Libertus remembered when the hierarchy of disciplinary posts had included the Citadel’s royal apartments. He remembered when being pulled front the front lines meant some grave case of insubordination— when it was something to be teased over, scolded over, some sort of failure in their little unit that meant they weren’t going to be able to finish the fight that the Nifs had started years ago. He remembered his near perfect record, and the shock when the captain approached him for reassignment.
It had come just months after the news about the prince. After the news that Tenebrae had fallen and the few Glaives chosen to go to that allied kingdom had fallen with it. The reassignment came on the heels of mourning lost friends, and with the shock of such a blatant assassination attempt on the young prince.
“Did I do something—”
“No,” Drautos had been quick to reassure, quick to pull him aside, quick to push this assignment forward; “It’s a change of priority. You’re being assigned to the prince, at least until a more regular guard can be trained. Consider it a break— a reward— for your excellent record.”
Libertus wanted to protest— he wanted to remind his captain that he was a Glaive, not a Crownsguard. He wanted to point out that he had never been assigned to the Citadel after basic training was done, and that he had no idea what guarding the prince was supposed to entail. That he didn’t even know how to act in the Citadel.
“You’ll be fine,” Nyx assured him once he found out. “It’s mostly a shadow job, if the kid goes anywhere. And he doesn’t, so you’ll be bored out of your mind.”
“They should’ve picked you for this,” Libertus muttered, reaching for his drink as his friend grinned. “The prince knows you.”
The longest contact he had ever had with the little prince was during the royal inspections. He had stood at attention as the boy walked the lines of the newly trained Kingsglaive with his father— he had heard the soft, curious questions coming from the prince; had barely met the king’s eye, let alone the prince’s. He had just wanted it to be over with. It was awkward enough knowing that Nyx could get away with crouching down to the boy and speaking to his little highness once the inspection was formally over. Libertus had never wanted to push his luck like that. H had never wanted to tempt fate like that, or set those royals on some sort of pedestal the way Nyx did.
He had never wanted to be standing as he was, posted outside the prince’s doors, bored out of his mind.
There was another child who came and went regularly— carrying books, trays of treats, and looking far too serious for an eleven year-old. And there was the usual staff who stopped and chatted, who asked after the prince, as if Libertus had done more than just stand and wait to see if the boy left the opulent apartments at all that day. It was the same the next day, and the day after, with only the prince’s companions coming and going, and no sign of the prince himself. When the door opened, it was rarely open for long, and he could only catch a glance at the rooms twice the size of his own apartment beyond.
Libertus almost wished for the chaos of the front lines.
He almost wished for Nyx to show up and make life interesting again.
He almost wished that he had remembered that the boy hiding away in a tower had just witnessed the destruction of Tenebrae after suffering an attack himself. But that reminder came later, once the door had creaked open and Libertus was faced with a child’s intense blue eyes blinking up at him. Small hands pulled the door open enough for the boy to properly peek out, to properly look over the guard standing at his door.
He could only stare back.
“How tall are you?”
“Highness?” Libertus remembered the prince being louder, more vibrant. He remembered the way Nyx would settle down in the dust of the Glaive yards while the king went to speak with the captain and Marshal, and how the boy would be asking questions in quick success while Nyx laughed and answered what he could. He remembered the boy’s wide eyed stare as Crowe showed him some of her safer magic tricks, and the way small hands had reached for the more interesting variations to uniforms.
“Can you reach something for me?”
It was one thing to hear the news of attacks and threats on the royal family, and another to see the tightly wrapped bandages on the prince for himself. Until then, it was an abstract concept— there was an attack, the prince was hurt, the extent of the injuries required that he visit the Oracle in Tenebrae. Now, seeing the boy keep a set distance away from him, seeing the small limp and the start white bandage and brace around the boy’s knee, it struck Libertus how real the situation had been. How close the kingdom must have been to holding a funeral, instead of a welcome.
And he remembered the children back home. The ones he and Nyx couldn’t get away from the danger in time. The ones who couldn’t hide in the safety of the forests, or in basements and the mountains before the Nifs stormed their way through. He remembered taking as many as he could away from the advance of the MTs, and the little bodies scattered with the adults when he failed his own people.
But now there was a young prince, still bruised and battered, and watching him with wide, wary eyes as he waited in the doorway for instructions.
“What did you need, your highness?” It seemed odd to use the title for the boy. He had seen Nyx kneel down to the kid’s level, to address him as an equal rather than a prince. Nyx was always so much better at these things. Libertus just hoped it wasn’t too obvious how awkward he felt to be in a room with toys that probably cost more than his rent.
A small hand pointed to a shelf of books, “I can’t reach the one about the behemoth.”
Story books. He had been pulled from his post to fetch a story book.
It was almost a disconnect, when Libertus reported for duty at the Citadel. When he stepped through the door to his own small apartment and made the steady climb up to the Citadel, he wondered if he had enough saved away for a move to a better building, to a better neighbourhood. To a better district. He wondered, as he thought back to the keepsakes of Galahd— the beads and trinkets, the shields and bits of jewellery he had managed to take with him or find in the markets once settled in Insomnia— if the prince understood what it was to lose everything the same way he had.
Sure there were stories in books and the kid had clearly been put through some pain. But Libertus couldn’t just bite back the resentment, as he was beckoned into the rooms far too big for a nine year-old kid, with far too much antique furniture that looked like it had never seen a shred of use in its long life. He knew kids who would have killed for a night in the comforts of the Citadel.
“Dad said that all the Kingsglaive are knights,” Noctis once said as he reached for another book; held aloft by Libertus this time, so he could make his own selection. “Is that true?”
“Well, if his majesty says it.”
“Then aren’t you supposed to be a ‘Sir’? Like the knights in the books?”
No matter what he thought about the wealth the kid lived in— about the steady stream of help and comfort and things that could rebuild entire lives that this prince just did not understand— Libertus had a hard time not smiling when the kid got like this. When he asked questions and looked for answers, when he listened and seemed to absorb the information he was given. It was hard to be mad at a kid who didn’t understand the differences in their worlds, when he was just too damned cute in trying to learn them.
“I don’t think it works that way, your highness.”
“Well, can I call you Sir Libertus, then? Since you’re my knight.”
“If you want. But I think they used last names for that.”
“Too formal. You don’t like formal,” Libertus paused at that, watching as the kid pulled another book from the shelf; “Okay, I’m good.”
It was always a careful matter to set the prince down, a brief moment of fear as the prince winced and tried to make his leg accept the pressure of being used again. “You okay, your highness?”
“You don’t have to call me that, you know.”
“Pretty sure I do.”
“No, we’re friends.”
“I thought I was your knight.”
“So’s Gladio, doesn’t mean he’s as polite as you are,” he was getting used to the names the prince mentioned; used to seeing the strange cast that came through the ornate doors and into the tower so far away from the noise of the streets. He was used to the too-serious, overly concerned boy who came in to read to the prince and help him study, who stayed for long hours and only seemed to relax when Libertus himself was out of the room and watching from the opened door. He was used to the boy who seemed to be twice as tall as the prince already— often in a cadet uniform— who always stopped to greet him as a fellow soldier. Libertus would have thought it was adorable if the kid didn’t look so stern while doing it. He was getting used to being included in the little circle of people who seemed to come and go while the prince stayed where he was. “You don’t have to use a title when it’s just us.”
“Alright,” Libertus knelt to Noctis’ level, checked the brace as the prince balanced with a hand to his shoulder. The boy never asked for help with the thing, with the pain that crossed his faces more times than Libertus was comfortable with. The boy never seemed to expect it when he simply stopped to make sure that the pain could be eased. Nyx was always so much better at dealing with people like this— so much better at forcing the right interaction, at knowing what to say, what to do. He was just here on assignment; “Is that better?”
“Yes,” the prince smiled at him— the soft smile he was getting used to— the shy little upturn of gratitude. “Will you tell me about Galahd again?”
Libertus had been there for the night watch recently. He had seen the boy wake up in panic, and sat with him in silence. He had felt the small shudders as the boy, not the prince, whimpered in fear against him after the onslaught of nightmares. Libertus once told him, in those quiet nights, that he understood what the nightmares were. That he understood dreams of fire and blood and the noise of an attack; that the dreams wouldn’t leave any time soon. He had told the prince that he understood the nightmares, even the ones about the daemon, and reminded him that he was safe now. He left out the part where he had offered the same reassurance to a hundred other children who had fled the war and occupation.
And he had told the prince about the world outside of Insomnia and Lucis. Outside of the tower that he was being locked away in. He had told Noctis about the forests of his home, and the adventures he had when he was a kid, and of Nyx dragging him into most of them. He told the prince about Crowe growing up with him, like a little sister who could effectively beat him up without too much a strain if he annoyed her enough. He told the prince about the wide rivers and the mountains he had always planned to explore.
He just never mentioned the way the Nifs had come in, without the barrier of the Wall to slow their advance.
He preferred the stories of his own childhood, himself. And the prince seemed enthralled by the ideas of treeforts and swings into the deep parts of rivers, of playing hide-and-seek in a thick forest and spending long days fishing in the sunlight.
Despite the books that the prince seemed to gather and speed through, they were always pushed aside when Libertus was asked about Galahd. The old fairy tales of Lucis, the strange search the boy was on for stories of Tenebrae and Oracles and Kings, were always set aside in favour of stories about forests and rivers and the little creatures Libertus remembered from his own superstitious upbringing.
There was a strange disconnect when he went to the Citadel for his shift. When he left, he wouldn’t recall the softness of the seat where the boy had sat next to him, pouring over the atlas found on one of the shelves. He wouldn’t even remember the way the staff who brought in lunch would hesitate to see him sitting there, with the prince as if he was simply babysitting rather than protecting. He wouldn’t wonder just how many of his apartments could fit into the prince’s rooms as he stepped through his own dark doorway. As he left for the day, and reported in to get his next set of hours, Libertus would just wonder if the boy was going to have nightmares that night. Or if the stories of Galahd would be enough to fend them off.
“Sounds suspiciously like you’re defending the king, now,” Nyx said one night over weak drinks and bad food. Libertus knew that look— that grin and the smugness that came with it. He knew the way that his friend was not going to let him forget this any time soon, no matter how many future rants there are against the wealth of the Lucians and the apparent neglect for the conquered territories. He knew that Nyx understood that he’d never share the same sort of idolisation of the king or the royals or the Lucians safe behind their barriers, but this was different. “The prince grows on you, eh?”
“Shut up. He’s just a kid, is all,” Libertus refused to admit defeat most days. He refused to let himself fall into the same peace that seemed to hang over the rest of the refugees around them like a thick blanket. He refused to let himself forget that there was a home they were fighting for well beyond the reach of the Crystal and its Wall. “You can’t blame a kid if his dad’s a jerk.”
He expected the elbow to his side, the sharp look, the little clench in Nyx’s jaw. He lifted his hands to concede to Nyx, to reach for the drinks as they were delivered to the table.
“You both need to get some damn hobbies,” Crowe huffed, taking the first bottle as soon as she had set the tray of drinks down; “there’s more to life than just Lucis. And a hell of a lot more interesting things to talk about.”
The back-and-forth was familiar between them. It had been going on, in some capacity, for the past ten years— where their missions would take them to the borders and front lines, but never to Galahd. Never back home to rescue their own kin, or bring them to safety, or clear out the regime posturing on their backs. And no matter what was happening in the wider world beyond the simmering protection of the Wall, the eye of the news and the media and the kingdom as a whole was only ever turned inward in a neglectful sort of denial. Crowe would always just wish they’d both shut up about it.
Especially if they were getting shipped off for a few weeks to the front lines again.
“Will you come back?” The prince asked once he had found out that there would be a different Glaive standing at his door in a few days. When Libertus told him that he was going to be away on a mission, he hadn’t expected those wide, scared eyes to be turned on him the way they had. He hadn’t expected those small hands to clench at the book a little bit tighter or the worry to be so clearly visible on the kid’s face.
Libertus hadn’t expected the prince to actually get attached to him. “You’ll have a new guard, you know. Just remember to tell them that you want to get books or read or whatever, right?”
“But will you come back?”
“I don’t know, your highness. We don’t get a heads up with our assignments,” he did wonder who would be taking his place. None of the new recruits would think to approach the prince like the kid he was— most of them were still in awe of the city they had ended up in, and the idea of being heroes like Nyx. Reckless like Nyx. He hoped it was someone with more seniority who would take his place; he hoped it would be someone who wouldn’t be afraid to talk to the kid, or check that he wasn’t trying to climb the shelves himself, or check that his leg didn’t hurt too much… “I’m sure you’ll like the new guy.”
“But…” out of all the arguments— the childish selfishness he expected, Libertus wasn’t prepared for the prince’s actual concerns; “you’re going somewhere dangerous. Will you be okay?”
“’Course I will, highness. Nyx has my back,” evoking the name of the hero of the Kingsglaive had always worked before when he told Noctis about the war— about the battles and skirmishes he had been in. The worry didn’t leave those wide eyes refusing to look at him and Libertus hesitated; “His majesty— your dad, wouldn’t intentionally send us out into danger.”
That had been the magic phrase, it seemed. Libertus watched as Noctis’ narrow shoulders relaxed and he seemed to accept that his father’s wisdom was infallible.
Later that night, once off shift and with his family again, Libertus recounted the whole strangeness of the prince with Nyx and Crowe while they waited for Pelna. As he muttered around his drink and scrapped the chair across the wood of the patio as their order was called out for them— despite being the only customers so close to closing. As he thought about the prince alone for a few weeks, and if he’d really be wondering about them out in the field, facing the firefight and daemons no one ever seemed to talk about in this damned city. “I’m not going to tell the kid I don’t like his dad.”
“Better hope you come back in one piece, then,” Nyx said, still smiling with that same, stupid smug look. As if Libertus getting along with some brat was a victory for him. “Or you might make the prince cry.”
It was easy to forget all about the Citadel and its towers when they were on the front lines. It was easy, when the common reminder of ‘for hearth and home’ went out, to think back on Galahd— on the towering forests and the familiar canyon he had spent long summers exploring. Libertus had always equated the Glaive motto as a reminder of the little homes that he had last seen smoldering in Nif fires, and the bodies of friends and family and neighbours scattered around a battlefield that should have never existed. When he thought of ‘home’ he thought of Nyx and Crowe and the sun shattered through leafy green trees. Of Selena’s teasing laugh and the ridiculously long summer nights chasing fireflies in the long grasses.
So when he was injured on the latest push out to hold the lines against the most recent onslaught of refreshed MTs and Nif soldiers and monsters, he didn’t expect to wake up with the realisation that his last thought had been what was going to be told to the little prince locked away in the Citadel. As claws sunk into his own flesh and he felt the air crushed from him in a press of giant paw, Libertus was almost embarrassed now that he had only wondered ‘how’s the prince going to find out?’ He didn’t expect to wake up, let alone with bandages wrapped around his chest and the panic setting in. It was instinct to look for Nyx, for Crowe, for Pelna, and for Luche and Tredd and everyone else who stood at his side and had depended on him— to look for their bodies in the rows of beds of the field hospitals, or their names on sheets of the dead and missing that seemed to come in hourly.
When Crowe limped in to see him— after he had been moved away from the field with the rest of the injured, when the unit had been recalled back to the safety of the Wall and replaced with a fresh set of troops— Libertus had smiled in relief. “Crowe—”
“Don’t you ‘Crowe’ me,” Libertus decided then and there that no one should have given Crowe a crutch. At least not a metal one. The tiny, stiff bed shook as she knocked the crutch against it, bandages rather than a cast wrapped around her leg from the knee down. “What the hell were you thinking? Rushing in like that? I told you to stay close to Pelna.”
“And just what happened to you?”
“I got hurt saving your stupid ass.”
“Well no one asked you too; I told you to stay back with the other mages.”
“And I told both of you to stop being idiots,” Nyx flopped down into one of the plastic chairs set between the beds. It wasn’t the endless lines of questionably sterile whites of the field hospital, but there wasn’t much room to move between the narrow beds forced into the small room of the proper military hospital. He supposed it was better than the cavernous room set aside for the morgue, at least. Claustrophobia in Insomnia meant you were still alive. Nyx himself was banged up— an arm bandaged and in a sling, cuts healing already where Libertus could see them— but in a better state than either of them now. “Next time, I’m pulling rank.”
Between the three of them, now stuck together in the too-small, too-sterile room, it was almost a familiar argument. They all knew what happened now; medical leave for as long as needed, then a lighter return to duty. The hours of boredom would set in before he was begging for some dull shift standing guard somewhere, Libertus knew. Every broken bone and scrape and gash was the same— the anxious fretting of the Lucian doctors, the annoyed insistence that they stay off duty until cleared, the long days spent feeling useless under the weight of the city… Libertus hated getting hurt just because of the bullshit that he went through in recovering. “Did they come up with our leave papers yet?”
“We just got back,” Crowe glared at him from her newly claimed seat at the edge of the narrow bed. “Literally just got back. Like two hours ago.”
“Days, Crowe. Two days,” Nyx interjected; “you just woke up, Libs.”
“I was awake before getting here.”
“Doesn’t count,” Crowe fiddled with her bandages, making a face as Libertus watched her try to not obviously undo the work the doctors had completed. He wondered if the prince still needed the brace on his leg… “They had better let you out of here soon. You owe me a beer.”
Libertus leaned back against the pillows piled up behind him, trying to sigh in frustration and wincing when he barely managed anything harsher than a huff. Followed by a reminder of the pressure on his chest and the heat of daemon’s breath against him. “Fuck off, Crowe. You still owe me from last time.”
“And both of you owe me,” Nyx pulled himself up, a pat to his friend’s shoulder before he was dragging Crower up and back on to her crutch; “I’ll keep you posted, Libs. Get some rest.”
As promised, Nyx was back regularly. First with his phone and effects, then with the papers detailing their collective leave. Libertus knew that he would be taken off active duty for at least a month— that he would be discharged from hospital once the bruising let up enough to send him home without looking worse than when he came in. There were breathing tests and stress tests, Nyx standing watch in his support. It was when Nyx showed up one morning in his uniform that Libertus was suspicious. So far, every visit had been in plain clothes— off duty, away from whatever dull bit of guard duty they had thrown him into to recover. Full uniform meant that he was still technically on the clock.
“Nyx—” Libertus stopped when he saw the prince peeking out from behind the long uniform coat, clinging to the thick material with small hands as the boy was coaxed forward by his temporary guardian. “Hey, little highness.”
“They had me on your post,” Nyx said as the prince hurried to the bedside, a moment of hesitation and fear in those too-big blue eyes as the little boy looked over the bruises and bandages. “He was asking after you. I’m almost jealous.”
Libertus tried not to smile at the way Noctis climbed onto the bed to get a proper look at the damage, or the way those fearful eyes hardened and Nyx snickered as the child drew himself up with all the princely airs he could muster while kneeling on a hospital bed. “You said you’d be okay.”
“I am okay,” Libertus almost gasped as a small hand pressed against the bandages wrapped around his chest.
“That is not okay, Sir Libertus,” there was no missing the choked laugh from Nyx at that, and Libertus threw his friend a glare. “You broke your promise.”
Libertus lifted the prince and resettled him to sit on the bed properly, knowing full well that Nyx was never going to let him live this whole thing down. “To be fair, your highness. There was a daemon.”
“Nyx told me.”
“Shouldn’t that be ‘Sir Nyx’?” Nyx asked as he settled in the nearby plastic chair.
“No,” it was a resolute, definite answer, and one that Libertus was going to have to get the story behind later. Especially as Nyx simply lifted his hands in surrender at the decision made on his honour. But for now, there was a young prince who still looked like he was caught between hurt and angry.
Libertus didn’t resist the urge to ruffle the boy’s hair; “Hey, ease off, highness. I’m fine. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Of course,” Libertus smiled, trying to coax the same from the boy, “You think I’ll let just anyone make sure you’re safe? I made them put Nyx on duty for you, so you got to listen to him once in a while. Besides, he’s the best.”
“No he’s not. He can’t even tell a good story.”
He hazard a glance at his friend, amused by the assessment of Nyx’s skills by a nine-year-old that now had him so offended. “He tries.”
A lot of liberties had been granted to any Glaive who had been assigned to the prince’s chambers. For most younger recruits, Libertus knew, it was a cut and dry posting— particularly at night— where they were not expected to interact with the prince. Where they were expected, deep in the heart of the Citadel, to simply fetch one of the prince’s more constant companions if the boy ventured out of his rooms enough to look for attentions. But it was generally understood that the prince sometimes just wanted to know about them. That they would be brought into that little, isolated world by a young boy reaching out to them.
At least, Libertus had always thought it was just understood.
Nyx liked the shift during these quiet months away from the front— when the two powers of Lucis and Niflheim were at a stalemate. Libertus knew that his friend would ignore the posting at the first available moment and settle with the prince in his rooms— often chaperoned by the far-to-serious lad, Ignis, who would argue whatever tall tales Nyx tried to spin. He knew that Nyx could charm his way around propriety and station and that his loyalty to the royal family was unquestioned and unwavering.
Libertus had thought Nyx was always better on the night shifts. As a charm against the monsters that plagued the prince’s dreams, at least.
Night in the Citadel was a quiet shift. It was easy to get bored, to let a mind wander off to the next assignments or to the friendly Citadel staff, to miss the soft noises of fear and pain that came from the prince’s rooms in the depths of the darkness.
It was an easy transition shift for someone recovering from an injury.
“They’d just get Iggy,” Noctis explained one night, hushed against the dark despite the distance between himself and anyone else. Hushed and small and scared in his little nest of blankets. “I don’t think they liked me.”
There had been plenty of guards in and out of the night shifts while Libertus was away. None of whom, he was learning, would attend to the prince like this. None who would settle on the edge of the too-big bed and seek out the little scared boy from the sea of blankets. None who’d try to help; who’d let the boy jump at shadows until his chosen companion could be roused.
“I bet,” Libertus had no problem peeling away the blankets, just as hushed and careful of the silence as Noctis; “that they just didn’t know what to do. You’re pretty intimidating, you know, little highness.”
Libertus didn’t know how anyone had resisted those wide, blue eyes while he was away. He didn’t know how they had ignored the prince they way they must have, because the kid had been thrilled to see him trade posts with Nyx when the night came. He had watched the way the prince had gone from clinging to Nyx’s coat, trying to keep the other Glaive there with him, to brightening once he had arrived. He had watched the tension ease out of the other kids hand-picked to stay at Noctis’ side when they saw that smile.
He didn’t know how anyone else assigned to these babysitting jobs could be so cold towards a scared boy.
“Princes are intimidating.”
“Why? I don’t mean to be.”
Nyx had told him that Noctis was asking after him while he was away. The prince had asked if he was healing, if he was coming back, if he was going to be staying away. And as the weeks of medical leave dragged on, Nyx admitted that the prince had stopped asking, and just seemed to accept his absence. He hadn’t known what to think of that at first— he supposed it was only right, since the shifts were meant to rotate so often, so easily, that there would always be a new face outside the chambers the prince was hidden away in.
But that smile when he was eased back into duty…
“I know you don’t, kid. And you’re not. Not to me, or Nyx.”
“That’s because you’re brave. Nyx says so.”
He knew that he didn’t have much time like this. The kid down the hall was already on his way, half-asleep Ignis roused and gathering the books that would help ease the prince back to sleep. The night would wear on and Libertus knew that he would be out the door and back home before the prince woke up again. He knew that he would spend the rest of the night worrying over any soft sounds from the room, and wondering if the other boy was enough to keep the prince’s nightmares at bay. He knew he would spend the rest of the night worrying and listening and trying to do more than just keep hypothetical strangers out of the wide chamber doors. “I’m really not, Noctis.”
In a moment or two, Ignis would be there. The boy would look at him with all the disapproval of a twelve year-old with a sacred duty, and climb into the bed with his royal charge. In a few moments, Libertus knew, he would be dismissed and the prince would curl around the friend that had been chosen for him until morning. But for now, he was happy to see the fear seeping out of the boy and back into the shadows where it belonged.
“Can you tell me a story?”
“I don’t think we have time tonight. Your friend is coming.”
“Iggy would like a story too.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I can ask him when he gets here.”
“What kind of story, little highness?”
“Something about Galahd? About you and Nyx?”
Libertus felt that he could be forgiven for not knowing exactly when the prince’s birthday was. For one, when the event actually happened and the prince was born, nothing of the news filtered through the Niflheim media into Galahd. There were rumours spreading through the territory from the kingdom, of course. Little tidbits of news here and there which seeped through the guards and controls of the occupying MTs. Not that anyone in Galahd cared if there was a new royal in the Lucis line— they had already been betrayed twice by the family, no one was dumb enough to think some new brat prince would improve things.
Afterwards, it wasn’t a celebrated event. Once he was in Insomnia, there were already holidays set aside to celebrate royal birthdays. The King’s Day and the Prince’s Day, usually a few months apart and not actually related to the real date of the occasion, marked the birthdays that needed to be acknowledged for the year. The holidays reflected the birth of some king or queen, or prince or princess, from centuries ago and the holiday had just stuck in the Lucian calendar— celebrated too long to be changed now. Too convenient a holiday to be moved or adjusted now; it was the royals who adapted to the calendar, not the people.
So Libertus thought that he could be forgiven for not knowing the exact date of the royal birth. He could be forgiven for the surprise when he finally returned to his post one morning, and learning that the young prince had started weapons training properly.
“Aren’t you a little young, your highness?” He had asked when he stepped into the large bedrooms during daylight for the first time in nearly a month. As he stepped into the brightness of the child’s rooms that seemed so out of place in the dour corridors of the Citadel. As he eyed up the sword the prince had wanted to show off— a short training thing, but specially made and weighed for the boy, shining and flashing in the little prince’s hands. Libertus almost regretted being set back onto the day shifts. “For that sort of training, I mean.”
There was no secret that the prince had already learnt the fundamentals with the toy swords every kid seemed to have in the city at some point or another. There was no misunderstanding that the training was coming— and that the young boy had started to learn the right sort of stance and swings just from trailing after Glaives and Guards and those authorised to use the training rooms deep in the belly of the fortified palace. Libertus knew for a fact that the boy had played with Nyx’s blades, because the scolding Nyx received as a result had him on gate duty for a month.
“His highness is ten,” the other boy— the chosen companion, all prim and proper and the very definition of a wasted childhood in Libertus’ opinion— said. The boy, Ignis, had apparently been a constant in the prince’s company, a far too serious shadow to trail after Noctis. A constant thorn in Nyx’s side during their quiet recovery. Libertus decided that the glares and disapproval from the young man was far more effective when the kid was awake, rather than half asleep and pulled from his bed to tend to the prince’s nightmares. “And his training had already been delayed due to his injury.”
Libertus looked the prince over then, “You’re ten, little highness? Since when?”
“Two days ago,” Noctis grinned, and Libertus took stock of the other new things in the prince’s easy reach. A new stack of books on the desk, the training sword, a puzzle box Ignis seemed more interested in…
“Well, you should have said,” he had missed the kid’s birthday. Something about that rested heavy in his mind— despite the knowledge that there would be a kingdom-wide celebration of the event in a few weeks when the national holiday rolled around. “Happy birthday, little highness.”
He almost laughed at the way Ignis protested his addition to Noctis’ title, and the indignant look from the boy even as he went with them to the lessons. He would have laughed, if not for the look of surprise in those big blue eyes and the bright smile that crossed the prince’s face. Instead, he walked with them to the depths of the Citadel— to the training rooms buried deep away from the public areas on display. He left them there, in the care of the Marshal and the Crownsguard cadet who would eventually become the prince’s Shield. It wasn’t until later that he actually considered the situation at hand— that he realised why the whole idea of missing the prince’s birthday didn’t sit well with him.
“Back home, the kid would have had at least something. Just some general acknowledgement, you know.”
It wasn’t a rant, at least he didn’t think it was. Libertus had decided to analyse his confision somewhere between the first and fifth drinks for the night, with Nyx crashing on his couch, and the remains of their shared meal spread out across the coffee table. It would have been perfect if Crowe hadn’t been on her own night rotation. He knew about the holiday down the road by a few more weeks, he knew that the little prince would be expected to be paraded before his people and graciously accept the well wishes and ‘happy birthdays’ as some prepared, too adult, statement was carefully recited in gratitude. As those wide, curious eyes were carefully schooled into the masks Libertus already knew he hated for their dishonesty towards the people. As the attention was turned outward and every congratulations was met with the expectation that the prince would be doing something for everyone else, rather than celebrating his own life.
The whole event was such a production that Libertus found himself hating that he had ever participated in it before. The kid should be allowed to celebrate his own birthday without droves of citizens waiting for announcements of charitable donations.
“I’m pretty sure the little prince doesn’t actually want for anything,” Nyx responded, picking off pieces of meat from the skewers they had picked from one place to dunk into the sauce from another. “It’s a Lucian thing; they never make a big deal about birthdays.”
“They have a whole holiday set aside for the royal ones. Doesn’t mean I can’t do something for him for the actual day.”
“Like? And you’ve already missed the actual day.”
“…I don’t know,” Libertus knew that there’d be no getting gifts in through security, no surprise trips out for ice cream, or little things that wouldn’t need to be cleared with the whole team of handlers that watched after the prince. He knew that nothing would get cleared in time for it to mean anything— not with the prince still recovering from an injury from the last time his caretakers took him out somewhere. “What does the kid even like?”
“You’ve been babysitting him for months.”
“Babysitting, Libs. I know that shift.” He knew the quizzical look from Nyx— the question that was forming— the teasing that would come after. “Why do you even care? Your first rant about the royals is always the money they have that could be put to better use.”
“That’s in general. Noctis doesn’t control that stuff.”
He bristled at the small shrug, and the knowing smirk from his friend. It was easier to keep those arguments generalised, the prince was just a kid. Just a kid who deserved a bit of something for himself that wasn’t processed through half a dozen security officials first.
For now, it was easier to finish off his drink than to think of something nice for the kid who wouldn’t see much celebration of his own life until the kingdom deemed it appropriate. He tried to think back to the way the kid had picked story after story from his shelves, of the cuddly toy that had a spot of honour in the too-big bed and the little charm kept safely within reach on the nightstand. He thought of the books that had been given to the kid already, and the excitement at the prospect of starting some real training. Some real recovery.
He remembered when he had turned ten and was given the first links to the woven necklace that would symbolise his connection to his family. Or when Nyx was ten and he had received the first beads that were still woven into the braids that marked his clan and standing. He remembered Selena and Crowe’s tenth birthdays, only days apart but insisted that they shared the same day between them.
“The little prince likes fishing,” Nyx said after a moment of fighting to open a fresh bottle. “It might take a day, but I can probably plead your case to the Marshal.”
“Not the Captain?”
“The Captain is out of town on something,” Nyx offered a smirk, “But the Marshal will approve a little trip out to the docks if we’re both with the kid.”
“Thanks,” he offered his own bottle to toast the plan; “How do you know Noctis likes fishing?”
“Because I’ve been babysitting him for ages. Ever take that kid to an aquarium? It’s the easiest way to make him sit still.”
The docks were always busy places— always bustling and frantic and crowded. The proper establishment of ferries and boats were nearer to the southern and northern gates— where the edge of the fortifications and the edge of the Wall were once open to the idea of trade. Now that the ports were closed to everything not commissioned by the Lucis military, most of the old piers stretched over to hatcheries and carefully cultivated farms; the resources adapted from war and trade to the basics of survival. It was a different kind of business and chaos from what Nyx remembered when he first came to the shining city with the rest of his kind. Nyx had vague memories of ships from the city making it as far as his island’s waters. He remembered watching the boats cross the shimmer of the distant Wall with Libertus and a pair of ancient binoculars. They had always wondered how the boats did moved through the magic, and only caused the Wall to ripple.
The docks— the proper ones— had been shut down ages ago, after the refugees flooded into the city with the waves breaking against the fortifications.
“When did you go fishing, little highness?” Libertus asked as they approached the edge of the old piers. There were three days of permissions that had to be confirmed, with careful plans made to ensure that the prince would be in their constant care. There were three days of picking the spot with the best vantage point— the little dock that overlooked the long bridge out to the secured southern gates and the great bay— where the shadows of the guards that had cleared the cliffs and waters could be mistaken for the stone.
He had refused to let the prince wander off, even as the boy pulled at his arm in his excitement.
The sun had only just risen by the time they were ready to go; Noctis had practically bounced around them in his excitement— the fastest Libertus had ever seen the boy get up. Now that they were out by the water— the cool breeze curling around the water and cliffs— the little prince could only tug at his guardian’s arm to get him to move faster.
“Uncle Cor took me,” Noctis wanted to run ahead as soon as he had seen the water; “when I was little. I didn’t do much, but he showed me how to bait a hook and pick the lure.”
Nyx led the way to the edge of the pier, to where the water lapped at the old wood and the world seemed to fall away. If not for the ripple of the Wall overhead and the hidden army of Guards stalking the cliffs, Libertus would have felt exposed so far in the open as they were. Even with those protections in place, and the distant sounds of the city, he could feel the protective shields already itching beneath his fingertips— the borrowed magic ready for his call.
Even with their protections and planning, the two Glaives were still armed as they walked the prince and his companion out to the exposed edge of the city.
“Think we’ll catch something big?” Noctis asked once they were at the water and he could crouch down to search the surface for the shadows of whatever sea monsters his young mind could conjure up. “Maybe a monster!”
Ignis followed close at his prince’s heel, a book clutched tight even as he leaned over to examine the water. “There’s no sea monsters here, your highness.”
“Sure there are,” Nyx was the fisherman back home. When they were young, climbing the steep walls of the canyon to get to the river, it was always Nyx who took care of catching their dinner. Libertus remembered that he used to mend his own nets, pilfered from the scraps of the shipyard and docks. Now he saw his friend settle at the edge of the pier with a fancy rod and reel and nearly laughed at the way the prince’s attention turned from the water to Nyx’s careful work to ready their equipment. “You remember that giant in the aquarium I took you too? That thing was caught right here, before even your dad was born.”
Ignis stepped away from the swaying edge of the pier with a huff and a glare at the Glaive; “No, your highness. It was caught off the coast of Galahd, almost twenty years ago. And presented to his majesty as a show of good faith between our countries.”
“And you know that for sure?”
Libertus sighed at the argument that was brewing between his best friend and the most precocious child he had ever met. Instead he settled next to his friend and pulled the prince into position in front of him, so he could help control the line. The absolute indignity in Ignis’ voice still made him smile.
“Of course I do. I read the plaque at the aquarium. And I would trust the words of an expert more than those of a Glaive who… fibs.”
“Strong words, kid.”
“It’s not appropriate or diplomatic to accuse a liar.”
Libertus took the rod from Nyx before the argument between child and Glaive could get any further and settled it in the prince’s hands. “Right, little highness, you remember how to hold it properly?”
“And you remember how to hook a fish?”
“Yes,” He could feel Noctis nod against him, even as he adjusted the boy’s grip so his hands weren’t too close to the reel. He could also feel the grin Nyx was giving him. So long as it kept the fighting and noise to a minimum, he would hit Nyx for that smug look later; “And not to do it too soon. I have to wait until the lure gets all the way under.”
“Right. Do you want to cast?”
He had helped with the first cast, and the second, trying not to grin as Noct look so proud of the ones that came after. With his hands around Noct’s, he showed the boy how to draw attention to the lure, how to reel in the excess and slip a variety into the whole process until little curious nibbles became proper bites. Nyx correcting whatever Libertus didn’t know— offering more information than what little could be presented in videos crammed and studied over the course of two nights while the plan was laid. With each little catch, Ignis would search his book for information on the fish, smiling as Noct beamed over his success. Most were just small things, the little ones that stuck close to the surface for an easy meal among the reeds, with names that Libertus knew by vague memory.
Nyx chattered happily on about the adventures in the rivers of the canyon back home. Of the nets he’d cast because it caught more, and the monsters in the water that could swallow them whole. Libertus didn’t bother to remind Nyx that they had both been scrawny kids— a minnow probably could have eaten them whole back then. He also didn’t correct the stories of the fish that got away, or the danger of the rapids during a rainy summer, or the way they had to fend for themselves at the nearest haven when they lost track of time. He didn’t bother to dispel the myths of Galahd and a distant childhood that had the young prince looking to him for clarification with those familiar wide eyes.
“Did that really happen?”
“Near enough, little highness. Nyx paid more attention to getting us into trouble than I did.”
By lunch, there was a Guard coming down the path to collect them. Everything had been carefully scheduled, from the trip out to the water’s edge and the guard detail along the distant bridge and nearby cliffs, to the pick up for lunch and the trip back to the glittering Citadel in the afternoon. Libertus had initially thought to take Noctis to one of the food stands nearby the palace— one of the few places in the tourist trap avenues and parks that served real food rather than the bland, safe things the Lucians settled for.
There had been a concession to take the prince out for ice cream later on. Once the excitement from the day out beyond the Citadel walls proved a success.
Libertus realised that the plans had changed once he saw the boy scrambling ahead of him up the pathway, Ignis at his side and stopped in uncharacteristic shock when they managed to reach the grass of the park and could see the roads beyond. The Guards attention had been turned from them, all standing like statues under the change to the plan that had taken three full days to approve. Libertus saw the way Nyx snapped to attention first, felt the way Noct pulled free from his grip, and nearly panicked before the instincts kicked in.
“Dad!” Noct was the only one not affected by the need to show Regis respect for the station, the only one who could get away with the excited, lopsided little run towards his father as everyone nearby bowed or stood at attention. Libertus briefly wished he had checked that Noct’s leg was okay before they set off back up the steep path, that the limp wouldn’t be too prominent or the wince as the boy rushed to his father wasn’t there to sour the mood.
The Regalia was parked by the little patch of grass near the pathway, shadowed by the carefully cultivated trees that marked the park beyond. Regis crouched to his son, smiling as the prince showed off the three fish they had decided to keep.
“Sir Libertus said he knew how to cook them,” Libertus blanched at the mention of that little promise. One that he had made without thinking, back by the water where the rest of the city seemed to fall away. “Can he show me? I want to make lunch. Will you try some? Will you stay for lunch?”
Libertus tried not to be nervous under the curious look from the King, under the kindness in those eyes he barely remembered ever being directed towards him. He tried not to think of the sight of the little smile and the pride of a father as something he could associate with the King before him— he had let it be drilled into him that King Regis was not just an ordinary man by the Captain and the years of training. He didn’t want to change his mind now, just because the man was crouched down to hear his son talk about the day’s adventure.
“Well, if such a brave knight has offered to teach you, who am I to refuse?” Regis stood, lifting his boy into the car; “We’ll have lunch together and you’ll tell me all about your adventure, won’t you?”
There was always a tenseness to the storms that battered the Wall. For those who had watched the storms form and grown and move closer from the outlying districts and the edge of the fortifications, there was a sense of dread that came in on those dark clouds. Most of the people in those areas knew what it was like to be caught out in those maelstroms, battered beneath the harsh winds and harsher rains. Most of those who had survived the crossings from places like Cavaugh and Galahd knew what it was like to take shelter behind boarded up windows and doors and rickety homes that could barely survive the winds.
Libertus remembered watching the spouts form over the water with Nyx and Crowe and Selena when they had hours before landfall. Hours to watched the growing dark clouds over the water and feel the steady power of the winds. There were times when thy counted the seconds between the rolls of thunder and the silent flashes of lightning, watching the waves lift and twist over dark waters until there was a spout. There were storms that never made it to shore, where Selena insisted that she could see the fabled old man in the fluffy clouds with a golden staff. There were storms that built up over Lucis rather than the sea, that faded before the first rains could break against the rocky cliffs— where the fishermen and the ferrymen and the merchants of the coasts would eye them warily, but not with the same fear as one of the storms that took days to steep over the ocean.
Libertus remembered that the Niflheim ships used a storm as cover when they came in. That he thought the first strikes of Nif weapons were lightning, and the steady rumble of the landing ships were a rolling, irregular thunder.
He preferred to be up here, in the Citadel, watching the distant clouds through the large windows of the prince’s rooms. Down in the districts, the rain will be welcomed after the violence of the storm passes. After the memory of lost homes and red lights cutting through dark clouds faded.
From the Citadel, he could see the first strike of lightning against the Wall, and watch the sparks shatter harmlessly against the magic.
“You’re safe up here, little highness,” Libertus thought it was cute the way the prince was wary of the storms. There had been announcements for days. Warnings and watches and the Wall shining and rippling brighter as the dark clouds moved to cover the city. “Just think of it like fireworks.”
“I don’t like fireworks.”
There were moments that Libertus thought the prince was being contrary on purpose. Moments when the boy tried to be like his friend, an adult and serious— the threat of duty hanging over him like the clouds moving over the city. Libertus preferred it when the prince acted like the kid he was.
“Right, come here, little highness,” He scooped the prince up to watch the storm with him just as the sky opened up with another crack and crackle of lightning dancing over the Wall. Small hands tightened around his shoulders and he was glad the boy could hold on to the uniform coat. “Easy, Noctis. It’s just a storm.”
“I don’t like it.”
“It’s pretty loud, eh?” The clouds had been pushed around the Wall at first, flowing up with the winds over the barrier. There was a delay before the rain passed through, a few seconds of the deluge held back on the magic. Then it fell in sheets, obscuring the distant districts in a matter of seconds, even the lights flickering as the winds rattled the city. He felt the boy in his arms turn away from the window and the storm. “Why don’t I show you the best way to stay safe in a storm like this?”
“How would you know?”
“I’m from Galahd, little highness! This is nothing, I grew up watching bigger storms on the cliffs back home.”
There was a chest at the end of the boy’s bed— the extra blankets stashed there, collected and gifted and inherited over the years, from one royal child to the next. Most days, it just seemed to be another seat for the prince— a pirate ship, and fishing boat, a noble steed Libertus could push around for the brave hero prince. But today, with the clouds so dark that it may as well have been night, and the windows rattling from the force of the winds, he leaves the lid propped up. He set the prince down on the bed before he got to work, trapping a blanket edge here and there with hinges and heavy books— the antique posts of the bed serving as a tent pole as he spread the blankets and stretched them out.
“What are you doing?” Noctis asked from the centre of the bed, storm forgotten as the trunk was emptied of the blankets. Libertus stretched them like a canopy around the prince, blocking the view of the windows.
“I’m fortifying your room, little highness.”
“But we’re in the Citadel.”
“You can never be too careful,” Libertus offered the edge of a blanket for Noctis to hold and stood on the edge of the bed to tie the other end well above the reach of the boy. The blanket fell like a wall between the prince and the storm now raging beyond the windows still rattling in the wind. “Hand me that, little highness? I’m just about done this side.”
Logically, Libertus knew that the Citadel was the safest place in the city to be during any event. He knew without any shred of doubt that the storm outside that would have levelled his little hometown before the Nifs got there would never amount to anything more severe than just some winds held back by the magic of the Wall and rains that could safely be drained away. The lightning danced across the barrier above, and the rain obscured the rest of the city, but Libertus knew that they were safe where they were. Even as the lights flickered and the thunder rolled over them, directly overhead.
He smiled to the prince who’s attention was wavering between him and the darkness outside. “Almost done this side,” he said as he secured the corner of the blanket plucked from Noctis’ tight grip; “We’ll need two for the other side.”
“Two? But this side just has one.”
“Yeah, but we need a door, right? And the end of the bed will have an escape tunnel,” he tried not to smirk as the prince moved to the chest to pull more blankets out.
“But how will Iggy get in?”
“Through the door, if he wants.”
“We need a password…”
“I’ll leave that up to you, little highness.”
Moving around the bed was a more involved process the more blankets that went up. The room got darker, the storm worse, and Libertus lifted the prince to tie off the last of the barriers around the bed. When the blankets were draped and the barrier between the prince and the rest of the world was set, it was much easier to see the boy relax where he sat in the centre of the bed Libertus always thought was far too big. “Well? What do you think of your fort?”
“It’s a little dark…”
“You’re a picky one, little highness.” Libertus sat on the edge of the bed again with a smile, with the prince watching his every move in the dark. He didn’t like using the magic he was gifted— he didn’t like having the power clawing beneath his skin like it wanted to burn him away. It was all part of being a Glaive, he knew, but that didn’t mean he wanted to have any real reminder that he had sold himself to a foreign king’s cause. But here was a boy, with wide eyes blinking up at him in the dark as they hid from the storm, and he called the magic up. He was always a sucker for innocent eyes.
Fire was too dangerous, too hard to control. Libertus found over their training that he preferred the little sparks of lightning, or the carefully interlocking shields of his protect spells. He was better with those, he had more control over them, felt that they were more useful, more practical. Safer. And here, in the dark and muffled rumble of thunder rolling over them, the little sparks he could flick up to the air would to nothing more than tickle the boy if they touched him. But it was enough light to see by, and enough light to read by if he could remember where he put the story book the prince had been working on.
The prince’s delighted smile was worth it.
“Now,” Libertus tried to get comfortable— it was easier in this little shelter not to think about the room beyond the blankets, or the hallways darkened by thick clouds as if it was night. It was easier not to think about the army of staff and guards wandering around in the levels above and below, or the pulsing Crystal he had never seen. It was easier here, with the boy clambering into his lap, to not think of how it felt closer to midnight than to midday; “I think we can come up with a story or two, right?”
“Why don’t I read you one?”
Libertus knew that his time posted as Noctis’ guard was short. That the little prince would start training soon, and that his Shield would be coming in to take his place. He knew that he was going to be called to the front line again, and again, and again, until either there was some sort of progress or he was too injured to return to duty. Or killed. He tried not to think about that. At least not while the little prince was walking through the Citadel halls with him, gripping his hand like he was afraid of the familiar route and the familiar walls.
He had understood that this was always going to just be temporary. He knew that the little prince’s own training would be taking over most mornings, and that the break in his studies was just as short lived. He knew that the Captain wouldn’t keep letting his “best Glaives” keep getting pulled from where they were needed and more wanted. He knew that the front lines couldn’t just stay padded with Crownsguard soldiers, that’s not what they were there for— and the new Glaives recruited needed a more experienced team looking out for them.
He knew that the stern young cadet training to be the prince’s Shield would be coming home soon. Would be taking his place soon.
“Will you show me some magic, Sir Libertus?” Noctis asked one morning, school book spread out on the ancient, pristine desk in front of him. There were several textbooks collected over the past week or so, all stacked and ready for when a tutor was chosen. There had been tests for the prince to judge where he was in his studies— tests for his companion for the same.
“Not today, little highness,” Libertus wasn’t looking forward to telling the prince that he was going away again. “We gotta get you down to your lessons.”
“I’ll have to learn about magic eventually, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So why can’t you teach me?”
There were whole books somewhere in the Citadel libraries that explained exactly why someone like him couldn’t really teach Noctis anything about his own magic. There were probably very explicit instructions and plans as to how the prince was going to learn how to harness his own power anyway. There were likely protocols and lesson plans, and pages of permissions and checklists and ways to control the royal magic that burned through that young body.
It had been drilled into them for years since enlisting that the power they carried was on loan. That the King of Lucis had been forced to share his gifts out of necessity, rather than desire. That the power shared was still only a touch of what the royal blood could carry. He could hear the Captain’s reminders not to get cocky, that their power was still just a fraction of what the king could do, if he wanted. Nyx had never seemed to care that the King stayed safe behind the Wall, with his Crystal and power to end the war, but Libertus knew what it meant. He knew that the Glaive was only a temporary solution, that they had been picked for the talents that carried them to Lucis in the first place. That they were expendable in place of the King, in place of the prince.
He didn’t want to lay it at the prince’s feet— his misgivings or thoughts on the Lucian magic that coursed through the kid’s veins. On the magic that he could feel burning himself away with every new fight on the front lines. “Because your lessons today are for swords, and then you have to study.”
“I liked it better when you would just tell me stories.”
“Me too.” He wondered who was going to keep the kid on track while he was gone to the front lines. He didn’t think Ignis could get the prince up on time for his lessons, that usually took some level of brute force of just picking the prince up out of bed when he tried to burrow deeper in the blankets. He didn’t think the round of guards who’d take over would care enough to notice when the prince was getting a headache or stiff from the antique chair at the desk.
He supposed that was what the new Shield was for, too. Maybe. The details and duties of the young cadet seemed so vague and nebulous now that the ball was rolling to put everyone into their assigned positions.
He wished it could have lasted a little longer. But the prince was getting better. He had a life and duties (which was ridiculous, and Libertus still felt the need to shout at the idiot who decided that a child needed the responsibilities of a kingdom on him) and Libertus had his own corner of the city to get back to now that he wasn’t needed. He had his friends and family and the war he wanted to keep far away from the little prince gripping his hand tightly.
In a few years, he was certain the prince wouldn’t even remember him. Not like he remembered Nyx as the hero. The Captain had said it’d probably only take a few months, with the prince’s schedule. Libertus let himself be sentimental.
“Your going to meet your Shield today properly, right?”
“Yeah…” Libertus knew the way the prince held the training sword— the way he gripped it close against his chest with his free hand— was more like a shield to ward off the prospect of meeting a new person, though they had met numerous times before under more formal circumstances. “I don’t really know Gladio too well.”
“Sure you do. He’s stopped by plenty of times, and he’s not much older than you.”
“But he’s not like Iggy, or you. He’s too serious now.” Libertus also knew the face that Noctis made at the idea; “I wish you could be my Shield.”
“Pretty sure there’s a pedigree involved with that, little highness.”
“Noble house and all that stuff. You should give your Shield a chance. I’m sure you’ll get along.”
“And if we don’t? Then can I make you my Shield?”
“I’m more of a guard type, you know. Stand at duty, tell stories, that sort of thing.”
He felt the small hand in his tighten again, and wondered just exactly what the prince was so scared of. He thought back to days of when the stern young Crownsguard Cadet would visit. The look of distaste from the cadet— hidden in the coldness of a look instead of laid bare for the prince to see— at the way the prince shied away when his invitations to play weren’t taken. Libertus had taken care to bite his tongue, to keep himself in check as he watched the formality slip over the prince like a smothering blanket in the face of the discipline his Shield would have. He had been careful not to overstep then, not to step in to protect Noctis from the reminder that he wasn’t just a boy.
“Will you have to leave?” Noctis asked softly, forcing himself into the mask of prince the closer they got to the training rooms. The closer they got to the promise that Libertus will not be there for much longer.
“I’ll get an assignment, little highness. You don’t need to worry about that. I’m not going to be bored.”
“But you might have to go fight again.”
“I don’t want you to.”
They were early, Libertus had made sure of that. He had been careful to get the prince up and ready on time for these new lessons, for these new meetings. He had been careful to get Noctis up and awake and ready to face the stranger that was waiting to take over the lessons now. So he stopped them, just a few metres from the heavy doors and knelt to meet the prince’s eyes properly, to make sure he could let the prince see the truth in his own eyes at this. Around them, the halls were still dark, still foreboding, too big for a child like Noctis; to cavernous and heavy to bear down with all their history and responsibility on those small shoulders.
“Noctis, we both have a duty here. I’m going to do my best to protect you, and the city, from people who are much scarier than that kid in there waiting for you. I’m going to do my best to come back to visit you, too, okay? And when I do, I want you to tell me all about how this Shield of yours is treating you.”
“You’re going to be learning a lot of things now, okay? You’re going to learn about being a prince, and all the things that means. But I need you to be a prince that I’d be proud of, too.”
“What if you don’t come back? What if I can’t?”
“I’m always coming back, little highness. I promise. And I’ll always be happy to serve you, so long as you’re you, got it?”
Noctis smiled at that, clutching his sword closer as he nodded and steeled himself. “Who else would I be?”
Libertus wanted to tell the boy not to be his father. Not to be just another high and mightly Lucian noble sitting in a tower and watching the world crumble around them. He wanted to tell the boy not to become what everyone else was trying to make him. Instead he smiled and straightened, and kept a hand on the boy’s back. “Just yourself, little highness. And if this Shield of yours is too tough on you, I’ll be sure to set him right.”
“Thank you, Sir Libertus.”
“You can do this, little highness.”
It was months before Libertus saw the prince again. Long months on the tour of the front lines— isolated from the news of the city, surrounded by the roughness of other soldiers, laughing over campfire meals beneath the glare of daemon-dispelling spotlights. Long nights of listening to the growls and threats from the darkness, and itching for the shields that burned just below his skin. Long days, patrolling beneath the harsh dusts of the Cavaugh border as the distant flashes of red lights of Niflheim ships were lost in the sands and dirt kicked up by the winds.
It was months of watching the sunlight glare off metal soldiers and the shadows wrap around beasts and daemons in the dark before any of them received word from the city. News filtered in here and there as medics came and left, as supplies were ferried in and new orders were processed, but even the rare hours of downtime between the patrols had been blanketed by the blackout that fell over the camps. It wasn’t until the new troops came in— the weeks of hand off to the new group coming in, the new recruits to fill the holes left by the dead— and they were on their way back to the safety of the city and the Wall that the isolation was broken.
“Looks like we have visitors,” Crowe mumbled as the transport pulled past a crowd gathered at the Kingsglaive headquarters. The team collectively twisted in their seats to see the line of officials and press gathered. “Don’t we usually get a warning for these sorts of things?”
“Inspections,” Tredd added his own grumble to the mix of muttered surprise.
Nyx groaned as he got a good look at the press of people waiting for them, settling back into the seat as the transport peeled away from the usual drop off point to the garages. “Not with that crowd. This is something else.”
“Alright,” it was Luche who snapped into their attention once in the dark of the garages, once they had all clambered out of the transports and fell into line on carefully trained instinct. Luche was sliding an earpiece into place as he stepped away from the decorated Crownsguard who had greeted them; “This is a short notice event for Prince’s Day— turns out thats today.”
It was Tredd who broke protocol first, arms crossed over his chest; “And what, we get to parade for the kid?”
“No, but you have ten minutes to straighten up. Captain’ll take us out to the front where there’s some ‘surprise’ waiting.”
Libertus took a deep breath and followed at Nyx’s heel as they made their way through the dim of the garage and towards the lockers. They had just got back from months out in the heat and waste and war of the Cavaugh fronts, and now they were expected to deal with some new press ring without a proper rest. “Can’t they just give us a break?”
“It’s probably all for the cameras,” Crowe grumbled, shoving one of her mages off to get a clean uniform on before the woman collapsed from exhaustion. The clean up took less than the ten minutes— a quick change of shirts and jacket, a splash of water, and they had all fallen in for a quick inspection from the Captain before they were escorted out to the gathering.
The parade rest came on instinct— a last piece of duty before the promise of an actual rest. It was easy to ignore the lights and the heat under the attention; easy to ignore the fuss and decorations and the feeling that they were just being dragged out like pets on a leash. It was easy to tune out the speeches and the talks— to keep the straight face and the soldier’s facade. At least until the usual prattle they had expected was interrupted with a shy, softer voice that Libertus knew should be nowhere around the Kingsglaive headquarters.
He let his eyes wander to the prince, stood at his father’s side and dressed up for the occasion. The suit was ridiculous on the boy, the tie more so. And Libertus fought the newfound instinct to stoop down and loosen the stuffy, stiff getup that made the boy seem far more adult than he was. But there was the press honed in on him— a child more on display than the soldiers around him— as he opened the small box in his hands.
“These medals are to show Lucis’ appreciation for all the sacrifice and strength of our most valued friends,” the prince was saying— speaking to the cameras though Libertus caught his eyes as a medal was held up. He recognised the design at a glance: a Galahdian shield clipped to the colours of strength from across the Island nation. He almost smiled as he remembered pointing out those very things to the boy in the dozens of books pulled down from too-high shelves. The King’s hand fell to his son’s shoulder as the prince finished his carefully prepared speech. “Prince’s Day is meant to honour me and my family before me, but I can only hope to be half so honourable as the Kingsglaive.”
Nyx was the one grinning at the sight, at the short speech, and the collective coos from the better rested reporters over how cute the Crown Prince was in his suit and stiffness. Nyx was the one who was bold enough to catch the boy’s eyes and kneel down so the medal didn’t need to be passed off to the Captain to be pinned to his coat. It was Nyx who earned the first little smile from the prince as he offered a flourished bow in his gratitude for the shining new medal.
Libertus borrowed some of the boldness of his friend and followed suit. It was easier to focus on the prince like this, to ignore the softness in the king’s eyes and focus instead on that relieved smile from the boy. It was easier to smile at that look of concentration as the boy slipped the pin of the new medal into the thick material of the coat. “Thanks, your highness.”
It was soft, and muttered, and he meant it for just the boy in front of him. The grin it earned him was worth it.
The rest of the line proceeded as normal and planned— the medals handed up to the Captain, until Luche followed the lead to kneel for the prince with a smile. And Libertus bit back the grin at the shy sweetness of the prince’s smile in the face of Luche’s confidence.
It was hard to stay still after the little ceremony, after the little speech of thanks from the prince and the careful, kind questions from the reporters. It was hard not to grin as the prince bolstered his own confidence with glances up to his father before he offered his answers. It was hard to stay professional as Nyx nudged him with an elbow and not respond as they were dismissed. Back in the quiet of the lockers as the Glaives finally had the promise of a real rest. It was hard not to slip around to watch the crowd disperse as they left through the quieter routes around the edges.
Libertus stopped resisting the urge to examine the medal once he was back outside with just his friends and in the sense of safety that came with getting back to the city. He chuckled as Nyx held up his medal to examine the details, offering a wolfish grin in pride over the new decoration they had each been given.
“Sweet kid,” Nyx said, finally tucking the thing away as they started on the route back home.
“Yeah,” Libertus agreed, “He did good.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Crowe shoved them both; “Cutest little prince in Eos, we going home or what?”
Well, this is wholly dedicated to Jazz, since she put up with the behind-the-scenes tormenting.
No one ever wanted to celebrate a birthday out on the front lines. No one wanted the little crappy cakes made out of what was left of the rations of sweets (if they were lucky) or the candle taped to a candy bar wrested from the ancient vending machines in the in the mess hall. No one wanted to wake up to the alarms and sirens and the shouted orders that they had incoming MTs reinforced by the endless supply chain. No Glaive or Guard sent to the front lines wanted to be there for the unlucky day they were born, because superstition dictated that there was a bullet waiting for them. There were a beast’s claws and teeth and MT’s weapons waiting, with some vengeful ancestor bitter about not getting enough attention signalling out the unlucky bastard born that day.
Libertus had celebrated three birthdays on the front lines.
Each one was the same— the jokes from the Lucians, the careful neglect of the fact from the Galahdians, the ignorance from the Cavaughns— with bad food and the reminder that somewhere in the city was a warm bed and a festival. That was three birthdays not acknowledged until they were out of range of the enemy, usually days or weeks later. When every poor sap who lived gathered for drinks and well wishes after the fact. Libertus had been a part of those gatherings since getting to the city— the mass celebrations that could have been a festival itself if the sun had aligned correctly and the calendar makers had deemed it so.
But Libertus had the added bad luck of being born on a festival day. Which worked out just well for him— everyone ignored him. He wasn’t like Nyx, who liked to be the centre of attention when he had the excuse. He wasn’t like Crowe who just picked a day she liked each year because no one knew her actual birthday and “Foundling Day” was a stupid holiday for the orphans like her. Luche took his own events in stride, with Lucian grace and Galahdian beer, while Pelna hid himself away until he was dragged out to dinner and away from his tinkering— always protesting at the attention.
Libertus was happy to fly under the radar the way he did. Let the people have their banners and lights and music in the streets, he was happy to finally have a birthday safe behind the Wall. With a few weeks of leave stretched out before him.
“How old are you?”
He had hoped for a quiet day— sleep in, make some food, maybe get his place cleaned up, and then head out to the festival for the night. He expected it to be an easy day, with his disgruntled cat tolerating his presence, and trying to remind himself that he wasn’t as old as he felt.
He certainly hadn’t expected Nyx to show up on his doorstep with a little prince in carefully chosen civilian clothes. He didn’t expect the grin from his friend and the shy smile from the prince. Or the “this is three days worth of paperwork, so happy birthday.”
Now there was a prince sitting in his apartment, best friends with his disgruntled cat, and eating slices of apple while Libertus made lunch. A proper lunch. He had picked up the right meats and spices the day after getting back in; had planned and prepped things and made sure that everything was perfect in the cuts and scents and sauces.
“I’m old, little highness.”
“But how old?”
Libertus had planned for Nyx to be there, to be sitting in his usual favourite chair, beer in hand switched out for juice in the presence of the prince— a voluntary duty he had put himself on. He had planned for his friend’s smirk and jokes, but not the way the prince would look to him for back up. “Twenty three.”
“You’re older than Nyx,” Noctis said, hands moving over the orange fur of a cat more relaxed than Libertus had ever seen.
“Too old to be your knight?” Libertus wanted to tease the prince, wanted to pretend that this wasn’t the heir of Lucis sitting in one of his chairs. “Because you might need to give Nyx that title then.”
“No.” He could almost laugh at the look of horror from the boy. “He’s too young to be a knight now. There are rules, you know.”
“Right.” Libertus wanted to ignore the presence of the Crownsguard in the streets. He could see them in their black uniforms— the Marshal’s chosen men and women barely blending in to the festive crowds— from his window, and knew that there was more than just the paperwork at play in Nyx’s surprise. He knew that they would have vetted his place, his neighbours, his neighbourhood, the festival, before letting the prince out with seemingly just Nyx to look after him. But it was his surprise— the boy was apparently ignorant of the small army of guards— and he wouldn’t let the kid just be a prince in his apartment. “Come here, Noctis. I need your help.”
He directed Noctis to grab a chair from the dining table to stand on so he could see. He showed him the way he stirred the thick, vibrant, fragrant sauce, and carefully handed the spoon to the boy. “Nice and steady, right? This is the important part of the meal.”
“The cooking?” Noctis was staring at the sauce as he moved the wooden spoon, not quite having the reach for full movements through the pot. “Because Iggy says it’s like a science.”
Libertus heard Nyx chuckle from where he was still seated, one leg stretched out to coax the cat into some mimicry of affection without risking his hands to her claws. He knew that Nyx had heard all of his lectures before— had been scolded plenty of times for taking things off the heat too soon, for stealing morsels and bites and tastes and sips well before anything was ready— despite being a perfectly capable cook in his own right. But this was for Noctis. He didn’t think the kid ever actually saw a proper kitchen before. Food in the Citadel just sort of appeared in the doorway like magic, summoned by a request or schedule, and often picked at by the prince.
But Libertus was not one of the Citadel chefs. He was not interested in hiding away his own brand of magic the same way the Lucians did. None of those stuffy bastards with their bland attempts at real food had any idea what it was to show off for an awestruck audience and watch them enjoy the finished product that much more. He had no doubt that the Citadel kitchens— where ever they were buried deep in the belly of the stone beast that was that set of tower— carried only the best of the best by way of ingredients and skill. But he had hunted for these spices for days. He had seasoned the meat the night before, shut it away in a container to absorb the fragrance and flavour of the mixes he could only try to mimic from back home. He had worked on other sauces and soups, buying the pre-made ones only when he couldn’t find the right mix of ingredients to make them himself.
His whole apartment felt richer for his efforts.
At least he thought so.
“Almost done, kid,” he said, watching Noctis switch hands with the spoon, diligently keeping the sauce from burning. Libertus dropped some fennel onto the thick orange liquid— mostly ginger and a bit of citrus zest, flavoured creams to thicken it up— and tried not to smile too much as Noctis looked up at him for an explanation. “Just a finishing touch.”
He helped the boy off the chair and moved it aside, lifting the pot away from the heat and to the worktop with both child and cat suddenly underfoot. “Alright,” he said, once the pot was safely out of reach and ready to be served; “Nyx’s turn.”
“What can I do?”
“Watch, little prince,” Nyx said, already familiar with how this routine went. The chair was moved to the side, and Noctis clambered back to it for a better view as the two Glaives worked, spoon still clutched in his hands.
They had worked out a system years ago, when it was just the two of them prepping a bar for the night and pushing out the easy food they could make as the night wore on. Libertus tossed the meat into a pan— the heavy cast iron smoking and sizzling as soon as the spiced meat hit it. He had cut the portions the night before, tossing the thick chunks into his mix of spices and herbs until the colour of the meat was lost beneath the coating of flavour. The veggies went in next— the dampness of the leaves and roots still glistening from recent cuts and cleans— sending a cloud of steam into the air around them like a spell as Nyx moved to prepare the bowls of sauces for dipping. The store bought stuff was hastily warmed in the microwave, the proper sauce given more attention and prominence as it was poured— thick and fragrant into a bowl.
“Wish I had made the bread,” Libertus said as he tossed the mix of meat and greens together until the colour of them was right. Until the smell of them, the air around them, was thick with the flavour that had wafted through the apartment as soon as the heat released it. The bread was his only regret in this whole meal.
“Yeah,” Nyx offered his friend a wry look as he set the bowls on to the table— careful of the mesmerised boy watching them; “you got lazy. I’m almost embarrassed.”
“Shut up and get the plates.”
“I outrank you.”
“Not in my kitchen.”
And Nyx laughs as he snaps off a mocking salute, chased to getting plates and cups with a glare from his oldest friends. They moved easily around the boy still watching them like they were performing magic, reaching over dark hair to trade tools and quips alike. Bread and meat was divided up easily, the smallest portion for the smallest stomach among them, and Libertus didn’t think twice about whether or not the boy would eat any of it. He ha watched Noctis pick through stews and squirm at strangely coloured soups. He had watched leafy greens and vegetable plucked from sandwiches and fruits separated from snacks before any bite was taken. But the chaos of his kitchen seemed to work it’s more effective magic, because the boy only made a face as the spices surprised him. When they were all sitting with their meal— Nyx easily breaking apart bread and showing Noctis how to properly dip it into the sauce— Noctis only fussed when the first few tastes sent him reaching for his cup of juice.
In the next few hours, they would be out enjoying the lights and music. Libertus would keep a tight hold on Noctis in the crowd, lifting the boy up to see the performers or sneaking him closer to the stages and stalls by muscling through the mass of celebrating people. He would point out the symbols on lanterns and decorations, teach the kid how to tie the right ribbons together for his elaborate necklace. He’d take Noctis to see the beads— freshly carved by traditional ways in a display of Galahdian artistry.
In a few hours, the small army of trained killers shadowing their every move would be forgotten in the rush and jubilation of the music and treats and festival. And later than all that, the Marshal will appear in the crowd to lead them to the waiting car ready to spirit the tired prince back to his tower. The small bag of treats and toys and little pieces of art will be examined before appearing the next day in Noctis’ rooms when he wakes up.
Libertus hoped that the aftertaste from his meal, and the beat of the wild music, would still be there when the prince woke up the next morning. The lanterns and carvings and costumes filling the young Lucian’s mind for days, weeks, afterwards, even though he had been taken back to his tower so quickly.
For now— watching the boy laugh, smiling as he remembered what it was like to coax that kind of laughter from quiet little Crowe when they were young— Libertus decided that having a birthday shared with a festival wasn’t so bad. Not if it meant a visit from a kid he had started to think of as ‘little brother’ more than ‘little highness.’
Libertus knew what it was to be helpless. He understood what it was to watch the world collapse around him over, and over, in nightmares reliving the past and in the very real world where wars raged. He knew what it was to not be able to do anything other than grab what and who he loved and run— to pray to whatever ancestors and Astrals were listening that he could outrun the fire licking at his heels. He had followed Nyx to Insomnia for that very reason. He remembered wanting to do something to fight back, even if it wasn’t on his home soil.
He remembered seeing kids younger, smaller, than Noctis collapsing from exhaustion and starvation and burns. He remembered seeing the spread of black Scourge eating away at people until there was nothing left but piles of clothes to be burnt— as if the sick had burned away in the dawn.
He remembered hearing that the little prince had been taken to Tenebrae for healing, and not thinking of it beyond a few bandages and herbs at the time. There had been a fuss in the media about it, and the subsequent fall of the Tenebraean allies. He hadn’t thought about the prince and the king during that media frenzy and national hand-wringing. He had only focused on getting in touch with Crowe again.
“Yeah, it was the Scourge,” Crowe said over drinks one night. One of the few quiet nights they had. She had been fresh out of training when she was taken to Tenebrae as a guard. Libertus remembered being furious at the assignment. At the separation. It had only been a few years ago. “From that attack no one ever talks about.”
“And you saw it,” Libertus doubted it. It was healthy to doubt things— to not idolise or idealise… To not think of that blackness spreading through the prince the way he had seen it seep into the camps of refugees desperate to escape the iron and lead of Niflheim occupation.
“Damn right, I did.”
The prince was sick. His scheduled appearances excused in the media under the pretence of transparency in the ruling nobility. There was a history of sickness since the attack; a history of hiding the prince away and discreet hospital visits. There was a history of the kid oversleeping and waking up a touch too warm— of losing appetites and energy, and that limp Libertus worried was something more than anyone told him. But the kid was ten, and it was cold out. There was a flu spreading through the city on the transit and through the schools. There were colds and allergies and all manner of congestions and coughs that could spread through the city crowd.
It wasn’t unreasonable to think that it would eventually reach the boy in the tower.
But it wasn’t a latent episode of the Scourge surfacing. Libertus would have known if it was. He would have seen signs before, he would have just known if that disease was eating away at the prince; seen the dark bruising that he had seen colour the arms and hands and necks and legs of a dozen kids smaller and healthier than the prince before. He would have noticed the turn in the prince’s eyes, in the boy’s demeanour. He would have known. “It’s not the Scourge. The kid doesn’t have the Scourge.”
“I’m not saying he has it now, Libs.” But Crowe had seen it once. Libertus remembered when she came back with stories of the seeping black on the boy’s leg, just below where the daemon had twisted him. He hadn’t listened then— too focused on having his family back together— but the words came back now, and the images he had ignored then. “But he did before. It’s why they went to the Oracle in the first place.”
“No one actually knows how long it can stay undetected in the human body, though,” Pelna offered a shrug in response to the glare that the comment earned him. “Just saying.”
Libertus shook his head, dismissing the conversation entirely. He had been hoping for this assignment again. He hadn’t outright asked for the guard duty within the Citadel, but there was a relief he couldn’t deny when the relief team to the front lines was the group of recruits just graduated from their basic training.
Nyx had let them argue it out, had focused on his food and drinks, and let the idea mull through his mind as he listened to Crowe’s theory about the sickness keeping the prince from public view. “You can check on him tomorrow, Libs.”
The patrol he was on wouldn’t take him to the prince’s rooms. Libertus knew that. He wasn’t like Nyx, who could leave a post to indulge a whim and roll with the consequences. Libertus wasn’t that bold, or that quick; he hadn’t picked up Nyx’s ability to talk them out of trouble. He didn’t want to jeopardise his position, or livelihood, or his purpose in the city. He couldn’t just get up and leave the dull posting by the Crystal’s chamber— where the whispers of magic seeped through the walls and into his mind.
But his feet took him away from the post anyway. He could say it was his patrol, started a few minutes early. That it was a noise or a shadow, or a sense from his magic that led him away from the Crystal and it’s secure doors and guards. That is was a sense of duty that led him to leave his post, rather than a sense of boredom.
He almost thanked the Astrals to see that Ignis kid in the hallway, serious and cautious, and clutching a book to his chest. “Hey, Ignis.”
“His highness was asking for you…” Libertus had never seen that uncertainty on the kid before. He had always associated the prince’s companion with the unbending force of the Lucian propriety. He had never seen Ignis fidget as he was, casting glances around the halls as if he was in the right section of the Citadel. “If you’re not busy?”
The halls were always quiet away from the acceptable public tours. The royal apartments dark and empty while the king and his retinue, and small army of staff were in other areas. Libertus had almost missed the way his steps echoed with so much more certainty than he felt in those corridors, leading to the heavy doors that hid Noctis.
Gladiolus sized him up from the door— the Amicitia boy still in Crownsguard cadets colours as he stood on duty. He reminded Libertus of a weed or a tree— too tall for a kid just entering his teens. Too serious, like Ignis, for a kid. Libertus just offered a nod in response to the cold look he got and ignored the hushed argument between the boys left at the door. He had heard the coughing from inside the rooms and his focus narrowed.
“Hey, little highness,” the prince was curled up in bed, more pallid than normal. Smaller than Libertus remembered. “How you feeling?”
“Sir Libs?” Noctis shifted beneath the blankets to greet him; books and plush and toys from the other side of the bed dislodged by the movement clattered to the floor on the opposite side of the bed. Ignis poked his head in at the noise, and Libertus was tempted to wave him away.
“Yeah, it’s me,” There was a fever, and a small smile in greeting. Untouched food on the desk and nightstand, and a familiar little carved toy clutched tightly in the boy’s hands. Libertus was relieved to see that there was no pattern of darkness lingering just below the skin, no inky darkness seeping into the prince’s eyes. “Your buddy said you wanted to see me.”
“Iggy’s not good at stories.”
Of course that’s what the kid would ask for.
Libertus wanted to laugh.
Instead he settled as he used to when the prince had nightmares. There was plenty of room in the bed, but Libertus preferred to grab a pillow and settle on the floor, back against the bed. It wasn’t long before he felt the familiar small hand on his shoulder, picking at the shining buttons of his coat. If Noctis felt bold, he’d ask to play with beads or necklaces. He’d trace the foreign lines and recite the stories at each bead that Libertus had told him once. He would prove to his guard, his friend, that he had listened and learnt the importance of each little keepsake. And smile at the impressed look it earned him from the Glaive.
But Noctis was sick. And the most he could do with what little energy he had now, was to pluck idly at the buttons and braiding in the details of the uniform while Libertus beckoned Ignis closer.
Stories were always good for sick days. Recounts of fishing adventures with Nyx out in the Canyon, and their daring climbs before dark to the campsite they had wandered away from. Stories of forests and oceans and the rich, red mountains protected by superstition and fairy tales. Stories where Libertus wasn’t helpless to save what he cared about. Where little princes and his friends were never targeted by monsters and daemons and Empires. Where Libertus hadn’t once sworn that he saw an imp scamper away from a sick tent once, where a boy had died the night before. Where Galahd was still a welcoming place, and he could make idle promises to take a bedridden boy off to explore one day.
Libertus didn’t like watching Noctis train. He didn’t like watching the boy— skinny little kid that he was— wearing training padding and holding a training sword that was far too heavy for him. He didn’t like standing guard as the Amicitia boy spat out orders and commands like he wasn’t a child himself. While Ignis sat like stone nearby, the shared urge to rush to the prince bitten down behind the mantra of orders and duty and reminders that ‘this is how it is’.
Libertus didn’t like just standing by while Noctis was turned into some sort of weapon. As if Libertus would ever let him see the same war that still raged outside of the Wall.
Like he wasn’t twelve.
He hated the assignments that made him stand by and watch— at attention despite the safety of the Citadel-- as the Amicitia kid pushed and prodded further than what Noctis was ready for. Further than what he wanted to do. He let himself smile as Noctis learnt that he was faster, smaller, more agile than the lumbering teen now that they were beyond the basic stances and grips they had started with two years ago. As Noctis ducked and moved and played dirty— like Nyx had been showing him. As his little highness glared at the more aggressive older trainer and bit out muted swears as he stumbled.
When the heavy training sword struck at the prince’s bad leg, Libertus had enough. Despite the padding of the training equipment, the training swords were heavy enough to hurt— heavy enough to leave bruises and scrapes where the prince would fall. Heavy enough to serve as lessons for when Noctis wasn’t fast enough or strong enough or smart enough— as the Amicitia kid said. To leave a bruise to remind the prince that his price for laziness could be worse.
Libertus sometimes felt like he was the only one who remembered how long the prince wore a brace on his knee, or how the bandages had to be adjusted. How grievous the boy’s injuries had been.
“Get up,” Amicitia snapped, training sword at ease against his shoulder. “You can do better.”
It was the familiar order in the room, filling in the tense silence of the observers. Libertus was reminded that it was not his place to break it. He wasn’t there, not really. Not the way Noctis needed him to be. He wasn’t there as his little prince’s knight, he couldn’t do more than meet the hurt in those eyes he had seen getting duller and quieter over the years. He couldn’t do more than watch and silently encourage the kid to get back to his feet or pull rank.
Thank the Six for Ignis.
“That’s enough, Gladiolus.”
Thank the Six for the prince’s constant companion, kneeling down to see if there was any real damage to the already broken prince in his care. Offering a glare to the Crownsguard cadet when Noctis pulled away from a gentle touch, a soft examination. Pulled away with a hiss of pain where the hit had landed, close enough to old wounds to still hurt.
“If you keep—”
“That’s enough for today,” Ignis was firm, and cold.
There had been a change over the last few months, after the Crownsguard had been worked up into some tizzy over the prince and Amicitia’s sister had disappeared for an hour or two. Libertus had only seen it in the way the cadet was more attentive to the prince’s limitations, to sorting out where to stop, when to stop pushing. Just as it was clear that Noctis was trying harder, struggling less to keep up with the older boy, trying to take his challenges.
Even if it didn’t always work.
“Iggy, I’m fine,” Noctis’ voice was small in the large training rooms— soft in comparison to the grumble from his trainer or the sharpness of his companion. It reminded Libertus of when Noctis was smaller, younger, just home for the first time since being hurt. And asking for a book from a top shelf. “I can keep going.”
Libertus didn’t like standing guard as Noctis got back to his feet, favouring his leg even as he resumed his starting stance. He didn’t like seeing Ignis accept the decision and step back again, but watching the movements like a hawk— searching just as he was for the tells that it was too much, that the bruise that would result from that one quick strike wasn’t more severe. He didn’t like seeing his little prince letting himself be turned into what he should never have to be; when the hell was a kid like Noctis ever going to need this kind of training?
“Two hits,” the Amicitia kid said, resuming his own stance. “That’s the challenge, got it?”
It was almost a relief when the assignment back out to the Cavaugh front lines came in.
“You’re fine, little highness. It’s just a cut,” training was always difficult at first, regardless of the care from the trainer, of the dedicated of the student. Libertus remembered his first days in the city, where his prowess with weapons was tested. When he had asked himself a thousand times or more why he was there, why he was picked.
“Nyx always took to it,” Libertus said, wrapping the bandage around the prince’s arm. The boy had squirmed under the antiseptic dabbed onto the scrape, gently applied to the shallow-but-bloody cuts. But he sat still for the story.
Noctis always sat still for stories.
“’Cause he’s a hero?”
Didn’t stop the kid from interrupting though.
“Nah, he just likes to think he is. His dad was a soldier, right? Back home. Nyx picked up half his tricks there.”
“What about you?”
“Never liked all that fighting stuff,” Libertus smiled as the bandage was secured, as the prince twisted to try to inspect it.
They had been out in the Glaives’ empty yards, admit the obstacles and stone and dust. Where hundreds of recruits had cleared out over the years, and the most recent batch having left within the past hour. Nyx had been trying to teach the boy some new tricks with shorter blades, some magic to give him a heads out outside of the formal lessons. Gladiolus had been watching, had sparred with the boy, with Nyx, while Libertus cheered them on as best he could.
The prince’s started cry of pain as he fell back, tripped over his own pre-teen awkwardness and the stones, to hit one of the broken pillars with enough force to leave a smear of blood on the pale stone. It was a reminder that they weren’t in the cavernous training rooms in the Citadel, where the decorations were the only obstacles if they tripped up or fell or missed. Where the pillars of marble and granite were smooth and safe, despite the hard stone and the history of broken bones in the rooms. Where there was a constant watch and promise of immediate help.
“You’re good at it though,” Noctis said, smiling as Libertus swatted his hand away from where he was already tugging at the bandage.
If they were lucky, there wouldn’t be a scar.
“Because I practised, little highness.” Libertus remembered long hours, longer days, sparring with Nyx. Practising and learning and getting better and better until he was certain that he wouldn’t just die the second he was sent out to the front line to fight for a home that wasn’t his. “Ready for another round?”
The prince glanced over to where Nyx and Gladio were waiting. Where they had just finished a match that left Gladio in the dust and laughing— berating the Glaive for fighting dirty, even as Nyx helped him back up. “Can’t I train with you?”
“Little highness,” Libertus smiled, knowing that even if the kid never saw the front— even if he never left the protection of the city— it was better not to half-ass these sorts of things. “I’m no good with that sort of thing. But Nyx, he trains all the new guys when they come in. Gets them good and scared of what’s out there, so they can come back home. He’s better to teach you.”
“All of the new recruits?”
“Yup. Him and Luche get those honours. I just get the med kit when it’s needed.”
“I think I’d rather that job,” Noctis muttered, smiling to Libertus even as he dusted himself off and returned to the open grounds where Nyx was waiting.