprise that Noct’s bike still sat in the garage.

Cindy saw him looking and pointed toward the caravan. “He’s not come out for breakfast yet. I was about to go check on him, but you get the honor now.”

Prompto didn’t like the way she drawled “honor” and grumbled under his breath as he crossed the parking lot to the familiar caravan. Honestly, he had no idea what to expect when he pushed open the door. Perhaps Noctis would still be asleep, the events of the past few weeks finally catching up to him. Or maybe he had decided the bike was too much trouble and set out by chocobo in the early hours, no longer limited by daemonic activity. Both were valid options.

Neither were what Prompto found. The last thing he’d expected was to find Noctis sitting half-dressed on the edge of the lower bunk, massaging his knee and cursing every astral he could name. He was glaring at the opposite wall as if it had personally offended him, and when Prompto hesitantly stepped into the kitchen that angry gaze snapped over to settle on him.

Noctis’s shoulders slumped, in relief or resignation Prompto couldn’t tell. “Oh, it’s just you.”

“Just me?” said Prompto in mock offense, plopping down on the bunk across from his friend.

“Well… I was worried you might be Cindy for a second. Didn’t want her walking in on me in just my boxers.” Noctis chuckled dryly. “Went to get up this morning and fell over the minute I put weight on my knee. Been sitting here ruing my very existence ever since.”

Prompto frowned, “I thought the Astrals…”

“Nope,” interrupted Noctis. “I thought so too, but it’s been giving me trouble the past few days. I guess between fighting and the weather my knee decided to say ‘fuck it’ and take a break. Nothing new, I just… forgot.”

“How?” Prompto stared at his friend. “You’ve had a bad knee since childhood, how do you forget something like that?”

Noctis, cheeks growing pink, stared at the floor. “If you recall, I did a lot of sitting and sleeping in between fights towards the end. And after Altissia I wore a brace full-time.” He looked up sharply and glared at the wall, voice raising a bit. “A very nice brace, that someone didn’t send back with me!” Resuming normal quiet decibels, Noctis continued. “I was fine most of last week, a twinge here and there but nothing major, so I thought I’d be okay. Thought maybe the astrals had fixed me up. Obviously not.”

With a sigh, the former prince flopped backwards onto the bunk. “I think as long as I stay off of it as much as possible today, I should be fine to travel tomorrow.” Prompto opened his mouth but Noctis cut him off. “And before you ask… no, I haven’t changed my mind. I’m going alone.”

“You don’t have a say in the matter anymore. I’m officially on vacation and can go wherever I damn well please. Besides,” Prompto grinned at Noctis. “I have proper camping gear and you don’t.”

Ignis had seen to that, shoving all of Gladio’s old gear into Prompto’s hands with the hope that “maybe the lack of proper supplies will keep him on the throne for a respectable amount of time.” Although grateful for the camping equipment, Prompto worried that he might become a wanted man should the loss become apparent to the king.

Noctis raised his head to glare at Prompto before letting it fall back to the mattress with a soft thump. “Fine, you win. Maybe if I don’t sleep directly on the haven platform my knee won’t give out on me.”

Prompto rolled his eyes and pushed himself to his feet, ignoring his friend’s melodramatics. “Cindy said you hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, stay here and I’ll get you something.”

He didn’t wait for Noctis to respond, simply strolled out of the caravan, but he didn’t head for the diner. Instead he made a beeline for his bike, opening up his sidecar to rummage about in its contents. With a pleased hum he lifted a small cooler out of the chaos, along with a similarly sized bag. Hoisting both items easily, he headed back to the caravan, setting his treasures down on the worn dining table. Noctis peered around the corner curiously, but didn’t say anything as Prompto set to work.

Caravans came equipped with basic cooking tools and Prompto took advantage of this as he fired up the stovetop and started melting butter into a small fying pan. Humming quietly to himself, he cracked two eggs into a bowl before whisking them together with a dash of milk and a pinch of seasoning. It had been a while since he’d cooked for someone other than himself, and even that was rare. Normally he was too busy with Citadel duties or too tired from hours on the road to do anything more than eat cheap takeout. And when he wasn’t eating takeout, Ignis was feeding him with all the concerned fervor that earned him the title of “mom friend.”

He professed to hate that title more than “prince consort.”

Snickering a little at the thought of his friend, he poured the egg mixture into the heated pan, letting it congeal a bit as he pulled thinly sliced steak out of its wax paper wrappings. After a moment, he layered half the steak into the pan, rolling the eggs into an omelet around the meat. Leaving it to finish cooking, he chopped some wild onions for garnish and prepped the next batch of eggs while he waited. He’d intended on making these omelets later, maybe the next morning, but it seemed like Noctis needed them now instead.

When he spun around from the stove at last, two plates of piping hot steak omelet in his grasp, he found Noctis staring at him. “What, do I have something on my face?”

“When did you learn to cook like that?” Noctis’s voice was faint. He’d been staring at his friend for a while now, a mixture of shock and awe sitting in his chest as the other man moved efficiently around the kitchen. “Did Ignis teach you?”

“What? No.” Prompto looked confused. “I learned in high school, dude.” He pulled a couple forks out of the drawer by the sink and plopped down on the bed next to Noctis, holding out one of the plates. “I swear you’ve eaten my cooking before. Iggy and I used to take over your kitchen all the time, and I helped him at camp a lot.”

Noctis shifted his stare down to the plate in his hands. “I… I never noticed. I always thought it was just Ignis.”

“I’m better at breakfast, he’s better at dinner. We split the workload most of the time and you were too asleep to notice.” Prompto shoved a bite of omelet in his mouth, making a satisfied noise and scooting farther back on the ancient mattress.

For his part, Noctis struggled to swallow down the sudden all-consuming need to cling to his friend and never let go. They’d always been touchy friends: arms slung over shoulders as they walked or sitting hip to hip on the sofa as they played some new video game. But somewhere between Luna’s death and his own… something had changed. He’d thought about it in the crystal, considering the concept alongside the confrontation of his own mortality. Honestly, had less time passed in the world outside the crystal Noctis might have done something about it. Might have pulled Prompto aside for a proper apology, might have even tried to make sense of his feelings.

But a decade was too long. He’d thought too much might have changed and so hadn’t said a word as they marched on Insomnia. Maybe he should have.

Certainly, if he’d said something, anything, he wouldn’t be sitting on an old creaky bunk in Leide, staring down at an admittedly delicious omelet and wondering if it was socially acceptable to kiss your best friend right before going on a journey to look for your fiance. He felt that somewhere in Eos, Luna sensed his predicament and was laughing at him.

Not that she had any right to judge. Luna had admitted to Noctis long before the fated roadtrip that she found Prompto utterly adorable. Maybe if Noctis could get the three of them in a room together they could sort out all these feelings and…

In an effort to keep his thoughts from racing in a particularly embarrassing direction, Noctis stuffed his face full of omelet.