The sun rises.
The shout goes up when they arrive back in Hammerhead. There's joy and there's relief and there's disbelief, people spilling out to greet them. Everybody has been waiting up since the crack of dawn, the first dawn in ten years, too exhilarated to remember to grieve. Supplies are brought out, and a medic is called; nobody had expected any of them to survive, let alone relatively unscathed.
Old Cid, who had never expected to live to see the sun again, would later tell the boys that it wasn't the body in Gladio's arms that had tipped him off. He looks like his father used to look. He looks like his father used to look when he slept.
No, it was the sword in Prompto's hands, cold silver gleaming with the orange light of morning. A sword which, for as long as it had been in the hands of kings, had never been carried in the open air.
Just a sword now.
Nobody is prepared. Nobody knows what to do. They had been struggling and dying for so long that they had no plan for this. They put Noct's body in the cold storage at the diner, of all places, because the war is over and a king deserves a tomb. There will be no more hasty graves in the mud beyond the fence. They will transport him to the city later, where one can be prepared.
When the three of them finally have a moment, they stand outside in the breeze and the shadow, lost and left behind.
"How does Hammerhead look?" Ignis asks.
Hammerhead looks like a mess — a mess of barbed wire and scrap wood and mud, crates and litter and the hulls of vehicles long-abandoned, all piled up on the roads outside to ward off the daemons in the night. The lights and wiring that had kept them alive all those years look ugly in the daylight, patchwork machinery naked and frail. The shrubbery that had lined the road a decade prior has withered to leave only burnt stumps and cracked asphalt behind. Hammerhead is obsolete already: a bastion against an enemy now defeated.
"Beautiful," Prompto says quietly. "It looks just like the day we first came here, Iggy. Remember that? Blazing hot day. Car broke down. Thought the road was gonna melt the bottoms of my boots to my feet."
Ignis turns his face towards the sky. But Prompto looks away a moment later, averting his eyes from the blue as if it has betrayed him.
They don't see the first sunset, nor the second dawn. The boys collapse in the caravan and sleep, blinds drawn, clutching at each other until the new day comes.
They enter Insomnia with a scouting party first.
The damage in broad daylight is worse than it had appeared in the dark. Without daemons crawling in the corners, the place is quiet and unnaturally still. Twisted bicycles are chained to fences where their owners had left them; vending machines full of rust still display long-rotted wares in their packages. Piles of debris clog the stained streets, murky water collects in potholes, and glass from shattered storefront windows is ground to a fine dust underfoot on the sidewalks. Someone surveys a yellowed ten-year-old poster for an action flick and jokes that they still haven't seen the thing.
They know it won't be liveable for years — decades, even. But nobody contemplates giving up on the Crown City. It's their home.
They'll return one day. For now, they stand in front of the Citadel in silence, and for once, Gladio and Prompto are quietly glad that Ignis' blindness means he can't see what's been done to it.
Very few people are left who have any idea what ought to happen next. Most now remember only surviving, and barely, at that. Nobody has thought about building or rebuilding for years. It is Talcott, Talcott who grew up in the long night, Talcott who can barely remember Insomnia from the better days, who says When we get back to Lestallum, and Ignis raises his head and says, "Yes. When we regroup."
So that's what they do: drive back to Lestallum, surveying the land in awe, and watching as people begin to emerge into the light bewildered, like prisoners freed.
When they get there, people are still scrambling, desperate for news, trying to adjust. The lights are still on. There is a bizarre moment when they realize nobody remembers how to turn them off. They laugh, tears in their eyes.
Those who had been at Hammerhead, who had seen the Crown City, explain what has happened as best as they can. When everybody has been spoken with and reassured — hunters organized for a venture out, supplies sorted and lodgings arranged — the boys take their King to the morgue.
They adjust his robes over him, black and blood and dust. They lay his sword with him, because it seems wrong to part them. They stand over him for a long time. Finally, Prompto draws a shaky breath, reaches out, and slides the worn photograph from Noct's front pocket. He turns it over and puts it back face-down, image to the king's heart.
They set a guard outside, as is proper.
Then they sit together for a meal.
Radio broadcasts crackle from somewhere down the alleys as news reports spill in. They eat the thin roasted meat that they're used to, still spiced half to death, even though it isn't what the streetside skewer booths used to have. They find a spot outside overlooking the gorge. The old Lestallum heat is gone, air still chill from years of darkness, even though the sky is now cloudless clear; for once, they can get a view of the disc without roasting.
As the sun sets, they're all half-sure it'll never come back. Ignis deadpans, "Well, let me know."
There are beds for the King's Knights reserved for all of them at The Leville, as there have been since before anybody can remember. Prompto falls into bed first, and Ignis follows him softly, Prompto's hand shifting to curl around his arm as if from long habit.
"I'll be next door," he says.
Ignis and Prompto listen in the dark as he shuts the door and retreats to the other room. Once, it might have been odd. But then, they quietly suppose, it's not quite the same now as it was then.
Gladio tries to sleep for a few hours, but stares at the ceiling, mostly.
At midnight, he gets up. He puts on his uniform. He equips the last of the ice magic they have, pockets his phone, some cash. He slips out.
The guards at the morgue will stammer when they recount for an audience hours later:
They recall Captain Amicitia approaching.
They recall that he had requested access to where the King's body was being kept. They recall opening the doors for him, and that he had been grateful.
They recall his apology. They recall him moving, his hand on his sword.
They don't recall anything else.
Gladio rests his forehead against Noct's, takes a deep shuddering breath, and then stands back and breaks the ice flask over him. The frost blooms on his skin, glimmering and white. Gladio wraps the blankets around his body, heaves it up — carries it to the Regalia. He lays it across the back seat. He gets in the front.
He drives. Five hours through the night before the sky lightens, and he feels something loosen in his chest, though his shoulders will always feel stiff. He finally stops for gas then, cash on the counter, attendant eyeing his uniform.
He drives for five more hours and the sky's blazing, and he puts on his sunglasses, downs a plastic bottleful of water to keep away the headache. At around seven in the morning, his phone buzzes on the seat beside him. It will continue to buzz on and off for the next two hours. He will consider checking it, picking it up, but will decide against it; he will eventually turn it off completely.
By the time he arrives, it's late afternoon. He parks the car in the brush, leaves his phone on the front seat. He hauls Noct's body out. He staggers under the weight for a moment — though he's not that heavy, never has been — shifts his grip, and starts a journey he remembers with an odd clarity from ten years prior.
The chambers are empty and bare this time, wind ruffling the leaves somewhere above, water rushing below. The caves are dim, but the light refracts blue off the crystal arches. The stone grows quieter and the ground drier as he goes. There's something in the air, a familiar scent.
He arrives at the river.
The knock comes at their door shortly before dawn, rousing both of them at the same time.
Prompto answers it, bleary to alert in a split second. It takes a minute to calm the panicked guard down enough to comprehend him, by which time Ignis has slowly risen and come to stand at Prompto's side.
There is a moment of confusion and dread, and then Prompto looks to Ignis.
"I'll try to get through to him," Ignis says. "Check his room."
"On it," Prompto says.
Prompto breaks down the door to find the curtains drawn. Everything is in place, other than the bed being rather badly made. There is no indication whatsoever of where Gladio has gone. They discover the Regalia is missing only when they look for it.
Through the morning, Prompto will send a series of increasingly urgent text messages. Big guy, where are you? This guard who woke us up says you did something pretty weird. Any explanation? Where are you? Dude, answer your phone. Gladio, pick up. Don't do this. Listen, we gotta talk. Talk to us. Answer Ignis. Talk to us. Pick up.
Ignis, for his part, mostly calls. Text messages are of limited utility to him. Still, he uses the voice-to-text function on his phone for a couple pointed messages, dictated tersely and in private, phone held in his white-knuckled hand and mind racing to try to find the most likely thing to get Gladio to pick up, damn it. Gladio, we need to talk. Pick up now. We're sending Iris after you. I'd suggest you refrain from doing anything stupid until she finds you.
They still haven't gotten ahold of Iris. Ignis isn't above lying.
They sit together in silence, and both Ignis and Prompto are thinking the same thing: a Shield doesn't outlive its King, and Gladio can just be so, so stupid sometimes.
When Noctis wakes, he's lying on the riverbank.
He's soaked with water... no, not with water. It drifts off him like mist, fading with the images on the backs of his eyelids, silhouettes and faraway lights slipping from him like sand.
Noctis turns his head. Gladio lies half-collapsed next to him. There's mist in his hair, falling loose over his shoulders. He's laughing, a choked sort of laughter, one hand on Noctis' chest.
"Gladio," Noctis says. He feels words tumbling from him, but they are lost into the void, nothing but sleep-mumbling as he becomes aware. He licks his lips. "Gladio," he tries again.
There's a chill in his skin again, and he shivers. He looks around him at the blue caverns, the strange light and shadow. Almost like the Crystal, but not quite. There was something about the river. There was something about... about the river.
Noctis blinks. The haze dissipates. "Where the hell are we?" he says, voice hoarse.
"Doesn't matter," Gladio says.
And Noctis looks at him, and Gladio kisses him, and Noctis kisses back, first warmth in years, years, rough and raw, and then Gladio holds him close and Noctis winds his arms around him and they lay on the stone for a long, long while.
Noctis stands up first.
He clenches his hands, flexes them, touches his face. His skin is warm, pliant, rough with stubble. His joints are stiff, his elbows ache. There's dirt under his nails. He's here. He's real.
He's not sure what else is. He looks around. They aren't in Insomnia. He'd seen his share of caves during their travels all those years ago, but Noctis feels he would have remembered visiting a place like this.
Gladio stands behind him, slow, tired, one hand braced against the wall. When he looks at Noctis, there's an odd momentary light to his eyes. But Noctis blinks and it's gone.
Perhaps he'd imagined it. But —
And then it occurs to Noctis that they might both be dead.
He fights the sudden vertiginous feeling. "Where are we?" he says again, vaguely alarmed.
"Taelpar," Gladio says, and that seems to settle that question, though it raises many, many others. Noctis is relieved that Gladio hadn't gone and followed him into the afterlife despite explicit directions to the contrary, as sweet as the gesture would've been.
"Well," Noctis says after a pause. "What do you know? Thought I'd seen every inch of the place."
"Wilderness," Gladio says, familiar faint smirk returning to his face, and Noctis feels it, feels something falling back into place, painful like a bone setting. "Always full of surprises. This way."
Gladio leads the way, but never strays more than a couple steps ahead. He keeps looking back at Noctis, as if afraid he will disappear. Noctis himself isn't entirely sure Gladio won't disappear into the dark recesses ahead if he loses sight of him, but Gladio waits for him, patiently navigating the labyrinth with ease.
"You know this place," Noctis observes.
Gladio says, "I've been here before."
Noctis doesn't ask, because at this point, there have been a lot of years between them. Gladio doesn't explain, either.
"Where are Prompto and Ignis?" he asks instead.
"They're safe. They're fine. Everybody is."
Noctis breathes a sigh of relief. He breathes. He laughs.
The sun is setting by the time they get out. The low light casts long blue shadows across the gold dust, glinting off the burned-glass stone peaks rising up on either side of the canyon. Cotton clouds drift across the darkening red sky, vapor haze hovering, and Noctis realizes that they no longer need to run from the oncoming dark. He revels in it.
They find the car. Gladio unlocks it. But he leans against the roof for a moment, gathering himself, and Noctis offers, "How about I drive?"
Gladio shoots him a look. "Nuh-uh. You haven't driven in ten years."
Noctis raises a brow. "I still remember how."
"I'd feel safer behind the wheel. You don't even know where we are."
"I don't know how safe I'd feel with you behind the wheel right now," Noctis says. "When was the last time you ate? Or slept?"
Gladio doesn't answer, just stares darkly at Noctis over the roof of the car. Noctis fights the urge to laugh.
"Tell you what," Noctis says. "Isn't there a campground nearby?"
Gladio pauses. "Nobody would've used it for years," he says. "But there should be."
"Why don't we stay there? It looks like a dry night." Noctis nods at the pile of cloth in the back seat. "We got the blankets and all."
Gladio glances at the blankets and colors. "Those are how I brought you here," he admits.
Noctis laughs. "Fit for a King. Then they'll do."
They purchase some food from a petrol station nearby, pocket change for cheap sandwiches and cookies. They make it to the campground just as it gets dark, runes still softly glowing in the evening. The blankets are spread out on the rock, and the stars are spread out above, and they stretch out, forearms touching.
Noctis doesn't need to sleep — he's slept for long enough — but Gladio, Gladio is tired. He turns his head towards Noctis, eyes dazed as if in a reverie.
"I'll be here," Noctis soothes. Gladio closes his eyes only then, hand clutching Noct's.
Noctis watches Gladio's breathing even out, and he feels the years under his skin: the ones he's lost, and the ones he's been given back.
He eventually drifts off, too.
They wake at dawn, a little damp in the morning dew, but refreshed.
"Home," Gladio says, the word soft, and Noctis agrees. "Let's go home."
As they trudge back to the car, Gladio falters.
"What?" Noctis says.
"Prompto and Iggy. I haven't answered the phone in two days."
There's only a sliver of battery left on the phone. Noctis thinks it's better if he doesn't give his friends a heart attack, so he stays quiet as Gladio calls, voice rough.
"I'm here. I'm headed back. I'll explain later." A pause. "Sorry."
He listens, listens, grunts, smiles, hangs up. Looks at Noctis.
"Guess they'll find out soon enough," Noctis says.
Gladio drives them halfway back to Lestallum before he gives in and lets Noctis behind the wheel ("I remember the way from here, listen, it was like yesterday to me"). He sits in the passenger's seat, head against the side door, and just watches Noctis, the land flying by in a vivid blur of color behind him. By the time they pull quietly up to the city, Gladio is asleep in the passenger's seat.
Prompto spots the Regalia from afar.
Gladio isn't driving.
His heart leaps into this throat, hammering a million miles a minute.
"Ignis," he says, mouth dry. "Ignis, stay here. Stay right here. Don't move."
He takes the stairs five at a time. By the time he arrives, Noct is closing the door, gently, gently. He turns to look at Prompto, cheeks flushed.
Prompto stares. His hand is on his pistol, shaking.
"How?" The word comes out sounding thin. "Who..."
"Yeah," Noct says, hint of a laugh. "Prompto. It's me."
Prompto's voice breaks. "It fucking better be, or I will blow your brains out."
"Joke's on you, loser, I never had any." And Noct smirks like they're both fifteen again, leaning against the shadowed brick outside the school on a Friday afternoon, as if the weekend ahead of them would never end, as if this what they could have forever.
Prompto reaches out and touches Noct's arms, touches his bony shoulders, touches his face, trembling. Brushes his fingers through the tips of his dark hair, feathery and ragged as it's been since childhood. Crushes Noct to his chest, wiry and slight, hands fisted in the back of his shirt; and Noct holds him close, calm, skin warm against his neck until Prompto lets go.
Prompto looks at Gladio, asleep in the front seat. He draws in a stuttering breath.
"What did he do?"
Ignis arrives at this moment because Ignis had not stay put, of course he hadn't, he never had and he never will.
He stands there, hand gripping the fence, as if he'd slide off the surface of the planet if he let go. He hears Noct's voice and believes, immediately believes, and Ignis asks, "Where's Gladio?"
"He's here," Noct says gently. "He's fine, just tired."
Ignis lets out the breath he's been holding. He says stiffly, at last: "Well, he has a lot of explaining to do."
Gladio is stirring, and Noct looks back at him fondly. "Sure does."
Prompto guides Gladio up the stairs of the Leville, and Ignis tries to guide Noctis, which Noctis would find bizarre at another time. He lets Ignis hold his elbow, fingers pressed into the inside of his wrist. It's as if he's checking for a pulse, as if Noctis is four again and they are crossing the street hand-in-hand, grasping each other in hopes of keeping from getting lost. Noctis thinks of Ignis sitting by the fire, scratching idly behind Umbra's ears; thinks of how Ignis prefers the wilderness now, quiet where there are fewer people around. Noctis thinks, There will be more nights.
They have food sent up to their rooms, and they eat together, crowded around the foot of a bed.
"It's better than I remembered," Noctis says. It's worse than it had been, but everything tastes better now. Ten years without food might do that to a person.
"Not as good as Iggy's," Prompto insists, jabbing his fork for emphasis.
Ignis' lips curve, mildly proud. "I'll make some for us when I have the chance," Ignis says.
"I'm counting on it," Noctis says.
Ignis and Prompto catch Noctis up on what's happened since they ended the Starscourge. Cor and Iris are on their way in from rounding up the hunters; Noctis had never had a chance to say goodbye to them, and they had planned to pay their respects before his burial. Aranea had called in to curse them out ("You especially, Noct") and to grudgingly admit that she had been wrong about not living to see the end of the dark. Talcott, who's been over at the power plant working out new city planning, will probably take the news better than all of them combined. Cindy had cried when she had heard. All agree that chances are, she'll cry again when she sees them.
Insomnia is a wreck, but most places are. The daylight will give them the land back in time. The ruins and the old places, oddly, have weathered the dark the best — or, perhaps, not so oddly. Noctis remembers the way the stone had lit up in the night, ancient spells and the tingle of magic, carved pillars and hidden vaults and whispering shadowed corridors preserved in time.
The machinery of the Empire has been long lost, magitek just a word now. But Prompto has been working on something new, Cindy's guiding hand and Cid's know-how, and it's kind of funny that in the end, something good had come out of the Empire after all. ("There now, you've made him blush," Ignis says dryly, and he's right without seeing, Prompto's freckles still turn bright red and he still laughs the same, hand in his hair, sheepish.)
Noctis touches his front pocket. He thinks of his father. He thinks of Luna. He thinks of the lives lost along the way. He doesn't understand how he's still here, unscathed. But he's glad of it.
Gladio eats in silence, for the most part. None of them bother him now, content to just be the four of them together. Noctis is reminded of long days and difficult hunts on the road, when you could tell that he would rather curl up in the corner of the Regalia with a book, but didn't want to leave the warm circle of the campfire. They'd all sat up far too late on far too many of those evenings.
Eventually, Noctis clears his throat. "Listen, I think the big guy's done for the day. I'm pretty beat too. Think we could split up for the night?"
Prompto looks at Ignis. They don't really want to leave, Noctis can tell. Honestly, he doesn't really want to ask it of them either. But —
"Yeah, we'll be right next door," Prompto says gently, getting to his feet. "Knock if you need anything."
Ignis's hand touches his shoulder as he passes by. Noctis lets his fingertips skim Ignis's knuckles lightly.
There'll be time.
Noctis cleans up in the bathroom first. He finds the chance to finally change out of the clothes that he had died in, ill-fitting as the borrowed tee and trousers may be. He rubs his chin in the mirror, wondering if he should shave. He decides he likes the beard. He wonders how long it will take to get used to his reflection again.
Gladio takes the bathroom next, and Noctis uses the opportunity to prod around the room. He steps out onto the balcony. The room itself hasn't changed much from back in the day; Lestallum has changed a lot. The city has spread upwards and outwards, scaffolding everywhere, the old stucco walls black with smoke grease, floodlights rigged to cranes and roofs painted pale blue like the meteor fields around them. He supposes it's all about to change again.
When Gladio comes back, he sits down stiffly on the bed, still awkward. He eyes Noctis tentatively, as if waiting for him to either speak or vanish.
Noctis remembers a day long ago when they had sat like this, Ignis out for supplies and Prompto in the shower, Gladio and Noctis facing each other, perched on their separate beds. Gladio had two fresh scars then — one for the head and one for the heart, the two things a Shield has to give. He had told them, eventually, where he had gotten them. Or Noctis had thought he had.
Noctis breaks the silence. "So how did this happen?"
"Gilgamesh. The First Shield." Gladio looks away. "I made him a promise ten years ago."
"I don't remember this."
"Didn't tell you."
Of course he hadn't. "What did you promise?"
"You." Gladio exhales. "I said I'd bring him you when the time came."
Noctis can't stop himself from asking. "What time?"
"When you died." Gladio looks up now, and Noctis sees the light in his eyes again, there and gone. Someone had told him once that his own eyes looked different whenever he had used magic. Not so easy to describe, they had said. Noctis wonders if his eyes look the same way now.
Gladio looks at him helplessly. "I don't know."
Noctis shivers. "Why am I back?"
"Because," Gladio says, "the First King is gone."
Noctis digests this.
There are many things he doesn't understand, even after his years in the Crystal, and he knows now that he will never understand some of them, not in this life. He thinks about Luna, about Gentiana, about the Kings, about his father. He thinks of old stone ruins filled with water, smoking mountain peaks, abandoned tombs and glowing blue butterflies and castles in the Tenebraean sky. Maybe it doesn't matter.
"So," Noctis says, swallowing. "How does this work? Are we... bound, in some way?"
Gladio smiles, wan. "Haven't we always been?"
Gladio still looks at him the same way after all these years, an eternity of look but don't touch, and Noctis knows Gladio won't reach out first, so Noctis does.
This time he doesn't try to brush his fingers along the line of scar tissue on Gladio's chest. He takes Gladio's hand.
Gladio's palm is rough with calluses, warm and dry. Noctis stretches out his own hand flat against it, examining how their fingers line up. Gladio's hand is bigger, it always has been, but they have calluses in the same places, the two of them, sword and shield, matching leather braces leaving the same marks on their wrists.
Gladio runs his thumb over one of those marks now, turning his hand over, studying the empty place where the ring had once sat.
Gladio closes his eyes, presses Noctis's hand to his mouth. He stays like that.
Noctis stands and he pulls Gladio in, hand in Gladio's hair, Gladio's face buried in his chest.
When they sleep that night, they sleep tangled in each other, the Shield's face pressed against the back of his King's neck. In the morning, the sun rises across both of them.