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Honor Bound

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“Mornin’, buddy.”

Prompto yawned, stretching his arms over his head as he stepped onto the Citadel’s observation deck and leaned against the outer rail. It was probably too early for this. Wait, strike that—it was definitely too early for this. The sun was barely peeking above the distant wall, sending some stray beams of light shooting through the gloom that covered the majority of Insomnia below. Even the birds weren’t up yet, not that there were many of them around these days; that made their presence all the more noticeable, though, and they were nowhere to be found right now. They weren’t the only ones: like nature itself, the palace hadn’t begun to stir for the most part. The guard rotations were another hour off, and if it weren’t for the fact that this was basically his daily routine, Prompto would have expected a few suspicious glances at his sneaking through the corridors when hardly anyone else had opened their eyes. Still, this was his only free time, and it wasn’t like he could go back to sleep anyway. Not today.

So, he hadn’t bothered trying. He hadn’t listened to Gladio’s voice in his head, telling him that he should really give up this stupid habit of his when it wasn’t going to help; he had waved off the memory of Ignis’s insistence that there were healthier ways of coping, none of which he could ever seem to suggest when asked. Those two could do whatever floated their boats. Prompto had no qualms at all about simply taking the elevator up to the higher levels of the palace like he did every morning. If he was going to change things up or give their advice a shot, he’d do it another day. Maybe.

Probably not.

For now, he settled with smiling at his best friend where the latter was waiting before him and wryly observed, “Y’know, dude, it’s pretty impressive that you’re up this early too. Ignis would be proud if he didn’t die of shock first.”

No response, but he never expected one anyway. Although it was possible that he was losing a few of the marbles he had left, he didn’t think he was that far gone. At least, not yet.

That notion didn’t quite ease the embarrassment that had him rubbing the back of his neck in awkward awareness of how silly he’d look to anyone else, yet it wasn’t enough to stop him either. Ultimately, no one’s opinion mattered out here—no one’s but his and Noct’s. It was a good thing he didn’t need any input to tease his best friend a bit, then. He had too many years of practice under his belt for that.

“Or not. I mean, seriously, you’ve got a lotta time to make up for him dragging your ass outta bed. Pretty sure all the early mornings in the world won’t keep him off your back now.”

That much was true. Regardless of what they had been through in the last eleven years, Ignis was as well-oiled a machine as ever; there was something to be said for the way he managed to juggle what was going on in the Citadel with everything else. After all, Insomnia wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg when it came to the mess they were tasked with cleaning up. Someone had to keep them on point, and Prompto couldn’t think of anyone better than the former advisor to the last king of Lucis.

Those were the sorts of topics Prompto steered clear of when he came to see Noct, however, so he stopped himself before he could ramble on about how far they’d come. What was the point? His best friend had given his life so that they could put the world back together, not him. He’d made the ultimate sacrifice, the one that they never would have thought possible when they were young and naïve and stupidly believed that they’d survive Ardyn’s plans without losing more than they had when they left Insomnia that first day. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t completely true: Ignis had known, as if that was any surprise. He hadn’t said a word about it until after all was said and done, but apparently he’d gotten a divine heads up. Prompto didn’t envy him at all: it had been difficult enough to lose Noct to begin with. To spend ten years with that image in his head, reliving what would happen repeatedly like someone as overanalytical as Ignis totally would? No, thanks. He’d pass on that.

In the grand scheme of things, though, predicting the end of their road wasn’t that important. Noct had gone to his death fully aware of what he was doing—he’d even had a smile on his face the last time they saw him. For a guy who used to idly complain about all the little stuff that didn’t matter to anybody, himself least of all, he hadn’t railed against his fate even for a second. As such, Prompto was more than willing to leave the boring news back in his room where it belonged. Noct didn’t need to be burdened with everything that was going on in the world, not when he’d already done the heavy lifting and put them on the right track. Mentioning it would sound too much like whining, and when push came to shove, none of them had a damn thing to whine about.

They were alive. They were together. That was more than he could say for a lot of people.

Besides, their plans were coming along, even if Prompto chose not to dump their mingled accomplishments and worries on Noct’s shoulders. When the sun had risen again for the first time in ten years, it really was the beginning of a new world. Lucis and her people had to move on despite losing the last member of their royal family, the person they’d hoped would be telling them what to do in the aftermath. It was more than slightly intimidating, but they’d coped pretty well: they had gotten used to living without a government, after all. Well, a formal government. Besides the hunters and the odd Kingsglaive or Crownsguard operative still hanging around, they mostly fended for themselves in what had become popularly known as the Long Night.

Prompto couldn’t help rolling his eyes at the mere thought of that stupid title. Seriously, how hard would it have been to pick a cooler name? There were so many to choose from!

Then again, did they really want to waste their creativity on something Ardyn was to blame for?

Hell no.

If it was left up to Prompto, he’d just drop the whole subject and forget it happened. That way, when people looked back and tried to learn about their past hundreds of years from now, they would never find that creepy chancellor from Niflheim who ended up being far more than they ever could have imagined. Of all the candidates most undeserving of being remembered by history, Ardyn Izunia—Ardyn Lucis Caelum, rather—had to be at the top of the list.

It admittedly helped that he hadn’t attempted to reign over Lucis while he sat on the throne all those years. In hindsight, they could guess his reasons: why bother when his entire endgame had involved Noct dying as the king he was meant to be? It wasn’t worth it, and for a decade they had lived in trepidation only for him to never make a move. Ardyn hadn’t tried to impose his will on them apart from the obvious darkening of the skies and gathering of the daemons in places where humans had once roamed freely. Prompto wouldn’t give him an inch, but he had to give the guy that much. He’d call it a centimeter.

…A millimeter. Yeah, a millimeter.

Whatever he called it, the reality of the situation was that people were used to handling things on their own by now, so Noct’s loss didn’t hit them the way it had gutted Prompto. Their focus was elsewhere, like how the hell they were going to put the world back together when money was meaningless and there was no one in charge to guide the reconstruction along.

That potential for chaos hadn’t lasted more than a few days, luckily. They hadn’t let it last, especially not when they had Cor the Immortal on their side. He’d proven to be just as invulnerable as always during the Long Night, hunting down daemons and safeguarding Lestallum until not even Gladio could keep up with the guy. If anybody was going to stand up and hand out the orders, he couldn’t think of anyone more fit for the task. In fact, part of him wondered if that had been King Regis’s idea all along when he’d sent Cor away from Insomnia before the treaty signing. He seemed to have predicted everything that was going to happen, right down to his own demise; it really wouldn’t have been much of a shock to find out that he’d done that on purpose too. Back then, Noct had needed someone to guide him, someone who had known him forever and wielded authority that he respected. Cor was perfect for the job when the king couldn’t do it himself.

It only made sense, then, that he was the right person to lead them into what was beginning to resemble civilized life. Gone were the daemon lights and the ramshackle former outposts that lined the roads of Lucis like ghost towns, waiting for people to wander in so that they could share some dark secrets that nobody actually needed to hear since they had so many of their own. Gone were the piles of rubble that they’d used to build walls and fences; gone were the empty clothes strewn here and there, all that remained of friends and relatives they would never get to bury. In their places were temporary shelters and construction equipment, or what passed for it when they weren’t exactly swimming in resources here. With Cor at the head of their new council, however, they made do: old cranes that were rusting with age had been unearthed from warehouses that had closed their doors a decade ago, and they were repurposing a lot of the detritus to rebuild what they could and tear down the rest of what they couldn’t. In the last few months alone, the city had transformed from a nightmare to something more reminiscent of their home. None of them were going to stop until all the work was done. It would take years, but it would be so worth the effort.

That was what they kept telling themselves. Every day, every hour, sometimes every minute, Prompto superimposed the Insomnia he recognized over the one that he didn’t so that he could bask in the satisfaction that they weren’t doing all this for nothing. It paid to stay positive, what with the seemingly endless task ahead of them, and the sun had become a constant reminder that things could be a hell of a lot worse.

They’d seen that sentiment echoed by Accordo and the former imperial territories as well, which was comforting to say the least. Altissia had been a work-in-progress almost as soon as they were able to get the boats up and running again, the refugees that had flocked to Lestallum heading back to gauge just how bad the damage was. From what Prompto had heard, it was even worse than what they were dealing with in Lucis. While Ardyn had been almost singularly obsessed with destroying every bit of their home that he possibly could before the end, Altissia hadn’t finished dealing with the damage from Leviathan before the Long Night fell. That being the case, they definitely had a long road ahead of them—longer than Prompto wanted to think about. Cartanica, Tenebrae, and all of Niflheim’s other acquisitions were doing the same with varying degrees of success.

All except the capital itself. Zegnautus Keep, Gralea, those magitek production facilities—every last one of them had been razed to the ground the moment the leftover Niffs got a chance. Cor hadn’t argued when the evacuees from the empire had made that suggestion, and Prompto had a feeling that the former marshal probably liked the idea that they had finally won the war, if a bit too late for it to mean a whole lot. Of course, there was more to worry about than poetic justice and retribution, which was why no one was even slightly heartbroken when it all came crashing down. That was where their living hell had begun: the experiments, the daemons, the whacked-out MTs, and the other stuff of nightmares that had been mobilized to defeat Lucis for good once upon a time. Scouring the place to make sure it was safe and cleaned up was far more work than anyone was willing to put in. It was better to simply start fresh rather than risk finding some fun surprises hidden in the bowels of the imperial capital. That was the theory, anyway. They hadn’t really gotten around to building anything to replace it; Prompto got the distinct impression that the Niffs weren’t in a rush, and that was only if they actually planned on doing it at all. The place had some seriously bad mojo.

As far as Prompto was concerned, they could keep it. He’d made a solemn vow basically the second he’d pulled himself out of his funk at the production facility (with a little help from Pryna and Aranea): he’d never be going back no matter what they built there. One visit was enough for a lifetime.

Prompto shuddered at the memory, his fingers digging into the smooth stone rail in front of him as he bounced absently on his heels. Yeah, they had made a lot of progress, whether they were rebuilding or merely getting rid of the evidence of what their lives had been for the last ten years. It was amazing, really, to watch everything come back together. Much of Lucis had been restored, and with the exception of some obviously leaning buildings, most of the Crown City was either in one piece or pretty damn close. The outposts were well on their way, as were their neighboring kingdoms…

The only thing missing was the one that meant more than any of it.

“It’s… It’s been a year today,” he sighed to the sunrise, forcing a smile even though there was no joy in admitting it. “Hard to believe, right? Time sure does fly when you’re busy.”

Noct didn’t answer, but Prompto thought he knew what he would say if he could: you’re starting to sound like Ignis. And okay, maybe he was, but that was only because he spent so much time around the guy. It was sort of necessary when you were on the council responsible for governing Lucis back into some semblance of order.

“It’s your fault, you know.”

How’s that? Noct would have snorted, already shaking his head as if Prompto was simply throwing around excuses. This time, he had a super good one, thank you very much!

“Man, you’re the one who left me here with those two,” huffed Prompto with a smirk when there was no response forthcoming. Sensing his opening to nab the upper hand, he pressed on, “Couldn’t wait for us. Nope, you just had to plow right in. Like always.”

Well, what else was I going to do? he would have asked.

Shrugging, a bit of Prompto’s humor bled away when he shot back, “I don’t know. You… You could’ve stayed. We already knew you were gonna go, but you didn’t have to go go. Seriously, what the hell, dude?”

Noct didn’t have a response for that, and Prompto couldn’t say he blamed him. Chances were that he had no idea himself.

Honestly, Prompto had been wondering about it almost daily since the second they got to the throne room and found that there was no body waiting for them. They’d been smacked in the face with plenty of surprises over the years, but that one had thrown him for a loop more than any other. For a split second, he’d desperately hoped that perhaps they were merely in the wrong place; maybe Noct’s fate had been decided somewhere else in the Citadel and they had stopped at the wrong room. It could happen, right?

Wrong. They were definitely in the right place: King Regis’s sword sticking out of the back of the throne had been pretty indicative of what had happened there. (If they thought Ardyn had a thing for poetic irony, he had nothing on the former kings of Lucis.) The seat itself, however, had been as empty as the hole in Prompto’s heart that used to be filled with his best friend’s presence. It had once been bursting with jokes and video games and all kinds of pranks they had loved pulling as kids; in that cavity had once existed a wealth of sarcastic barbs and witty retorts.

Now, it was barren. Prompto could sometimes feel the jagged edges of it, especially first thing in the morning after that recurring dream of his that Noct was somehow still here. With each breath he drew, it was like his skin was being pulled taut over that sharp, ever present wound. There was an ache deep down inside that never seemed to go away no matter how much distance he put between himself and that day a year ago when their entire world had ended in a different way than the decade prior. And why shouldn’t it? They hadn’t exactly gotten any closure after the fact. At least, that was what Ignis said the problem was. According to him, it would be easier if they’d had a body to bury or seen with their own eyes that Noct’s chest wasn’t rising and falling like it was supposed to be. According to him, moving on would have been simpler if they had a physical manifestation of what they knew to be true.

Or something like that. It was Ignis—there was only so much space Prompto could dedicate in his brain to remembering the words he used.

Anyway, the point was that it wasn’t easy. It hadn’t been simple to ascend the steps to the throne and stare down at it in utter bafflement. If anything, it was one of the most difficult trials he had ever endured, and he was speaking as someone who had gone from being a total nobody to training for the Crownsguard. That paled in comparison to the sensation in his gut when he’d stood there, the shattered remains of the Crystal crunching beneath his boots while he’d scanned the throne room as if Noct might jump out and tell them that the whole thing was a joke. But he hadn’t, and in that instant, it had felt like the world cracked in two. It wasn’t solely because he was gone, either; it wasn’t just because he had left them behind with a sense of finality they hadn’t gotten on the last occasion when the gods had taken him away. Contrary to what Prompto had thought during the Long Night, it was far worse than that: there was no escaping the realization that they’d never see him again. It hadn’t occurred to him when they said goodbye, but it did when all that met them was a vacant seat and shimmering dust. That moment on the steps, that fleeting second before Noct walked tall into his destiny, was the last time they would ever catch a glimpse of his face outside the plethora of photos he couldn’t bring himself to delete from the camera he no longer carried around. (He kept it in his room and used a new one that he definitely didn’t take from a shop window in the city.) From then on, all they would have was the past—their memories, nothing more.

And their shards of the Crystal, of course. There was no forgetting those. None of them had been there when everything went down, but whatever happened at the end had to have been really something to crack the Crystal into billions of microscopic pieces the way it had. They were so small that they looked more like specks of glitter than anything else. Only three shards were large enough to take with them; only three were large enough to poke holes in and wear on chains around their necks in constant remembrance of what that stupid rock had cost them. They couldn’t give Noct the burial he deserved, but if all they had of him was the stone Prompto fingered at the base of his throat, then that would have to do. And hey, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. There were even times when Prompto thought of his like a talisman, an amulet to keep close to his heart as though Noct would be with him if he did. Yeah, he knew it was dumb—that was impossible no matter how much he wished otherwise. Still, he couldn’t feel too bad about it when Gladio and Ignis were just as reluctant to be parted from theirs. Sure, it was probably childish or insane or a little bit weird, but that was fine! After all these years, he figured they’d earned the right to be kind of weird.

Plus, he had taken to reminding himself that this setup was purely temporary when moods like this gripped him. This separation, this grief, this emptiness—it was a passing thing. Eventually, once he had lived out his usefulness and his life as his best friend had wanted, they would meet again. This world would fade away, and he would leave it to join one where Noct was waiting for them. They all would. On that day, they wouldn’t have to be apart anymore. They wouldn’t have to go through the motions of pretending everything was all right when they were simply struggling to figure out which foot to put forward next. The four of them would be brothers once more, and although he was well aware that his grief was doing the talking, he had to admit that a part of him couldn’t wait for that day to come.

That was what he hoped would happen when it did, anyway. The Six couldn’t be so heartless as to make them go to separate after…whatevers, could they?

Scratch that. At this point, he didn’t even want to know.

Debating the lofty question of what happened after death wasn’t what he’d come up here for, though. That was more of a conversation to have with Ignis, if he was ever feeling gutsy enough to broach it with him. Odds were, he would have no less than thirty-seven different theories, all of which were contingent on so many variables that they would probably make Prompto’s head spin. That wasn’t exactly his cup of tea, so he’d save it for when they were old and decrepit and had nothing better to do with the rest of their lives than ponder the inevitable. That time hadn’t come yet—thankfully—and Noct was waiting for him to stop being an idiot anyway.

Come on, Prompto. Pull it together.

Speaking of pulling things together, he scoffed at himself when he realized that he’d had a pretty special surprise planned for the one-year anniversary of the end of the world and hadn’t bothered mentioning it yet. Sheesh, maybe Gladio had a point about him needing to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut. He thought he’d gotten good at that, but it looked like he could still use a little work.

Soooooo, got some big news for ya,” Prompto announced, his grin more genuine this time for a few different reasons. “Got the Regalia back from Cid last night. The old girl really needed some work after Aranea brought her here from Gralea, but between the two of them, Cid and Cindy got her up and running again. She looks good as new! Even Ignis couldn’t tell how bad it was.”

Prompto could practically feel the weight of Noct’s scrutiny and chuckled under his breath. Okay, that one could definitely use some elaborating.

“By touch, dude. By touch. You should’ve seen his face when he got a load of what it was like before they worked their magic on her.”

Should’ve was as far as he was willing to go with that explanation. Prompto wouldn’t live long enough to forget the way Ignis’s face had fallen in dismay before he was able to shore up his professionally honed defenses or how his fingers had trembled increasingly the more they felt just how bad the damage had been. The last thing he wanted to do—now or ever—was describe it to Noct.

Swallowing hard, Prompto chuckled nervously and evaded, “Anyway, she’s a sight for sore eyes. We got her parked in the garage in the usual spot next to…next to yours…”

Well, so much for not making it awkward.

Admittedly, that had been one find none of them had expected to make. Throughout their journey, Prompto had never considered what happened to Noct’s car in all the chaos, not when his best friend’s heart had always been more attached to his dad’s. The day they’d first checked to see if any wheels were left, it had only been a few hours since they hadn’t found Noct in the throne room; his final birthday gift from the king hadn’t been Prompto’s most pressing concern at that point. So, it had taken a couple of weeks after they returned home for him to register that the Star of Lucis—the most spectacular coming-of-age present a father could have given his son, in his opinion—was nowhere to be seen. Even then, it was by no brilliant deduction of his own: someone had had to stumble across it at the edge of the city near the West Gate and report it for him to realize. Fortunately for them, it was one of the few Crownsguard members left, and they’d driven it back to the Citadel instead of making off with it the way most people would have. After all, it was a car fit for royalty.

Or it had been. These days, it was a car fit for a permanent parking spot. It was nauseating just thinking about driving it, let alone actually sitting behind the wheel. Hell, even Cid had looked like it pained him to roll the Regalia into the garage the night before. He hadn’t been willing to let anyone else do it, yet there was a sense of wrongness about the whole thing that left all of them silent and solemn in the aftermath. By the time they’d closed the doors, leaving both King Regis’s trusty steed and Noct’s barely broken-in one behind them, Prompto would have thought they’d just come from a funeral. In a sense, that was sort of accurate: they’d lost something else that they weren’t going to get back, one of many somethings. Holding a service for a couple of cars would have been going a little too far into crazy territory, but he wouldn’t deny that it was the least they could do to pay their respects all the same.

To himself. Only to himself.

It wasn’t that he didn’t think he could talk to Ignis and Gladio about it. With or without Noct, they were still brothers. That was difficult to remember some days, especially when they spent so many of them handling their business separately, but he forced himself to believe that it was the truth nevertheless. Even so, the others were just as thrown off their game as he was, which was actually kind of startling. Of the three of them, he was the one who hadn’t been planning for this sort of thing practically since birth; he hadn’t been raised to expect the worst and deal with it when it came. Of the three of them, he would say that he was the least equipped to handle what they’d endured, not that he would ever admit that aloud. Instead of proving him right, though, Ignis and Gladio constantly thwarted his expectations. The former seemed normal enough on the surface, but anytime he wasn’t entrenched in one duty or another, he was…quiet. Not normal Ignis-levels of quiet either. His subtle, terrible puns had been noticeably absent for a year now, and he threw himself into his work with the fervor of someone who was desperately trying not to think about his personal life. Maybe that was part of the Citadel training they’d received, because Gladio was basically the same. When he wasn’t visiting Iris or helping out with the council, he was buzzing around Insomnia and Lucis just looking for stuff to do to keep his hands (and probably his mind) busy. In fact, it wasn’t often that they saw much of him. Prompto did his fair share of traveling to gather photos Cor could use to determine what their next priority would be, but it was nothing compared to Gladio. Prompto wasn’t gone for weeks at a time, nor did he forget to check in with updates. Then again, Prompto couldn’t compare their situations: it had to be rough, losing the position you’d inherited from countless generations before you. He could only imagine how unmoored Gladio had to feel, a big tough guy who’d dedicated his life to protecting someone he was never destined to save. While that wasn’t something Ignis shared entirely, both of them were almost wholly focused on tasks that would distract them from dwelling on who they’d been and who they were supposed to be now that those roles didn’t exist anymore.

They also shared a certain sense of disdain for Prompto’s morning ritual, even if they stopped bringing it up months ago. Whether they agreed with it or not, every day found him on the Citadel’s observation deck regardless, talking to Noct as if he was a few feet away and not…well, elsewhere. Neither of them ever joined him, not once. They knew where he spent that time, of course; he wasn’t trying to hide it or anything. Still, they chose to keep their distance. For all Prompto knew, they had their own slightly embarrassing ways of coping, and they were apparently so not about to share them anytime soon.

Maybe that was for the best. He really didn’t need to find out exactly how Gladio mourned. Something told him he’d either grimace until his face fell off or die laughing—there was no other alternative.

And to be honest, Prompto took comfort from that. However they chose to handle the situation, however they went about managing their grief, however they approached discovering where they fit in this new and sort of scary world, at least they could agree on one thing.

Leaning forward against the stone rail, Prompto smiled mistily at the rising sun and whispered, “Not sure what we’re gonna do without ya, buddy.”

Chapter Text

No one ever expected rebuilding Lucis to be easy, but damn, Gladio hadn’t pegged it for being this hard either.

“It’s too far to the left.”

“At least it’s on the wall,” he grunted, rolling his eyes. “Who cares if it’s an inch off?”

Iris huffed, although it definitely wasn’t in amusement. “Uh, I do? Seriously, Gladdy, it looks stupid if it’s not centered.”

Stupid? Was she for real?

Apparently, she was. When Gladio shot her a deadpan stare over his shoulder, her arms were folded and he could see every bit of the daemon slayer she’d become glaring right at him. Well, in a sense. Unlike her adoring fans, he’d witnessed the major tantrums she’d thrown when she was a kid. What some people would call her ass-kicking face, Gladio recognized as nothing more than the prelude to something far worse: Iris getting whatever the hell she wanted. As always.

Still, it was effective. He couldn’t help grumbling under his breath as he capitulated and shifted the sword she no longer had any use for a few centimeters to the right. Of all the things they had to worry about in this house, a centered wall ornament was pretty low on the list.

After everyone started making the slow migration back to the Crown City, they’d been left torn between moving into the Citadel or returning to the only home either of them had ever really known. The former had its advantages: they would be close to the center of the action in case they were needed, and it would be a hell of a lot easier to get to work every day when they didn’t have anywhere near as many cars operational as they would have liked at that point. Those prospects had been enough for Ignis and Prompto, both of whom had set up shop in residences that hadn’t been touched in years, by Ardyn or anyone else. Gladio could understand where they were coming from, considering that had always been Ignis’s home anyway and it wasn’t like Prompto had any reason to live where he had before. His family was long gone; none of them had heard a word since they left Insomnia about whether his adoptive parents had survived or not. That didn’t seem to bother Prompto, but there was no doubt that he wasn’t enthusiastic about chilling in an empty house that held no sentimental value for him whatsoever. So, it made sense that they would follow Cor to the palace. It wasn’t like there was any shortage of space.

But, for as much as he loved the Citadel, it wasn’t home to Gladio. It was where he’d trained, where he’d become part of the Crownsguard, where he’d learned about his own destiny, and where he’d become friends with the person it revolved around—but it wasn’t home. That being the case, he and Iris had picked their way through the rubble and decay to find whatever remained of theirs, Iris with her fingers crossed and Gladio anticipating the worst.

To his surprise, it wasn’t so bad. Shields weren’t supposed to live too far from the Citadel, which meant they had grown up outside the center of the city but well within spitting distance of King Regis. As such, Gladio hadn’t held out much hope that their home would be in one piece. From what Iris and Cor had told him over the years, the Niffs had done a damn good job when they took over Insomnia, and everything he’d seen the night they returned hadn’t altered his assumptions. Of course, the occupation forces had made a show of cleaning up a little, but it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t their priority. As long as the Citadel wasn’t falling down and most people still had roofs over their heads, things were functional enough to be getting on with. That was why Gladio had been both shocked and relieved to see that their house, while a far cry from the shape their father had kept it in, had at least stayed standing. A few of the windows were shattered, and some spots were singed where the fires of war had left their mark; the crater down the road spoke volumes of why the whole building was leaning too far in one direction. All things considered, though, they could have been dealing with far worse.

That was a stroke of luck that had been even more beneficial to him than he had initially imagined. With the house in reasonable shape and the city in good hands, Gladio hadn’t felt the slightest bit reluctant to leave the task of restoring the place to Iris. Sure, it would have been better to stay and help; there was plenty to do, not least of which cleaning up the mess inside from all the quaking and explosions. The process would have gone a lot quicker with two pairs of hands rather than one.

Instead, Gladio had departed almost as soon as they’d arrived.

The logical part of him, the one that sounded a lot more like Ignis than he would ever admit, said it was because they had too much work to do for him to sit around and make himself comfortable. Although the daemons had disappeared with the coming of the dawn, the damage they wrought hadn’t. That meant there were messes to clean up all over the kingdom, not just in his own living room. From abandoned, expired supplies left behind by people who didn’t need them anymore to the dilapidated buildings that shouldn’t have remained upright under the beating they’d taken from daemons and humans alike, from the sundered landscape to the ruined infrastructure, everyone could draw the same conclusion: Lucis was a wreck. They weren’t as far up shit creek as Altissia or Niflheim, but they had a lot of work to do if they were going to put everything back together again. Without a king—without Noct—they would need every hand on deck, not loitering around at home making sure the water ran clear. Maybe Gladio wasn’t a Shield anymore, but it was his duty to act in his charge’s stead now that the latter would never be able to. There wouldn’t be any laziness, not on his watch. There was too much to accomplish for that.

That was the mantra he constantly repeated to himself, at least. Those were the arguments he made when his chest started aching for home and he was dozens of miles away; those were the reassurances he offered his subconscious when he wanted nothing more than to sleep in his own bed.

Because the not so logical part of him knew that they were merely excuses. That part of him was well aware that they were how he justified the amount of time he spent away from the Citadel and everybody in it. He could only insist so often that they wouldn’t get shit done if they were cloistered in council chambers all day, making decisions instead of acting on them. There were only so many occasions where he could point out that someone had to be on the proverbial front lines, giving orders and making sure everyone was carrying their share of the load. It never changed the fact that Gladio was somehow always the one who made the journey from Insomnia to the other outposts, that Gladio delivered the messages to places where they hadn’t quite gotten communications back in order. It was always Gladio assisting the hunters with reestablishing Meldacio as their headquarters or teaming up with the ladies at the power plant in Lestallum to increase the power to outlying regions. When they needed meteor shards—whatever was left of them after all this time, anyway—he was the one to go find them. When wild animals moved into territory where they were operating, he was the one to chase them off or turn them into dinner.

The kicker? It wasn’t even a job that he alone could do. Now that daemons didn’t come with the darkness, it was fairly easy to get stuff done without putting your life on the line in the process. It was simply a matter of replacing what was lost, not fighting for their survival every time they left the relative safety of the outposts. No one truly required the help of a former Shield in particular, regardless of how frequently he volunteered.

Gladio didn’t let that stop him, though. Whether his specific talents would make a dent in their nationwide to-do list or not, he went wherever they could use extra muscle so that nobody else on the council would have to bother. And was that such a bad thing? They were making progress—Gladio was making progress. That was what really mattered here. Plus, it wasn’t like he was gone forever: Iris was still here, as were his friends, and the Crown City was home no matter how painful it was to be there. He’d resigned himself to the fact that there would be occasions when he wouldn’t be able to stay away.

He just didn’t get why today had to be one of them.

If Iris remembered the significance, then she was doing a great job of keeping it to herself. From the time he’d woken up that morning (in his own bed for a change), she hadn’t said a word about anything she knew he wouldn’t want to hear. In fact, up until now, she’d been downright sweet. He really should’ve known she wanted something.

Like for him to help with obnoxious housework.

“That good enough?”

“Lower.”

“Can’t go lower without moving the nails.”

“It would look better right over the mantle.”

That one made Gladio snort, which he regretted immediately when Iris swatted him on the back of the head. It wasn’t that she was all that tough, not compared to him. Years of fighting daemons hadn’t exactly altered her physique in the slightest; the muscles she’d acquired were a lot leaner than his own. In some ways, it reminded him of—

Don’t even go there, champ.

Shaking the thought aside before he could follow it down that rabbit hole, Gladio focused on the task at hand. While Iris was no behemoth, she did stand a pretty good chance of knocking him off the chair he was using in lieu of a ladder. Never let it be said that the Amicitia family wasn’t resourceful.

“Hey, just because it’s not your giant freak show sword doesn’t make it any less awesome,” she chided, letting out a frustrated sigh when Gladio eyed her skeptically.

“Could’ve painted the damn thing pink and it still couldn’t look any less intimidating.”

His mocking was met with a dismissive wave of her hand, and the smirk that tugged at her lips heralded her usual retort: “Yeah, tell that to all the daemons I killed with it. Oh, wait—you can’t.”

“Not this again,” Gladio grumbled, hurrying to adjust her stupid trophy before she had a chance to regale him with the tales of her many—and undoubtedly exaggerated—exploits. Fortunately for him, he could preemptively anticipate her comebacks with ease.

Unfortunately, that hadn’t stopped her since she was old enough to talk.

“They’re not around anymore,” she haughtily observed.

Rolling his eyes again, Gladio muttered disinterestedly, “Y’don’t say.”

“I killed them. With that super unimpressive sword.”

“We all get lucky sometimes.”

“Gladdy!”

There was that fist to his skull again, although he’d be lying if he said it didn’t make him smile just a little. They may have grown up, but there were still moments when it was like they were kids again, Gladio the older and wiser one while Iris did her best to imitate a firework. He knew she wasn’t the girl who’d gotten lost at the Citadel and needed a prince to rescue her anymore; he recognized that she had come a long way before Insomnia fell and even further during the Long Night. Even so, to peer over his shoulder at her irritated scowl was to stare down at the same kid who had pitched a fit to meet royalty all because he’d been talking shit about them at home. Whether she was approaching twenty-six or ninety-six, he’d never be able to banish that image from his mind.

Not that he would ever tell her that. While Gladio didn’t fear Iris or the reputation she had rightfully earned over the last ten years, he wasn’t stupid either. Why invite a fight that he probably wasn’t going to win anyway? For one thing, she was his little sister; there was an unspoken rule that she won everything, wrong or not. For another… Well, it was just the two of them. Fielding her disdain or helping mount some dumb sword on the wall or staying up late to listen to her babble at him over the phone—they were all each other had and needed to stick together now more than ever.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t give her a hard time, though.

“I’ll bet the daemons were really runnin’ scared from your butter knife, here.”

Scoffing, Iris shot back without hesitation, “Smaller is faster.”

“Smaller is just smaller.”

“According to Cor, only the most talented warriors carry lighter weapons. He says it’s a sign that you aren’t compensating for strength you don’t have.”

Damn. Talk about cold.

Unwilling to give her an inch, Gladio retorted, “Pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to lift the bigger ones if that were true.”

“Bigger isn’t always better!”

“Were you ever planning on upgrading to an actual weapon, or did you figure this was good cover?” he teased with a gesture towards her sad excuse for a katana. Even Iris couldn’t help laughing a bit this time.

“You know what they say,” she replied, her reluctant grin turning nostalgic, “it’s better that the enemy underestimates you than overestimates you.”

…Well. Shit.

She hadn’t exactly killed the mood or anything, but a chill nevertheless ran down Gladio’s spine at the words his father had hammered into his head—into both their heads—for as long as he could remember. Even though Iris hadn’t been trained at the Citadel for any kind of combat position, their dad had been diligent in making sure that they could each protect themselves. He’d seen to it that she had access to the same equipment Gladio used as soon as she was old enough, and when he wasn’t busy with his charge, Gladio had been the one to show her how to block a punch and throw one in turn. (Of course, she got stuck on the lesson where she should wait for someone else to strike first, to absolutely no one’s surprise.) Together, they had planned to make the Amicitia family proud and uphold their family’s honor like countless generations before them.

And they were. Somehow, some way, they were.

Or she was.

In spite of his best efforts to conceal his sudden lack of humor, Iris must have noticed that she struck a nerve, because she didn’t try to pursue that argument any further. Rather, she pointed awkwardly over his shoulder and offered, “Hey, it looks pretty good. I think you’ve got a knack for this.”

“Centered enough for ya?” he sarcastically inquired, grateful for the change of subject. His sister could be obnoxious in her utter inability to let things go when he desperately didn’t want to talk about them, yet she had her moments where he appreciated how her age had tempered her enthusiasm for pissing him off.

Mostly.

In lieu of answering right away, Iris put a finger to her chin and hummed pensively, a mischievous gleam in her eyes. Oh, no. They weren’t playing this game.

“If it’s not,” he pointed out with a raised eyebrow, “you can always fix the damn thing yourself.”

“I could if I wanted to,” confirmed Iris, though he couldn’t help noticing that she didn’t take one step to actually do so. Either she wasn’t anywhere near as bothered by her sword’s place of glory as she’d been letting on or he’d actually done a passable job. Honestly, he was beyond caring as long as it meant that he didn’t have to listen to another hour of her telling him that he was doing it wrong.

Which, it seemed, he wasn’t. Once the joking subsided, Iris surveyed his handiwork with a smile playing around her lips, one that was genuine when her eyes met his a minute later.

“It’s perfect,” she decided with a resolute nod. “Thanks, Gladdy.”

Shifting awkwardly under her overwhelming sincerity, Gladio shrugged a shoulder and averted his gaze. “Sure, no sweat. Just handle it without me next time.”

Well, that was absolutely the wrong thing to say. Iris’s smile turned downright devious when she retorted, “Why would I when I’ve got Insomnia’s best interior decorator for a brother?”

There was no response for that. Nothing could possibly match how ridiculous it sounded, so Gladio didn’t even make an attempt to rebuff her. In fact, he figured that was as good a cue as any for him to haul his makeshift ladder back to the kitchen where it belonged. If he was lucky, she’d take the hint.

His silence, however, simultaneously provided her with a strategic opening—and she wasn’t stupid enough not to take advantage of it.

“Just think of all the places around here that could really use a facelift!” she insisted as she followed on his heels. “I can see it now: big tough Crownsguard operative deciding on flowers and tablecloths. You could come up with a whole new style.”

“What, post-apocalyptic not cuttin’ it?” he grumbled, the clatter of the chair hitting the floor nowhere near loud enough to drown out her snort of laughter.

“Oh, please. It doesn’t count as post-apocalyptic when we’re rebuilding everything, silly.”

Okay, she had a point there. It still would never convince him to entertain the notion of helping anyone besides her decorate anyone else’s house besides theirs, but hey, he could give her that much.

Only that much.

Deep down, however, another voice reminded him that he didn’t quite agree. Not entirely. There was just something missing, something that couldn’t be rebuilt or refurbished or styled back into existence. It was gone, and with it, Gladio’s belief that the rest of the world wasn’t right on its heels. After all, he hadn’t returned from the brink like other people. He put up a good front; he slapped a smile on his face for Iris’s sake and so that he could perform whatever duty he could claim anymore. Other than that, though, it seemed as if he was living at the edge of the universe. Repairing old buildings and restoring the city, seeing Meldacio and the other outposts opening their doors again—that stuff could only provide so much comfort. At the end of the day, the world had stopped spinning regardless of the way the sun rose and fell.

Ultimately, the apocalypse wasn’t an event so much as a state of being. Others might have been able to shrug it off like a worn jacket, but not Gladio. Never Gladio.

He was a ghost among men.

“Uh, hello? Are you even listening to me?”

Blinking, Gladio dragged himself from the prison of his own thoughts to find Iris watching him, her expression exasperated despite the concern belying it. Great, he’d done it again.

Usually, he was pretty good about staying present, focusing on the here and now rather than the back then that constantly haunted his steps. At the beginning, when they had first moved into the Crown City and gotten to work, he’d had a tough time with that. There was nothing harder than mourning a friend and destiny, especially when the two were so thoroughly intertwined. Still, he’d taken some solace in the mindless process of routines, whether he was spending hours in council meetings or hauling meteor shards around Lestallum. Having an outlet had transformed his perspective, and the occasions when he’d lost himself in his head had dwindled until he discovered the perfect recipe for his own sanity: not thinking about it. Ever. It would neither change anything nor allow him to function any better.

See, that was why he had wanted to stay away from Insomnia today of all days. That was why he had planned to take whatever job was available as far from the city as possible. It had already been lined up and ready to go: there were some hunters dragging furniture and debris out of the ocean around Galdin, which was perfect when he didn’t want his brain going into overdrive on stuff he’d rather not dwell on.

Then Iris had called, reminding him that it had been a few weeks since they’d seen each other and fooling him with some crock about needing his help with the house. It wasn’t until he’d practically come running that it occurred to him what she really wanted him here for, and it sure as hell wasn’t interior decorating.

But he couldn’t talk about this. He couldn’t vocalize the shit that had gone down that night, not now or ever if he had it his way. As much as he appreciated her company and was admittedly glad not to be as alone today as he would have been in Galdin, that relief didn’t bring him any closer to putting into words what he knew she was waiting for.

It was hard enough for him to fold his arms over his chest and sheepishly reply, “Sorry. What?”

Iris didn’t hold his distraction against him, although her eye roll was a pretty poor imitation of her usual exuberance. Rather than berate him for not listening, she simply repeated, “I said, I was gonna meet Talcott at that restaurant near the Citadel. You know, the one that used to have those skewers you like?”

Used to was the operative phrase. Food hadn’t exactly been scarce during the Long Night, not when they could make do with hauling some dirt into Lestallum and turning the overlook into a makeshift farm in a pinch. In the aftermath, however, things were different. Transporting the goods was the problem since everyone wasn’t stuck in the same place, so the Crown City was definitely lacking in the cuisine department. The alleged nonperishables that they’d left behind were a few years out of date; their shipments were still irregular enough that they occasionally had to ration until the next load could be delivered from Duscae. As such, most of the restaurants in the city still hadn’t reopened their doors, although a few were making as much progress as they could. They were even charging gil for it now that they were accustomed to the currency from outside the wall.

Charging gil. For food. When they’d just survived eleven years of hardship. Yeah, businesspeople sure had a different mindset.

As did his sister, who sounded a hell of a lot more cheerful about the place than he felt when she continued, “Anyway, I thought maybe you’d want to come with. They haven’t got a lot, but it’s…edible.”

Not quite the ringing endorsement that he’d been expecting, but at least she was trying. Gladio, on the other hand, wasn’t in the mood to try.

“Think I’ll pass this time. Thanks, though,” he replied, injecting as much gratitude into his tone as he could so that he wouldn’t seem too surly. If the way Iris’s face fell slightly was any indication, then he didn’t do as hot a job of it as he was hoping for.

Scuffing her shoe against the tile and looking for all the world like that little girl he’d grown up with again, Iris watched him closely as she asked, “You sure? It could be fun. They’ve even got the televisions working again, so they play old movies and stuff from when we were kids.”

Memories. Not something he wanted to relive right now.

“Nah, you go on. I’ll grab somethin’ around here.”

Gladio didn’t need to see her raised eyebrow and unimpressed expression to get that he wasn’t fooling her for a second. He wouldn’t necessarily say that he was attempting to, though. It was damn near impossible to hide anything from her when his sister had been an insufferable pest since the second she was born. No, this wasn’t about pulling the wool over her eyes or making her think that everything was just hunky dory. It wasn’t—any idiot could tell that. Gladio had his reasons for avoiding the public eye today, and he wouldn’t be moved no matter how much Iris whined and pouted. On anything else, maybe. But not this.

It was lucky for her, then, that she didn’t test him. She didn’t press him for information at all besides asking what he was going to do with himself if he didn’t plan on leaving the house, and Gladio was admittedly relieved that he was finally being asked one question that he could actually answer. Of course, it wasn’t much of one, but Iris didn’t call him on it.

Training was the best excuse he could think of, after all. In a lot of ways, it was the only thing that could really help him focus when there was too much noise in his head, and it had been downright deafening in there for the last few days. He was overdue for a go with the training dummies they kept in the basement; the sooner he had a chance to blow off some steam, the better.

Iris didn’t agree. Spitfire though she was, she hadn’t agreed since they made it back to Insomnia. She’d mentioned it once, in the beginning when they were still walking on eggshells around certain subjects. Somehow, she didn’t get the point of him lunging around the backyard preparing for a battle that was never going to happen. She didn’t understand the reason for throwing himself into the same old routine he’d had for years before they left the Crown City in the first place when it wasn’t like he was going to use those skills anytime soon. They finally had peace; they had light and life without having to worry about whether daemons were going to barge in and steal it all. What was the use in training if they weren’t even at war anymore?

None of his arguments had convinced her, not that they had been too great in hindsight. Annoying as it was, Ignis wasn’t wrong when he said that Gladio could stand to practice his verbalization skills. He got by fine most of the time; he could communicate well enough under ordinary circumstances. When he was angry, though, when someone was plucking on his last damn nerve… Yeah, in those moments, he tended to lose himself to the passion of his opinion without giving a whole lot of thought to whether he was making the kind of sense that would persuade someone else that he was right. Iris was no exception, regardless of the fact that they had grown up together. She got it to a certain extent: being raised by their father meant that she couldn’t help but register the finer points of being a Shield. That didn’t change the reality that she was still a civilian—a tough one, but a civilian nonetheless. As such, she wasn’t equipped to value training and physical force the way Gladio was. That was how he’d always lived his life, and to be honest, he’d made it this far thinking that it was also how he would go out. Being a Shield made it sort of necessary a lot of the time.

He’d thought so, anyway. The Six had sort of screwed him out of that one.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter if he’d use his skills outside of training ever again. It didn’t matter if his destiny turned into one that involved a lot more words than action like Ignis and Prompto’s were starting to. Gladio didn’t need to fight enemies, but he did need to move. In instances like this, when the weight of the world and all the things he hadn’t been able to do sat heavily on his shoulders, it felt like his skin was on fire. Millions of needles pricked him from every angle at once, and it was all he could do not to scratch the sensation off in an effort to be free of the burden he’d never leave behind. Distracting himself with housework and rebuilding the kingdom? That only went so far.

Whether she knew that or not, whether she understood or not, Iris didn’t question it this time. She pointedly refrained from asking what for when he said he’d be out back with his sword; she didn’t even offer one of her snarky propositions to join him. All she did was nod her head in silent acceptance as he grabbed his weapon from its usual spot near the door and descended to the basement to grab what he needed.

Like any good servant to the king, his dad had kept an extensive collection of arms and equipment in the makeshift training room downstairs, mostly so that they could work on Gladio’s form when they weren’t at the Citadel. All things considered, he figured he owed much of his own talent to his father. For as long as he could remember, his dad had been pushing him to be the best that he could be, both academically and physically. The sparring, the lessons, the reading—it never ended. If Gladio was at home, his father had something waiting for him so that he wouldn’t sit idly the way normal guys his age frequently did. And that had been cool with him: Shields didn’t need time to be lazy. They didn’t need social lives, not when their very existences were tied to those of their charges. When he was a kid, Gladio had thought it was the highest compliment to be so extensively trained and motivated. It had simply meant that they wanted what was best for him and, by extension, the king he was bound to serve.

He tried not to remember those first few months after he’d actually met the guy. They…weren’t exactly his finest moments, he could say that much.

That fleeting bout of uncertainty had passed, though, and Gladio had thrown himself into his training with renewed vigor once he realized that maybe he hadn’t gotten as unlucky in his assignment as he’d believed. If he couldn’t make it to the Citadel or it wasn’t his day to train there, then his father’s stash was always open to him. In fact, his dad had welcomed him to use it, and he had plenty of fond memories of the two of them duking it out down here while they pretended Iris wasn’t watching them from the top of the stairs.

Those were the days. He hadn’t thought so then, but he had had ten long years to think about them while his training consisted of constant combat and a myriad of close calls. It sure made fighting his father seem like a cake walk.

Now, there was no sparring with the man he had looked up to since he was too young to know why. There was no trading blows and witty barbs at the end of the day to burn off a little residual energy. There was no telling Iris that she was too young to give it a try or blinking tears away when he hurt himself or pretending that he wasn’t even slightly nervous that he wouldn’t be able to do his job anywhere near as well as all the Amicitia men who had preceded him. Those days had passed, relegated to whatever memories he could preserve as they faded further into the depths of his mind. They’d all grown up, and there was no going back no matter how desperately he wished that he had taken care of some business before they’d gotten this far.

He couldn’t, though. All he could do was keep moving forward—King Regis had said it the day they left Insomnia, and his father had drilled it into his head so often as a kid that Gladio couldn’t even count the number of times he’d mocked him for it.

As he hauled a couple of training dummies out into the yard, he couldn’t help thinking that his father would be saying the same thing as always if he were here right now. After all, kicking some fake ass wasn’t exactly what he would call moving forward. There was plenty he could be doing in Insomnia, whether it was hunting down Ignis and Prompto or just going out with Iris to have a good time for a change. People weren’t running scared anymore, hiding from the shadows so that they didn’t become one themselves. They were having fun when they could, going places and doing things and getting their minds off their problems for the first time in over a decade. Life was going back to normal.

And Gladio was raising his sword, swinging it in a wide arc, and sweeping one of the dummies out of his way as if it wasn’t even there.

The one difficulty with training alone was that there was only so much you could really do before it got old. The same workouts, the same drills, the same routines blended together until Gladio couldn’t bring himself to believe that any of them were doing him a damn bit of good. His muscles didn’t burn with the strain anymore, if he could call it that in the first place. They were accustomed to the paces he put them through when he dove over what was left of their rear hedge and rolled beneath the shattered remains of the fence that he’d piled up to create what passed for an obstacle course. The Citadel’s equipment would have been better suited to his purpose, but he wasn’t about to head into the middle of the city. Not today.

Besides, while going through the motions of training was of no strategic use whatsoever, there was also no denying that it had something of a therapeutic effect on him that he had been in search of since he’d gotten into Insomnia last night. The familiar flow allowed him to lose himself to the rhythm his father had taught him as a kid: jump, duck, roll, lunge. Nothing fancy. Nothing over the top. Just jump, duck, roll, lunge.

Jump. Duck. Roll. Lunge.

Jump. Duck. Roll. Lunge.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Repeat.

In that cycle, there was no room for thought. There was no room for what if. There was no room for could I have or should I have. There was no room for what for or what now or the uncomfortable sensation of not knowing or wanting to know the answer to that. It was pure, mindless action, and he needed every second of it.

Which meant his brain was going to do everything it could to mess him up.

At some point, Iris had gone to meet up with Talcott, leaving the house empty and dark in the rapidly dimming light of the afternoon sun. It towered over Gladio as he pushed himself towards the edge of awareness, the edge of any consciousness of the world around him. In a sense, the solitude was almost a relief, especially when he hadn’t been able to ignore the way his sister’s eyes seemed to bore into his back where he knew she had been watching from her bedroom window. The house didn’t judge him like she did; the house didn’t shake its head and wonder whether he was ever going to get over things that he couldn’t change. It was simply there, a beacon in the shadows that had withstood the test of time and survived the fires of defeat. That was comforting, in a sense. Between the two of them, they’d seen some pretty serious shit.

So had their guest.

Try as he might to keep his mind off it, Gladio wasn’t as alone as he desperately wished to be. There was a presence around him that went beyond his nosy sister or the dummies that seemed to exude the aura of his father’s scrutiny with every overpowered blow he dealt them. It didn’t speak, yet it was all he could hear; it didn’t move, yet it was all he could see. Time and time again, he would weave through the aging pseudo enemies only to find a familiar face waiting for him on the other side. He would swing his sword, aiming for a target that would never feel his own anguish, only to discover that there was someone blocking the way—himself.

Because he was certain that what he was seeing couldn’t be there. Gladio knew damn well that it was his eyes and ears playing tricks on him, that his brain was acknowledging what his consciousness had refused to all day.

Noct, sitting in the grass after plunging his training sword into the ground.

Noct, growling in frustration that he could never get the upper hand no matter how many times they went at it.

Noct, averting his eyes as he admitted the truth of his apparent lethargy, the fear of his father’s death.

Wherever Gladio turned, he saw Noct. There was no ignoring the phantom that appeared before his blade in silent reminder that he hadn’t been able to save the one person he would never forgive himself for losing; there was no avoiding the specter that dogged his steps when he threw his sword to the side and sprinted as though all the daemons of Zegnautus were on his heels.

And his voice. Goddamn it, his voice. It was everywhere—in Gladio’s ears, in his head, in his very soul. Whispered jokes about Ignis’s obsessive mother-henning accompanied tearful admissions of the shortcomings Noct had never been keen on admitting he had. Nights of laughing and shouting in equal measures over video games, barbless digs at the books Gladio used to read on long journeys in the Regalia, halfhearted excuses when he was avoiding his responsibilities. Each and every one of them blurred together until Gladio couldn’t stand it anymore, the cacophony in his skull growing too loud to handle.

Gladiolus Amicitia was no coward, but in that instant, all he could think to do was run.

The problem? There was nowhere to go. He was surrounded in this place, in the city that had always been his home and the house that had always held a special spot in his heart. If he left, Iris would be pissed, but if he stayed? His head was going to explode.

So, he did the only thing he could: Gladio ditched the training gear in the yard and stomped inside with the shadows of his past to his rear. He’d spent every single moment of the last year practicing, after all; Ignis wouldn’t let him forget it. Whenever he was gone a little longer than he’d originally stated, whenever he was the first one out the door instead of waiting for the rest of the council to adjourn, he got an earful about how he needed to get with the program. As if he wasn’t functioning just as well as always, day in and day out like clockwork. He wasn’t the one who had changed, and he wasn’t the one who required the lecture. Not from Ignis, not from Cor, not from Iris—not from anybody.

He’d gotten it anyway. Everyone seemed to have something to say, whether it was Ignis telling him to pull himself together (he had) or Cor claiming that he would be of more use in Insomnia than running around Lucis (he wouldn’t). They all had reasons why he wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t being enough, and he was so sick of it that he would scream if he wasn’t a hell of a lot better than some whiny teenage girl.

Plus, what right did he have to get upset about it? What right did he have to slam the door to his bedroom and stalk into the bathroom, yanking off his shirt and throwing it towards the clothes hamper with all the force he could muster? What right did he have to jerk the faucet in his shower to the hottest possible setting as though it was the one that had ruined his training session and not his own damn brain?

None. He had no right to any of it. Some days, he wasn’t even sure he had a right to be.

And it was no wonder. When he pulled apart the layers of grief and failure, Gladio had no clue who he was anymore. The persona he’d been raised to embody had died beside his king as every Shield was meant to, and he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of that guy ever since. What remained in his wake was someone Gladio couldn’t identify, a stranger in familiar garments. Months passed, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was constantly in the wrong place, living a life that didn’t really belong to him. Walking the halls of the Citadel was like standing beside his own ghost, the latter always on his ass for not doing or being what he should. The phantom didn’t mean it the way everyone else did, though. No, this was infinitely worse. Gladio’s father had fallen in service to King Regis; every one of his ancestors had preceded their kings into the afterlife, but here he was. Noct was gone, and he was glaring at his shower as steam filled the bathroom. Noct was gone, and he was wearing a hole in the tile as he paced back and forth. Noct was gone, and he was trying to catch the breath that still somehow invaded his lungs through the haze of humidity around him.

Noct was gone, and his pathetic excuse for a Shield was still standing.

Slamming his fists down on the counter, Gladio bent his head low over the sink and took as deep a breath as he could manage when it felt like there was fire in his chest, suffocating whatever life remained inside him. This was why he hadn’t wanted to come back to Insomnia today. This was exactly why he had planned on heading to Galdin or Lestallum or wherever he could find work that would empty his mind and allow him a few moments of peace. They never lasted—he wasn’t that lucky—but it was better than digging his fingers into the hard marble surface as if he could sink into it and vanish if he really tried.

That would be easy, though, and Gladio didn’t deserve easy. If anything, he was paying for his failure in spades, trapped here where he couldn’t escape the memories.

The very idea was a joke and a half. When Gladio raised his eyes to the mirror, his reflection staring back at him in mingled disgust and anguish, he was reminded for the millionth time that he had evidence of his ineptitude written into every line of his body. Black ink waved mockingly from his reflection, once a sign of his station, of the great destiny that he had inherited from his own dad and his father before him. Ever since he’d taken a seat in that chair in their family’s preferred parlor, ever since the needle had touched his skin to make its first mark, he had seen it as something of a badge of honor. This was what set him apart from the rest of the Crownsguard and made him a Shield to the future king of Lucis. Whoever he met or wherever he went, a glimpse of his tattoo would tell them that his was a far more valuable lot in life than anyone else would ever find. Even though it had become a joke between him and Noct when they were younger, that was admittedly why he’d chosen to wear fewer clothes than the others on so many occasions. Gladio liked that attention, and not just the type that his physique garnered from the ladies. While that was definitely nice, it was about so much more than that. The Crownsguard had their uniforms; the Kingsglaive, their badges and magic. He had this. Through thick and thin, in this life or the next, he would always have his brand.

Nowadays, it was hard to believe that he had blindly admired the eagle on his collarbone for so many years. It was difficult to remember the feeling of satisfaction that it used to give him when he spotted it peeking out from underneath his jacket or spied someone squinting to get a better look from afar. Then again, just about everything was like that anymore. Hanging out with the guys? More of a hassle than a pleasure. Working at the Citadel? Too painful to take in more than small doses. Spending time at home? So stifling that he felt like he was crawling out of his skin.

Hell, even the occasional date wasn’t enough to interest him anymore. Don’t get him wrong, he was still pretty good with the ladies. He’d met more than one interested party in his travels, and none of them cared whether his tattoo meant something or not. They wouldn’t have minded if he was merely one of the nameless, faceless hunters that passed through the newly rebuilt outposts without saying a word. There was something freeing about that, something that he should have reveled in when he had the chance.

Instead, he shied away from the kind of interactions he used to jump at. If someone made a move, he made a few of his own—in the opposite direction. He hadn’t done any real flirting in so long that he couldn’t remember the last time, not with a random face in the crowd or even that one girl in Lestallum he’d been positive he could see becoming part of his future. Well, back when he’d thought there was a future. At this point, it was like he was treading water, waiting for the world to start spinning again when it seemed determined not to move an inch.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it was his own damn fault, too.

That thought alone had him deflating, the anger and frustration that had welled up inside him beginning to subside as he watched his shoulders slump in the mirror. Shit. He was on a roll today, allowing himself to get lost in a place no self-respecting Shield would have access to. It inhibited action and encouraged pitying yourself to the point of worthlessness. What the hell would his dad think of him if he could see what he had become?

Actually, Gladio didn’t need to ask that: he already knew what his father would believe, and it wasn’t anything good. They may not have seen eye to eye on everything, but listening to Cor, he could sometimes hear his dad’s voice coming out of the marshal’s mouth. He’d certainly left an impression, not that the latter had learned much until it was too late. They were a lot alike that way, Cor and Gladio. They both ran in without thinking, and both of them had practically been slapped by the Six for their foolishness.

Cor had said that, among other things. At the beginning and a few times since, on occasions when Gladio had apparently behaved badly enough that it warranted sitting him down for a chat like a goddamn toddler, the marshal had made no bones about telling it like it was. As far as he was concerned, Gladio had nothing to be complaining about. He’d done his job; he had seen Noct to his fate, regardless of whether that brought them to a place where he survived it. That supposedly hadn’t been his duty as Shield. Rather, he was meant to take his king as far as he could before letting the gods have their way with him. That was, after all, the whole point of the King of Kings.

The King of Kings. What a load of garbage. Gladio didn’t buy that for one second. He hadn’t bought any of it, not when Cor had thrust it upon him as though it was some kind of comfort and not in the months he’d had to process. What else was a Shield but a safeguard against harm? What else was a Shield but a wall between their king and a gruesome end? Alone. On a throne. With nobody by his side but a bunch of dead leaders and the promise that their world would be a better place once he was gone. Yeah, that sure sounded like what the old texts were going for when they instructed Shields to stand by their monarchs for all time.

Informing the marshal of that hadn’t been one of his more intelligent ideas. Ignis had verbally kicked him over it afterward, yet Gladio hadn’t been able to muster any regret for saying what he felt. He wasn’t a kid anymore, nor was he the young Shield that had set out from Insomnia with absolutely no experience under his belt but the training he’d received in the safety of his own home. If anyone had earned the right to speak their mind, he considered himself a decent candidate. It wasn’t like he had to watch his mouth for the sake of his position—it wasn’t like he had a position in the first place. Cor’s venomous glower and insistence that he was behaving in a manner unbecoming both a Shield and an Amicitia alike wouldn’t change that.

Gladio nearly lunging at him in rage wouldn’t have either. Needles to say, it was a good thing Ignis and Prompto had been there to stop him before he could make that mistake. Maybe his reputation didn’t matter anymore, but he really didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Cor’s brand of discipline.

Things had been decidedly cool between them for a few weeks in the aftermath, although neither of them had uttered a word about the exchange. They had work to do, and while there would be time to mentally spar later, it didn’t bode well for them to be at each other’s throats when they needed to be devoted to rebuilding Lucis. So, with the exception of the seemingly random yet painstakingly planned occasions when Cor dressed him down for his absence, they focused on their duty to what remained of their kingdom. They focused on doing what Noct would have wanted if he were here to say it himself, on doing what he had said when they parted ways for the last time.

They focused on moving on without him.

Well, they tried, anyway. It turned out the whole moving on thing was a hell of a lot harder when your heart kept holding you back. That was a problem Gladio never thought he’d encounter, but ever since Noct left them, he had been surprised to discover a ton of stuff hiding beneath the surface that he’d managed to curb thus far. The distant fear that he would fail, the discomfort of knowing that there were some things he wouldn’t be able to accomplish, the anger at the fate they’d all suffered that had led them to this point—every ounce of it simmered low in his stomach, waiting for an outlet that he hadn’t offered it before. To be honest, he hadn’t given himself much of a chance. His father and each of his instructors over the years had ceaselessly emphasized that his job wasn’t to think of himself so much as it was to think about Noct. Whatever insecurities he might have had when he was a kid needed to be shoved aside to make way for his charge’s wellbeing instead, whether that was the support Gladio had to offer him or the kick in the ass he sometimes had to administer. Either way, a Shield didn’t allow themselves to cater to emotions, their own or anyone else’s. Their duty was to keep everyone around them going, most especially their king.

That was why he stayed busy. For all the memories Insomnia held for him, the Crown City was nothing compared to the inside of his own head. The emotions churning around in there were daunting, to put it in Ignis’s terms, and he didn’t want any part of them. When he was busy, he could concentrate on other matters; he could believe for a brief fraction of a second that he was making progress towards moving past this entirely. He wasn’t, but hey, a guy could dream.

Figuratively speaking. In reality, Gladio dreaded closing his eyes at night more than opening them in the morning. There was no helping that when the same nightmare greeted him without fail.

Being in the throne room. Finding Noct in the seat that was always meant for him. Although he’d smirk at them and joke that they were late, it was brittle at best. It didn’t carry the warmth or the affection it usually did.

Every time, Gladio would ascend the stairs. Every time, Noct would be gone when he reached the top.

But the throne wasn’t empty.

In Noct’s place was a picture. It was always the same one: the one he had taken with him before they strode calmly into hell. The one of the four of them around the Regalia when they’d picked it up from Hammerhead, before they’d gone to Galdin and the world had gone to shit.

Knowing what would happen didn’t stop him from reaching out in his dream to take the photo. Hundreds of times, he’d watched the Crystal shatter in response, showering him with sparkling silver dust. After that, it was all a blur: the floor vanishing beneath him, careening into darkness, the silence pressing against his eardrums as if it was trying to squeeze his brain between them.

He wasn’t alone, though. In that place, he was never alone.

Noct was with him, only Gladio couldn’t see him through the shadows. There was no mistaking the hand on his shoulder that simultaneously urged him to turn and begged him not to. Nothing else penetrated the gloom but that familiar touch and the heartache that accompanied it. Without hesitation, Gladio would wrench himself away and whirl around—

And wake up.

Panting for breath, he would glance around whatever room he happened to be staying in or any one of the camps he frequented when he couldn’t be bothered to head back to an outpost for the night. His skin would burn beneath the Crystal shard that gleamed in the light of his bathroom mirror now, framed in the hollow of his throat and winking under the fluorescents. His hand would immediately reach for it in lieu of the target he never could seem to catch, and he would hiss in pain when the heat of the stone stung his palm. It wasn’t something he questioned, the inferno that erupted around his talisman whenever he had that dream. Admittedly, his mind was usually elsewhere.

Because, just like when he trained, he would spend the next few hours trying to shake the feeling that he was being watched. Days would pass, and he still wouldn’t be able to get the remnants of the dream out of his head. It was no surprise when the ghost of Noct’s hand on his shoulder haunted him with each step, seemingly content to tap his arm at the worst possible moments in an attempt to get him to turn around and acknowledge his presence. In the fleeting instances where Gladio gave in to his own weakness and glanced behind him, however, there was never anyone there. Logic couldn’t mop up the disappointment that would flood his insides, and he would be forced to go about his business as if he wasn’t well aware that his brain was an even bigger traitor than half the Kingsglaive.

So, he did his best to avoid the nightmares altogether despite the unfortunate fact that they’d come for him every night regardless. He ran himself ragged in the hopes that he would be too exhausted to dream, all to no avail. It didn’t matter if he helped Ignis with the council or ran deliveries with Talcott and Iris; it didn’t matter if he trained with the marshal for threats that didn’t exist anymore or met up with Prompto on the rare occasions they crossed paths outside the city. Whatever he tried, he ended up in exactly the same place.

And they’d thought Ardyn had lost his mind. Pretty soon, Gladio thought he might just join the guy.

But he could ponder that another day. For now, he had enough on his plate simply getting through the next couple of hours until the vicious cycle began anew. Standing in front of a mirror that had long since fogged up from the steam in his bathroom wasn’t what he would qualify as a productive evening, and there were still a few things he wanted to get done before he called it a night. His stomach was growling, the dried sweat from his pitiful excuse for a training session was starting to itch, and he was seriously overdue for getting reacquainted with his own mattress for a change. Iris would be home later and probably want him to spend time with her, knowing that he wasn’t bound to stick around for long. His phone was already buzzing, and when he pulled it out of his pocket, Prompto’s name and an invitation to play the newest incarnation of King’s Knight flashed on the screen.

He could do this. He had to do this. All he needed to do was hold it together, stay busy, keep himself distracted…

And try to figure out who he was when he had no king to protect.

Chapter Text

Duty was a double-edged sword. That was the realization that increasingly absorbed Ignis’s attention.

His entire life had been spent in pursuit of greater accomplishments than most individuals could boast of from the moment they were born until they left nothing more than a legacy behind them. In his thirty-three years, he had trained under some of the most impressive instructors Eos had to offer, served two kings, and coordinated the reconstruction of the entire kingdom—and that was barely scratching the surface. His duty never abated, whether he was acting in an official capacity under the marshal’s leadership or taking the initiative to perform whatever tasks were required that few would be willing to shoulder. Each day, he woke to a new list of self-imposed goals, all of which were designed to dovetail with those that would bring them yet another step closer to the rejuvenation of their former lives. There was no going back in time, nor could they truly reclaim what they had lost, yet it was a worthwhile endeavor to get as close as possible.

That, after all, was the duty appointed to him by both King Regis and Noctis. That was what he had promised the latter when they parted ways, if not quite as vocally as he could have. In the heat of the moment, it hadn’t seemed so important to confirm his understanding of his destiny in words, though. They had spent long enough in each other’s company to communicate without them, regardless of whether it would have been more ideal to have had many years beyond what the Six had granted them. That being the case, Ignis knew his place and was aware of what his duty entailed. Much of the time, that was what kept him on the straight and narrow while others struggled to find where they belonged in this new and strange world that they were embarking on together. Gladio was feeling it, loath as he was to concur when Ignis attempted to make him admit that; even Prompto was not immune to the occasional belief that things had changed and left them behind in the process.

But not Ignis. He was too well trained, too well acquainted with the dimensions of his duty and how it would be altered should he find himself without the monarch that had become more than a friend and brother. His determination had been crafted and tuned to the point where nothing could stop him, not even the unthinkable. Admittedly, there were innumerable instances over the span of his life where he’d been certain that his journey had come to an end, be it in the aftermath of his sacrifice to rescue Noct from Ardyn’s clutches (however unnecessary that had turned out to be in hindsight) or the ten years he had spent wondering if each day would be his last. In spite of those internal fears and close calls, not once had he shirked his responsibilities; not once had he given up in the face of adversity. Well, he nearly had in Altissia: without his sight to combat the recurring visions of Noctis, older and more experienced and dying alone on his throne, he had thought he might go mad if he did not at least attempt to curb their course. In a sense, that was merely yet another aspect of his duty, so he did not regret that brief weakness for a second. To keep Noct from harm, even and perhaps most especially when Ignis had information that his friend and liege did not, had always been his purpose. To see him safely to Accordo, to help him retake both Crystal and throne, to ensure that he ascended to the lofty position he was meant to inherit—that was Ignis’s duty. Shameful as it was when he reflected upon it now, his pleas that Noct set aside his divine destiny had worked towards that goal.

The fact that his efforts had failed, of course, was neither here nor there.

The important thing was that he had tried, that he had at every turn followed his calling to its logical conclusion. Ignis did the same now, oftentimes forcing himself down the path he knew he should be on despite not necessarily wanting to travel along it. Doing so kept him sane and focused, and really, that was all any of them could hope for anymore. Given the alternative, he should have considered himself quite lucky indeed.

Unfortunately, that was rather difficult when duty also meant sitting in the council chambers listening to the marshal read through Talcott’s latest memorandum long after the rest of the Citadel had retired for the evening.

“Communications have been stable enough over the last few months to test television signals,” he was saying, either oblivious to or ignoring the way Ignis’s attention was beginning to flag as the minutes ticked by. “So far, everything is holding steady. The radio waves from the Citadel are stronger than before, but they’re working on boosting the range as we speak. If their progress continues at this rate, then broadcasting should be back to full operation within the next couple of weeks.”

“Not exactly what I would have expected them to prioritize,” admitted Ignis wryly. The marshal’s chuckle sounded as exhausted as he imagined his own voice did.

“Not at all, but I suppose it can’t be helped. People need a distraction.”

Humming in agreement, Ignis mused, “Better this than nothing.”

“You can say that again.”

Of the various leisure activities they’d had at their disposal eleven years prior, few remained. There were no more frivolities, at least none that were functional, and the chore of restoring the Crown City had overshadowed their importance. They had too many other problems that needed solving to waste time and manpower on trimming park lawns, after all. As such, there was little opportunity for the people of Insomnia—or anywhere else—to take a break from the daily bustle of rebuilding what they could of their lives and worry about entertainment.

Ordinarily, Ignis would have said that was a good thing. While they had made a sizable amount of progress already, there was a great deal left to do; there were moments when he was positively overwhelmed by the sheer volume of their task as they planned their next move. That being said, it wasn’t often that he took a day off. To do so seemed tantamount to flouting his responsibilities, and that was unforgivable. In the past, he had survived off the kindness of strangers more times than he could count, both in the wake of blindly striking out from Insomnia or merely his literal blindness as he attempted to interpret the world around him in ways that didn’t require use of his eyes. Perhaps it was reading too deeply into things, but to Ignis, it felt as though stepping back from his duty would be the equivalent of spitting in their faces. They had sacrificed a certain level of freedom for him—Noct had sacrificed his life. The least he could do was stick to his priorities like glue until they were completed, whether that was weeks, months, or years from now.

Well, he wouldn’t be bored. That was comforting.

Others, however, were not the same as him. They needed that release, that relief from the burdens they were forced to bear if they wanted to repopulate the civilization they used to inhabit. If the best they could do was broadcast television programs that had gone out of style a decade ago, then it was a worthy venture. At least that would occupy the city’s children, who had nothing better to do than play in the rubble.

“It may be prudent to invest some of our resources into fresh programming,” he suggested wearily, already hearing the marshal scribbling a note in the margins of the missive. “Spreading news would be more convenient, and the citizenry will only be entertained by whatever media remains for so long.”

“My thoughts exactly. Besides, if we play our cards right, we might be able to expand the network outside the borders of Insomnia this time.”

“Without the Wall blocking the signal, it should be a relatively simple matter.”

“You say that now, but we both know it’s never that easy.”

Ignis couldn’t help smirking at that. No, it never was. Those days, sadly, had passed.

Try as he might to forget, it was impossible to sit in this room and not recall the meetings he had attended when he was little more than a boy training to be a king’s advisor. He could no longer see it, yet the image was preserved in his memory as perfectly as though it were just yesterday. The table where the council congregated, the king’s chair at its head, the windows set high in the walls so they were not entirely unaware of the passage of time—it was all there, painted on the insides of his eyelids so that he could see it in his mind’s eye. Back then, his opinion hadn’t mattered a bit; he’d had the luxury of merely attending rather than the stress of providing information. He was there to take notes that he would later present to Noctis, not to offer insight or recommend any course of action. King Regis had his own retainers for that, although Ignis was certain that his suggestions would have been met with open-minded tolerance had he been brave enough to voice them on occasion.

But he hadn’t been, and he had to admit that he was glad for it. At that age, he doubted he would have been able to come up with anything better than King Regis was already receiving. Indeed, there were still moments when he wondered whether he even remotely measured up to his predecessors’ expectations and reputations.

There wasn’t much difference when he was in the marshal’s presence, as a matter of fact. While he was more vocal with his praise, particularly in situations when he knew that a small boost went a long way, there were nevertheless instances when Ignis’s lack of sight betrayed him. Reading silence was harder than reading an expression, the latter of which he had been trained to do with ease. The former, he had to teach himself, and the results were at times…debatable. There was no question as to whether the marshal valued his opinion and acted on it in more than one circumstance, yet Ignis would have appreciated getting to the root of a matter more quickly by deciphering his audience’s thoughts on their faces, not in the sounds of their voices.

Beggars couldn’t be choosers, though. He had to accept what solace he could glean from his surroundings, and not having to concern himself with the same considerations that he had when King Regis sat the throne was a fair starting point.

Another would have been a speedy adjournment, but that, as well, was far too simple for them.

“Iris said that Gladio is back in town for a couple of days,” the marshal continued as though that were the natural progression of the conversation. “We can send him out to survey the telegraph poles in Leide. They may need some restructuring, but they’re sturdy enough to do the job in a pinch.”

“I’m sure he’ll jump at the opportunity,” sighed Ignis. If only that weren’t the case.

The marshal caught on to his point without further explanation, and there was a fleeting yet terse pause before he replied, “Once we have the kingdom connected, he’ll have to find a new hobby.”

That was an optimistic approach to the subject, and they both knew it. Gladio had not willingly remained in the Crown City for longer than a week at a time since their return; whenever Ignis turned around, he was gone again. Although he would never acknowledge it aloud, he had taken to referring to Gladio as the errand Shield in his less charitable moments. That wasn’t to say that they didn’t need someone to traverse the span of the kingdom to suit their purposes, of course. On the contrary, there were few people better suited to the task: they had all been living in the same undesirable conditions, but that sort of thing never bothered Gladio. He was the epitome of an outdoorsman, and as such, he was one of the best equipped candidates for the task of carrying messages and other news to the outposts.

Still, it didn’t have to be him. He wasn’t required to accept every single assignment. Unlike Ignis’s penchant for avoiding vacations like the Starscourge, this was not a facet of Gladio’s duty. It was neither expected of him nor encouraged when he used it purely as a means of coping—or, more accurately, not coping. If anything, it had become a point of contention between them, albeit born more from frustration than actual anger.

In Ignis’s opinion, Gladio’s place was here. The marshal agreed, as did Prompto and Iris. After all the time they had spent apart, Gladio’s sister deserved to have her brother home for longer at the very least. Besides, there was far more he could accomplish in the city than out in the wilderness somewhere, not least of which coming to terms with a few things that he refused to admit had stumped him emotionally. That, of course, was exactly why he stayed on the run—or busy, as he called it. When faced with the prospect of his own feelings, Gladio had always been one to voluntarily throw himself over a cliff before dealing with it in a timely manner.

Honestly, there were days when Ignis thought he was perhaps the only one still functioning normally around here.

That was why he didn’t complain when the marshal did not adjourn their two-man council meeting. That was why Ignis kept his mouth firmly closed as he read a few more of the updates they would need to take into account for their next projects. He hadn’t asked for this to be his duty or his fate, nor had the marshal. As such, it was not his place to insist that they had been here long enough, just as it unfortunately wasn’t his place to force Gladio to do anything he didn’t want to.

As the advisor to the last king of Lucis and assistant to the first council ruler of their new order, his duty was simply to listen and to speak. What others chose to do was none of his business and, therefore, beyond his ability to change.

So, he didn’t. While he occasionally poked his nose into Gladio’s business (perhaps more than occasionally, if he was being honest, but friends were allowed that privilege even if duty dictated otherwise) or spoke out of turn to steer the council’s agenda, Ignis focused singularly on the responsibilities granted to him by his liege. Some days, that meant examining record after record of Lucian infrastructure so that they could effectively restore what was necessary for their continued development, usually with a faithful companion to read for him. Others, it meant sitting in hours of meetings as their regional representatives debated the most pressing issues that required resolution.

Today, it meant nodding when the marshal assigned him the pleasure of speaking to Gladio about the future of their communications network and logging away the potential programs they could produce in the coming weeks.

That, luckily, was all it meant. Either the marshal realized how long they had been at that table or he was feeling the same itch at the corners of his eyes that Ignis was, because he did not attempt to address any more business tonight. After a few final objectives were divvied between them, he acknowledged that they had done enough for one day and dismissed Ignis with a hearty apology. There was no use telling him that he needn’t have bothered or that he was glad to have been there rather than anywhere else: the Immortal was no stranger to his thoughts or habits, so it was unlikely that he was ignorant of Ignis’s reluctance to be idle that evening. It had to be obvious in every line of his slumped shoulders and cadence of his sighed breath, in any case.

Or it would have been, if he were anybody else. Ignis was no fool: he knew better than to act on his weariness and uncertainty in places where it might be seen. It was a practice he had perfected in the early days of his tutelage, when he had exited the same room with his spine rigidly straight and his posture stiffer than a board. Maintaining appearances was a necessity, especially when he had been under constant scrutiny day and night. A mistake, even a slight one, could have functioned as damning evidence that he was unfit for the position he had worked so hard to deserve. As a result, those old council meetings had filled him with a sense of mingled excitement and dread. It was difficult not to be a bit on edge when his entire future was riding on his ability to prove that he was worthy of serving as Noct’s advisor.

Since then, he had come a long way. No one eyed him in the same skeptical examination they used to, as far as he could tell. He could not see the expressions of those who approached him each day, yet he had grown accustomed to discerning negative reactions to his presence. Thus far, he had garnered any number of responses from his peers and subordinates: admiration, respect, even a surprising amount of awe. Not disdain, however. That was one thing he had not been subjected to since the first dawn after Noct’s sacrifice.

As Ignis slowly made his way from the council chambers to the elevator, the route burned into his memory so that he could have walked it blindfolded even with his sight, he couldn’t help but reflect on that development. In years past, he never would have thought that his reputation would be anything more than that of a loyal and (hopefully) capable retainer. He would walk into the council meetings pretending to be less nervous than he was; he would listen to the conversation and debate flow around him as if he wasn’t even there. The king would speak above them all from his seat at the head of the table, the one that no one sat in now lest they dishonor his memory. Without a body to bury, that was more of a concern than they had ever imagined. Everything had become a monument to what they had lost, including the chair that the marshal refused to occupy. It was only fitting, Ignis supposed: in his mind, he could still hear King Regis issuing orders from that direction despite the decade that had passed since their last meeting had adjourned. On that occasion, he had been nothing but Noct’s chamberlain, meant to guide him to his wedding and back but not ask questions about what would happen to them then.

Now… Well, now was a difficult pill to swallow, all things considered.

Ignis shook that thought from his mind as he jabbed the button for the lift and waited for its arrival. He had more important things to worry about than that.

Especially today.

Given that it was the first of many milestones they were doomed to encounter, he believed he had done an adequate job of keeping himself focused on less depressing matters. All day, he had leapt from meeting to meeting with a level of agility that Prompto had initially mocked before he began complaining that it was too much. What he meant, Ignis honestly had no idea. They had managed a great deal, but it was no different from usual. Between the volunteers who remained in the Crown City and their counterparts in the major outposts, they were always busy with something. In fact, they had a number of issues on their docket that hadn’t quite been settled beyond a cursory glance.

The phone grid, for example. That was a trying quandary, one that he forced himself to recollect while he ascended towards his floor. Although they had given it their all, the question of how they could possibly manage to increase the supply of devices and expand their service network under the constraints they were operating within had yet to be answered. Until fairly recently, the sorts of phones that he had grown up using had circulated solely around the Crown City; outer regions had more rudimentary technology, seemingly ancient artifacts that were unreliable at best by comparison. Their first order of business now that much of the cosmetic work had been done was to change that, not that they were any closer to doing so today than a year ago. They needed industry to make it happen, from building the devices to delivering them to where they would be most valuable. The resources they had at their disposal for the time being simply weren’t enough to accommodate, and it had fallen to Ignis to locate a way to bypass that issue as soon as possible.

At the moment, the most feasible idea he had come up with was scavenging the still abandoned parts of the city to find any phones that might be donated posthumously to the cause by their former owners. It was a bleak prospect and more than a bit tasteless, but at least it would work.

Then there was the enormous undertaking of sorting through the photos Prompto had taken of Duscae last month. From what the rest of the council had intimated, there admittedly wasn’t much to see: most of the wilderness had been ravaged by the daemons or wild animals that had been left to their own devices in the Long Night. The major outposts were salvageable, albeit with a vast amount of time and patience, but that was not their primary concern. At the heart of their kingdom was the most fertile land available in all of Lucis; Duscae was replete with rich soil, plenty of room, and abundant access to sunshine. In a perfect world, it would have been the solution to the problem their dwindling supplies had caused.

But the world was not perfect. If it were, Ignis would not have to count his immaculately measured footsteps on his way down the corridor or fumble to find the knob of his own apartment door.

Carcasses and decay—that was what awaited them in Duscae. Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been fine: they had made it through ten years of darkness with little more than what they were able to grow in controlled environments, after all. No one was dying of starvation, nor were they even approaching the likelihood of going hungry.

There was no denying, however, that they needed to fix their transportation system or their food shortages—preferably both. If they could reestablish control over the farmland of the central regions of Lucis, then that would mean their supplies would not have to travel such extensive distances to make it from Lestallum to Insomnia. They could then create a more effective transit network until they could repopulate existing production facilities and increase the output of their recovering infrastructure.

It would take time and patience, which Ignis had been quick to remind the rest of the council on numerous occasions during the last year. Today had been more of the same, and while he could not claim to have witnessed the destruction with his own eyes, Ignis was determined to construct a plan of action that they could put into effect in the coming days.

And why shouldn’t he? Unlike Gladio and Prompto, Ignis maintained a steadier presence at the Citadel so that he could take a more active role in the rebuilding of their kingdom than what would have been possible had he chosen a different course. A Shield could be of use anywhere in Lucis, as they had quickly discovered: between his strength and intelligence, Gladio was regrettably a prime candidate to lead those who were leaderless, especially beyond the walls. Similarly, Prompto had ascended from the common elements of society to a trusted friend of the Chosen King. That afforded him a certain amount of sway amongst the populace, and that was without counting the admiration he had engendered over the years through his altruism and determination alone. Both of them were suited to their positions—traveling, aiding, and bearing witness to that which they could not restore.

Ignis was different. On some level, he thought perhaps he always had been. As advisor to the future king—former advisor to the former king, that was—it was his duty to ensure that the government was put back together in a manner befitting the monarchs they had inherited it from. It was something that he was perfectly trained for when his companions weren’t. Knowing now what King Regis’s role had been in orchestrating their salvation, Ignis had no doubt that that had been done on purpose as well.

That sense of duty, of responsibility, was what kept him going. Gladio had his projects, and Prompto had his photographs as he monitored their progress—Ignis had the council. He had an oligarchy that would never be able to take the place of the monarchy they could not preserve. He had plans and records. He had order. He had predictability.

He had everything he could possibly need to fulfill his duty and hated every moment of it.

Because in spite of his devotion to that which had been assigned to him by his liege, Ignis yearned to do more. He had spent so many years safeguarding Lucis during the Long Night; he had spent so much time reteaching himself how to perform the most basic of tasks so that he wouldn’t become a liability. In so doing, he had protected his position as an asset to the kingdom, but he couldn’t claim to be anywhere near as productive as those on the council who had full use of their faculties.

The marshal spearheaded their endeavors and made the final decisions on how they were going to govern Lucis in the absence of any other leadership, inherited or elected.

Gladio was instrumental in the rebuilding process, whatever his ulterior motives might be.

Prompto was their eyes around Lucis, traveling where he was needed and documenting their growth so that they could make plans for the future.

Monica managed and deployed what remained of the Crownsguard and Kingsglaive to wherever they would be of the greatest use in both their protection and reconstruction.

Dave, Cid, Holly—they all had their roles. Each was indispensable, a beacon for the people who had operated under them for ten long years.

Then there was Ignis, valuable in his own right yet not quite irreplaceable. That was but another reason why he attempted to work as hard as he could to bring up the rear, as it were. Much as he wished he could do more than he had, he was aware of his limits. Fighting was something he knew like the back of his hand, as was navigating the Citadel. Construction, however, was an entirely different beast. Perhaps he could have done better had he grown familiar with the concept before he lost his sight, but that couldn’t be helped anymore. Ultimately, he was of the most use behind a desk or at a table, organizing their communications and deciding how they were going to combat the distance that had existed between Insomnia and the rest of Lucis a decade ago.

All he could conceivably do was fill in the gaps, and there were plenty for him to be getting on with. There was more than enough theoretical strategizing to be done while the others saw to the manual labor, which meant he needed to stop wallowing and focus on the here and now.

That was admittedly easier said than done.

Stepping into his apartment was like flipping a proverbial switch, and in the blink of an eye, Ignis felt the weight of all that he had been attempting to avoid crashing down on his shoulders. Thankfully, it was nowhere near as heavy as it had been a year ago when he had first returned to his quarters, imagining how it must have looked since there was no way of knowing in his present condition. That, in a sense, was the beauty of what had happened to him; he had to find some where he could. Not having to witness what time and neglect had done to everything he’d once held dear certainly qualified. There was a sizable difference between juxtaposing the memories of his home with descriptions of what it had become and actually seeing it for himself. While it would have been a simple matter to picture it in his mind’s eye, he had avoided doing just that and was all the better for it. His fingers had brushed away the telltale dust indicative of years spent in disuse; his arms had borne the clothing that desperately needed to be aired out. Honestly, there was nothing else to see: colors would fade, screens and keepsakes would be shattered, and mold would grow in the corners he used to keep impeccably clean. The knowledge was bad enough without the added benefit of committing it to mental images.

As with so many other things, Gladio had assumed that burden for him. So had Prompto, although his cheery disposition had more effectively hidden the dismay in his voice than the former Shield’s. If Ignis hadn’t known any better—or known both of them so well—he would have thought that his belongings weren’t in the disarray he had been expecting. Gladio’s silence had practically screamed the opposite, however, and none of Prompto’s decidedly flat jokes had done anything to raise his spirits. That made two of them, especially considering how much had to be thrown out when they were discovered to be broken beyond repair. He had admittedly been fortunate compared to others: his most treasured possessions had somehow made it through in one piece. Where photo frames had shattered in the trembling of Niflheim’s bombardment on the Citadel, the pictures inside had apparently been left undamaged; although he couldn’t see them, it was still comforting to run his fingers over the new casings and remember what they looked like. Some of the ornaments in his bedroom had been tossed pell-mell around the chamber, but most of them were sturdy enough not to be bothered overmuch. The box where he kept his most prized belongings, from his family’s gifts to the crafts Noct had made for him when they were young, had sat untouched in his closet. Perhaps he had lost anything that would be of use to others, but to him? He had plenty to be thankful for.

It was not merely sentimental value that had Ignis resting a hand at the corner of a frame he knew held a photograph of himself with Noct at the erstwhile prince’s graduation ceremony, though. It was not what had him pinching the bridge of his nose and sighing as he envisioned it: standing beside his brother with an arm around his shoulders while the latter pretended to be more put out with him than he had been in reality. It was not what had his one good eye (comparatively) blinking back a tear that he refused to shed tonight.

Because underneath it all—the business, the meetings, the duty—Ignis was still grieving just as deeply as Gladio. Yes, he stomached it far better; he had not allowed it to sway his ambitions anywhere near as much. Even so, the lectures he had issued the former Shield were but words. It was easy to tell him what he was doing wrong when Ignis was determined to ignore his own emotions in the process.

By day, he could compartmentalize. He could pretend to be more centered and present than his counterpart. After all, the difference between them was that Ignis had a set job to do. Gladio’s had been wiped away with Noct’s existence, and he was clearly floundering in the dark to find another course for his future. Ignis, on the other hand, had a position that was not so closely tied with his liege’s presence. As such, he woke in the morning to the understanding that even without Noct, his had to press on; even without Noct, he had responsibilities that were his alone to fulfill. Plus, wherever he was, Noct was counting on him to do so. That was all the motivation he needed not to get bogged down by grief, no matter how fresh it remained.

But that was by day. By night, when he did not have to maintain appearances, there was little difference between him and the ten-year-old boy who had been frozen in terror at the sight of his best friend dying from a daemon attack.

It had been infinitely worse in the immediate aftermath, which he had to feel grateful for. Once they restored power to Insomnia and could return to some of their past exploits, like watching movies (or listening, in his case) and playing games, there were alternative avenues he could travel in order to temporarily distract himself. Some nights, he would sit up late and go over the recordings he had made during their recent council meetings so that he could take more accurate note of what his priorities should be the following day; others, he would sit in Prompto’s room and smile at the nostalgia as he listened to him curse Gladio’s innate ability to best him at King’s Knight half a kingdom away. It wasn’t the same, not when they had lost so much, but it was of some comfort. That had to count for something.

Usually, it did. Ignis couldn’t deny that many of their old pastimes had ceased to be as entertaining as when the three of them were younger, yet he took solace from the fact that that was a natural development rather than the byproduct of mourning. It wasn’t the games or the camaraderie that had changed so much as themselves. Eleven years had vanished; no one could cling onto their past for that long, not considering all they’d had to prioritize in that time. Besides that, it was impossible to enjoy what they once had without Noct there to share it with them.

Which was why Ignis did not try. He did not trick himself into believing that free time was anything more than that, nor did he put any effort into attempting to make it so. If he wasn’t working, he filled the empty hours with whatever would take his mind off of less desirable thoughts, that was all. For now, that was quite enough to concentrate on. He had to stay focused, motivated, and steadfast. He had to remember what was at stake if he shrugged aside his responsibilities or failed to uphold the legacy that he was tasked with preserving for Noct in his absence. He had to… He had to…

He had to cook dinner. Yes. He should cook dinner.

Nodding shakily, Ignis reluctantly turned his back on the photograph, eyes of the past boring into his skull as he trod the familiar path into his kitchen and flipped the light switch. It was sheer force of habit more than anything else: he had gone too many years adhering to a certain routine, and the last decade had not quite stolen that from him like it had other things. The illumination did not make a dent in the darkness that constantly surrounded him; he had to sightlessly navigate the space between the refrigerator and his cupboards regardless. Still, it was nice to know that the overhead lamp was on. It made him feel more at home, whether he could see it or not.

He could say the same for the numbing process of chopping vegetables and seasoning fish and counting the seconds until it was time to flip both in the pan he was heating over the stove. The sizzle of oil was like a lullaby to his senses, soothing his nerves in a way that would have relaxed him any other evening. There was nothing that could do that for him tonight, but that was just fine with him. Not dwelling on the past didn’t mean that he wanted to avoid remembering entirely now that he didn’t have an audience to perform for. They had come too far for that—Noct deserved better.

His prince—his king, his brother—deserved the meal he laid out on his kitchen counter more than he did. In an age long gone, Noct would have earned it: he would have caught the barramundi himself and pleaded with Ignis to use that for their dinner at camp rather than any number of the more wholesome, vegetable-rich dishes that Ignis preferred. He would have insisted on ordering the fries that Ignis pulled out of his oven, dousing them in ketchup and pretending that the latter counted as a nutritious condiment. Noct would have rolled his eyes when Ignis refused, smirked when he gave in, and grinned with every bite.

Noct wasn’t here, though. Gladio and Prompto weren’t here, not that that was very different from the new norm. It was only Ignis, eating his brother’s favorite meal in honor of his sacrifice and wishing that he could trade one for the other.

Elsewhere in Insomnia, people were celebrating—actually, truly celebrating. Then again, they had a right to, didn’t they? There was no reason for them not to toast Noct’s name over aged liquor and drink to his lack of health. They were perfectly justified in raising a glass in remembrance when they were blessed with the luxury of going about their days without a care for him otherwise. They hadn’t lost a brother in their king, hadn’t lost as good a friend as a liege. To them, Noct was Noctis Lucis Caelum, the King of Kings and purveyor of their good fortunes. He was a distant, vague silhouette at best for those who did not know him well; his reputation spoke for him more than any real memories of what he was like. While Ignis reminisced about days spent in the Regalia and nights at camp, his arms elbow deep in soapy water as he scrubbed his dishes clean and set them back in their rightful place, they paid tribute to the one who had delivered them from the dark. While Ignis retreated to his bedroom and perched uneasily on the edge of his mattress, absently tracing the outline of his Crystal shard on the chain around his neck, they fabricated stories of fleeting encounters and hollow admiration. While Ignis dropped his head into his hands and mourned the life he could not save, that had been doomed to oblivion long before he’d had a chance to live, they rejoiced that the Chosen King’s friends had to grieve instead of themselves.

How lucky they all were to possess the inclination to celebrate.

The closest Ignis was going to get, apparently, was a solitary dinner and the buzzing of his phone where he had deposited it in its usual spot on his bedside table. Whether it was the acknowledgement that he desperately needed a distraction or simply the fact that whoever it was likely wouldn’t leave him alone if he didn’t answer, he plucked up the device with deft fingers and tapped the button on the side before putting it to his ear. A part of him groaned inwardly at the sound of Prompto’s voice on the other end, but he didn’t hang up. Perhaps this was precisely what he required to draw him from his rapidly darkening thoughts.

“Hey, Iggy! What’cha up to?”

Saying that he was contemplating just how early was too early to sleep probably wasn’t what Prompto wanted to hear, so Ignis kept that to himself. Instead, he cleared his grief from his throat and replied evenly, “I’ve only just returned to my chambers.”

“Seriously?” The grimace of a schoolboy filled Ignis’s memory, and he smiled as Prompto commiserated, “Dude, Cor’s really living up to that whole immortal thing.”

“He certainly is spry for a man his age,” joked Ignis wryly. The marshal was getting on in years; he was older now than King Regis had been when he met his untimely demise. That had not done a thing to impede his stamina, though. If anything, he seemed even more driven in the wake of Noct’s death, which was saying a great deal.

“Hope I’m that lucky,” mused Prompto, although Ignis suspected he was speaking of the marshal’s dedication more than his unfortunate lack of hobbies.

Still, he couldn’t help poking a bit of fun. “You’d prefer to spend your evenings poring over documents and enlightening the council? I had no idea, Prompto.”

If the feigned retching over the line was any indication, then his assumption was correct. Indeed, Prompto hardly spared a second before he retorted, “I think I’ll leave that to the professionals. Taking pictures is definitely more my speed.”

“I believe the marshal would agree with you.”

“Hey!”

Ignis smirked, the first rays of humor since he’d returned to his apartment breaking through the clouds of his anguish. Their teasing was merely that: they were all well aware that Prompto could hold his own as competently as the rest of them these days. Even Noct had mentioned before the end that he wasn’t as jumpy as he used to be in the initial months of their journey. The hastily trained, easily spooked Prompto was a thing of the past, and in his place was someone who had grown immeasurably in what could only be described as a trial by fire. For his part, Ignis harbored a deep well of pride in him for that. Between the two of them, Prompto and Noct had been the youngest of their group in more than just their ages. When they had set out from the Crown City, neither was anywhere near as mature as Ignis would have hoped, what with Prompto acting as a member of the Crownsguard and Noct getting married. They hadn’t quite risen to meet his expectations, however, and Ignis couldn’t help but regret a bit of his disappointment at the start. While Noct had been far more capable than met the eye, he had retained that childlike quality of looking to Ignis to act for him much of the time. Many decisions were his own, yet he was equally likely to leave the choices to his faithful advisor and friend, as well. What Noct had lacked in confidence, Ignis had made up for in loyalty and devotion; that was what had made them optimal partners both as children and adults. In hindsight, perhaps he should not have scoffed so openly at it in light of the suffering they were all destined to undergo.

That was then, though. Now, Noct was gone and Prompto was a force to be reckoned with. Even Gladio had admitted that on occasion, although it was always with an underlying sarcasm that failed to prevent his confession from being construed as fondness. The marshal was one of many who recognized his talents and utilized them to their fullest extent, whether that was by sending him out to gather intelligence or inquiring after his opinion on certain matters he had grown familiar with. When it came to the latter, Prompto generally reverted to the same bumbling neophyte he had been eleven years ago, albeit one who was a bit better at hiding it.

Regardless of how it grated on his nerves in formal settings, Ignis had to say that in private conversation, it was somewhat entertaining to pretend they were still an untested advisor and inexperienced bodyguard. At times like these, he could almost convince himself things were normal.

Almost.

“Was there a reason you felt the need to call when you’re only one floor away?” Ignis inquired before Prompto had a chance to defend his meagerly slighted honor.

There was a pause on the other end in which Ignis could imagine him rolling his eyes, but his tone was free of irritation when he answered, “You bet! Gladio and I were just about to put this new King’s Knight app to the test and thought you might want in.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was a new edition,” Ignis mused, frowning in confusion. They had barely managed to get the television signals operational again, yet there were updated mobile games running on their networks?

So much for triage.

“Yup! Just came out a couple days ago,” confirmed Prompto without a care in the world for how utterly backwards that was. “Figure we might as well give it a shot if they’re putting the effort in, right?”

That was certainly one option. The other was to inform the marshal so that he could notify the technicians working on their communication systems that their job was to focus on functionality, not whether the new citizens of Insomnia were able to waste countless hours in admittedly enjoyable raiding parties. Older consoles like the ones Noct had collected were one thing: they merely required electricity and a screen to use. This was something else entirely.

Prompto’s excitement nevertheless gave him pause in saying so, and Ignis heaved a sigh as he resolved to wait until tomorrow to let the marshal know that they had yet another issue to resolve. They had already spent so much of the day on matters of state; they could both use the break, even if it was only for a few hours.

And, if he was being honest, he couldn’t deny that snatching away a source of entertainment that had managed to capture Gladio’s interest on a day like today sounded callous even to his own sensibilities.

So, Ignis simply agreed, “That is the idea, I suppose.”

“You know it! Soooo, what d’ya say? Wanna come down and watch me kick Gladio’s perfectly sculpted pecs right out of his high score?”

The legitimacy of his claim was debatable, but that wasn’t what had Ignis shaking his head. No, for as tempting as the offer sounded, he simply couldn’t imagine having company at the moment. A day of ceaseless work and the emotional toll belying his carefully impassive façade had left him exhausted, and all he really wanted right now was to crawl into bed and hope that the next morning would arrive sooner than usual.

Besides, a rousing evening of gaming and pleasantries on the one-year anniversary of Noct’s death felt like picnicking on a grave: indecent.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you,” he replied after a pregnant pause. Prompto’s immediate outrage was predictable.

“Aw, come on! What could be better?!”

Innumerable responses occurred to him, but Ignis settled for a blasé, “Perhaps another day.”

Any other day.

Either Prompto couldn’t sense his unspoken thoughts or he was being deliberately obtuse, because he didn’t hesitate to wheedle, “Dude, you’ve been hanging out with Cor too much. You need to let loose and have some fun!”

“I have plenty of fun,” countered Ignis despite knowing it was a lie the instant the words left his mouth.

So, unfortunately, did Prompto.

“Oh, really? Name one fun thing you’ve done this week. Go on, just one.”

Well, that was simple enough. “I harvested the carrots Iris planted in the palace gardens.”

A moment passed where there was no answer forthcoming, yet Ignis did not believe for a second that Prompto had hung up. That would have been far too convenient.

“That’s so not fun.”

“To each his own.”

Groaning hyperbolically, Prompto bemoaned, “You’ve been stuck in meetings so long you don’t even know what fun is anymore! Who are you and what have you done with Iggy?”

“He’s right here,” he huffed, “merely exhausted from apparently not knowing what fun is anymore.”

“It’s not too late. All you gotta do is come down here and relax. Or I can come to you—either way, man. I’m here for ya,” lilted Prompto.

Of that, Ignis had no doubt. Life at the Citadel wasn’t perfect: it was riddled with problems, from the vast spaces that needed to be cared for to the stiflingly dismal reminders that the mere atmosphere evoked in anyone who knew the palace well. But Ignis wouldn’t trade it for the world, not when he had his friends and so many of the people who had helped raise him at his side.

And they would still be there tomorrow.

The gesture was what truly mattered, so he didn’t have to simulate sincerity when he gently murmured, “Thank you, Prompto. I appreciate the offer, but I think I’d rather call it an early night. There is much to be done in the morning.”

“There’s always much to be done in the morning.”

“All the more reason to rest up.”

“Ugh, sleep is for the weak, Iggy.”

“Only the weak of will.”

“Was…that an insult? Because that totally sounded like an insult.”

Chuckling, Ignis assured him sardonically, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Sure, you wouldn’t,” snorted Prompto, clearly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Who was Ignis to disappoint him?

“Any dream you inhabited would undoubtedly be a nightmare.”

“You really know how to flatter a guy.”

“Thank you. It’s the culmination of years of practice.”

“Just like your skills in subject changing?”

“Ah, you’ve caught me,” sighed Ignis in mock solemnity. Even so, the exasperated laugh in his ear contained just the right amount of resignation for him to be certain of his victory.

Fiiiiiine, you win,” Prompto surrendered, not seeming at all keen on it in spite of his words. There was a hint of humor in his voice, however, when he teased, “You know what they say, though, dude: all work and no play…”

“Makes Ignis a dull boy.”

The sound of Noct’s voice in his head wiped the smile right off his face, and Ignis pressed his free hand to his temple as though he could shove the memory of their ride to Altissia out of his mind.

He couldn’t, of course. When his subconscious decided to torment him with visions of the past, there was no stopping it, try as he might. That seemed to be both his blessing and curse: to relive what he could no longer grasp until it nearly drove him mad in the late hours of the night when all he wanted was a few peaceful hours of sleep. Instead, he was haunted by the past, haunted by a voice he would have done anything to hear just once more.

The sudden and inescapable sense of yearning it elicited made it all the more difficult to ignore the idea that he was doing the exact opposite of what Noct would have wanted. Yes, his final words had rendered his intentions quite obvious: it was their duty to take care of what their friend had left behind that fateful evening on the steps of the Citadel. It was their duty to rebuild their lives and their kingdom, to guide their people back to prosperity, and to see to it that nothing like this ever happened again.

But the trials of his life hadn’t changed Noct’s nature, and he had remained the kindest soul Ignis had ever had the pleasure of knowing until the very end. If he could see them now, he would certainly not want Ignis to sequester himself in his room the way he planned to; he would not want Ignis to be solemn and mourn him when there were more enjoyable exploits to be pursued. If he could have it his way, Ignis would not be alone—not tonight.

In that, Ignis would have to ask his forgiveness. It was painful enough to hear that familiar taunting in his head, that easy barb that hadn’t stung so much when Noct had first uttered it aboard King Regis’s vessel. The last thing Ignis could stomach at the moment was more agony, particularly when he hadn’t the energy to combat it.

So, he stood by his words. He wished Prompto luck in defeating Gladio, however unlikely it was that he would manage it this century, and hung up with a promise on his lips to join them the following day. There was no telling whether he would be able to uphold that vow, what with his hours at the marshal’s side not exactly maintaining a regular tempo. Either way, it was simpler to go through the motions and say the words when Prompto’s skeptical acceptance did wonders in banishing the specter of Noct’s voice from his ears. Whatever got him through another night of seemingly endless tossing and turning before he finally fell into a fitful doze was more than welcome.

That was what he told himself, in any case.

Like duty, the dreams that had plagued Ignis for a year were bittersweet. Ordinarily, he wished purely to evade them: seeing Noct on his throne only to lose him once again was hardly something he cared to experience as frequently as he was forced to. So many times, he had imagined what it would be like to enter the throne room and find Noct there the way he was always meant to be, that familiar smirk on his face and twinkle in his eye despite the heavy burden that accompanied monarchy. So many times, he smiled sadly at the fate that had befallen his brother instead, his pride tempered by the unfathomable indignation that gnawed at him when he let it. How the gods could allow this to happen, he would never comprehend. The threat Ardyn had posed should not have been permitted to outmatch the might of the Six, nor should they have waited so long to bring an end to him and Noct in turn. The Starscourge was their folly, and as such, it should have been their responsibility to heal it. Not the Chosen King’s, not the Oracle’s—theirs. That reminder in conjunction with the ostensibly scheduled visions that greeted him when he fell asleep left him bitter and resentful, and he had eventually reached the point where he simply could not take any more.

Tonight, however, was different. Tonight, Ignis rejoiced in the traitorous flow of consciousness that saw him walking down the corridor towards the throne room as though it wasn’t strictly off limits in the aftermath of their battle with Ardyn. Tonight, he basked in the warmth that spread through him at the touch of his Crystal shard, the warmth that told him he would not be alone when he opened the door and stepped into the grandest chamber in Insomnia. Tonight, he could smile, if only in his head.

For in dreams, Ignis could see. And for once, there was something worth viewing.

The world around him was not as crisp and clear as it should have been, although it was not his memories of the place that were foggy. Ignis had never questioned it very deeply, the ethereal quality that made the light streaming in through the windows that much brighter and the sharp edges of the Citadel’s architecture less substantial. Then again, he had never questioned the fact that he was dreaming, either. Even in his sleep, he could not convince himself that what he was witnessing could possibly be real. If it was, then he wouldn’t be able to see how the marble tiles beneath his feet shimmered like onyx or mites of dust hovered in the air before his face. He would not have spied the repaired glass where there had once been rubble beside the throne or the steps that led him up to the dais.

More than anything, he would not have absorbed the fond yet distant smile Noct leveled him with when Ignis pressed a closed fit to his heart and bowed deeply in their royal tradition.

They hadn’t exchanged words yet, not on his first foray into this fantasy and certainly not on any of his subsequent visits. Somehow, they did not need to. There weren’t any orders to be given; there wasn’t any news to convey. The wealth of platitudes and reassurances alike that Ignis still wished he had gotten a chance to say did not seem so important in this place between sleeping and waking. If anything, they hovered in the air, implied without the necessity of speech. Ignis had to be thankful for that: it wasn’t often that the two of them could simply be, standing opposite each other as they had the day they’d met in the very same room.

And then he was in motion. Ignis could never stop his feet from propelling him forward, and he mounted the steps until he approached the predictably empty throne with a sense of foreboding. After all, his dream was as unchanging as his inability to prevent it from gripping him in the first place, and his memory was impeccable.

As such, he was utterly unsurprised to find what always awaited him when he reached his goal: the photo Noct had taken with him the night he’d died. Ignis hadn’t known which he’d picked until Prompto and Gladio had told him afterward, but he recognized it nevertheless. All things considered, he couldn’t have chosen a finer keepsake for Noct had he the sight to do so himself. The four of them looked so happy, so innocent, so ignorant of all that would befall them in the months and years to come. To the four boys in the picture—for he could not call them anything else—they were on a simple errand: they would see Noct to Altissia for his wedding and come home to congratulations from the king and a whole new mode of existence under their married friend. The war had never seemed further from them in spite of the reason for their journey, and while it hadn’t been all smiles since they’d left the Citadel, they hadn’t had much to complain about. The Regalia was in one piece and they were on their way to Galdin—they knew nothing of what was happening at home or how it would change their lives forever. In that instant, that fleeting speck drifting imperceptibly along the grander scheme of the universe, they were but four brothers embarking on what had to be the most unorthodox form of a bachelor party Ignis had ever heard of.

It was no wonder Noct had chosen it when the end of his life was approaching before his own eyes, and Ignis couldn’t help but extend a hand to touch that last piece of his liege.

At that point, the voice in his head that reminded him this wasn’t real tended to go silent in anxious anticipation. The line between dream and reality would blur so that he couldn’t tell the difference anymore, not until he woke in his bed with nothing but frustration and grief to keep him company.

Tonight was no exception. The vague murmuring in the back of his mind was insignificant compared to the draw of the photograph, and as it frequently did, the chaos that erupted when his fingers gingerly met the flimsy paper caught him entirely unawares.

It all happened so fast that, if Ignis did not have this vision memorized from start to finish, he wouldn’t have known what was going on.

The Crystal shattered, millions of microscopic bits littering the floor in a deafening hail of glitter.

The ground vanished from beneath his feet, dropping him into darkness as complete as his waking world.

And in that darkness, his king was waiting for him. Ignis could never see him, although he supposed that made sense. The logical part of him knew that Noct wasn’t truly there, that he was further from Ignis than either of them could have fathomed when they were children. The logical part of him was well aware that the hand on his shoulder wasn’t real and that whirling around like he did would simply jostle him right out of this fantasy of his, as well it should.

Logic, however, had no place in dreams.

His mind must have agreed with him, because for the first time in a year, his expectations betrayed him: Ignis whipped around to find himself alone, yes, but there was no arguing the fact that he was still very much asleep. The uniform he’d worn the last time he saw Noct confined him, his skin crawling beneath the sturdy fabric. His bed was nowhere to be found, nor was his visor perched on his nose the way it always was when he left his apartment. There was no buzzing phone to tell him that it was time to start the day, to take one more step down the road to moving on that never appeared to get any shorter.

Neither was the presence at his side that of the familiar friend he longed for. No, this was something different, something…cold.

Whether it was the sudden drop in temperature that gave her away or the sheer power she exuded as one of the Six, Ignis did not know. Regardless, he would have recognized Gentiana’s—Shiva’s—presence anywhere. He just didn’t understand why it was here.

This was not how his dream was supposed to go.

If the Glacian minded his distaste for this departure from the norm, she offered no indication. Rather, Ignis could sense her eyes scrutinizing his every move, and he froze in place as though the chill breeze had turned him to ice. Her unforeseen arrival struck him dumb; when he attempted to call out, he couldn’t summon the words. In that instant, he was just as helpless as his dreams constantly rendered him, his soul laid bare for this absentee goddess to peruse at her leisure.

His encounters with Gentiana had been few, limited to necessity alone in instances where Noct was not there to receive her messages. In fact, he had always gotten the distinct impression that her occasional communication was merely a means to an end. When Noct required aid, when he was due to return and would be expecting his loyal retainers by his side, she would appear to them. Beyond that, however, she paid them no mind. She and the rest of the Six had been distant since the night Ardyn’s reign came to an end, and Ignis had to believe that humanity was simply not deemed worthy of her time anymore.

Until now, that was.

Ignis might not have been able to muster the will to speak, but he had no doubt that the Glacian had approached him here for a reason. Thankfully, she did not wait long to impart it to him, her voice nothing but a whisper on the wind.

“O’er rotted Soil, under blighted Sky, A dread Plague the Wicked has wrought,” she recited as if reading straight from the Cosmogony. “In the Light of the Gods, Sword-Sworn at his Side, ‘Gainst the Dark the King’s battle is fought. From the Heavens high, to the Blessed below, Shines the Beam of a Peace long besought. ‘Long live thy Line and these Stones divine, For the Night when All comes to Naught. When darkness veils the world, the King of Light shall come.”

…Is…that all?

Frowning, Ignis shook his head in stunned silence. He knew the ancient texts as well as anyone else sworn to serve the royal family of Lucis. They were, after all, inextricably tied to the Six. She had to be aware of that, in which case, why would the Glacian deign to visit him only to repeat what he had long since studied?

There was always the possibility that she wasn’t actually there, he supposed, that this was merely another facet of his guilt manifesting itself by reiterating words that he would rather have forgotten. It was unlikely, particularly when there had been no change in his dreams before now, but it was possible.

At least, it had been. Seeming to read his thoughts, the Glacian continued. This time, however, her missive was entirely unfamiliar:

“When the land is bathed in light and, at last, hope restored, it will be the gift divine for the king to leave this world. His journey ends not in darkness, for his path is ever bright. And thus he sleeps eternal without fear of the night.”

What?”

He should not have spoken. He didn’t realize until it was too late, but the spell that seemed to bind him to this dream—this nightmare—appeared to shatter the instant the word left his mouth. There was no warning, just the abrupt recognition of his sheets tangled around him as he jerked upright in his bed, his head turning this way and that as though he would be able to see Gentiana through the combined gloom of his bedroom and disability if he tried hard enough. He couldn’t, of course, but that made no difference. Ignis was incapable of accepting that he had returned to reality, not with his chest aching and the Glacian’s voice still echoing in his head.

Only those echoes were not his imagination.

“By the faithful servants of the King, this message is heard,” she seemed to breathe, so close that he could practically feel her icy aura on the nape of his neck.

“What message?” he blurted out without thinking, although he wasn’t punished for his boldness this time. No, when one of the Six had something to say, they would do so regardless of mortal impatience.

An impatience that she was keen on testing, apparently, because the Glacian’s response was unhurried and impassive. Well, perhaps that was only to be expected: unlike the rest of them, she had eternity.

“The King of Kings, his Focus complete, has earned favor everlasting from the gods.”

Ignis blinked, murmuring to himself, “His Focus?”

If he thought the Glacian would enlighten him further, he was sorely mistaken. Instead, she ignored him to press on, “Alongside the Oracle, he lies in wait.”

“Hold on,” Ignis interrupted her. His sudden and shameful desperation reverberated off the walls of his bedroom and flooded his senses when he demanded, “What do you mean?”

“Eternal is their slumber,” she replied, her voice growing more distant by the second, “until the bond is restored.”

“What bond?”

Nothing.

Ignis’s heart skipped a beat, and he refused to feel foolish when he called out, “Gentiana! What bond?!”

Still no response. In spite of the sweat clinging to his skin, the temperature was rising like the sun outside his window. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel its rays making the hair on his arms stand on end.

Fortunately, there was no one to witness the unmitigated mess he dissolved into as agonizing seconds stretched into intolerable minutes. No one was with him while his chest heaved and his fingers fumbled for his scorching Crystal shard. No one was with him when his mind latched onto the message she had left for him, incomplete and nonsensical as it seemed.

No one was with him at all. He was alone. He was all right. He was calm.

He was lying.

Before he could think better of it, before he could second guess himself over the dream as well as the hour, Ignis dove for his phone.

Chapter Text

Prompto liked to think of himself as a pretty chill guy. You couldn’t not be these days, what with their slow progress towards any real results. Sometimes—or more like some weeks—it seemed as though they were going backwards instead of forward. The list of what they needed to do never got any shorter; if anything, they were adding to it whenever the council met. On each journey beyond the walls, Prompto still passed the same dilapidated structures and torn sections of pavement that they hadn’t been able to fix since they’d returned to the Crown City; a few neighborhoods were more like junkyards than the residential areas they used to be. Sure, they were coming along, but that didn’t mean they would be finished in a year or even another ten. That being said, it didn’t pay to get impatient—impatience bred frustration, and Prompto had seen firsthand that nobody got a lot done once they reached that point. So, he considered it a good thing that he’d gotten the jump on everyone else in that department. Not having any expectations was a huge help: if you didn’t let yourself believe that you’d get something, then it was easier to avoid disappointment when you didn’t. That principle had worked on just about everything since he was a kid, from his family to his friends to school. All that he’d earned over the years, all the growing that he’d done, had been a collection of pleasant surprises. He’d worked damn hard to get this far, yeah, but it floored him nevertheless that he had come all this way in one piece. Despite some near misses, he hadn’t had a nervous breakdown yet!

Yet being the operative word, as Ignis put it.  Everybody had their limit, and he was positive he was about to sprint past his as he dumped another stack of books on the table with a groan of frustration.

“Do we seriously have to go through all of these?” he totally didn’t whine. Not that he wouldn’t have reason to: they’d been in the Citadel’s library so long he was starting to wonder what the outside world looked like.

Which wasn’t Ignis’s concern, admittedly. He might not have been able to see, but the quirked eyebrow he aimed in Prompto’s direction was too judgmental to interpret as anything other than sheer disdain.

Damn, how does he do that?

It just wasn’t fair.

“Unless you have a better method of locating the information we’re searching for,” he retorted scathingly.

Swallowing the instinctive urge to simply do what he was told (because this was Ignis, and you didn’t mouth off to Ignis), Prompto halfheartedly suggested, “Can’t we ask Cor? I’ll bet he knows this stuff better than we do.”

He was apparently the only one who thought so, because Ignis immediately countered, “The marshal is knowledgeable on a great many subjects, but in Lucian history, his expertise is lacking.”

“…Dude, he literally told us all about the ancient wars Lucis fought against the empire.”

Ignis hummed in reluctant agreement, but it was Gladio who answered as he stomped up to the table with his own pile of research. “If we haven’t found anything yet, odds are it’s gonna be way more ancient than that.”

“Especially with the Astrals involved,” added Ignis with a frown. “There’s no telling how far back we’ll need to look to decipher the Glacian’s clue.”

“Are we even sure it’s a clue? Focus could mean lots of things, right?”

Well, that probably wasn’t the best way to phrase his question. Ignis and Gladio stared at him as though he’d recommended they burn down the Citadel and make an imperial war museum in its place—which was saying something when Ignis couldn’t really stare at him to begin with. Somehow, even though they were all running on too little sleep and too much emotion, neither one of them lost their cool with him.

See? Chill. Pays off.

But it didn’t exempt him from Ignis’s deadpan, “I find it hard to believe that she would have appeared to us merely to indicate that Noct had done his job.”

Gladio snorted, folding his arms and glaring at nothing in particular. “As if we didn’t already know that.”

“Yeah,” sighed Prompto. “Right.”

That much was obvious without divine intervention. Monuments to Noct’s sacrifice were all over the place, from the building they lived in to the giant burning ball of light that rose every morning. They couldn’t forget what had happened if they tried—and he’d really tried. No, whatever it was Gentiana had contacted them for, it couldn’t be to rub their loss in their faces.

Then again, the Astrals had done more annoying stuff in the past. Leviathan? He didn’t doubt for a second that she’d love that kind of thing. In fact, they should probably have counted themselves lucky that she wasn’t the one who had visited them in their dreams. Prompto wasn’t big on superstition, but he was convinced it was bad luck to let huge, bitter sea snake ladies into your head. For one thing, they’d make a mess of everything like she had in Altissia. For another… Actually, did he need another? That was awful enough.

And honestly, he couldn’t see the Hydraean tossing them a bone. Gentiana, yeah. Sort of. It was tough to tell what she was attempting to say sometimes, yet they could be sure that she wasn’t tugging their chains.

Or he hoped not.

Now wasn’t the time to second guess what was going on, however. He had enough on his mind, whether it was this Focus business or the eerie realization that he had apparently been sharing dreams with Ignis and Gladio for the last year. None of them had noticed it before, of course: it was hard to figure that kind of stuff out when you didn’t talk about it. Their mourning, both together or individually, was strictly off limits in daily conversation. Remembering Noct was fine, but getting all sappy over it was bound to send Gladio running and Ignis into a fevered frenzy of cleaning or working or whatever else he did. As such, they hadn’t registered that things weren’t quite right around here, at least not where their heads were concerned.

Up until a couple of days ago, the only weirdness Prompto had been worried about was the fact that his brain kept taunting him with the same nightmare whenever he closed his eyes. Like, seriously, the same. It was identical, night after night—the throne room, the Crystal, the Noct. He’d walked that path so many times that it was ingrained in his memory when he woke, which wasn’t supposed to be a thing. Those first few weeks, he’d merely crossed his fingers and waited to forget about it. That was the whole point of dreams, wasn’t it? They made you uneasy, but you couldn’t remember why. Maybe your imaginary self was fighting daemons or left the stove on or just got a bad case of indigestion from those crappy cans of beans they’d occasionally had to live off. Whatever it was, you’d shudder a little in the morning and then go about your business, the details long gone as soon as your feet touched the floor.

Not this dream, though. This one refused to leave him alone, and he remembered it right down to the last minute observation every time he jerked upright in a cold sweat. That was yet another reason he’d started dragging his ass to the observation deck so early: with the sensation of eyes on him, it was one of the few ways he could think of to ease the gnawing emptiness he felt when he realized there would be no one standing beside him when he turned around. And hey, it was the closest he would get to his best friend, so it wasn’t a total waste.

It didn’t get rid of the prickling at the back of his neck or how he could have sworn Noct was right behind him either, but it was a start.

The morning after the Glacian had changed the game, he hadn’t gotten a chance to complete his usual ritual. In fact, he hadn’t gone to the observation deck in the three days since, which was something of a record for him. Instead, he’d been spending every waking moment in the library. With Ignis.

They needed to make a law against that.

How was he supposed to decline, though, when Ignis’s argument had been that he needed Prompto’s eyes? Talk about callous. Besides, it wasn’t at all out of the ordinary for Prompto to be his seeing-eye person anyway, and he’d been doing it without complaint for eleven years—whenever Ignis would let him, that was. During the Long Night, he had been pretty adamant that he should learn to do some stuff on his own; that was how he had gotten so good at fighting and cooking again. But the job he’d undertaken in the aftermath wasn’t like that: it required him to read almost constantly and examine pictures that he would never be able to look at without help. He needed someone at his side who could describe it all in detail, not to mention in ways that would make sense to him. They’d been partners and friends for long enough that Prompto didn’t have much confidence in anyone other than himself or Gladio when it came to providing Ignis with what he hoped to glean from a document or a photo, even if Talcott admittedly came close. (That was no wonder—the kid went so far overboard that Noct would have had to fish him out if he were still here.) In any case, Ignis couldn’t solely rely on his reading app and the Citadel’s computer servers, which contained a lot of the records they’d managed to digitize before the fall. Those had been their priority when they returned power to the palace—the kind that wasn’t bestowed upon them by Ardyn’s innate creepiness, anyway—but they weren’t perfect. They weren’t complete.

This ancient stuff? Whoever was responsible for uploading old documents must have found most of the dustier texts a little too old to bother with, because they hadn’t seen anything on Ignis’s phone that went further back than ancient Solheim. As far as they could tell, however, even that was still too new.

So, they’d been holed up in the library for the last few days, Prompto sorting through countless books until his eyes went numb while Ignis focused on accessing every single file their computers had to offer. Well, maybe not that many, but it definitely felt that way when the toneless voice of his reading app recited the words for hours on end. Sometimes, Prompto wished he’d get Talcott or Cor to do it just so they’d have a different flavor around here. They were the ones who frequented the Citadel more than anyone but Ignis himself, given that Cor pretty much ran the place and Talcott simply ran whatever errands they needed him to, so they were always available. Even Gladio’s gruff tones would have been an improvement on the cool, collected, mechanical voice of the artificial intelligence.

That was actually the plus side of their exile in this literary hell: not once had Gladio tried to sneak out of the city since Gentiana had dropped that bombshell on them. Prompto was positive he’d seen him more in three days than the last three months combined, which was… Well, it was kind of strange. Part of him was walking on eggshells to avoid the possibility of sending him running for the hills again; the rest just wanted everything to go back to normal…or as close as they would get.

Even though he knew Ignis didn’t exactly agree with the idea, that was why Prompto had wheedled Gladio into King’s Knight in honor of Noct’s being-dead-for-a-year-iversary. Unlike the rest of the kingdom, he’d experienced what had happened when the hammer fell and sent them all scrambling. No one else had been there to witness how Gladio had deflated when he’d discovered Noct wasn’t where he was supposed to be; no one else had been there to explain to Ignis what they were seeing in the throne room when he couldn’t. There were so many painful memories contained in that one night alone that they’d never really talked about, not even to each other. Getting together in the same room to celebrate like other people around Lucis was therefore out of the question, but he’d figured that they could use a distraction regardless, a happier memory to keep their minds off it and focus on the best times instead of the worst. That was what Noct would have wanted, and Prompto thought they could stand to pretend they were as average as the rest of the kingdom for a few hours anyway. After all, between the three of them, they were wound tight. If they didn’t take a step back soon, one of them was going to combust—Prompto’s money was on Ignis. The guy was the quintessential professional, but he had a line too.

Fortunately, they hadn’t reached it yet. The morning after Gentiana’s impromptu visit, Prompto had jumped out of bed and raced to get dressed before Ignis had a chance to hang up the phone. Everything that followed had been a series of abnormalities, from Gladio’s presence in Ignis’s apartment to the reason for their congregating when the sun hadn’t completely woken up. It wasn’t like the three of them worked together much these days outside of council meetings and whatever Prompto could help Ignis with around the Citadel, so that had definitely been a blast from the past.

Then Ignis had taken it a step further: he’d started giving orders for a change. Like they were out on the road. At camp. Listening to him tell them that they weren’t paying for a hotel no matter how hard it was raining.

Some mental images, you just couldn’t delete. The abject horror of sleeping in a muddy tent was one of them.

And it hadn’t gotten any better since, however focused Prompto was on keeping his mouth shut. (Mostly.) They’d been over the Glacian’s clues so often that he was pretty sure he’d need to scrape the inside of his skull with a spoon if Ignis asked him to recount his side of the dream one more time. Prompto had thought they’d collected anything worth analyzing by now, yet Ignis was adamant that even the most seemingly insignificant detail was worth exploring. If there was something in Prompto’s dream that Gladio hadn’t seen, they needed to figure out what it meant; if Ignis had caught a hint that neither Prompto nor Gladio had (which wasn’t totally unheard of), then they had to compare notes. Anything at all, whether it was an extra speck of the Crystal or a different expression on Noct’s face, could be of value.

That was Ignis. In Prompto’s opinion, they didn’t really need to look any further than Gentiana’s input. She was the big bad goddess here.

As he slumped into his usual seat and cringed at the sound of Ignis’s reading app continuing its sermon, however, he had to wonder if she recognized how obnoxious her so-called clue was. Seriously, that was the best she could do? A whole year to come up with something, and this was all they got.

None of the Astrals had made an appearance since the night Noct had died; he was guessing they simply went back to sleep indefinitely now that things were returning to normal and the world was saved. Without the Starscourge, humanity was doing fine on its own, so they didn’t have much use for divine advice. If Gentiana had some for them, then there were so many ways she could have gone about offering it—popping up randomly like she used to or leaving them a note or writing it in the stars. Whatever. This, though? This was torture. This was agonizing, brutal torture. Prompto wasn’t sure what they’d done to deserve it either.

Actually, strike that. He could think of something, although he’d been under the impression that they weren’t meant to fix their ultimate failure. Thousands of years of prophecies and a demented former king had sort of squashed that dream.

At least he wasn’t the only one whose head was swimming with confusion and indignation. Gladio had been verbally bashing the Astrals for three days; while Ignis frequently hushed him, Prompto couldn’t help but notice that he never argued. Then again, Ignis was the most logical of them all. If anybody understood what total crap this whole thing was, he did.

It was good that they were on the same page in that regard, because Prompto hadn’t gotten the cover of his next volume open before Gladio grumbled, “Can’t believe they’re still playing these stupid games instead of just tellin’ us what they want us to know.”

“You can say that again,” muttered Prompto, flipping to the table of contents and glancing over each item. None of them made any sense, but hey, they’d gone past the point of rationality.

Except Ignis, who paused his app to pointedly inquire, “You’re certain there was nothing in the throne room?”

That was another discussion they’d had no less than fifty-two times, and it always ended the same way: with a big, heaping pile of nothing. There was nothing to find, nothing to see, nothing to hear—just…nothing. The only people who had been in the throne room in the last year were the Crownsguard members who swept up the remnants of the Crystal and the construction teams that had seen to repairing the wall. If there had been anything to discover, they would have by now. So, Prompto wasn’t at all surprised when Gladio shook his head, more exasperated than pissed off for a change.

“Nothin’ but dust,” he replied with a sigh. “Definitely didn’t see anything about whatever this bond is.”

“Something tells me that’s a less pressing matter than the Focus she mentioned.”

“You think the Six have a different definition than we do?” guessed Prompto.

Ignis didn’t answer immediately, seeming to turn the question over in his head first. When he did respond, it was with a careful deliberation that said he didn’t want to put his foot in his mouth.

Typical Iggy.

“Perhaps not a different definition,” Ignis qualified, “but the Glacian must have been referring to a certain context that we aren’t familiar with. I’m sure of it.”

“Pretty sure none of these books are gonna give us context,” observed Gladio, to which Ignis shrugged a shoulder and picked up his phone again.

“Even so, it’s worth a try. Noct may depend on it.”

That brought their conversation to a close more effectively than the smooth, annoying voice of the app. It was as sobering a thought as it was comforting, the idea that they might be able to bring Noct back if they played Gentiana’s game right. Well, that was their assumption, anyway. Why else would she bother telling them those things about eternal sleep and lying in wait? The Astrals couldn’t be so bored that they had nothing better to do than dig in the knife, could they? Not likely.

But that didn’t get them any closer to putting the pieces of this puzzle together or finding some answers. For three days, they had (briefly) gone to sleep with questions at the ready only to wake up having had no dreams and no encounters with Gentiana. A few weeks ago, Prompto would have loved the opportunity to get a good night’s rest; he was always interrupted by that dream, which was more than mildly frustrating when his eyes started itching in the middle of a meeting. Now that he actually wanted to have it, however, his brain gave him a break. They were left without the familiar feeling that Noct was hovering over their shoulders and absolutely no direction whatsoever.

Which meant the next few hours were a blur of meaningless words and pounding headaches. In a way, Prompto thought he might be even more blind than Ignis. That would definitely explain how the clock on his phone went from early morning to early evening without him noticing. Even worse was that he hadn’t absorbed anything he’d read—or was supposed to be reading—in that time. All he could say was that there were plenty of references to focuses. There were so many that he could hardly count them all:

There was focusing on affairs of state.

There was focusing on healing the Starscourge. (That one was a reference to the Chosen King, yet there hadn’t been anything else of use in the fifty-seven pages Prompto had skimmed just in case he missed something.)

There was even focusing on a healthy diet, which was apparently a must for kings since they had an obligation to live as long as possible for their people. Somehow, he got the impression that whoever wrote that book would have had an aneurysm if they’d caught sight of what Noct usually ate if left to his own devices.

They would have had another if they glimpsed what passed for a meal that night as the sun set outside the windows and their stomachs started growling loudly in the silence. Admittedly, Prompto was as much a fan of Cup Noodles as the next guy, but Gladio took it to a discomfiting level. That was all they’d eaten for the last few days, and Prompto couldn’t tell whether it was for sheer convenience or if Gladio was simply tumbling into the pit of his own despair. After all, there were few better comfort foods than freeze-dried vegetables and instant noodles that didn’t even have an expiration date on them. If they did, they probably would have gone bad a long time ago, as would the thread that held the ends of Gladio’s patience together.

They hadn’t gotten so lucky with the Ebony.

Ignis wasn’t Gladio, though, so he handled the deprivation fairly well. They’d rationed what they could, and now that things were slowly moving in the right direction, they were hoping to restock the stores with food they actually wanted to eat rather than what they were merely able to scrounge up.

Unless you were Gladio, who contentedly slurped his own noodles as he flipped page after page of worthless tomes that weren’t giving them anything they could use. Prompto would have liked to make their dinner run instead, but Gladio had beat him to the punch. Honestly, he should have known it was so that no one could come back with something other than their usual fare, not that Prompto was complaining about it. Ignis must have recognized that it was a decent trade-off as well, because he didn’t say a word in spite of his conspicuously puckered features as he picked at his portion. Gladio was here, he was focused, and he showed no signs of leaving anytime soon regardless of how much he groused about Gentiana’s message—they could live through a few calorie-packed salt bombs to keep him around.

As old as Cup Noodles were getting, however, they were nothing compared to the rage inducing sound of Gladio telling him, “If you’re done with those, you can always start some new ones.”

Blinking, Prompto glanced past his empty container to see that all his books were stacked haphazardly at the corner of the table in his makeshift discard pile. It was a testament to how long they’d been at this that he hadn’t even realized he’d finished. His hands seemed like they were on autopilot, flipping through each text until he wasn’t conscious of the progress he was making. Well, he was going to call it progress. In reality, he guessed that he was lagging behind the others in terms of valid data. Ignis hadn’t said much about what he was getting from his tour through the Citadel’s server, but Prompto would have been super surprised if he hadn’t come up with at least a dozen possibilities from that alone, unconfirmed or otherwise. On the other end of the table, Gladio appeared to have gone through half the library on his own; Prompto could barely see him behind the towering book fort that threatened to topple around him if he added one more volume.

Then there was Prompto, who had accomplished the equivalent of shoving pencils up his nose and imitating a comatose gurangatch.

Total score, dude.

There was no point in asking if he had to, just like there was no point in informing Gladio that he could handle the next serving of mind-numbing information dump. They’d pulled their weight; it was about time he pulled his.

“Sure,” replied Prompto with mock enthusiasm as he rose from his seat and stretched. “Any suggestions?”

Old would work.”

“Wow, why didn’t I think of that?”

Rolling his eyes, Gladio threw his latest read aside and reached for one that probably should have fallen apart during the founder king’s reign. “Can’t all be as smart as me.”

“All that sodium’s really going to your head. Maybe you should lay off the noodles, big guy.”

“I didn’t get this far to give up Cup Noodles.”

In years past, Prompto would have taken that as his cue to sarcastically ask what he had come all this way for. It would have been a joke then, a snide poke at his Shieldly dignity and what a pain in the rear he always said Noct could be. These days, though… It wouldn’t mean the same thing. Their road hadn’t been an easy one, and even if Noct had lived, they weren’t exactly swimming in luck here. Maybe they could fool themselves into believing everything was fine when they were cloistered in the library with nothing but books and Ignis’s sparkling personality to keep them company, but that was simply a clever disguise for what else was going on in the world. Beyond that, they also weren’t the same people anymore—they hadn’t been for longer than Prompto liked thinking about. Yeah, Gladio wouldn’t have blinked if Prompto had asked him that a while back; the worst he would have done was smack him upside his head. Now? After everything that had happened? The last thing he wanted was to remind the former Shield about the former part.

Instead, Prompto laughed awkwardly and trailed towards the bookcases with a snarky, “Better be careful, or you’ll end up being a giant cup of noodles soon.”

It might have been his imagination, but Prompto was almost certain he heard Gladio mutter, “Wouldn’t that be nice,” under his breath.

Neither of them addressed his underlying skepticism or how it practically screamed that he understood what Prompto had been about to say and appreciated that he’d decided not to. They were friends—they didn’t need to go there.

And that was for the best given that Ignis chose that moment to call after him, “See if you can find any other religious texts.”

Now it was Prompto’s turn to roll his eyes, stopping long enough to shoot him an incredulous glance. “You mean, besides the million we’ve already looked through?”

“That would be ideal, yes,” retorted Ignis dryly, although his humor fell a little flat. Whether he was aware of how ridiculous this whole thing was or not didn’t matter—it still had to be done.

For Noct.

So, Prompto didn’t complain. He didn’t whine, not even ironically. Rather, he nodded his head in exhausted acceptance of the fact that this was what their lives had come to and retreated into the stacks to see what he could scavenge from the obscenely thorough collection.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do this, annoying as their methods were. Their shared vision from Gentiana was sort of what kept him going right now. (Cup Noodles and flat soda only went so far.) The prospect of getting Noct back, of having him around for even one more day, was so tantalizing that Prompto couldn’t help getting his hopes up. It was everything they’d wanted for the future: the four of them walking into it together, not slouching into it with the constant awareness that they were missing a vital part of their souls. That was what the Glacian had given them. Despite all their jokes, their frustration, their doubts—in spite of everything, she’d reignited the tiny flame of faith that they’d stoked during Noct’s ten-year nap.

But at times like these, when he was wandering aimlessly amidst ancient tomes that seemed to carry everything but what they were looking for, it was hard to maintain that momentum. The road laid before them seemed to stretch longer and longer, and the information they were trying to find was at its invisible end. Only it wasn’t a road like the ones that had led them through the outer territories when they hadn’t left the safety of the Wall before. No, this was a totally different path, one that had no signs along it to indicate that they were heading in the right direction. They were just as likely to end up in Galdin as they were to find their way to Ravatogh; they’d have no idea if they’d reached their destination until they arrived. Even then they couldn’t be sure, not unless there was an Astral waiting to tell them they’d won the ultimate prize.

Or maybe it didn’t have to be an Astral. Those guys were busy with…whatever it was they did these days. They had plenty of Messengers doing their bidding already, right? It would be so simple for them to send one down…

To…the Citadel?

Prompto didn’t realize he’d stopped moving at first, his feet cemented to the floor and his eyes squinting to make sense of what the hell he was seeing. Or…not seeing? Maybe? He knew what it looked like: the fluffy white fur and lolling tongue made it pretty obvious. But it was impossible! They’d been camped out in the library for three days, and they had never been visited by anybody except the occasional retainer who needed Ignis’s signature on something. Besides, it had been eleven years since Prompto had seen Pryna. By all accounts, she was supposed to be dead. Just like Umbra had died with Noct, Pryna had gone to puppy heaven with Lady Lunafreya. Prompto had long since resigned himself to the belief that it had been a dream, her leading him when he’d gotten lost in Niflheim and stuck in the depths of his own self-pity. There hadn’t been any other explanation when he’d found out that she’d gone the same way as her mistress. And as depressing as that was, it really hadn’t surprised any of them: the Messengers were tasked with carrying the word of the gods to humanity, and both delivery canines had almost exclusively served the Chosen King and the Oracle, as far as Prompto could tell. Without them, there wasn’t really a reason for Umbra or Pryna to stick around.

Yet there she was, standing at the end of the aisle as though she’d been waiting for Prompto all day. Her impatient expression said it all, though she hadn’t been much different as a puppy—a smaller Messenger? Did divine entities actually age, or had she merely appeared that way because he had been just a kid himself? Yeah, that was more likely. He had a feeling that if Pryna had been a puppy at any point, it was probably so long ago that not even the Astrals could remember. They had more important things to worry about.

And so did Prompto. Whether this phantom dog was real or his imagination was running wild, she didn’t give him half a second to figure out. Pryna turned tail as soon as she had his attention and vanished around the corner, obviously inviting him to get a move on.

Shared dreams. Creepy presences floating around him day and night. Gods in his head. Messengers playing peek-a-boo with him. Oh, yeah—he was totally sane.

Opting to worry about his gradually slipping mental health later, Prompto darted forward without hesitation. He partially expected to see that his eyes were simply playing tricks on him, but when he rounded the end of the bookcase, he spotted the tip of Pryna’s tail a few stacks down.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere!

Where exactly that was, he couldn’t be sure. All he knew was that he needed to keep pace, so he did. He sprinted along behind Pryna with renewed zeal, his heart pounding in anticipation that he probably shouldn’t have allowed himself until he had confirmation of his newfound suspicions in hand. With every turn, with every step deeper into the bowels of the library he hadn’t yet explored, he felt as though they were coming up on something. There was a sign in the road, showing him which fork to take and a rising sun straight ahead. This was it—it had to be it—

And then, as soon as she’d appeared, Pryna was gone.

Prompto screeched to a halt, the bookshelves converging ahead of him so that the only way to go was backwards. For a moment, he thought that maybe it was okay, that perhaps the Messenger had been able to pass through solid stone and had forgotten that he wasn’t so lucky. She’d retrace her steps and return to take him wherever it was she wanted by another route. It would be fine. Crazier stuff had happened, after all!

When Pryna didn’t reemerge, however, all the hope that had suddenly burst forth in his chest seemed to shrink. Minutes ticked by with no change, and Prompto’s shoulders sank a little lower as he admitted defeat. The worst part was that he knew he had no right to the resulting frustration. It was his own fault for getting excited over nothing, but it still left him feeling worse than he had before: he’d been so close, she’d been right there

Through the haze of his disappointment, Prompto almost missed the fact that he wasn’t entirely alone. Although there were no Messengers or Astrals waiting for him in this remote corner of the library, there was something else.

Something that looked right up their alley.

Frowning, he took a few tentative steps forward before gingerly reaching down to pluck the volume off the floor where it had been unceremoniously dropped by someone who clearly had no respect for how old the thing was. At least, that was how it would look to anybody who hadn’t been itching for some divine intervention for three whole days without relief. When Prompto peered into the growing shadows, he couldn’t find one empty space on the shelves where the book in his hands might have come from; there were no tracks in the dust left behind from someone pulling it out. Of course, it was possible that it had been lying there all this time, abandoned by a royal historian and forced to weather the empire’s occupation. He could see it in his head: some poor old dude, hearing the explosions and running for the door, not even realizing that his research was doomed to gather dust for the next eleven years.

Only it hadn’t. Turning the tome over, Prompto didn’t spot a speck of dirt or dust anywhere on it. All that jumped out at him was the symbol on the front—a sphere made of green pentagons—and the bone-chilling cold that seeped into his fingers the longer he held it.

Isn’t that interesting?

Even more fascinating was the expression on Ignis’s face when Prompto described the cover to him. Neither he nor Gladio had doubted Pryna’s convenient assistance, which was comforting since he still wasn’t so sure himself. Luckily for him, he didn’t have time to dwell on it.

“You’re absolutely certain it’s green?” he demanded almost before Prompto could finish relaying his heroic tale of courage and dog following.

Exchanging a perplexed glance with Gladio, Prompto replied, “Uh… Pretty sure, unless the thing’s discolored or something. Doesn’t look damaged, though.”

“Nope,” Gladio chimed in as he peered over his shoulder. “That’s definitely green. What’s up, Iggy?”

Ignis merely shook his head, frowning in their direction even though it was obvious his mind was a million miles away. As far as he was concerned, Prompto was certain he’d never seen the symbol in his life; he would have thought it was simply a random shape if not for Ignis’s reaction. The latter hadn’t been this intrigued about the data they were sifting through since Gladio had stumbled across an abridged history of divine appearances in Eos. Not exactly the most useful book, especially when it prioritized myths and legends more than actual encounters, but it had held their attention for a few minutes. Then it was right back to the pile, forgotten alongside the seemingly endless stack that Prompto so wasn’t going to be putting away. (That was what they really kept Talcott around for, right? The not-so-little dude could benefit from a good workout.)

But first things first: they needed to get to the bottom of their latest mystery.

Ignis apparently agreed, because he leaned back in his chair and murmured, “I recall seeing the image before, but I can’t remember where.”

“Do you remember what it meant?” asked Prompto hopefully. His optimism was dashed a moment later when Ignis sighed in obvious frustration.

“No. It’s been years since I last saw it. I’m not certain of the context, either.”

Huffing amusedly, Gladio observed, “And here I thought your memory was a steel trap.”

Prompto didn’t doubt for a second that Ignis’s gaze would have been sharper than his daggers as he glared them in Gladio’s direction. “There is the occasional need to make room in that trap by getting rid of things that appear to be of little import.”

“Too bad you threw out the wrong one this time.”

“We can’t all be as perfect as you, Gladio, much as we try.”

“Uh huh. How’s that workin’ out for you?”

“It’s positively dismal.”

After three days of heavy silences and exasperated groans, Prompto had to admit that it was nice hearing those two going at it. Well, in a sense: when they actually went at it, nobody wanted to be around for fear of becoming collateral damage. Gladio was volatile on the best of days depending on the circumstances, and Ignis? He played a good game, giving everyone the impression that he was cooler than Ghorovas, but his friends knew him way better than that. They knew that if you were going to piss anyone off, it was better to rile Gladio up than Ignis. Where the former would beat you to a pulp if he caught you (or could since Prompto hadn’t seen him do it yet), the latter could strip the skin off your bones with nothing but a few choice phrases and a raised eyebrow. If Ignis wanted to, he could make you rethink everything you’d ever done in your entire life and convince you that dirt was of more value. If Ignis wanted to, he could make you believe that not a word passed your lips that was ever right—one hundred percent, completely correct.

If Ignis wanted to, he could have overthrown the Lucis Caelum line and become the king all by himself. That was how intimidating he could be.

Ignis wasn’t like that, though, nor did ruling seem to interest him. He was really sort of perfect for the position he’d been groomed to inherit: strong enough to combat Gladio at his surliest and gentle enough to coax Noct to eat a vegetable every year or five. It was more than Prompto had managed, not that he’d tried very hard.

In any case, just like that hadn’t been his job, listening to the two of them squabble while Ignis racked his brains for that memory wasn’t up to Prompto either. Rather, he took it upon himself to flip the cover of the book open and frown down at the lack of a table of contents. Wasn’t that a thing around here? He hadn’t seen one volume that didn’t warn him what he was getting into; professional books were meant to come with a disclaimer, after all. That had been how he stayed on track, considering the fact that he wasn’t about to waste his time on a treatise regarding the state of carrot farming in Caem. (Yes, there had been a book on that. No, he hadn’t bothered with it. He’d save it for a rainy day.) It looked like Pryna—and, by extension, Gentiana—wouldn’t be so forthcoming with information.

Go figure.

Cringing inwardly, Prompto tried not to let that deter him. Whether he could infer what the book was about in advance or not, there was no denying that Pryna wouldn’t have led him to it if it weren’t important. Sure, for all he knew, it might simply be a recipe book for excellent dog treats Ignis could perfect in his limited free time. Still, it was worth a shot.

The problem? He had no idea what the hell he was even looking at here. Half the words were gibberish to him, although the author obviously understood what they were talking about since they offered no explanations. Clearly, this wasn’t something they’d written to teach people. No table of contents, no glossary when he momentarily flipped to the back—seriously, how much harder could they make this? In the first few pages, nothing familiar or sensible jumped out at him.

Nothing but the one word they had been hunting down for three days, at least. Too bad he couldn’t make heads or tails of the rest.

“Uh, guys? I don’t think this is gonna work.”

That stopped both of them in their tracks. Ignis recovered first, scooting forward in his chair as though he planned to wrest the book from him and read it for himself. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s…almost like a fairy tale?” replied Prompto with a shrug. “Like, nothing in here makes sense. It’s all about…magic and monsters…and stuff…”

“Hate to break it to you, but that sounds an awful lot like real life, doesn’t it?” snorted Gladio derisively. Okay, he had a point there.

“These ones aren’t daemons, though,” Prompto argued, sticking the book under his nose so that he could get a look at the…things illustrated at the side of the page he’d randomly flipped to.

“Huh,” he murmured quietly. A crease appeared between his eyebrows, and all of a sudden, his cocky remarks fell by the wayside. “Yeah, that’s…definitely different.”

That was putting it mildly, in Prompto’s opinion. They had seen tons of monsters over the years, some naturally occurring while others had spent two millennia as Ardyn’s grotesque pets. None of them came close to whatever the creature in the book was—a Cie’th, according to the caption. It looked almost human, or it would have if not for the way its feet were clawed and its arms seemed to have been dislocated from its shoulders and every single inch of it appeared to be made of stone. That was what he was getting from the overall image, anyway: a big rock monster with a weird red symbol on its chest.

This thing couldn’t be real. Nuh uh. Not possible.

He hoped.

The description he and Gladio managed to provide Ignis, however, had his forehead wrinkling like it always did when he was about to blow their minds. In this case, Prompto got the feeling it would be more out of disappointment than anything else. After all, what must it be like to go from being a regular person to…that? He used to wonder the same about people who had turned into daemons: did they remember who they were? Did they retain any sense of right or wrong? Did they feel pain or understand the consequences of their actions even if they couldn’t control either? Over time, he’d forced himself to believe that they couldn’t. The alternative was simply too depressing.

Ignis wasn’t going to let him off easy in this instance, of course. Rather than leaving the implications of the Cie’th to their imaginations, he eagerly prompted, “Read it aloud, starting from the beginning.”

…Seriously?!

“The whole thing?” he clarified warily, already knowing the answer and hating it.

“I can’t very well do it myself,” Ignis reminded him flatly.

As much as Prompto wanted to complain or offer to just read him whatever looked interesting, he couldn’t argue when he noticed the defeated set of Ignis’s shoulders. Ordinarily, he didn’t seem to mind asking for help: he was more comfortable with mentioning that he could use an extra set of eyes now than he had been in the months after Altissia. Doing his job had meant he’d needed to get over his embarrassment, stow the emotions, and keep on keeping on. Prompto had worried about him from time to time, but Ignis had proven everyone wrong and passed the toughest trials with flying colors.

That didn’t make him the machine he sometimes pretended to be, though, and Prompto could tell that he would have loved to be able to do this on his own without imposing on either himself or Gladio to feed him the information. There was a line in the proverbial sand, and now that Noct’s fate once again lay on the other side of it, Prompto could read Ignis’s frustration with his disability in his posture. He hadn’t had to deal with that sort of thing; Gladio hadn’t either. They were the lucky ones here, and as such, it was their duty to prop up the guy who had taken a beating so they wouldn’t have to.

Besides, it could have been worse: it could have been a super long volume about political affairs. If Prompto never saw another one of those, it would be too soon.

With that thought in mind, he quietly muttered his assent and dropped into his seat, propping the book open in his lap and starting at the beginning as he’d been instructed.

He got barely half a page in before Ignis interrupted, “Of course. How could I have forgotten?”

Of course was right, although not for the reasons he probably meant, and Prompto had to work pretty hard not to roll his eyes again. It totally figured that what he hadn’t been able to decipher as more than a fairy tale, Ignis worked out after merely hearing a few words.

What a surprise.

“Forgotten what?” prodded Gladio when he didn’t continue. If he thought they were going to get a glimpse inside Ignis’s head that easily, however, he was sorely mistaken.

“It’s nothing,” he waved them off, his tone casual while his expression was anything but. Even so, Gladio didn’t press him for an answer, and he gestured for Prompto to keep going a moment later. Maybe he thought they’d catch up with whatever he was onto if they did some searching for themselves? Yeah, that had to be it.

Unfortunately, Ignis was severely overestimating just how on the ball they were compared with his own rampant genius. The further Prompto read, the more confused he grew. It wasn’t that the text was that difficult to understand: the writing itself was fairly basic, and now that he was actually looking for them, he spotted descriptions for everything that he hadn’t heard of before. Still, it was a mystery he couldn’t quite piece together as he flipped through page after page.

This didn’t sound anything like what they had been looking for—not even remotely. The Six weren’t mentioned once, nor did he find any references to the kings of Lucis or the Oracles. Instead, the story (because it seriously seemed like a fairy tale!) centered around some kind of ancient society where mystical beings called fal’Cie made people their slaves by bestowing upon them the key word they’d been hoping to see: a Focus. That Focus changed depending on the fal’Cie. Sometimes they wanted their servant l’Cie to deliver a message; on other occasions, they pushed their l’Cie to save the world from anything that tried to destroy it. More often than not, the l’Cie didn’t even know what their task was. The book said they received a vision, and not a detailed one, that gave them a hint. Otherwise, they were on their own.

The punishment for not completing their Focus by the deadline their fal’Cie dictated? They’d turn into those monsters—the Cie’th. It was kind of like final exams at school, only instead of destroying all your chances of becoming anybody worth remembering, you transformed into a mindless beast.

No pressure at all.

Although he couldn’t shake the skepticism that had him convinced this must be a myth, Prompto still shivered a bit in his chair at the idea. Getting penalized by what were essentially gods for not being obedient enough? Talk about unfeeling.

Prompto didn’t realize he’d stopped reading and said that part aloud until Ignis sympathetically countered, “Unfortunately, that was a common fate for those who crossed paths with the fal’Cie at the time.”

Eyebrows raised in obvious disbelief, Gladio demanded, “You tellin’ me this shit’s real?”

Ignis nodded. “It’s been years since I heard the tales, and not many believe that it is the true account of our history, but Pryna wouldn’t have left it for us if it weren’t.”

That was a good point, even though Prompto desperately wanted to deny it. Somehow, it just seemed so sad to think that this was what the past held for people. Becoming slaves? Being forced to do things that you might not agree with so that you wouldn’t have to pay the price? Well, it sounded an awful lot like Niflheim. After all, that was what Aranea and Ravus initially had to do. When the empire took over Tenebrae, there wasn’t much choice besides joining them to preserve whatever he could of his kingdom in Ravus’s case. As far as Aranea was concerned, that was her job. Being a mercenary meant you didn’t have the right to be picky about who you worked for—she’d told him that herself once. And that wasn’t even mentioning what would have happened if Prompto…if he…

You know what? Let’s not go there.

He already felt on edge as it was with all this talk of slaves and gods. It struck a chord a bit too close to home for his tastes, and he was only too happy to set it aside to not analyze some other time.

Ignis was right about one thing, though: the text in his hands had to hold the answers they were looking for. Prompto was no closer to picking up on what those were than he had been when they began, but he’d call it progress anyway.

Conversely, Ignis’s mind appeared to be running circles around theirs. As if he could sense the way Gladio shook his head in mingled cynicism and disdain, he vaguely motioned in Prompto’s direction and explained, “According to the legends, the fal’Cie were of a different world than ours—an ancient world that has long since been demolished.”

“Like, Solheim ancient?” clarified Prompto in awe. There were still records of the kingdom that had once dominated the planet before their own emerged from the rubble it had left behind, but it never failed to impress him when he thought of just how long ago that was.

So, his mind sputtered to a halt when Ignis corrected him, “Their society practically renders Solheim a modern empire.”

…Whoa.

“That’s…really old.”

“Indeed.”

“So, what’s the Glacian trying to tell us, then?” interjected Gladio impatiently. “If these fal’Cie are from that long ago, then what do they have to do with Noct?”

Yup, that was Gladio: getting to the point instead of dancing around the issue. It didn’t matter if he had to drag them there or simply barrel in with a battering ram—he was putting them back on track regardless. In this instance, there was no argument from either of them. They would have a chance to talk about timelines later.

“I have a feeling it’s less the fal’Cie and more the message behind the history,” offered Ignis pensively. That apparently wasn’t a satisfactory answer.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning there’s more to this story than meets the eye.”

“Uh…like what?” Prompto inquired. Ignis might be ten steps ahead of them, but they were treading through quicksand by comparison.

Clearly realizing the same thing, Ignis sighed wearily. At least he didn’t sound as put upon as he would have a few years ago when he elaborated, “The world they mentioned is not Eos. It’s what came before—our origin story, if you will. At any rate, the old world was ravaged by constant war between the gods and the people, orchestrated through the will of the fal’Cie.”

“So, they were kinda like Umbra and Pryna,” deduced Prompto, hurriedly adding, “except without the curse stuff.”

“In a sense. They functioned as intermediaries between humans and the gods in quite the same way our Messengers have. The difference is that the fal’Cie had a will of their own, separate from that of their deities, and they acted on it well in advance of any truly divine interference in the affairs of that world.”

Chuckling darkly, Gladio mused, “Sounds like they got a little too full of themselves.”

“So it would seem,” confirmed Ignis. “If the tale is to be believed, then it sounds as if a group of l’Cie defied their Focus in order to see their fal’Cie leaders and the gods themselves overthrown.”

Prompto frowned. “But wait, wouldn’t that be a bad thing? You don’t just overthrow gods, right? They’re the ones that keep the world going.”

“Yeah, Solheim learned that one the hard way,” mumbled Gladio, to which Prompto had to nod in response. Their world had had its fair share of run-ins with the divine, yet they hadn’t gone that far. Beyond the idiots in Solheim that had actively tried to piss off the Six, nobody else had the guts.

Well, nobody but Ardyn. Prompto didn’t count him, though. He was a…special case.

As was this world Ignis was describing, apparently. Shaking his head, he replied, “This was a different situation. The war between humans and gods was said to have grown so volatile that a new world had to be created altogether.”

“Our world,” Gladio guessed. Ignis nodded in agreement.

“Yes. The gods began the process, and the people of the old world completed it. By the time they were through, there were no more divine beings like the ones that had been complicit in their oppression for so long.”

“And there were no fal’Cie to cause the same problems in the new world.”

“Precisely. They shaped Eos in the image of what they had hoped their own existence could have been like. No l’Cie, no Focuses, no frequent warring with their deities. What they desired was peace, and in the new world, they thought they’d have it.”

That one made Gladio laugh, though it sounded a lot more bitter than he probably meant it to. “Yeah, well, they really screwed up with that one.”

Even Ignis couldn’t refrain from smirking a bit. “Things certainly didn’t turn out as they planned.”

Prompto figured that went without saying. Sometimes, in moments when the road that lay before them felt longer and more daunting than ever, he wondered if peace was even a possibility. Could anyone really say that there was no conflict in the world when people disagreed about everything? There were plenty of arguments about how the new Lucis they were building should be run, from the connection between Insomnia and the outposts to the infrastructure that the latter needed in order to remain independent. During their council meetings, there were tons of instances where Cor had to tamp down the rising tension in the room purely because no one had an idea that suited everybody’s purposes. Even Ignis and Gladio, who had been friends for longer than Prompto had known them, couldn’t agree on what Gladio should be doing with his time now that he was an officially unattached Shield in more ways than one. They didn’t need fal’Cie or selfish gods to set them on the path towards destruction—they managed just fine on their own.

The ancients couldn’t have wanted this for them. They couldn’t have desired a kingdom like Solheim to make the same mistakes and end up in ruin; they couldn’t have wished for future generations to be doomed to the same fate as the l’Cie that came before. That was what had happened, though. Maybe they’d been too short-sighted, or maybe humans merely had a knack for screwing up a good thing. Either way, the perfect world they’d hoped to build didn’t have to include fal’Cie in order for them to suffer like their predecessors.

Or…did it?

“Y’know,” ventured Prompto slowly, his brows furrowed as the pieces of the puzzle finally clicked in his brain, “I think maybe that’s why Pryna wanted us to find this book.”

Ignis’s head tilted his way, and Gladio’s eyes were narrowed when he asked, “You think what’s why?”

“It’s all right here! Look—Gentiana told us that Noct completed his Focus, right?”

It wasn’t much, yet realization dawned on Gladio’s face almost immediately. “Which means the Six probably took a leaf outta the fal’Cie handbook.”

“That would certainly explain the fascination they had with using the kings of Lucis and Oracles of Tenebrae as their servants,” Ignis chimed in. The expression on his face was too smug for Prompto to believe that he hadn’t already come to that conclusion about ten minutes ago, but he appreciated not having to be reminded.

“So, they were basically l’Cie,” he continued anyway. It paid to make sure they were all on the same page.

“Indeed. Their Focus was predetermined before they were born: to protect the Crystal and eliminate the Starscourge. Their lives and deaths were contingent on whether they were successful to that end.”

“And instead of a brand to show who they were working for, the kings got the Ring of the Lucii,” Gladio said, nodding in growing comprehension.

“While the Oracle was gifted the Draconian’s trident. Like the fal’Cie, the privilege of serving the Six came at a heavy cost. I can only assume that this”—he nodded towards the book as though he could actually see it—“is the Glacian’s method of telling us that the Astrals chose to take a more archaic approach with regards to purging the Scourge from our Star.”

For some reason, that had Gladio grinning like he was winning a game of King’s Knight instead of translating pre-pre-prehistoric text into something resembling a point.

“I thought you said you didn’t remember any of this stuff,” he teased. Surprisingly, Ignis’s features relaxed from where they had been set in tense frustration for hours.

“I suppose some memories are simply buried rather than lost entirely.”

“That’s good. Don’t do any spring cleaning in that steel trap of yours. We’re gonna need it.”

“I shall endeavor not to.”

Well, it was nice to hear that they could be so positive about this. For his part, Prompto was sort of seething. No, that was wrong—he was really seething.

That old society, the one that had fallen and done everything they could to make a better world for the rest of them, had fought to ensure that history didn’t repeat itself. They had stopped the fal’Cie and the gods that had given them their power, just as they had rebuilt the planet to be a lot kinder to humans than what they’d lived through. More than anything else, it sounded like they had worked tirelessly to make sure that no one ever had to be a slave to their deities ever again.

Prompto wasn’t stupid. He was aware that it would be optimistic to the point of idiocy to believe that purely wanting something actually made it real. Niflheim had used their own people as slaves, if that was what you could call experimenting on civilians and turning them into daemons. Even King Regis, who had only wanted to save the world (and his son, but that hadn’t panned out), had employed people who didn’t know what they were signing up for. Maybe the word slavery didn’t really apply there, yet it was a similar principle.

This was different. After all that fighting, after all that suffering, they were right back where the ancients had started. Noct hadn’t been given a choice, nor had any of the kings that had come before him. Lady Lunafreya hadn’t either, and Prompto assumed the same could be said of the rest of the House Fleuret.

The Six had mandated it. The Six had become the very thing that people had tried to get rid of. And yeah, what they’d done had saved the world. Sacrificing two families meant that the rest of them would have the opportunity to build some of their own. In his philosophy class, they would have said that the ends justified the means: the needs of the many were more important than the needs of the few and all that.

He was just having a tough time remembering that when it was his friend who had been the means.

But he was letting his emotions get the better of him. That wasn’t going to help the situation, and it definitely wasn’t going to bridge the gap between this history lesson and how it applied to Noct. Anger and dismay wouldn’t get him the answer to the last question he could think to ask.

“Okay, so… If people who didn’t do what they were supposed to turned into monsters, then what happened to the l’Cie that did their jobs?”

In the blink of an eye, it was like the temperature had dropped a few degrees. Ignis’s back stiffened, and Gladio’s smile melted right off his face at the sight of it. Neither of them said a word, but it couldn’t be a good sign that Ignis—resident genius and guy who had all the answers—didn’t give them one right away.

When he did… Well, it wasn’t as reassuring as Prompto had been hoping for.

“That…is the part I don’t understand,” Ignis admitted, sounding ashamed of himself for his lapse of insight.

Gladio didn’t give him time to wallow, however. Instead, he pressed him, “How come?”

A pause, then he deliberately explained, “It was said that the gift for obedient l’Cie was eternal life.”

…I’m not following.

“Uh, that’s good, isn’t it?” snorted Prompto, unable to comprehend why Ignis looked so upset. “That means Noct’s alive!”

Scoffing, Gladio muttered, “As if it’s ever that easy.”

Of course not. They were dealing with the Astrals here: if it were easy, then they wouldn’t be doing this whole deity thing right.

The quirk at the corner of Ignis’s lips, while fleeting, carried the same bitter amusement that Prompto had come to associate with the sort of news nobody wanted to hear. Not Insomnia fell to imperial attacks bad, but pretty close.

“In this case, I’d say you’re correct,” he sighed. Slipping his visor off his face, he pinched the bridge of his nose as he dropped the real bomb: “While faithful l’Cie were indeed granted eternity, they were nevertheless doomed to spend it encased in crystal, alive yet asleep.”

Just like Gentiana said.

Okay, yeah. That was a problem.

Chapter Text

Asking to leave the Citadel wasn’t something Gladio had much practice with these days. That wasn’t to say that he didn’t usually check in with Cor before he went on his way, but there was no permission involved. There was no seeing if he could do anything around the palace or if he was needed in Insomnia; there was no making sure Iris didn’t have an errand for him to run. He simply left, letting duty carry him to wherever anybody would have a use for him. Sometimes, that was easier said than done: they had plenty of help now that no one had to worry about turning into a daemon or worse. Fear had dissipated, and in its wake was a sense of courage that Gladio had to call admirable. That was how humanity kept going, how they showed Ardyn that they weren’t going to be defeated by the bad hand they’d been dealt. He’d done his best—he’d even had two thousand years to do a hell of a lot better, from what they’d found in Ignis’s research—yet he hadn’t crushed their spirit entirely. For a few of them, he’d taken their souls away, but everyone else was doing fine.

That was honestly why Gladio coped better around them than at home. Even though he didn’t exactly fit in, there was an undeniable relief that accompanied not hanging around people who had gone through the same thing he had. Ignis and Prompto were his best friends; he loved Iris with all his heart. The marshal, in spite of their differing opinions on his choices, remained his rock. Still, they were too close. They’d lost just as much as he had, albeit in other contexts. They didn’t need him to talk about it to understand what was going on in his head to some extent, and that was admittedly too much for him to handle most of the time. He couldn’t get any privacy in Insomnia, whereas outside the Crown City, he could take a breather instead of being crushed by their stares and the suspicion that there was pity hiding behind their eyes. He didn’t need it—he didn’t need any of it. Not pity, not sympathy, not whatever other bullshit word they used for it. Gladio purely needed to keep moving.

In this case, it had been a little easier than normal: Ignis and Prompto were on his side for a change, although the former wouldn’t let them anywhere near the front door until they told Cor what they were up to.

Sort of.

They played a few cards pretty close to their chests if for no other reason than that they’d either get laughed out of the Citadel or committed until the marshal could figure out what the hell was wrong with them if they didn’t. Yeah, he’d grown up with the legends that had surrounded Noct and his family; Cor was the only person Gladio thought might know them better than they did. He wasn’t optimistic enough to believe that the marshal would take their word for it without question, though. Magical dogs and books about mythical worlds were the stuff of dreams in the post-Astral world, not reality. They had too much on their plates as it was, yet they were asking to go on a wild chocobo chase to bring back a dead guy because of what they’d read in some ostensible fairy tale? Uh huh. That would go over well.

So, they’d gotten clever about it. Actually, if he wanted to be more accurate, Ignis had gotten clever. It wasn’t like he had a shortage of brilliant excuses in that giant brain of his. Plus, he was a professional: he had been trained to weave fact with fiction until there was just enough truth wrapped in an enormous lie to keep the marshal off their backs for a while. And boy, did he pick a doozy.

Bringing the kings of Lucis home to Insomnia. That was what he’d gone with.

Technically, it wasn’t totally bogus. After all, they were planning on doing exactly that if they played the Glacian’s game right. She hadn’t visited again to provide some much-needed validation, but she also hadn’t sent any other clues to steer them in a different direction. That had to be a hint that they weren’t too far off base, so they were going to run with it while they could. Their story, however, was contingent on the fact that Cor didn’t know which king they were going after. As far as he was concerned, they would be making a few rounds from the Crown City to Lestallum and back. The tombs inside Lucian borders had been emptied during the Long Night to keep the memorials safe from the daemons, and the effigies of the former kings were growing mold in the basement of the Leville. That definitely wasn’t a burial of honor for the guys that had helped take Ardyn down, right?

Right.

Cor hadn’t argued the point, although Gladio was still inwardly cringing at the memory of his obvious suspicion as they hopped into the car and peeled out of the garage beneath the Citadel with a bit more enthusiasm than was probably warranted by the situation. Calling them on their misdirection had been impossible when the marshal didn’t have solid proof that they were lying, but it was strange not to give him the information they were harboring regardless. While it didn’t always seem like it, they could all tell that he felt equally responsible for what had happened to Noct. In fact, it was a good thing he’d had that final chance to say goodbye before the end: Gladio thought he would have responded to the news a whole lot worse otherwise. That would have been the third king lost on his watch, whether the gods wanted it that way or not, and Gladio comprehended better than anyone the utter failure you endured when you couldn’t protect the one person you were supposed to.

Which gave them even more reason not to say a word about where they were really going. Cor already had plenty of guilt to deal with on that front. The last thing he needed was for them to fail after they’d gotten his hopes up. If they were going to screw anybody over, it might as well be themselves.

And hey, they were doing a pretty good job of that. Gladio didn’t want to say that there was some spring in their steps for the first time in a year, yet there was no other way to describe how they high-tailed it out of the Crown City, no second glances or second guesses.

What had to be even more impressive than their newfound good mood was that their car decided to throw them a bone and not break down in the process. Even under the circumstances, they couldn’t bring themselves to take the Regalia or the Star of Lucis out of cold storage. He’d vacillated over the possibility, as had Ignis and Prompto: as much as they would have liked to deliver Noct home in his dad’s car, it simply wasn’t worth the risk. The roads weren’t as perilous as they used to be, but that didn’t mean they were safe either. The animals that had made it through the Long Night were wild and untamed now; they’d gone so long without human interaction that they didn’t take kindly to anybody who did tread on their territory in the aftermath. Gladio couldn’t blame them there, annoying as it was to have to wipe out a pack of angry voretooths. Everyone had been watching their own back for the last eleven years, so why shouldn’t they?

That was why the hunters would never go out of business. Just like they’d accepted responsibility for keeping the outer regions safe since the old wars with Niflheim, they worked overtime to ensure that they didn’t have another deadly threat looming when they’d only recently survived the last one. It was their job to subdue the beasts stalking the wilderness, and while they were good at it, you nevertheless caught wind of a tragedy every now and again. A stray tag found in Duscae, an unrecognizable corpse hanging from a nest in Keycatrich, some poor bastard’s bones piled up at the foot of Ravatogh—it happened. Not often, but it happened.

Risking the Regalia getting banged up again if a bunch of wild anaks ran across the road? No thanks. He’d rather not court Cid’s fury by taking the old girl back to Hammerhead for another full-service, full-body tune-up.

Instead, they made do with one of the Citadel cars that had once carried diplomats on official business around the city. Though its years spent rotting below the palace were fairly obvious when you got a load of the rust peeking out from beneath its scratched paint, it wasn’t a bad ride. They had more room inside than they would have in Noct’s car or even the Regalia, which was going to come in handy depending on the outcome of this adventure they were embarking on. It was a little spacious for the three of them, but they were expecting another passenger—or two, most likely—who would need some of the limited leg room in back. At least Gladio was no stranger to being cramped, not when he’d spent the last decade bunking wherever there was a spot for him and the months before that stuck in a tent with three other guys. He had no doubt they’d make it work. Somehow.

But he was getting ahead of himself. For now, he needed to focus on the task at hand: finding Noct and Lady Lunafreya before the Glacian got tired of waiting for them and rescinded her cryptic offer.

They were operating under the assumption that that was what she meant it to be, in any case. None of them had been able to figure out any other reason for her dropping all those hints besides boredom and a sick sense of humor. No, from the looks of things, she’d actually wanted them to discover that they’d been fooled this whole time, that what they had believed for the last year was a lie. She’d left a trail of breadcrumbs for them to follow, all leading to the same undeniable conclusion: Noct and Lady Lunafreya had to be alive and within reach somewhere in the world. The tangible fear that getting to them would be impossible couldn’t shake that dangerous faith, not when it had taken root in his mind and refused to let go. Nope. It was a fact. Aggravating or not, they were alive yet asleep, stuck in crystal stasis like the other l’Cie that had been good little chocobos and done what their masters told them to.

At first, that had been the hardest pill to swallow: how the hell had they turned to crystal when they were dead? Ignis had seen Lady Lunafreya’s body with his own eyes in Altissia—they all had at the Citadel. Gladio had spent a year trying to forget the grotesque sight of her where she’d hung from the ceiling, Ardyn’s twisted marionette alongside the rest of his playthings. What had happened after that was still pretty fuzzy; he’d hit them with a real whammy, that was for sure. Even so, the image was seared into his memory, and it had haunted him those first few weeks when they had done their best to clean up the mess that remained in the throne room.

As for Noct’s body… Well, they hadn’t found it, but they all knew there was only one way for him to defeat Ardyn. It had been ordained by the Six long before any of them were born; there was no escaping it. That was yet another gift they could thank Ardyn for, given that it was his fault the Astrals had picked Noct to begin with. Gladio was convinced that if it weren’t for his arrogance, his disdain for the gods, and his own failure to ascend, then Noct would still be alive. The Astrals wouldn’t have had to ensure that they didn’t get another botched job choosing the King of Kings or that the new guy didn’t get a big head about it. Sure, according to the research they’d done over the years, Ardyn had never actually been selected by the Crystal at all, but he could have been if he’d stopped short of being a complete asshole. Gladio imagined that must have stung, getting rejected for something he likely thought he was destined for, especially when he had always fashioned himself as some kind of beneficent soul every time they’d had to deal with him. If he was anything like that as a young king? Yeah, Gladio could see why the Six didn’t want to put all their eggs in Noct’s basket just to be safe.

Why they’d used the royal families of Lucis and House Fleuret as the fal’Cie had used their l’Cie slaves, however, he didn’t think he’d ever get. Besides the veritable laundry list of reasons for how that was taking things a step too far, it didn’t matter whether they’d gotten that bright idea before or after Ardyn double-crossed them—it was messed up, plain and simple. If that had been their plan all along, then what was the point of taking the Chosen King’s life in the first place? What was the point of letting the two of them get impaled if the Six were simply going to bring them back later when they proved they wouldn’t get power hungry like Noct’s predecessor? Was that how the gods got their jollies, or was it nothing more than a pretense to test the King of Kings’ true character?

Anymore, neither would have surprised him.

Well, if it was a test, then Noct must have passed. There was never any danger of him turning into a Cie’th like the old l’Cie, but Gladio had a feeling death really would have been waiting for him if he had turned from his divine duties. The permanent kind, anyway.

Because there was no denying that both he and Lady Lunafreya had kicked it. Bodies were all well and good, as were legends and myths, but the fact remained that Ardyn wouldn’t be a distant memory if they hadn’t. The proof showed itself every morning when the sun rose. As far as they knew (or as far as Ignis was able to explain to them), it wasn’t until Noct’s soul ascended to Providence within the Star that the Scourge could have been wiped out, so that was exactly what their charge had done a year ago. He’d faced death for the millionth time—allegedly—so that he could purify the Star and see Ardyn vanquished forever. That had happened. It had. The gods playing games with fate didn’t change that.

It was the after part where they had to make a few guesses and take a few leaps, though. Luckily for them, Ignis’s assumptions were pretty much as good as fact, so they were in decent shape. According to him, the Six must have somehow reconstituted both Noct and Lady Lunafreya when all was said and done. Their bodies had been on Eos, but their souls were in Providence or whatever they wanted to call it. (Gladio couldn’t describe it as heaven when no heaven would ever let Noct in without his Shield to have his back.) For the Six, it would probably be easy to put the two back together and stuff them inside a couple of crystals for the rest of forever. After all, wasn’t that what they had done with the other Lucian monarchs? It hadn’t occurred to Gladio during the Long Night, but those effigies they’d collected didn’t contain any bodies, nor had the sepulchers that had protected them all this time. Not one of the former kings of Lucis remained in their tombs, regardless of how long they were said to have been there. They could have chalked it up to the passing decades and decomposition, of course—a few hundred years would do that to a guy. Now that they had a different perspective, however, he doubted it was that simple. Noct and all his ancestors were gone? It was a little too convenient, even for the Six. There was no way it could be pure coincidence.

If that was the case, then the other kings of Lucis had achieved their Focus as well, as had the Oracles. The Crystal had been protected—even if it kind of shattered at the end there—and the Starscourge was gone. Daemons were obliterated, the sun had returned, and Ardyn was a thing of the past. Except for the not so acceptable losses, Gladio called that a job well done, not to mention one that couldn’t have been accomplished if they were so much as one king short. As such, it was only fitting that they were all rewarded with eternal life, asleep or otherwise.

That, at least, was what Ignis was thinking. He’d also said it was merely conjecture and that his guesses were simply academic and that he might be entirely mistaken—but Gladio didn’t buy it. If he was, then he had no doubt that Gentiana would have visited them by now to put their dumb asses back on the straight and narrow. That was what she’d always done for Noct, so he didn’t believe she’d let them stumble around in the dark for long. If nothing else, she’d eventually get bored of watching and give them another clue just to speed them along. It had happened already with the book Gladio was perusing while Prompto drove them ever closer to their destination.

Admittedly, that was yet another guess, this time on his own part. As helpful as the Glacian had been with that text, she was equally silent about where they could find Noct’s crystal coffin. Gladio didn’t mind that so much, though: there was really only one place where the Six could hide a bunch of dead kings.

Formerly dead. Formerly.

Whatever they were, Gladio was just crossing his fingers that he was right. They weren’t exactly swimming in other options, and if this one didn’t pan out, then the three of them were up shit creek. That thought alone was enough to set him on edge, but there was no use worrying about it now: they’d figure it out when they got there.

In the meantime…

“Careful, I think you missed one,” grunted Gladio, his fingers tightening painfully around the corners of the book as they drove over yet another pothole. That had to be the tenth one in as many minutes—no, probably half that. It was getting pretty hard to tell if Prompto was trying to find them or if it was an accident.

Knew we shouldn’t’ve let him drive.

The latter, of course, didn’t see the problem at all. Instead, he huffed indignantly and shot back, “They’re all over the place out here!”

“That’s generally what happens when maintenance is delayed a decade or so,” Ignis observed wryly from the passenger seat.

“See!”

Snorting, Gladio muttered, “Could just drive through the grass. It’d be smoother sailing.”

“Hey, if you wanna take over, then be my guest,” Prompto offered sarcastically. “I’m sure you’d do a way better job behind the wheel than me.”

“Maybe next time.”

“What? You scared, big guy?”

Scared? As if that was even a possibility. Gladio didn’t care much for driving, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t just as good at it as anybody else. It wasn’t like he walked all over Lucis looking for work, whatever Prompto might think. Still, there was something to be said for the backseat: he had plenty of leg room and the perfect angle if he wanted to whack that little shit upside the head. Yeah, he definitely had the better position right where he was.

But he wasn’t about to admit that, so sarcasm was the name of the game this time.

“Nah,” he replied with a grin. “I’m pretty busy reading these fairy tales.”

“You’re never gonna let that go, are you?”

“Nope.”

Prompto sighed in frustration, but Ignis didn’t give him a chance to come up with a witty reply. Gladio was going to count that as a win for this round.

“And have you found anything of use in that fairy tale?” he inquired calmly, ignoring the fact that they’d been sniping at each other mere seconds earlier. Honestly, Gladio had to hand it to him: when he wanted to get shit done, it got done.

Which was a far cry better than what he could say.

“Not a whole lot. Still not seeing anything about the Six. Just some god called Bhunivelze.”

“One of the ancient deities,” Ignis mused, nodding to himself. “He was similar in stature to the Draconian: the leader of their order as Bahamut is for the Astrals.”

Well, that explained why he was mentioned more than anyone else—and got more than his fair share of the ridicule.

“Doesn’t look like the guy who wrote this is a fan,” Gladio pointed out. It didn’t take a genius to realize that: he was almost positive there was a veiled insult slipped into the text every time the defunct deity was mentioned.

Apparently, that didn’t come as much of a surprise to Ignis, who replied, “If I’m remembering correctly, it was his influence that led to the destruction of the old world and the formation of the new. I doubt that endeared him to many of the old population.”

“But why would a god destroy their own creation?” asked Prompto, to which Gladio had to agree. It sure didn’t seem very godly.

“The ancient deities and ours share a similar characteristic: none of them were capable of getting along,” retorted Ignis with a sigh.  

“So, they had another war?”

“For lack of better terminology, yes. Their views of humanity differed, and in their disagreement over how the people of the old world should exist, they doomed the planet to oblivion.”

Gladio huffed a humorless laugh. “And ended up getting booted off the new one as payback.”

“Those that survived the conflict did, namely Bhunivelze.” When Ignis turned his head to the side to stare sightlessly back at him, there was a slight smirk on his lips. “I can only assume that would be the reason why the Astrals chose to imitate the fal’Cie rather than the erstwhile gods. Of the two, they might have earned less of the ancients’ ire.”

Gladio wisely chose not to respond to that. Ordinarily, he would have said that was one of their less idiotic ideas; there was no use in repeating their history when it had ended in such spectacular failure the first time. Given that it had cost them his brother, though, he wasn’t about to praise the Six for anything at the moment.

It was a nice distraction from the sudden surge of indignation in the pit of his stomach when Prompto eased over another pothole and inquired, “Okay, so they picked the bad guys but not the bad bad guys. Cool. Still, if the ancients didn’t want any more gods or magic around, then how did the Astrals get here anyway?”

Luck. Irony. Spite.

Any one of them was as likely as the others.

Ignis, ever the intellectual, took the less pessimistic approach: “That is what I’m hoping to find out. If there is any mention of them in th—”

“Sorry, Iggy,” Gladio preempted him, idly skipping over a few pages. “Whoever wrote this thing must not have known much about ‘em.”

“Perhaps. That or they may not be referred to by the same name. It does predate their existence.”

“Hard to believe,” interjected Prompto, his voice lowered in awe that Gladio didn’t quite share.

It wasn’t that he blamed the Astrals for what had happened. The fault lay with Ardyn—there was no arguing that. Regardless, he couldn’t banish the bitter regret that had him wishing the Six had been able to do something more. They were the gods around here; it was their job to watch out for Eos, not Noct’s. His Focus had been to protect the Crystal and get rid of the Starscourge, but theirs was to save humanity. At least, it should have been. Instead, they’d left it to one of the peons, albeit one with more royal blood in him than most people could claim. In a way, it was almost enough to shake a guy’s confidence in the divine. Noct hadn’t let them down—the gods had. Talk about disappointing.

But it wasn’t his place to dis the Astrals when they seemed to be making up for lost time, so Gladio merely grunted in acknowledgement while Ignis agreed. They could badmouth the Six when Noct was safely settled back at the Citadel, his fate resting in their hands.

Besides, as the car fell silent and Gladio impatiently flipped to the last page of the book, something else caught his eye. So far, every chapter had been filled with the history of the old world and the gods they’d gotten rid of, not the deities that had made a mess of Eos. He had to admit that, by comparison, the ancient ones made the Six look pretty damn good. Nobody was trying to steal free will or destroy the planet, and they hadn’t elected an alleged savior that ended up doing more harm than good half the time. Overall, the Astrals seemed downright organized relative to the sheer stupidity that had governed the old world. It warranted a few grudging points, in Gladio’s opinion.

For a bunch of people who had been stomped on by gods all their lives, however, the ending was fairly optimistic. There were no curses or warnings; they hadn’t written some treatise on why religion would be the death of them. Beyond the sarcasm and disdain that surrounded their gods, it seemed like they really weren’t too concerned with the past anymore. No, the tale of their predecessors closed on a high note, one that Gladio hadn’t been expecting.

And one that sounded a little too pointed to be a coincidence. Then again, when the Glacian was involved, there was no such thing.

“Hey, Iggy. Think I’ve got somethin’.”

“What does it say?”

Clearing his throat, Gladio read aloud, “The mighty Bhunivelze, his defeat assured, was lost to the Chaos of the Unseen Realm. In crystal He sleeps, though perhaps not evermore. And thus were human souls Chosen by the Light of the New World to protect it from His return. From the ashes of their Struggles, their all too human failings, was born Hope everlasting for the future. Forever may they serve so that the souls of the living might prosper.” He paused for a moment before adding, “That’s where it ends.”

“With nothing about what that’s supposed to mean. Awesome,” deadpanned Prompto. Gladio could hear his eyes rolling without having to see his face.

Ignis, on the other hand, looked like his head was about ready to launch from his shoulders. Gladio had caught that expression too many times to interpret it as anything other than a breakthrough on the horizon.

“Actually, that may be what we’ve been waiting for,” he countered. “Gladio, did you bring the Cosmogony?”

“Got it right here,” he replied, tossing the ancient tome down to pluck their own divine text off the seat beside him.

Nodding tersely, Ignis instructed, “Turn to the first verse of the first section. What does it say?”

Okay, they both knew damn well that he didn’t need to hear it. They’d each learned about the Astrals when they were kids, and Gladio didn’t doubt for a second that Ignis had practically memorized the entire Cosmogony from cover to cover. That was his job, after all: being advisor to the king of Lucis meant more than simply telling him where to place an army or how to monopolize a negotiation. When you sat the throne, you had to appease the gods just as much as you had to appease your people; it wasn’t about merely doing your duty to the latter given that the former had their own expectations. Unlike Gladio, who only needed to know the bare minimum, it was his responsibility to understand the legends better than anybody—which meant he didn’t need it for himself so much as he hoped they’d glean the same thing from it that he had.

Three heads are better than one when you’re in uncharted territory, Gladio mused silently. As far as he was concerned, Ignis’s opinion was more than enough for him, but it paid to be safe when the alternative involved heading in the wrong direction on limited fuel.

So, flipping open the book, Gladio hunted down the section Ignis was looking for and recited, “Titan, the Archaean, steadfast as stone. Ramuh, the Fulgurian, sharp as lightning. Shiva, the Glacian, gentle as snow. Leviathan, the Hydraean, relentless as tides. Bahamut, the Draconian, unbending as iron. Ifrit, the Infernian, fickle as fire. Since time immemorial, they have watched over Eos.

“That’s it!”

“What’s what?” demanded Prompto, peering over at Ignis as though he’d lost his mind. It was a testament to how well the latter knew him that he immediately pointed towards the road, not needing sight to predict that Prompto’s eyes weren’t on it.

“The key to this riddle,” he clarified once a muted groan indicated his orders had been followed. “Steadfast, sharp, gentle, relentless, unbending, fickle? Those traits sound particularly human in origin.”

Huh. Never thought of it like that.

Frowning pensively, Gladio agreed, “Yeah, not exactly how most people would describe a bunch of gods.”

“Not at all. In the Glacian’s book, it says that human souls were chosen to protect the new world from Bhunivelze’s potential return. If that is indeed the case…”

“Those souls must’ve gone on to become the Six,” he murmured. Suddenly, their attitudes towards everything made a lot more sense: if nothing else, Leviathan’s bitchiness had been a pretty huge indication that she was more human than the Cosmogony let on.  

“There’s no other alternative. The old gods must have intended our Star to be their base of operations, which explains its sentience. It is therefore possible it determined that their absence necessitated the presence of new gods to guard both it and Eos.”

“And if the Star chose them like it did Noct,” added Prompto with wide eyes, “then that explains how the old world’s magic got here too!”

Ignis’s smile was both knowing and relieved when he answered, “Those were my thoughts as well. Bhunivelze would have imbued our Star with his power, and when it chose defenders for humanity from amidst the migrating souls, it would have imparted that magic to them.”

“Then when the Six made the Crystal, and the Crystal chose Noct…”

“The Star’s power got passed on the same way,” Gladio finished for him.

“That’s how it appears. It’s all contingent on the Star,” Ignis sighed, leaning his elbow against the doorframe with a thoughtful frown. “That’s the bridge that connects our world to the ancients’ and our gods to the ones that were overthrown. It even explains why Bhunivelze’s strength was divided into six rather than remaining ensconced within one divine being.”

“What, the Star didn’t want the Astrals getting all high and mighty like he did?”

He shook his head. “If for no other reason than self-preservation, I doubt that it would have seen the ancients’ plight reenacted.”

“But, wait a sec,” Prompto interrupted, sounding more confused now than he had earlier. “If the Star picked human souls so they wouldn’t be like the big bad god dude, then how come they’re so…uh…not into humans?”

“I assume you mean their penchant for ignoring us rather than offering praise?”

Shrugging, Prompto replied, “Yeah, sure. That. Like, Leviathan and Ifrit? Whew, not really big on people.”

“I think it’s probably got more to do with their experiences in Eos than where they came from,” offered Gladio, glowering down at the Cosmogony. “Not like they didn’t have good reason to hate us.”

“Countless decades of watching humanity tear itself apart may have contributed to their disdain. Solheim was not the first civilization to fall to the whims of mortals, nor will it be the last,” admitted Ignis solemnly.

Prompto hummed, although it wasn’t with curiosity. In fact, there was a distinctly melancholy edge to his voice when he muttered, “Guess they’ve seen enough of people at their worst to get kinda tired of it, huh?”

“That the Six chose to aid in the fight against Ardyn rather than leave it solely to Noct should be considered a blessing, I suppose.”

On that one, they’d have to disagree, and Gladio bit back a derisive laugh to avoid that particular argument. Whether they used to be humans or not, whether they liked people or not, it was still the Astrals’ duty to protect Eos. That was what they had been chosen for, from the sounds of it; it was why they had survived when the rest of the ancients were doomed to die eventually. If they hadn’t been selected for their position by the Star, the seat of divine power at the center of their universe, then they would have died thousands of years ago. They never would have gotten to see the repeated destruction and rebuilding of society, nor would they have had to put up with people being people. In Gladio’s opinion, they weren’t the ones who should have felt lucky or blessed or whatever you wanted to call it for having earned help from the Six—it was the Six who should have felt lucky they’d lasted this long to provide it.

Yet there was some comfort he could take from the story, if only a little. Thanks to the ancients, the souls of those who should have died were proven to be hanging around well after they should have expired, and not just the divine ones. Six of them were gods now, sure, but the others…

Well, at least that gave him more evidence (and confidence) that they were heading in the right direction.

No coincidences. Not here.

 

***

 

“Allow me to ask you once more: are you sure you’re ready to take on the Blademaster?”

“I went up against the high commander and got my ass handed to me. I didn’t stand a chance. And I never will unless I get more power.”

“Then answer my question: are you ready or not?”

“You think I would’ve called you here if I weren’t?”

“Uh…Gladio? Are you sure this is the right place?”

Gladio blinked, tearing his attention away from worthless memories of the past to see Prompto glancing between him and the dilapidated rest stop beyond the car windows. Now wasn’t the time to lose himself, especially not considering what they’d come here to do.

“Yeah,” he murmured as he reached for the door handle. “This is it.”

“It’s…definitely seen better days,” was all Prompto said by way of reply, although Gladio could easily read between the lines.

The outpost at Taelpar Crag, after all, looked like it hadn’t been occupied in the decade they’d spent in the dark. Someone had gone to the trouble of boarding up all the windows at the Crow’s Nest, not that that had helped much. Most of the wood was tattered and shredded by the claws of some ferocious beast Gladio didn’t want to think about let alone come into contact with, and the door had long since been torn off its hinges. That, however, might have been done by people instead of the daemons. While the latter wouldn’t have any use for stale bread and moldy burgers, humans would have taken anything they could get their hands on once upon a time. In any case, that had to have been a while back. An inch of dust was the sole customer now, which certainly left something to be desired in terms of a health inspection.

Despite all that, the diner had fared a hell of a lot better than the motel next door. Whatever had plowed through that did a good job of tearing half the building down. The proprietor’s desk was pristine except for the usual wear and tear of the years, but the rest of the structure was missing. He was going to place his bet on an Iron Giant: few other creatures were capable of knocking down something so big in one swoop. Based on the damage, it appeared that that was all it had taken—one monstrous sword and a lot of oomph behind it. Altogether, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

That was fine, though. They weren’t here for the rest stop so much as what lay behind it.

“Taelpar hasn’t been one of our priorities, given that it holds little strategic value,” observed Ignis, stepping out of the car to join them.

Gladio couldn’t help chuckling, “Good. That means we won’t have an audience.”

“Indeed.”

Of the three of them, Prompto was the only one who looked a little nervous at the reminder that they were on their own here. Go figure.

“So, uh… How likely is it that this guy is gonna attack you again?” he inquired uneasily. His eyes darted around as if the subject of their hunt would appear out of thin air, and for a minute, Gladio almost resorted to the same teasing he would have a few years back. It was the perfect opportunity and everything.

But he censored himself just this once. They had bigger fish to fry, not to mention a long way to go before they got there. If they did need to prove themselves for some reason, Gladio didn’t want to waste all their time and energy talking.

So, aiming a mischievous grin over his shoulder that he didn’t really feel, Gladio led the way around the motel with a simple, “Wuss.”

“Hey!” exclaimed Prompto, chasing after him with Ignis on his heels. “Just ‘cause you’re not worried doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t, man!”

“There’s nothing to be worried about,” Gladio scoffed as he hopped over the hood of a car that had been left to rust even before the nights got longer.

“Sure, not for you. You said he’s called the Blademaster—as in blades. Swords. I’m more of a gun guy.”

“Then I guess you’d better make sure you’re locked and loaded, just in case.”

“You’re killin’ me here, dude.”

“So you’re ready to face death?”

Cor’s voice in his head brought Gladio up short, his steps faltering on the dirt path behind the outpost. Regardless of what it had meant for him in the long run, that was a day he attempted not to think about as much as possible. Back then, he’d been offered so many clues that it seemed impossible he hadn’t taken any of them to heart. He was too young, too bold, too stupid to think that maybe somebody else knew better than he did about what was going on. He’d listened when it mattered—when he was busy trying to gather power to be the Shield Noct had needed, not the one he’d been given—but the rest had been lost on him. All that stuff about the last king of Lucis needing his Shield? Seriously, how had he missed that? If he’d thought about it then, maybe he would have had more time to prepare for the truth behind the Blademaster’s words.

And the lie.

Because when push came to shove, Noct had gone down alone. That farce of a trial had given Gladio the strength to protect him in life, but not the strength to fall before him so that he could continue to do so beyond the grave. See, that was his job as Shield, just like his father. Where he had failed, however, his dad had been successful: once they’d pieced together the stories of what had transpired the day the empire took over Insomnia, Gladio had confirmed his suspicions of what must have happened. It was impossible for King Regis to perish if his dad didn’t go first; the fact that nobody else knew anything other than that he’d been pinned to a wall when they found him spoke volumes.

That was the meaning of being a Shield. Gladio had embraced his duty since he was a kid, had accepted its inevitable consequences and the fear that came along with it before Gilgamesh himself.

Yet the line had been drawn, and at the end of the day, he’d failed his final test. While he was worthy of serving Noct when he was alive, he’d been barred from his side anywhere else. Gladio wasn’t sure who he blamed more for the bitterness that coursed through his veins at the thought: the gods for taking Noct away or the Blademaster for getting his hopes up. Although Gilgamesh had warned him, he’d done nothing to prepare him for what was to come. Not really.

That was going to change this time. As Gladio nodded resolutely to himself, ignored the concerned glances he was garnering from both Prompto and Ignis (which was a hell of a thing), and continued on his way, he swore it silently to anyone who might be able to hear. They weren’t going to fail, not today. And now, he wasn’t going to stop until the Blademaster had divulged all his secrets. They’d done their best putting together most of them on their own—he’d fill in the rest, this other soul that had been gifted to stand watch.

Just not over the planet so much as something a lot more precious.

As quick as their good humor at the outpost had arrived, it was gone even sooner. The chill that ran down Gladio’s spine the further they climbed towards the rocky outcroppings of Taelpar Crag had nothing to do with the breeze that rustled through the trees or the mud that splashed onto his boots. This was something else, something deeper that reached into his chest and squeezed his heart tight.

It was their last chance, the only one they were going to get since the Six didn’t seem so keen on keeping them in the loop, and it all came down to whether Gilgamesh was going to help him one last time. If they were lucky, he’d even do it without them having to best him in battle. Gladio wouldn’t shy away from it, but still, that would be a bigger pain in the ass than he really wanted to deal with today. He already had Prompto along for the ride.

Seriously, it was like the guy could read his thoughts sometimes. His shaky chuckle broke the silence, and Gladio glanced around to see him pointing at a sign ahead.

“Scotham Clough… Is that it?”

Pulling in a deep breath, Gladio answered, “Yup. The entrance to the Tempering Grounds.”

“It’s difficult to believe that it’s been here all these years and no one has ever noticed,” Ignis remarked, not without a tinge of suspicion. Damn, he was good.

“It’s sealed off to anyone who doesn’t know how to get in,” he replied to the unspoken question at the same time as his hand dropped to the hilt of his sword where he had taken to carrying it at his waist. (That was another side-effect of not having Noct around: no more summoning his blade out of the Armiger rather than hefting it around with him.) This was exactly the kind of place wild animals would love to use as a den, unaware of what lurked on the other side of the cliffs.

“That’s why you needed the marshal, right?” asked Prompto, taking the hint and unholstering his gun. Ignis must have heard him, because his daggers were in hand so fast that Gladio almost didn’t see him unsheathe them.

“Well, that and he was the only person to ever come back from there alive.”

“That’s…comforting.”

Gladio snorted. Reassurance wasn’t really his game, but he gave it his best shot when he retorted, “Don’t worry. You get to visit with the only guy who’s ever beaten the Blademaster.”

Right,” Prompto lilted, “because there’s no way he’d hold a grudge. Nope. Not a chance.”

“I should hope that he was too impressed by Gladio’s impressive show of strength to take it to heart,” Ignis interjected with the kind of smirk that spoke more of sarcasm than genuine admiration.

Everybody’s a goddamn smart ass.

Rolling his eyes, Gladio didn’t bother to comment. He’d get back at them later when he had some free time on his hands and a king at his side who happened to be an expert in retribution for petty slights. At the moment, they had more important things to focus on.

Like the stone crag ahead of them that cut straight into the cliff face.

If he hadn’t seen it already, he never would have guessed that it was what they were looking for. The crack blended seamlessly into the rock around it, drenched in shadows and hidden from view unless you recognized the signs. When he’d come here eleven years prior, Cor had been the one to show him: he’d pointed out the slightly darker shade of grey at its center, the jagged line that ran from top to bottom, the impenetrable sturdiness that allowed no one to pass but those deemed worthy of even that much.

Fortunately, Gladio registered it immediately and without trouble—he’d had so many dreams of this place that he couldn’t forget. To him, it was obvious, from the absence of anything other than grass to the familiar sight his younger self hadn’t truly appreciated in his anxious trepidation.

That being said, he didn’t hesitate to lift his sword in front of him, holding it level with his chest in combined offering and request. That was what the Blademaster valued: strength but not stupidity, courage but not foolishness. After all, if there was one thing he’d learned from Gilgamesh, it was that you could have all the strength and courage in the world yet still be afraid. Gladio had experienced that every single day since the fall of Insomnia, and it didn’t seem like it was about to let up now.

It was reality. He had accepted that a long time ago, even if his execution left a little to be desired.

That recognition was apparently all he needed to gain entry to the Tempering Grounds. Either Gilgamesh had been able to hear his thoughts from the depths of his lair or he was merely that lucky, but there was a resounding rumble that seemed to emanate from the ground itself. It quaked beneath their feet, not enough to throw them off balance yet unexpected nonetheless. And in that instant, unheard and unseen by anyone but the three of them, the stone gate slid open in wordless welcome.

The quiet that yawned over them from the open passage was deafening compared to the noise that abated as soon as the obstacle was removed from their path, and Gladio was almost glad when Prompto whispered behind him, “I’m guessing that was supposed to happen?”

“If you wanna get in.”

“Yeah, see, wanting has nothing to do with it.”

“You can always stay with the car if you’re too scared.”

“I am not too scared!”

“Really? Sure sounds like it.”

“I’m certain the Blademaster would rather not be kept waiting while the two of you behave like children,” huffed Ignis in exasperation, taking point even though he had no idea where the hell he was going.

Gladio hurried ahead of him while Prompto called from the rear, “He’s been hanging around for, like, two thousand years. What’s five more minutes?”

Tutting under his breath, Ignis retorted, “The difference between finding Noct and returning to Insomnia empty-handed, perhaps?”

“Ha! No way. If he tries to close the doors, Gladio can just break ‘em down! His head’s hard enou—what is that?!”

Oh. Right. So, maybe Gladio should have warned them about the bodies.

“Gilgamesh awaits challengers in the deepest recesses of those ruins. It’s been thirty years since we uncovered the caves. We’ve sent countless expeditions, but all of our efforts have afforded us no rewards…and no survivors.”

“Except for you. You undertook the trial, and you made it back alive.”

“Barely.”

“Those’re the guys that didn’t make it,” Gladio replied somberly as they stepped into the cavern, the familiarity and sense of something otherworldly washing over him in waves.

And just like that, they were back to business. It wasn’t that they were forgetting why they’d come—not even close. It was… Well, it was the three of them. They were friends and brothers. Their bond had been formed through Noct, yeah, but that didn’t make it any less substantial. Ignis had been his closest friend since they were kids, and Prompto? Okay, it had taken him some time to warm up to Noct’s weird, goofy little tagalong, but still. Gladio would die for him—for both of them—and was positive they’d do the same for him. They hadn’t really worked together in so long that he figured it was only to be expected that they fell back into some semblance of their old habits. Prompto made it too easy to poke fun at him in a pinch; Ignis’s dry wit was as sharp as ever. Even though they were on possibly the most important mission they’d ever accepted, they were who they were.

Walking into the Tempering Grounds, however, their humor was stifled. To his two companions, it was a brand new experience, but it was old hat to Gladio. As far as he could tell, everything was exactly as he’d left it: the bodies of the failed competitors for the role of Shield were strewn haphazardly all over the place, their limbs arranged at odd angles and their swords hanging limply at their sides. The unluckiest bastards were impaled by them, the ultimate punishment for wandering in here when they weren’t worthy of serving their kings. For these guys, there were no graves; there was no honor in their deaths. They were simply in storage, surrounded by crates and barrels and torches and the kind of detritus that amassed when you were stuck in a cave for a few hundred years.

At least, they had been stuck down here when Gladio had passed through over a decade ago. Turning his back on the light at the end of the tunnel, he edged closer to a few of the stragglers with his sword at the ready—the same sword he’d earned from this trial as a pretty badass souvenir. If the ancient inhabitants of these rotting shells agreed with him, though, they weren’t about to say so. Not one of them reanimated like he’d been expecting; those lost souls that had both haunted this sacred ground and sworn their allegiance to their general were nowhere to be found. He hadn’t been able to see them the first time either, but this was different. The further Gladio went, the more he came to realize that he couldn’t feel their presence. Nobody called out to warn them away from these caves, nor did a sneering voice taunt him about weakness and his inability to measure up to the expectations of a true Shield. No, unlike his last visit, the place seemed well and truly empty.

He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

“That’s weird,” he murmured, baffled and more than slightly concerned. He’d considered the possibility that Gilgamesh wouldn’t be able to help them, of course, but he hadn’t taken into account what would happen if he wasn’t even here.

“What’s wrong?” asked Ignis, drawing his attention from the broken vessels that used to be people.

Shaking his head in confusion, he hesitantly explained, “They’re…gone.”

“Who’s gone?” Prompto cut in. Watching him shy away from the timeless corpses would have been funny under different circumstances.

Right now, though, Gladio thought he might never laugh again. He’d done enough of that on the way here, and this was probably his punishment for it.

Should’ve kept my damn mouth shut.

“The souls of the old Shields”—and the failed ones, he decided not to add—“were supposed to be right here.”

“Perhaps they’re waiting further in,” suggested Ignis, although he sounded about as sure of that as Gladio.

“Nuh uh. They were here last time, guarding the gates and turning people back.”

“True, but the situation has changed,” he persevered with the same unfailing logic he always did. “They remained in this place to test potential Shields to the kings of Lucis. Without a king, it’s possible that they no longer bar the path into the Tempering Grounds as they once did.”

Prompto nodded, seemingly more to convince himself than anything else. “Makes sense. If there aren’t any more Shields, then there’s no reason to have the trials, right?”

“But if there’s no reason to have the trials, then there’s no reason for them to be here at all,” countered Gladio, his frustration beginning to bleed through despite his best efforts to the contrary.

It didn’t bother Ignis, who hesitated for the briefest fraction of a second before admitting, “That…is another possibility.”

The silence that fell between them wasn’t comfortable like it had been in the car; it wasn’t as familiar or companionable as when they were younger. Every ounce of tension they’d felt for the last year without Noct seemed to strangle them—or Gladio, at least. It wrapped around his throat until he couldn’t breathe for fear that he’d botched this yet again.

That was the only explanation he could think of for those obnoxious souls not being around anymore. He’d thought it was so simple: if the kings were going to be anywhere, then it would have to be the place where their old Shields and deceased soldiers still hung around. It had been the sole clue they had to work with, especially now that they had confirmation the Six were no more than that themselves—souls, formerly human, that had gotten stuck until their task was complete. For them, it was eternal: there was no finishing the job of protecting Lucis, whether they made their presence known or not. The Shields, on the other hand, didn’t have to stay. Like Prompto had said, there were no more candidates, Amicitia or otherwise; they had no one left to test. Unlike the Six, they hadn’t been chosen by the Star, nor was it their duty to stand by the people of Eos to see them safely through the darkness. Without the king, the Ring of the Lucii, and the Crystal, there really wasn’t any reason for them to stick around. They’d demonstrated their loyalty this long, and they’d earned the right to some rest.

Why wouldn’t they ditch this shitty cave as soon as they had the chance?

“So, what do we do?” prodded Prompto, voicing the question they were all thinking. “Go back?”

Gladio didn’t answer, glancing to Ignis and waiting for his input. Odds were, he’d agree: there was no use exploring the Crag if they weren’t bound to find anything. They’d gone on enough fruitless ventures to last a lifetime; another would be a waste. Their time was better spent figuring out where else they could look, not embarking on a fool’s errand.

He expected all that and more, yet Ignis merely hummed noncommittally—suspiciously so.

“It’s up to Gladio.”

…’Scuse me?

Well, that definitely wasn’t like him. Usually, Ignis took charge without a second thought, doling out orders and expecting them to be followed immediately. It had been like that for as long as Gladio could remember: he’d always taken his role in the group seriously, and as such, they’d gotten used to just rolling with the punches. That was why it could be so unnerving to hang around the Citadel some days now that all that was behind them. With the marshal in charge and Ignis acting as no more than any other council member, Gladio couldn’t help feeling like the natural order of things had been totally reversed. Deferring to whatever Gladio wanted to do? That was almost unheard of.

Unless he was trying to send him a message.

Come to think of it, he’d said the same thing to Noct when they pulled into one of the countless outposts on their way to wherever they were headed, letting him take point if they didn’t have a real strategy. They might grab a bite to eat or ask around to see if there were any hunts available; they’d stock up on curatives and make sure their portable pantry was filled to Ignis’s satisfaction. Besides that, though, they weren’t doing much more than whiling away the hours, so what they chose to do in the meantime didn’t matter. When every option was as good as the others, Ignis would pass the decision off to their future king and hold the rear until it was time for him to offer some advice and move them in the right direction again.

Handing the decision to Gladio meant he hadn’t lost hope, not yet. Leaving or going made no difference as long as they did something.

Hey, if he wasn’t ready to give up the ghost, then neither would Gladio. It wasn’t over until they saw that the Blademaster was gone too. Even then, he might just hunt the bastard down. Not like they had any other ideas after this.

So, shoring up his determination, Gladio sheathed his sword and set a quick pace towards the far end of the chamber and the waterfall that would take them into the trial chambers.

“We keep moving."

That seemed to be the story of their lives these days: keep moving. Keep going. Keep on doing whatever they had to. It was always the same, and Gladio was starting to get pretty sick of it. Where was the payoff? At least when he was a Shield, when he’d had someone to protect, he’d gotten something out of it; the satisfaction of knowing that Noct was alive and well had been more than enough for him. When he’d vanished into the Crystal for ten years, Gladio could take comfort in the fact that he would return. Plus, he’d had some damn good protection until then—couldn’t beat a godly retinue, after all. Sure, it wasn’t the easiest fate to be separated from his charge and his brother for that long, unable to tell what was going on wherever he was—but they’d made it through. The reward came at the end, and seeing him again had been the best moment of all regardless of what they knew had to come after.

As they slowly made their way through the empty, cavernous Tempering Grounds, it wasn’t the same. A year had gone by, and it felt like all they’d done was tread water. Even now, with all the help Gentiana had thrown their way, they had no clue if they were onto something or if this was merely another dead end. Eleven years ago, there had been triumph in crossing those old stone bridges and seeing the glow of the rocky outcroppings that were all that remained of the ancient battle of the Astrals; eleven years ago, he’d gotten a sense of victory out of passing through trial chambers and bypassing stone pillars that looked like they should have fallen centuries ago. The torches were still lit, the refuse of the ages was still amassed wherever it had fallen (or wherever it had landed last time he was here), yet there was no guarantee that this would be any different from the rest of the past year. Hope was hard to find when you’d grown so accustomed to disappointment.

It didn’t help that he hadn’t felt Noct’s presence in days. Ordinarily, he would have welcomed the change, but his heart ached more than usual with the deprivation. Maybe that would have given him a little more confidence, those invisible eyes watching his every move when he kicked aside the remnants of columns he’d broken himself or formed a human barrier between Ignis and the edge of the rotting wooden scaffolding that led into the depths of Taelpar Crag. Then he might have felt like he was doing something worthwhile, not chasing ghosts as if he wasn’t one himself.

Then he might have felt justified in moving on even though they met no one along the way.

As he’d suspected, the Tempering Grounds were bereft of the souls that had made them what they’d been for two millennia. The only voices that called out to him now were in his head, unheard by Ignis and Prompto as they followed in his wake yet just as potent as they had been eleven years prior. In their disdain, he could suddenly glean a very different message, one that he hadn’t understood back then. It was loud and clear today, though, the maturity of age finally benefiting him as it hadn’t in the early months of their journey. Those haughty assurances that he wasn’t enough weren’t wrong, nor was their certainty that he would die a failure. If they made it to Gilgamesh’s private…whatever and didn’t find him, then all their prophecies would come true, if not quite in the way they’d meant them. Gladio couldn’t speak for Ignis or Prompto, but he was sick of hearing that sort of thing. 

That was why he kept his mouth shut and his eyes forward. He’d given the same instructions to Prompto when they were younger, so it was about time he took his own advice. If he was lucky, that would help him get through the potential devastation they were encountering as they passed the last place he’d made camp with Cor and approached the Blademaster’s chamber. 

“Wow. Definitely cozy in here.”

Gladio chuckled darkly at Prompto’s sarcastic remark, glancing over his shoulder to joke, “Guess the interior decorator was too expensive for more than one room.”

They were doing it again: Prompto answered with the same goofy grin from their old adventures, “Gotta have a really tight budget if he’s made it last this long.”

“It does beg the question of how great a pension he was afforded in the founder king’s day,” mused Ignis with a smirk.

That was one question Gladio definitely didn’t want to ask. Knowing the Blademaster, he’d probably say that they were unworthy of serving royalty if they were worried about the money. He’d have a point, although there was no denying that a guy had to put food on the table if he was going to serve anyway.

Debating the motives of a loyal retainer, however, wasn’t why they’d come. Neither was joking about the dusty red drapes that still hung from the ceiling or the flags from an age long past that fluttered in the breeze. Gladio didn’t examine the swords of the fallen as he led them onto the bridge where he’d simultaneously faced his greatest victory and fiercest defeat; he hardly heard Prompto describing it all to Ignis behind him, either. No, his attention was focused solely on the spot where he’d once met the legendary Blademaster, the one and only being that could grant a Shield true and replete power. It was the sole accomplishment he had over his old man, if he could even call it that: Gladio would trade Gilgamesh’s vote of confidence and his success in the trial for his charge’s life any day.

But he couldn’t, so he forced his traitorous thoughts not to go there. He didn’t need any distractions beyond the one that was staring him in the face.

Or not staring him in the face, as it happened.

On his last visit, Gilgamesh had been waiting for him, sword in hand and ready to face his young, arrogant contender in battle. His power had emanated from this place, sheathing him in the kind of magic that Gladio had associated with the Crystal before he understood that there were stranger things in this world that had no explanation whatsoever.

Now, the bridge was as empty as the rest of the Tempering Grounds. Abandoned glaives were all that remained of the memory he’d taken from this place, a silent tribute to everyone who had made it this far only to fall when they met their final challenge.

For a minute, Gladio thought that maybe he was one of them. The way his heart seemed to stop in his chest, the way his breath came shallower than before, the way his muscles went taut with uncertainty and despair—they were all signs of the selfsame failure that those guys had suffered long before him. While he’d made it through the trial to become a Shield in more than simply title, he had also undergone the ultimate test and flunked it spectacularly.

Maybe history was doomed to repeat itself, after all. There was nowhere else in Eos that he would have thought might house the crystals encasing the kings of Lucis and, if there was any justice left in the world, the Oracles.

As his anguish reached its zenith, as he struggled not to yank one of those blades out of the ground and throw it as far as his strength would let him, it happened: a subtle shift, a microscopic tilt of the universe just before Prompto exclaimed, “Uh, G-Gladio!”

Whipping around, he wasn’t sure whether to breathe a sigh of relief or grab his sword. Either would have been more appropriate than merely standing there, frozen in place while the Blademaster strode calmly towards them, yet that was all Gladio seemed capable of doing. He wasn’t gone. He hadn’t left.

This was it—this was what they had been gambling on.

Gilgamesh was still here. That had to mean something.

It’d better mean something.

If the Blademaster knew why they’d come, though, he definitely wasn’t about to make this easy for them. Instead, he observed them silently—at least, that was Gladio’s assumption. It was hard to tell when his face was hidden behind that mask and his armor made it impossible to read his body language. Just like their initial meeting, he exuded an aura of mystery and fathomless ferocity that Gladio had to envy. This was a man who had defied death to protect not solely his own king, but all the others that were to follow. Whether he served the purpose Gladio suspected or he really had simply hung around to test future Shields didn’t matter—that he had was admirable, especially when Shields like Gladio couldn’t seem to do their damn jobs.

As if reading his mind, Gilgamesh inclined his head and stared straight past the others to greet him, “We meet again, Guardian. Or perhaps you are but Wanderer now, for what is a Shield with no king to safeguard?”

Shit. Leave it to this guy to go right for the jugular.

Ignis must have taken as much offense to it as Gladio was trying not to, because he didn’t waste a second in coldly retorting, “A situation we are endeavoring to remedy. By your leave,” he added, more of an afterthought than anything. That was probably for the best: they really didn’t need the Blademaster to think they were being disrespectful and toss them out on their asses. They hadn’t come this far for nothing, oblique insults notwithstanding.

But there was one thing about having Ignis here that Gladio had to be grateful for: Gilgamesh could find fault with anyone for their lack of will or motivation, yet he doubted Ignis had a weak bone in his body for him to sniff out. When the Blademaster’s gaze shifted to him, there was no snide remark forthcoming, no casual observation that fear belied his resolve. The terse exchange he had shared with Gladio on their first encounter was noticeably absent, not that that was any a surprise. Here stood the chamberlain and advisor to the last king of Lucis, a blind man who had done the unthinkable and kept going as if he could see. Here stood a retainer so bold, so loyal, so steadfast that he had defied the gods and the kings and everybody else just to see Noct safe—even if it meant he would carry his disability with him for the rest of his days.

Here stood the sort of servant Gladio should have been when it actually mattered.

And it would matter again—he’d make sure of that. This time, he wouldn’t fail.

Silently, Gladio added whatever he could to Ignis’s wordless show of resolve, although it certainly wasn’t necessary. The latter’s steady motivation, firm hand, and glaring lack of anything resembling fear seemed to ingratiate him to the Blademaster.

Well, that was what Gladio was going to call it when Gilgamesh merely answered, “Go on.”

Good. Foot in the door.

Ignis being Ignis, he took full advantage of it. He didn’t give Gladio or Prompto a chance to interject even if they wanted to, immediately explaining, “We seek passage to the realm where the kings of Lucis sleep.”

“The realm where the kings of Lucis sleep,” echoed the Blademaster, completely toneless. Either he had no idea what they were talking about or he was a damn good liar. Either way, his lack of approval didn’t stop Ignis for a second.

“Yes,” he replied firmly. “The fate of the kings and Oracles after completing their Focus is well documented. We know of their crystal stasis.”

That may have been the biggest lie Gladio had ever heard come out of Ignis’s mouth, but he didn’t question it. Instead, he watched Gilgamesh for any change—any slight sign that they were on the right track. The only problem was that he had about two thousand years of practice on his side; if he didn’t want them to glean what he was thinking, then they wouldn’t.

Which had to be why Ignis was trying to trick him.

Well-documented, my ass, Gladio grumbled to himself. Maybe the l’Cie of the old world, but they were working on sheer guesswork and a lot of dumb luck over here.

Gilgamesh didn’t point that out, though. He didn’t call Ignis’s bluff or accuse him of lying the way Gladio would have expected. Of course, he didn’t confirm their suppositions either, frustratingly enough. Instead, he took a few measured steps forward and stopped in front of Ignis, no blade in hand but not needing one for as intimidating as he was without it. The sight had Gladio’s fingers twitching towards his own, although he restrained himself at the last moment. This wasn’t the time for fighting, and so far, the Blademaster hadn’t killed them for being here yet. Gladio would give him the benefit of the doubt—for now.

Apparently, he was going to do the same for them. Rather than whip one of the ancient glaives from the ground around them and thrust it through Ignis’s chest, he inquired in the same monotone, “For what purpose do you seek the kings of old?”

“Justice,” Ignis answered without pause. Gilgamesh was prepared.

“Justice has already been delivered.”

“Perhaps to he who wrought devastation upon Eos, but not for the one who ended his reign,” argued Ignis. When the Blademaster offered no response, he pressed, “We were given to believe that there was still hope for the last king of Lucis, that he might be spared the fate of his forebears in light of his sacrifice.”

Hopefully.

A few seconds passed where nothing but tense silence filled the space around them, unbroken by the steady breeze or their own breathing. Then, contrary to every single appearance that the guy had ever given off, the Blademaster chuckled.

“So, the Six are still incapable of letting matters lie,” he mused, seemingly more to himself than to his audience.

The sudden shift in atmosphere must have given Prompto the courage to speak up, because he huffed a tentative laugh and agreed, “When do they ever?”

Gilgamesh’s stance didn’t relax, nor did he acknowledge Prompto’s joke, but the intense edge to his tone bled away when he observed, “None but the Astrals and our lieges have passed to the realm you seek before, nor are they intent on passing through the gates of this world again."

“We are aware of their pilgrimage,” Ignis lied through his teeth like the clever bastard he was. It was seriously impressive how he was able to play this game with the fluid professionalism of someone who knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t give a shit if it meant getting what he wanted.

There was no way the Blademaster could miss it. There was no way he bought their story or that they knew what the hell he was talking about. Sure, they’d assumed there must be some other realm out there where the Astrals disappeared to whenever they didn’t want to hang with humanity. It was pretty much a given when no one had seen hide nor hair of them; they’d vanished before, not that anyone had any idea where they’d been napping until Lady Lunafreya told them to get off their asses and give Noct a hand. Still, they could only guess at where that place was, and this had been their sole conclusion. Whether the Astrals planned to return to Eos again didn’t matter; whether they were hiding the crystallized kings behind these scarves or at the bottom of the Crag or anywhere else in or out of Eos didn’t matter.

Ignis’s lies didn’t matter, even if Gilgamesh could tell. Whatever got them to Noct sooner rather than later was just fine by Gladio.

Unfortunately, the Blademaster wasn’t merely the master of blades—he was the master of tests too.

“If you claim to know the fate of the kings, then you likewise understand that it is blasphemy to defy the will of the Six by crossing the forbidden border.”

Blasphemy? Who cared about blasphemy?

It took every ounce of willpower Gladio possessed not to say as much, although there was no stopping himself from growling, “The Six don’t get to decide what happens to our king.”

“The decision has been made, whatever the Wanderer’s opinion,” Gilgamesh reminded him. His calm façade did nothing for Gladio’s nerves, nor did it give him any reason to be as respectful as he’d initially thought necessary.

He’d been here before. He’d taken on the Blademaster, and he’d won. It was about time he acted like it.

“Then we’ll unmake it for them,” he shot back, hand on the hilt of his blade and standing tall. “If there’s any chance to bring Noct back alive, we’ll take it. That is what a true Shield of the king does.”

And you, of all people, should know that.

He may have stopped short of saying it, but Gladio got the impression that Gilgamesh heard it all the same. If he were anybody else, maybe he would have found himself impaled on one of these glaives for his insolence; maybe he would have been thrown off the edge of the bridge to land in a bloody puddle on the bottom of the ravine far below. It would have been a fitting end, considering the circumstances: the Blademaster had seniority here, not to mention the favor of the gods if he was guarding this so-called other realm like they suspected. Winning one battle shouldn’t have given Gladio the right to mouth off to a guy like that.

Only he wasn’t punished as he half anticipated. There was no pain beyond the one that had been with him every day for the last year, and if Gladio was being honest, he was a bit disappointed. Noct was somewhere without his Shield, and they needed to find him—it would have been nice if the Blademaster could have shown something other than a detached interest.

What he got, however, would have to do.

“That is indeed the mark of a true Shield,” agreed Gilgamesh with a slow, steadfast nod of approval, “as it is the mark of any retainer worthy of serving the last king of Lucis.”

“Then help us,” demanded Gladio, not hesitating to push his luck. Ignis, always the more sensible one, automatically tempered his less than reverent request.

“What must we do to find him?”

To that, the Blademaster gave no response. Well, no verbal response.

Gladio’s hand tightened on his sword, drawing it slightly as Gilgamesh raised his fist and a blade appeared in his grasp. The magic, the pure energy Gladio remembered from the day they had stood on opposite sides of the bridge as temporary foes rather than allies, surrounded the Blademaster when he raised his glaive to the sky in silent tribute to something none of them could see.

Until they could.

The ground shook once more, and when Gladio wheeled around, it was to see the tapestries at the other end of the outcropping fluttering aside to reveal…

“A gate?” Prompto wondered aloud, glancing between their key to bringing Noct home and the guy who held it.

Without ceremony, Gilgamesh lowered his blade and confirmed, “The gate to the other world, where the souls of the kings have taken refuge.”

“So, that is your true purpose here,” deduced Ignis. His expression was clear, and for the first time since they’d left the Citadel, Gladio could tell that he was appeased.

That makes one of us.

“A true Shield is unwavering even in the face of death. To their kings are their existences sworn, our souls destined to watch over them for eternity.”

“What a way to go,” mumbled Prompto. Gladio doubted it was quiet enough for the Blademaster not to have heard it, but the latter opted not to comment.

“What of yourselves? Do you choose to turn your back on fate and risk your own in pursuit of that which has already been lost?”

What kind of question is that?

“You’re damn right we do,” replied Gladio, not needing to feign courage this time. On the other side of that gate, their collective heart still beat. As long as that didn’t change—or even if it did—Gladio would tell the Six to stuff it.

So would Ignis and Prompto, the latter nodding while the former added, “Always.”

For once, that was all they needed. For once, that was enough.

“Then go forth with reckless abandon,” the Blademaster announced, echoing words Gladio hadn’t heard in a long time, “but be forewarned: should you venture into the realm of the gods, there will be no relief or respite from the dangers that await you. Either you return with your king, or you remain below, forever doomed to the oblivion of eternity. You will have only that which you carry, and none will be permitted entry behind you. None will come to your aid, nor can you expect it from the Six themselves. Should you venture into the realm of the gods, you stand alone.”

Gladio nodded impatiently, already whirling on his heel and making his way towards the gate without waiting for him to finish. It wasn’t the most cheerful sendoff they could have asked for, but hey, beggars couldn’t be choosers.

The satisfying part wasn’t the permission, anyway. Not by a long shot.

“No. We don’t.”

Freezing in place, Gladio paused at the sound of Prompto’s surprisingly bold statement and glanced back to see him staring down Gilgamesh with the kind of strength Gladio hoped he’d had when he undertook the trial. His shoulders were set, as was his expression, and it was in that instant that he could see everything Prompto pretended he hadn’t become. It was in his stance, in his eyes…

And in his voice when he insisted, “We’ve got each other.”

The Blademaster had no answer, but it didn’t look like Prompto needed one. He didn’t hesitate, not even to bow or thank the guy or anything. He just turned his back and walked purposefully towards the gate, his head held higher than Gladio had ever seen it. Maybe that was why he felt prouder than ever before.

Not that he was about to admit that out loud.

For now, he’d simply do his best to take a little of that courage for himself. This time, they’d walk tall like Noct had wanted—this time, he’d walk with them.

They just had to find him first.

Chapter Text

There were two dimensions of blindness that Ignis was perpetually—and painfully—aware of.

The first was strictly professional: to put it plainly, there were a number of tasks he would never be able to perform under the constraints of his disability. Documents were worthless without an assistant reading them to him; photographs, the same. If there was a need to travel outside the city, another retainer would be selected so that they could more adequately gather whatever intelligence was required—never Ignis. It was maddening, that constant sense of insufficiency that reminded him why he was always within the Citadel while others carried on elsewhere. Admittedly, part of that decision was owed to his personal preference as well: having spent so long away from home, it was comfortable to sleep in his own bed in the apartment he hadn’t thought he was abandoning when they had departed all those years ago. Considering the alternative—a dusty tent or, if luck were on his side, a meager cot in some distant locale—he did not regret that for an instant. Even so, there was an underlying acknowledgement of the fact that he would not be the one who was sent out as a matter of duty, that he would not be the one who left the Citadel on orders rather than of his own volition. The marshal, utilitarian and realistic to a fault, would never think to deploy him on a mission of any particular importance when he could not deliver visible confirmation of his discoveries.

In his weaker moments, it was enough to draw a drop of bitterness from the pit of his stomach that lodged in his throat where it could further harass him on the worst possible occasions. Seated at a council meeting, attending the marshal’s summons, organizing relief efforts with whoever else might be present—that feeble trick of the mind did not discriminate. Any time was fair game to plague him, and when he least expected it, Ignis would swallow the sudden and inexplicable indignation that had him mentally cursing what had befallen him in Altissia.

By his own hand. He would not and could not deny that part of the story. His own will and determination to protect Noct had resulted in a sacrifice that paled in comparison to the latter’s, yet Ignis lived with his every day alongside the understanding that things would never be the same.

Indeed, there came a time after they had returned to Insomnia for good when he’d fully realized the position in which he had placed himself. If he weren’t who he had been for thirty-two years at that point, if he hadn’t proven capable and competent to King Regis prior to his premature demise, Ignis might not have been worth his station anymore. Lucis needed volunteers who were capable and competent now, not before the Long Night—who they had been in a less difficult decade was as irrelevant as it was distant. As such, Ignis was uncomfortably certain that his former abilities had been prominent in the marshal’s decision to keep him on at the Citadel. While he would never say so, there was no arguing that employing a blind man in moments of hardship wasn’t the most prudent course of action. Rebuilding required those who maintained use of all their faculties, and Ignis… Well, that did not describe him. Not anymore.

To his credit, however, he had done his best to pull his weight without aid. What he could not do physically, he hoped he made up for in intellectual pursuits, and he worked tirelessly to that end. When his needs were accommodated, he could deliver strategic plans and detailed analyses of the situations in which they were operating equal to those he had concocted in a bygone age; with the right technology, he could compensate for his lack of sight with insight, by far a more valuable resource. The shadow of his disability followed him wherever he went, ever at his side like the lingering ghost of the past that it was, yet he pressed on. That was, after all, the mindset that had been instilled in him by his instructors for longer than he could remember. They were gone now, casualties of the war that had stolen everything from them and still asked for more; their voices nevertheless remained in his head, a frequent and spellbinding reminder that he was only as good as his own accomplishments.

He was only as good as his next endeavor, and he strove to ensure that failure was not an option.

The second dimension, on the other hand, was not so easily bypassed by resolve or merely ignoring the facts. It was neither avoided nor justified as being contingent on his own attitude. In his duties as former chamberlain to the last king of Lucis and current advisor to the leader of their new order, Ignis could convince himself that he was doing his best. So long as he remained focused and did not lose motivation to do all that he could, there was a place for him in the government they were hoping to create—or had been hoping to create before their latest realization that perhaps the monarchy could be restored. Ultimately, duty was as it always had been: a responsibility, and not one that he could shirk. Hard work wouldn’t heal his wounds, but it would allow him to face them another day.

There was no circumventing his personal dissatisfaction with his lot, though, hard as he tried to do so. There was no pretending that his hearing fully made up for the sight he would never regain, just as there was no thinking of the future without longing for the past. In his childhood and the early years of his adult life, he had been able to see everything with stark precision that his friends frequently ridiculed, if in jest rather than malice. They had operated under the assumption that his spectacles had been a pretext, a tool that cleared up blurred edges purely so that he could claim the perfection his genetics had not granted him. In some ways, they were correct: his duty to Noct meant that it was imperative he view the world without ambiguity, so it was his mission to ensure that he registered the complete vibrancy of his surroundings for his prince’s benefit.

But Ignis, for as much as he imitated the opposite, was no machine. His emotions ran just as deeply as Noct’s had, although he had been more careful to hide them from public scrutiny. It was not his place to speak out of turn, whether he was frustrated or upset or excited; his lot in life was to provide support, both to Noct and to his fellows, and he could not do that if his own feelings got the better of him.

They had in the wake of the Tidemother’s wrath. Ignis was still appalled with his own behavior in the aftermath, his silence when he should have spoken and his irritation when he should have been grateful. If the decision had been placed before him, he would have given his life to save Noct’s, even if his brother was allegedly destined to lose it later. He was fortunate, then, that all he had endured was the absence of his most trusted sense. He was fortunate that he had walked away from the interaction with Ardyn at all, in spite of his occasional doubts as to whether he could have done something differently.

In those first days, he had nevertheless mourned his loss rather than remaining focused on what Noct had been deprived of. Even now, over a decade later, he was not immune to the odd bout of the doldrums that reminded him of what he would never have. The mental images of his friends would never be updated with their undoubtedly changing appearances as they aged; the memories of their journey would forever be all he had of the world, regardless of the ways in which it was altered. It was a facet of his reality that Ignis had grown accustomed to, existing in twilight and frozen in time as he seemed to be. No, it was not what he would have liked for himself, but there was no use dwelling on the inevitable.

Again, duty was easier to uphold. The voice inside that cried out for relief was better left alone. That, in any case, was what Ignis had tried to do, albeit with limited success at times.

It was also why he stopped dead on the other side of the Blademaster’s gate, his breath suddenly quickening and his eyes watering in mingled grief and ecstasy.

For in passing the gateway, they entered a world he scarcely could have imagined. It was as though they had stepped through a downpour, the dark rain clouds that had obscured his vision dissipating and the silver curtain of moisture that dotted the landscape of his personal abyss drawing to the side. Beyond, they entered a world of light and potent color that utterly defied description.

Luckily, he required none, for he could somehow see it for himself.

“Damn,” breathed Gladio in awe that he had been lacking of late. “Would you get a load of that.”

Nodding slowly, Prompto agreed just as quietly, “Y-Yeah. It’s…amazing.”

Ignis would have echoed the sentiment if he could, yet he found that his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth, effectively silencing him. Perhaps that was for the best: vague notions of grandeur and average words of praise were in no way accurate for the view that unfolded before them—or, at the very least, his perception of it. That voice, the one he chose to ignore more often than not, whispered that this could not be real. The rest of him, admittedly, was too frightened to argue lest he get his hopes up for some unattainable ideal that would be snatched away the moment he reached for it.

But he had to know. He had to know.

With trembling fingers, he raised a hand to his face and pulled his visor from its perch in fathomless trepidation. In that instant, logic failed him, and he could not dispel the belief that he was imagining this—the scene had to be painted on the inside of the shield that concealed his scars—there was no possible chance that he was truly—that he could—that this

Only there was.

Uninhibited by the screen that had served as both hiding place and armor for his wounds, there was no change: the world around him came into sharp, brilliant focus as though he had never experienced the opposite. That wasn’t to say that his vision was healed, of course—his left eye was still fused shut, and he was aware of the scarring around it despite his lack of embarrassment at displaying it so openly. His other eye, however, more than made up for its inadequacy.

Not even as a child had Ignis been able to see with such startling clarity as he could when he absorbed their surroundings, simultaneously impressive and daunting in their scale. The scenery was not unfamiliar, and if Ignis didn’t know any better, he would have said that they were right back where they began in Cleigne. There was simply no mistaking the towering pines, the blossoming shrubbery, the aged silos in the distance ahead—none of it was a major departure from what they had been accustomed to encountering on their long journey to Cape Caem. Under different circumstances, Ignis would have questioned whether the Blademaster had indeed been telling the truth. It was always possible that he had merely shown them through the back door, as it were, a hidden passage that would leave them wandering the wilds in exchange for their questions.

Yet these weren’t different circumstances, and there were two rather glaring aspects of their latest discovery that could not be discounted. One was the unexpected return of his sight, which was a mite unnerving, though he would not complain of it for a moment.

The other was the plain truth that the world, for whatever reason, was bathed in crystal.

It didn’t resemble the divine stone they had grown up protecting in the slightest. Ignis had only seen it once, on an occasion when the king had shown him what it was that he would be safeguarding by remaining at Noct’s side, but it had left an impression on him nevertheless. As such, the differences between the Crystal they had given almost everything to defend and the sheet that spread as far as the eye could see were startling: there was no volcanic rock on the outside, no stray shards sticking up out of the ground. If anything, it appeared expertly sculpted by the Six themselves; indeed, he had no doubt that that had to be the case. While the Crystal had appeared as little more than a rock in its prime, coarse and even ugly on the outside to hide the masterpiece glimmering within, Ignis couldn’t claim to have witnessed anything akin to this in his lifetime. Hard and unbreakable, it seemed a bit like glass, coating everything from the trees to the grass to the boulders looming behind them in place of the exit they must have emerged through. Beneath his feet, the smooth surface was almost slick in its perfection, and he knew without experimenting that he would not be able to feel the texture of the leafy shrubs surrounding them on all sides if he reached out to them. Jagged stones poked their heads out of the ground here and there, yet they were no different from the rest: they had been equally encased in the transparent mineral that lay over all else as though it belonged there.

The effect was, in no uncertain terms, utterly breathtaking. Sunlight glittered in the earth’s crystal sheath, reflecting and refracting so that tiny rainbows littered the landscape in absence of any rain. Not a cloud marred the blue sky overhead, and Ignis was positive that if he had ever considered what the heavens were like, his wildest imaginings could not have approached the beauty and majesty evident in this place—this world that was not their own.

What a fitting final haven for the kings and Oracles who had sacrificed so much in the name of humanity.

Allegedly final.

As though sensing his thoughts or merely sharing them, Prompto whistled low through his teeth and mused, “Man… Guess the Astrals never do anything halfway, huh?”

“Not at all,” Ignis agreed as he forced aside his awe and the elation at his ability to appreciate it in its entirety. Clearing his throat, he added, “It is a singularly magnificent sight to behold.”

A second passed in silence—another—another—

“The hell?”

Ah, there it was: the realization Ignis had been waiting for. Gladio and Prompto had been so absorbed in the atmosphere—and rightfully so—that they must not have noticed the change he had undergone. Ignis supposed it was an easy thing to miss, what with the still rather prominent marks on his face to indicate that he was as he had been these last eleven years. Scarred. Deformed. Damaged.

But not broken. Never broken.

“Whoa… Iggy, you can see?!” exclaimed Prompto, darting forward to wave a hand in Ignis’s face as if that served as an adequate test of his visual impairment—or lack thereof.

Brushing it out of the way in equal parts exasperation and appreciation for his show of enthusiasm, Ignis replied as evenly as he could manage, “So it would seem.”

Gladio, on the other hand, appeared to be losing the battle between his will to remain as stoic as ever and his desire to celebrate as Prompto was. The result was quirked lips, furrowed brows, and a bemused, “Guess we’re not in Lucis anymore.”

Ignis nodded. “That also seems quite likely.”

Groaning hyperbolically, Prompto whined, “Dude, how can you guys be so calm about this?! This is huge! It’s—”

“Life-changing,” deadpanned Gladio. “Yeah, we know.”

So not what I was gonna say!”

“Huge or not, this is a little too weird.”

“Uh…why?” Prompto inquired skeptically. “Iggy can see again. That’s good.”

“Hate to put a damper on things, but I’m more interested in the why, not the what.”

Admittedly, Ignis had to agree, and not even Prompto’s fervor was immune to the oddness of the situation. His grin melted as quickly as it had arrived, replaced quite suddenly with a frown of confusion that matched Gladio’s expression almost exactly.

Which he could see. It was more than a dream come true, not that he would ever tell his companions. Some things, some weaknesses, were best left unmentioned. Besides, the more he thought about it, the more Ignis realized that he shouldn’t allow himself to grow attached to his present condition. It would only hurt more when he had to go back to the dark, his friends lost from view until they had earned their own places in the Astrals’ care.

But that was a matter to be pondered later. For now, he relished in subtly examining and memorizing the changes time had wrought in his companions, from the length of Gladio’s hair to the absence of it on Prompto’s face. (Years of listening to the two of them squabble over his apparently pitiful excuse for a beard had eventually resulted in a shave, and Ignis couldn’t say he was disappointed. From the sound of it, the attempt had been positively frightening.) He absorbed how there were slight creases underneath Prompto’s eyes that hadn’t been there when he was younger, not to mention the noticeably altered texture of his hair now that age had set in. Gladio had developed similarly, although Ignis couldn’t help recognizing how different a figure he struck compared with that of his father. Where Master Clarus had been a pillar of strength, weathering storm after political storm with grace and dignity befitting one of his station, Gladio simply looked…sad. Both had served admirably, and both had led the Crownsguard (albeit for longer in the senior’s case), yet only Gladio had a distance in his gaze that spoke of grief Master Clarus had not been required to shoulder. Ignis read it in the tension around his eyes, the stiffness in his spine, and the total absence of anything remotely resembling a strut.

That more than anything else indicated the years that had passed since they were truly young men. They were by no means old, not yet, but they hadn’t been able to preserve their erstwhile innocence through the Long Night either. They were changed, forever transformed by their circumstances and what they’d had to do to survive. Prompto had shed the persona he had embodied since his days of conspicuously shadowing a prince, coming into his own and bearing burdens that no civilian should have had to. Gladio had tempered his exuberance, his borderline hubris, to stand as an imposing role model for those in need of guidance into the future they were attempting to build.

Perhaps it was selfish of him, but Ignis was instantly glad that there was no mirror around in which to study himself the way he was his friends. Yes, he was well aware that there was tautness to his skin that hadn’t existed years ago; he knew his hair had changed, better suited to styling backwards rather than upwards. Those were developments that he could document without need for sight. The rest, however, what he would never be able to discern from his own voice or the inescapable sense of passing time… He was content to ignore that.

What couldn’t—or, rather, wouldn’t—be ignored was the gravity of the situation. Gladio was right: that he could see wasn’t important, much as his emotions deigned to disagree with him. No, it was why he could that was the more pressing concern.

“I can only assume our divine hosts have something to do with it,” he guessed aloud, drinking in the image of Prompto’s head tilting curiously to the side and Gladio’s lips turning down in puzzled distaste. Eleven years later, and he could still interpret their expressions with ease.

Miracles were possible.

“How come they didn’t let you see before, though?” asked Prompto. “Would’ve really helped out back in the empire and all.”

Gladio shook his head. “Got a feeling it’s not that easy. It ain’t like they did much about anything, not just Iggy’s eyes.”

“Some matters were beyond the—” began Ignis only for Gladio to cut him off.

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Point is, I don’t think they could’ve fixed this back home.”

For a moment, Ignis considered pursuing the subject before deciding against it. If they managed to find Noct in this strange new world, perhaps that would be evidence enough to change Gladio’s mind about the Six. There was no denying the fact that Ignis experienced the same sense of indignation at the thought of them on occasion, the same terrible doubt that their deities were indeed as powerful as they seemed when they couldn’t save the one life that mattered more to them than any other, but he also strove to be realistic. The prophecy of Bahamut had been made long ago, just as the fate of the Chosen King had been sealed. Their heartache would not change that, nor would it assist them in this venture—yet Gladio had a right to his grief, whether it colored his judgment or not. Either way, wasn’t it Ignis’s duty to ensure that everyone remembered why they were here?

As ever.

He didn’t take it for granted, though. Rather, he embraced the feeling of usefulness that had been severely lacking of late and followed the logical train of Gladio’s thought.

“You may be right. The Blademaster implied that this world is one created by the Astrals, not the ancient gods of lore. In that case, their will must be supreme here.”

“More than in Eos, you mean,” clarified Prompto.

“Quite. There is no magic in our world now that the Crystal has been destroyed and the line of kings is broken.”

“And Oracles,” interjected Gladio, to which Ignis nodded.

“Of course. If this is the world they fashioned for themselves, then it stands to reason that the same limitations cannot be applied here.”

“So, they’re throwing us a bone while we’re visiting.”

“They may believe it’s necessary in order for us to locate Noct.”

Gladio’s smirk returned, and there was a touch of humor in his tone when he remarked, “Guess they don’t trust me and Prompto to figure it out on our own.”

“Hey, they’re not the only ones,” retorted Prompto good-naturedly, although he certainly didn’t seem to be joking. The sight of his confident and trusting smile bolstered the minuscule corner of Ignis’s heart where he usually locked his treacherous insecurities away from the rest of the world.

He couldn’t seem to find the words to tell him so, however, so he settled with a modest, “I’m sure you two would have managed.”

“Yeah,” snorted Gladio, rolling his eyes. “You keep tellin’ yourself that. Anyway, we should probably take a look around. I don’t know about you guys, but I got a feeling the Six didn’t let us in just so we could stand around yapping.”

“And if they’re the ones who make the rules around here…” Prompto trailed off with an unmistakable shudder. The implications of his unfinished statement, however, were obvious: it wouldn’t do to anger the Astrals when they couldn’t be certain of how their powers worked in this realm, as the Blademaster had called it.

Better safe than sorry.

Even if they didn’t care for their own safety, they wouldn’t jeopardize their chances of bringing Noct home. Not now or ever.

So, Ignis didn’t hesitate to follow when Gladio set a brisk pace down a steady incline towards the silos he had spotted when they first stepped through the gateway. Now that the initial shock had worn off, he drank in the sight of their surroundings for a rather different purpose—namely, determining where they were. It all looked familiar beyond merely the similarities it bore to their own world, yet Ignis couldn’t quite put his finger on where he’d seen it before. If he’d seen it before, that was. They had traveled off the beaten path in those first weeks after the fall of Insomnia, but he couldn’t say he had singled out any of their journeys through the wilderness as particularly unique. With all the hunts they had taken for the local townsfolk and the exploring they had done in the line of their duty, it seemed that they had examined every corner of Lucis and then some. That being said, they could just as easily have been in a crystallized version of Wiz’s chocobo ranch as the remote plains of Duscae or the random concoction of the Astrals’ imaginations.

That was originally his assumption, at least. As they bypassed the storage towers and trailed along a hardened dirt road towards what appeared to be an abandoned parking lot, Ignis realized something that had him freezing in place. Like the Glacian’s message, like Pryna’s guidance, like the Blademaster’s warnings, like the world itself—it seemed truly impossible…

Yet he did know this place.

“This is Secullam Pass,” he murmured in awe, scanning the area for any sign that he was indeed losing what remained of his sanity.

He wasn’t certain if it was fortunate for him that there wasn’t any.

Ignis did, however, consider himself lucky when Gladio glared around the vacant lot and concurred, “Sure does seem that way.”

“But how?” blurted out Prompto. “Everything’s all…”

Although he didn’t finish his sentence once again, Ignis thought he knew what he wanted to say. After all, it was rather difficult to miss the substantial differences between this realm they had arrived in and the home they had left behind in the process. Wandering further from the entrance hadn’t changed the landscape: the ground was still a continuous sheet of sparkling crystal, regardless of whether the paved street they stood on gave way to grass and dirt on the other side of the road. Combined with the absence of the rusting heaps of glorified scrap metal that had been there last time they had visited and had remained for the eleven intervening years, the sight was actually more pleasant, if unsettling in its utter silence. Ignis had gotten used to navigating on the basis of sound, utilizing it to determine where he was and what obstacles he might encounter. The return of his sight hadn’t cured him of that habit, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he waited in vain for anything to break the hush that seemed to blanket them on all sides. In the same spot, they had formerly heard the chirping of birds and distant sounds of traffic; they had listened to the rustling of the leaves in the breeze and the roars of beasts not far off. Of course, there had also been magitek troopers scouting the forest looking for Noct, but they were easily dispatched. At any rate, the noise they provided had eventually added to the backdrop of the scenery, much as they would have preferred the opposite.

Here, there was no noise. There were no sounds of others in the area, human or otherwise, nor could Ignis catch the slightest glimpse of movement beyond where they stood. The plants were still with no wind to move them and glasslike rock holding them upright; in a world of gods, there would be no place for people to roam the lands as they did in the Lucis they’d come from. It wasn’t such a hardship, of course: the only ones they were hoping to find were Noct and Lady Lunafreya. Even so, Ignis doubted that it would be as simple as happening across them in a forest somewhere.

Somewhere that both was and was not home.

“It appears that the Six chose to mold this realm in the image of our own,” Ignis ventured, realization beginning to dawn on him. “Perhaps this is what they had hoped to create when Eos was formed.”

Prompto blinked, his expression awed yet uncomfortable when he replied, “Well, uh… They definitely had an…interesting idea about that.”

“You say interesting. I say creepy,” muttered Gladio. Unlike Ignis, who could appreciate the sights in spite of his misgivings, he folded his arms over his chest and glared around them as though this world’s mere existence personally affronted him. “It’s too quiet.”

“Some might call that peaceful, Gladio,” countered Ignis, not entirely convinced that he didn’t feel the same. After all, peace and quiet wasn’t always an accurate depiction of the latter.

Gladio must have been able to tell that he was less than certain, because the only response Ignis garnered was a raised eyebrow and a skeptical, “Yeah, sure.”

Fortunately, Prompto had enough enthusiasm for both of them—or, more accurately, he put on a good show. He immediately turned their course along the road, calling over his shoulder, “Oooooookay, on our way! To…where?”

Ah. Yes. That was the other problem, silence and stillness aside.

“If I’m not mistaken, we should be just south of the Tomb of the Just,” Ignis pondered aloud, frowning indecisively down the street in both directions. It was odd to speak of this place as if it were the same as their home, which couldn’t be further from the truth, yet there was simultaneously no arguing that it didn’t put them at something of an advantage. Familiar territory meant less confusion; less confusion, a swifter path to Noct.

Even so, as he mentally calculated their location as slightly north of where they had gone into the Tempering Grounds, Ignis couldn’t help hesitating. It would be pointless to return to the Taelpar rest area: there would be nothing there waiting for them. At least, that was the logical assessment when it appeared that the rest of this version of Lucis was devoid of life besides themselves. They would waste precious time going out of their way, especially when he could think of no reason for Noct’s crystal to be hidden anywhere in the vicinity.

Into the heart of the kingdom it was, then.

So, taking a deep breath, Ignis fortified his surety and set his sights to the north. “We can follow the road and regroup at the Coernix Station near Cauthess.”

“Guess there’s no point doubling back for the car, huh?” chuckled Prompto, the longing in his voice belying his casual demeanor.

Gladio, of course, picked up on it right away and replied, “Nope. Doubt the Six are gonna help us out that much. Looks like we’re hoofin’ it, fellas.”

“It’s a good day for walking,” Ignis observed with a smirk in Prompto’s direction as Gladio set off at a good clip, expecting the two of them to follow. “Aren’t we lucky?”

The allusion to the first days of their journey didn’t fall on deaf ears, and Prompto’s embarrassed groan could very likely be heard on the other side of the kingdom—if there were anyone to hear it, of course.

“That was years ago! When are we gonna let that go?”

“Never,” Gladio shot back, much to his chagrin.

Ignis, conversely, took the less antagonistic approach: “Come now, Prompto. It’s impossible to appreciate where you’ve ended up when you don’t remember where you began.”

“See, you say that, but…”

“But nope, never letting it go.”

“And there you have it,” grumbled Prompto with a long-suffering sigh at Gladio’s candor. The twinkle in his eye, however, spoke of contentment more than irritation. That was why it was such a shame when it faded away to be replaced by a perplexed frown as he continued, “Speaking of where we end up, where are we supposed to find Noct? Not like Lucis is a tiny place or anything.”

Humming under his breath, Gladio paused to regain his footing on the slope towards the main road before he admitted, “It’ll be like lookin’ for a needle in a haystack.”

“So much for the Blademaster.”

“Hey, he got us this far,” he pointed out, his frustration seeming split between Prompto and their situation. “Getting in was the hard part. Now…”

“Now, we just have to get to Noct. Somewhere,” huffed Prompto, although he didn’t have much opportunity to lament their mission. As soon as the words left his mouth, the landscape opened up around them to reveal more of the same: the stone archways they had found so spectacular years ago glittered in their crystal encasement, and the hills of Cleigne rose up to meet them in unbreakable waves.

Beautiful. Simply magnificent.

To him, in any case. Gladio must have grown bored of their surroundings, because he hardly afforded them a second glance. Rather, he continued down the road at a pace that would have winded anyone less thoroughly trained than themselves.

“What d’you think, Iggy?” he asked, eyes on the path laid before them. “Any bright ideas?”

“A few,” he answered with some confidence in spite of the unexpected nature of their arrival. “Just because the Shields of old guard the entrance to this realm does not mean that the kings remain as close to the gate as we expected.”

“So, needle in a haystack,” repeated Gladio sourly.

“Now now, I doubt it will come to that. We do, after all, have one advantage on our side.”

Prompto turned to stare at him, his eyebrows furrowed. “Like what?”

…Well, perhaps he had been right earlier about them not finding their way. Ignis had faith in them, yet it was in moments like these that he took solace in his usefulness to the collective. With or without his sight, they hadn’t come to the conclusion that grew increasingly predominant in his mind with every step they took. That was as comforting as it was irritating.

“We know where Noct was last seen,” Ignis reminded them, nodding pointedly towards the horizon.

Gladio inferred his meaning immediately and guessed, “You’re saying we’ll find him on the throne.”

“Possibly. If we don’t, it’s at least a place to start.”

“That’s gotta be it, though, right?” interjected Prompto before they could tread any further down that depressing trail of thought. “Where else are they gonna put a King of Kings?”

Grunting in acknowledgement, Gladio nevertheless reminded him, “Yeah, well, he ain’t the only king here.”

“Right. So, wherever they are, there’s gotta be enough room for—what? A hundred fourteen of them?”

“Quite right. It’s unlikely that they would all fit into one seat,” Ignis retorted wryly. His humor vanished a moment later, though. “Still, Prompto has a point. If any of them would sit the throne, it would be Noct.”

That much, he thought, was obvious. Ignis didn’t entirely concur with Gladio’s opinion of the Six: they had been dealt a hand that offered them little in the way of choices, and he was realistic enough to accept that that meant making a few sacrifices. That it was their brother they had chosen was unfortunate, and on a personal level, Ignis would rail against it for the rest of his life. Regardless, when he took a professional standpoint and held the issue at arm’s length, he understood that tossing two families to the daemons to save countless others was the more palatable option.

Yet in this instance, they were in complete agreement: the Astrals owed Noct the throne they had stolen from him before he’d had a chance to ascend to it.

His conscience refused to let him say what his bitterness had given rise to, however, and Ignis was grateful for that. They had more pressing matters to manage than their own grief, especially when there was no telling what would stand between them and the undoubtedly crystalline Crown City.

Because when had it ever been as easy as a simple road trip?

“All right,” announced Gladio, stretching his arms over his head as he walked. “Looks like we’re heading to Insomnia, then.”

The noise Prompto made in response was somewhere between another groan and a sigh. “Greeeeeeat. Definitely gonna burn off my lunch with all that walking.”

“Just pretend you’re walking to the car,” rejoined Ignis with a roll of his eyes.

That would be wishful thinking indeed. Although the world they had entered through the gate in the Tempering Grounds was nearly identical to their own, Ignis was cataloging the various alterations the Astrals had made as they walked. The landscape certainly was similar, from the fauna to the buildings that dotted the horizon. Where there had been an abandoned shack or an aging farm in their version of Eos, its twin existed here; to their left was an incline made of volcanic dust that must have blown in from Ravatogh, and Saxham Outpost lay vacant to their right. It was all where it had been when they were younger, in the years when Ignis had been able to see it and the Long Night hadn’t obscured it from everyone else’s view. Despite all that, however, there was nothing functioning here. There was nothing that moved, nothing that breathed, nothing that showed any signs of animation in the slightest. While it shouldn’t have mattered to him, Ignis had to admit that it was unnerving: he had grown accustomed to listening for movement and acting accordingly, yet the silence was increasingly deafening here.

A part of him tried not to think anything of it: what use would the Six have for vehicles and the like, particularly in a place of this caliber? They could get around at will in the original Eos, which left little doubt that they could manage the same in a world of their own creation. They didn’t need the plants that should have popped out from beneath the solid crystal, nor was their survival contingent on being able to scoop water from the small, hardened lakes they passed. Even the sun didn’t appear to be moving in the sky, hovering in the same position at the eastern horizon as though a perpetual dawn blessed this Eos as a recurring one graced theirs. Function had been laid to waste; fashion, it seemed, had guided the construction of this world.

Beautiful, yes. Impressive, of course.

But empty. So very empty.

Ignis was beginning to reevaluate his initial assessment that this was a fine place for Noct to rest. No fishing, no food, no naps in the backseat of a car? It would have driven him mad if he could see it.

That was how Ignis knew that this wasn’t the Providence spoken of in legend. It was used in a number of contexts, and on an academic note, it was fascinating to guess at what it really meant. Some said it was the blessings of the gods inherent in the Crystal; others, that it represented the light of their Star and, therefore, the place where all souls would convene when they departed their earthly vessels. There was no telling, which was fine with Ignis. Although he preferred clarity over ambiguity, there were some things it was better not to know.

If the masses were correct and Providence referred to the latter, though, then Ignis couldn’t help the twinge of confusion that had him frowning out over the lush green grass interred beneath its crystal blanket. Noct had more than earned his place amongst the stars, hadn’t he? He had sacrificed himself and a third of the meager excuse for a life he had been allowed in order to see the world put to rights. Thirty years old—that was when the Six and Ardyn had seen fit to take him away from them, though in so many ways he had still been the same prince Ignis had seen from Insomnia to Gralea mere months after he had come of age. Wisdom had taken root in his mind, as had the burden of responsibility he hadn’t been prepared for ten years prior, yet the darkness hadn’t settled in his voice the way it had for the rest of them. It hadn’t infected his soul until it was difficult to remain positive or keep the shadows at bay.

Ignis hadn’t for an instant considered giving up during the Long Night—he hadn’t even entertained the notion, knowing that there was work to be done and that Noct would need him—but he would be lying if he said that it had been a simple matter of remembering that his king would return that urged him ever onward. After all, for every memory of Noct that filtered through his mind from when they were young and naïve and happy, there were just as many instances where his thoughts drifted back to the vision Pryna had bestowed upon him in her last moments. He would never learn whether the Oracle’s canine companion had predicted what was going to happen to his sight and that he would never see Noct as the king he was destined to become or if she had merely wished to warn someone before her own time came. (When the alternative was Ravus, who Ignis suspected had already known, then it was no wonder she had chosen Ignis.) Regardless, fate was so cruel as to force one of the final images of Noct he could take with him to be his sacrifice on the throne. At the time, he hadn’t fully comprehended that that was what it was—not entirely, in any case, but it hadn’t taken long to decipher. For ten years, he had anticipated and dreaded Noct’s return in equal measures because of the echoes of his pain that erupted in Ignis’s head when he least expected it; in the aftermath, it seemed to taunt him with the constant reminder that no one had been there to bear witness and stand at their brother’s side so that he did not go alone.

There was no avoiding it, the ugly display of his death that had etched itself into Ignis’s memory, and he couldn’t help a brief surge of bitterness that Noct had not been offered passage to the same paradise that they would hopefully adjourn to when their lives came to a close. It was only fitting, wasn’t it? That was what had kept them going for the last year: the idea that when they did pass, when their time did come, they would leave the face of Eos and reclaim their places at Noct’s side. It wouldn’t be the same, of course, nor was there any way of truly anticipating what awaited them after the end no matter how hard they looked for answers in the Cosmogony. Still, Ignis preferred to believe that there was more than this one life, that he would be able to serve Noct again when he found out what exactly that was.

To discover that he was actually here, in this cold and barren wasteland whose beauty was outweighed by its emptiness? It was nearly more than Ignis could take, and he tamped down on his frustration as they wandered north past Thommels Glade and the Tomb of the Just on their way towards the outpost he assumed would still be there. No animals, no beasts, no people… There was no life in this world, and if Noct deserved anything for all he’d suffered in the name of the Six, it was eternal life. He undoubtedly would have enjoyed the idea of eternal sleep, being who he was, but he should have had better than this.

Perhaps, Ignis mused, that was something that their gods didn’t quite understand. If they had come to the right conclusion and the Six had been human in the distant past, then they must have forgotten how unsettling something like this would be to mere mortals. They must have seen this as the highest of honors, being turned to Crystal and granted an allegedly peaceful existence away from all that had wrought so much harm on both the world and its Chosen King. It was possible that they saw it as a holiday of sorts: Noct would never be alone here if he was not aware of his solitude.

But Ignis was, and Noct had been alone enough in life that he refused to let that stand now. The Blademaster had made it sound as though it would behoove them not to become trapped in this place, but if that was the difference between Noct having company and spending eternity alone, then Ignis would gladly stay. He would happily become the only animate creature on this farce of a planet, forsaking humanity and the reconstruction effort to ensure that Noct received that which he deserved. That was, after all, what he had been selected to do from the time he was six years old.

Those thoughts were better left for later, however, so he pushed them to the back of his mind where they could fester in silence. Everything seemed calm, yes, but there was no telling how long it would remain so. Gilgamesh had also been certain that this would not be a pleasant voyage, that the Astrals would seek to disrupt their course as much as encourage it. As such, they couldn’t be certain of what challenges they would meet on their way to the Citadel this time, and it did them no good to be distracted by things he had absolutely no control over—yet. If all went according to plan and they found a way to wake Noct, then that would be very different.

For now, they had other priorities that needed attending to, how they were to reach Insomnia without transportation chief among them.

The journey to the station outside Cauthess was a far less substantial endeavor, and they made it in what Ignis estimated as approximately an hour—their phones had gone dead once they’d passed through the gateway, so he had no method of gauging the passage of time. A meager distance or not, however, it was clear that they had made the right decision in stopping here: Prompto was lagging behind, wobbling awkwardly on sore feet, and even Gladio looked like each step cost him something as he led the way through the parking lot towards the lodgings on the opposite side of the Coernix Station. Ignis wasn’t immune, although he had been so lost in his own thoughts and enamored with his newfound—and undoubtedly temporary—ability to see again that he had done his best not to dwell on it. That didn’t stop him from dropping into one of the plastic chairs outside the caravan to offer his legs a much-needed reprieve, though.

“Ugh, finally,” moaned Prompto, collapsing across the table from him and hanging his head over the back of his seat.

Gladio was a bit more refined about his approach to the situation, though Ignis could hear a distinctive edge of frustration when he asserted, “This ain’t gonna work.”

No, it wouldn’t. Ignis hated to admit it, but he wasn’t in the sort of shape he had been a year ago. For the last few months, the most aggressive physical activity he’d undergone was making his way from his chambers to the council meetings and back; there wasn’t much else to be done when he wasn’t of use otherwise. As such, he was trying to ignore the way his chest was pulling slightly against his every attempt to breathe and his legs were already stiff from the constant motion. He was by no means in poor condition; that was impossible when he maintained a reasonable diet and still ventured down to the training rooms when he had a chance. Even so, he had regrettably let himself rest on his laurels, and this was the logical outcome.

That wasn’t enough for him to agree, however, and he immediately countered, “We have no other choice, unless you two have a better way of reaching Insomnia?”

Neither said a word, which was answer enough in itself.

“Our only solution,” he continued in the ensuing irritable silence, “is to move in as straight a line as possible. Following the road will take us miles out of our way.”

And waste hours of time that they couldn’t be sure they had. Ignis didn’t bother reminding them, though; they had to be as intimately aware of their plight as he was.

Indeed, Gladio grunted in approval when Prompto replied, “Off-roading sounds good to me. Gonna have to go through that, though…”

Oh, how quickly they fell into old habits. Mere hours ago, he would have spelled out what he meant with such painstaking—and often aggravating—care for Ignis’s benefit. Now, he didn’t appear to think twice about simply pointing over Gladio’s shoulder towards the distant outline of Cauthess where the stones that had been uprooted by the Meteor still reached for the sky. Well, the stones that would have been uprooted by the Meteor if this were truly Eos. But it wasn’t, and Ignis doubted the Astrals would replay one of the most dangerous natural disasters in history purely for aesthetic purposes. No, it was but another parody of the world they lived in, this time admittedly less convenient than before.

“I suppose we’ll simply have to go around,” Ignis observed with a one-shouldered shrug. So much, then, for his plan.

“Yeah, it’ll just take longer if we don’t,” agreed Gladio, folding his arms and surveying the landscape through narrowed eyes. “So, question is which way we wanna go.”

“You don’t think they’re still selling maps here, do you?” joked Prompto.

Scoffing, Ignis eyed him with thinly veiled exasperation. “Perhaps if you had studied for those geography exams…”

That had him grimacing, and he hastened to argue, “Hey, how was I supposed to know it was gonna come in handy someday?”

“Yes, how very unlikely it was that you would ever move around the country you live in.”

“Uh, Wall, dude. Wall.”

Anyway,” interjected Gladio, pointedly rolling his eyes, “not like we need a map with you around, Iggy.”

Pfft, yeah!” Prompto latched onto the vague compliment immediately. “Why memorize some dumb piece of paper when we’ve got you? You’re so much better than a map.”

Any other day, Ignis would have gone to the effort of constructing a sarcastic and likely scathing response. Leave it to Prompto to attribute Ignis’s intelligence to his own lack of motivation. Still, he couldn’t deny that it was bolstering to know that they trusted his insight in more than merely advisement. After all, it had been a long time since he had been able to look at a diagram of their world; most people would have forgotten a good bit of it, especially when so much had changed during the Long Night. Not Ignis, though. He remembered every landmark, every outpost, every characteristic as though he had just pored over them the night before. They had been lodged in his head since he was a child, and he doubted that anything so trite as blindness was going to eradicate them in the near future.

With two pairs of eyes on him, waiting for his input… This was the way it should be.

So, rather than comment on Prompto’s obvious evasion, Ignis cleared his throat and pulled up the mental image that was inescapably seared on the inside of his eyelids. He could do this. Noct was counting on him to do this.

“If we’re taking the shortest route,” he began thoughtfully, staring out towards Cauthess as if he would be able to see the Citadel on the other side, “then our best option is to turn north. We can follow the road towards Lestallum and then divert onto the Mencemoor.”

“It’ll be rough goin’ down there,” warned Gladio, though he didn’t sound at all averse to the idea.

“Indeed, but there won’t be any creatures standing in our way,” observed Ignis. It was a necessary trade-off, and they all recognized it.

“Can stick a little closer to the edge of the Disc so we don’t go too far out of our way.”

“Agreed. From there, we’ll move through the Nebulawood south of Alstor Slough. If we cross over the Malacchi Hills from there rather than going around, it should save us a good bit of time.”

“If we can even climb that high with all the crystal,” Prompto cut him off. The trepidation that would have been written into every line of his face a decade earlier was conspicuously absent, as was his reluctance for the strenuous physical activity they were about to engage in. His point was a logical one, plain and simple. Ignis had to be proud of that.

So was Gladio, if his nod of approbation was any indication. “Probably. We can figure it out when we get there. It’s slick, but as long as we can find some footholds, we should be good.”

“The results will be well worth the effort,” Ignis added, to which Prompto merely shrugged.

“Guess we’ll find out. So, what—after that, it’s just Longwythe?”

“Yes. We can take the path through the Three Valleys, regroup at Hammerhead, and then approach Insomnia from the south.”

“Sounds easy enough,” mused Gladio, his gaze on the horizon. It already looked like he was itching to depart, and Ignis could hardly blame him: the sooner they got going, the sooner they would be at Noct’s side.

But that part wasn’t so simple. The outpost itself was proof that they needed to pace themselves. In this world of the Astrals and their entombed servants, they would find no food or comfortable lodgings, as far as he could tell. As such, they couldn’t plow through their mission the way Gladio was wont to.

Prompto was either of the same mind or intent on proving him wrong about his lack of complaints, because he sighed a sarcastic, “Yeah, except the whole…walking part. Don’t know about you guys, but hoofing it across the country? Not something I ever really wanted to do.”

Snorting, Gladio pointed out, “Not like we haven’t before.”

“At least we don’t have a bounty on our heads this time,” Ignis agreed, albeit not entirely without pause. “But don’t forget: the condition of our footwear isn’t our foremost concern. The Blademaster was quite clear in his instructions. Wherever our path may lead, we aren’t the only ones here.”

At that, Prompto shifted uncomfortable in his seat and murmured, “I, uh…thought he was just trying to freak us out, y’know? All that blasphemy against the Astrals stuff,” he added in an exaggerated and not at all accurate imitation of Gilgamesh’s cadence.

“Does the Blademaster seem like the kinda guy who just freaks people out on a whim?” scoffed Gladio, an eyebrow quirked in disbelief.

“I dunno. If I were stuck down there with a bunch of moldy old corpses for a few hundred years? Gotta do something for fun.”

“Yeah, like terrorize any sissy that comes your way. You got a point.”

“Hey, who’re you calling a sissy?!”

“If you two are quite finished,” sighed Ignis, waiting for them to cease their childish bickering before he continued. “Gladio is right—it isn’t likely that the Blademaster sought to lead us astray. If anything, his advice should inform us that that is someone else’s task.”

As though to cover his quite perceptible shudder, Prompto chuckled nervously and countered, “Okay, so? It’s us! We got this.”

“You sure about that?” Gladio asked, only half joking. Perhaps that was what reinforced Prompto’s resolve, for his apprehension melted away immediately, self-assurance taking its place.

“Dude. It’s us.”

Indeed, it was, and in a way that Ignis hadn’t heard for quite some time. It was encouraging, the gentle back and forth between Prompto’s grievances and Gladio’s barbless taunts, and he allowed it to wash over him as they tightened their shoes and ranks to depart. For so long now, their interactions had been overshadowed by their loss. Not having Noct around to interject with his witty remarks had left them reeling, their dynamic forever altered. Although they had gotten used to his absence during the Long Night, they had still lived with the promise that he would return; that was what made all the difference. It was why they had been able to work together, even if it hurt. They’d done their best to retain some semblance of normality, but when their king had fallen off the edge of the board, everything had changed despite their efforts.

This was their chance to set things right. This was their only opportunity to find who they were again, all thanks to Gentiana’s interference and the intoxicating hope she had injected into their humdrum existence.

This was their redemption.

So, as they set out from the station and leapt over the guardrail separating them from the Mencemoor, Ignis looked to the distance and made his silent vow—to Gladio, to Prompto, to the marshal.

To Noct.

We’re coming.

Chapter Text

“Man, I’m hungry.”

“Aren’t we all?”

Sighing, Gladio murmured, “If the Astrals were gonna invite us, least they could do was offer up some dinner.”

“Mm… Dinner…” hummed Prompto wistfully.

Ignis, on the other hand, wasn’t one to lay it on their hosts’ doorstep. Big surprise there.

“It would have been prudent to bring along some of the camping gear,” he mused, sounding more frustrated with himself for not thinking of that than the Six for not considering that people couldn’t really survive without something in their stomachs. “It is of little use to us at the outpost.”

“Nah, would’ve weighed us down,” Gladio disagreed, to which Prompto immediately—and predictably—joined in.

“Not like we have any place to store it either. We’d be hauling all that stuff to Insomnia with us. Although,” he added with a sidelong glance at Gladio, “why didn’t we just bring the car again?”

“Did you want to explain to the Blademaster why we were trying to drive through the Tempering Grounds?”

“Oh. Yeah. Good point, big guy.”

“In any case,” interjected Ignis, rolling his one good eye, “we should have brought something for the road. It’ll be a long journey without food or water.”

Yeah, he wasn’t kidding about that. They hadn’t been out here for more than a couple of hours by Gladio’s estimation, yet his body was already protesting all the walking without the fuel to keep it going. Of course, they hadn’t exactly done themselves any favors in that department as it was: in their rush to leave, none of them had bothered grabbing more than a slice of toast or, in Prompto’s case, one of the last bars of chocolate they’d managed to scrounge up from some of the old machines back when they’d first returned to Insomnia. That stuff was in high demand and low supply, so they only whipped them out on special occasions. Bringing Noct home, even the mere possibility of it, definitely qualified.

What none of them had counted on was the Astrals forgetting that humans operated on a different system. Gladio had no doubt that the Six hadn’t eaten since their old lives in the world their predecessors had destroyed, in which case, power to them. He couldn’t imagine what a god would have to ingest to survive, but he had a feeling it would put one hell of a strain on resources, whatever it was. Besides, there was no way they would have been able to sleep as long as they had if their metabolisms worked like a normal person’s—there was hibernation, and then there was just ridiculousness. Their obvious and unspoken assumption that the three of them could simply do the same in an Eos with nothing to scavenge whatsoever? Yeah, Gladio should have expected that kind of forethought, given who they were dealing with.

Then again, was it really so surprising? Everything about this place was sideways if not completely backwards. That wasn’t to say that it wasn’t a good spot to take in the scenery or anything: any other day, he wouldn’t have minded wandering around and absorbing all the sights. The crystal was nice, albeit a little rough on the feet, and the whole never-ending dawn motif was pretty cool. Still, it wasn’t home, nor was it peaceful like Ignis had tried to bullshit him into accepting earlier. One fact was too inescapably clear to ignore, at least for Gladio: this was the world of the gods. Humans didn’t belong.

That was the sense he got from everything, no matter how magical or wonderful it appeared. First, there was no food or water. Then there was this situation with Ignis’s eyes, which… Okay, admittedly, it was awesome. Gladio had been beating himself up about that for years, although not for the reasons that the others had probably thought. In the aftermath of Altissia, he’d done a few things he regretted, driving that wedge between him and Noct chief among them. How was he supposed to stand there and act normal when the entire world had been turned on its head, though? It hadn’t been Ignis’s job to put that ring on and save Noct from Ardyn; it hadn’t been Ignis’s job to sacrifice his sight to keep Noct alive another day, regardless of what they hadn’t known would happen later. When it all boiled down, Ignis shouldn’t have been the one put in that position, and that was all on Gladio.

Because it was his job.

Wasn’t that why he’d gone out of his way to undertake the Blademaster’s trial and gain the power to be a true Shield for Noct? So that he could protect him in any circumstance? That had been his singular goal. (Well, maybe he’d wanted to shore up his pride a bit too. He was young and stupid back then—it happened.) He’d left the Tempering Grounds believing that he’d achieved it, fears and doubts notwithstanding.

Then he’d made it to the altar and realized that it didn’t matter how much power he accumulated—he still wasn’t good enough to take care of his friends let alone his liege. In that instant, seeing Ravus there for the first time since Gladio had been on the receiving end of his freakish strength, his dignity hadn’t been his priority. Pride and competence and his ability to prove his worth hadn’t been his priority. Noct, unconscious and soaked to the bone? Ignis, struggling to breathe and burned like no one’s business? Those were his priorities, and he’d shoved aside anything remotely resembling emotion until they were all safely settled back at the hotel.

It hadn’t lasted. It never lasted, not when he had hours to sit in silence and think. Well, relative silence: Prompto had spent the whole night running laps between Ignis’s room and Noct’s, wondering what they should do when Gladio sure as hell didn’t have any answers for him. They’d tried elixirs and potions on both of them, and nothing had worked. At that point, Gladio had accepted that it was a waiting game—waiting for them to come around or for the other shoe to drop, however, had been a toss-up.

For his part, he’d remained at Noct’s side until the voice in his head that sounded eerily like his old man had finally driven him from the room. He could tell that Prompto was equally surprised and disapproving when he’d left, but what else could a guy do? He hadn’t been able to refute the uncomfortable truths his mind had thrust upon him back then any more than he could now: he was a failure. Gladiolus Amicitia, Shield to the Chosen King, was nothing but a big waste of space. His prince had nearly been killed, the Oracle’s body was somewhere out in that mess, and Ignis was scarred beyond repair. His job had been to ensure none of that happened, and he’d failed. Shit, Ignis had done more than he had. While Gladio had been racing through the city to reach Noct in time, he’d been there and done what was necessary.

Gladio should have been the one to add a few more scars to his face, not Ignis. He should have been the one who stood between Noct and that madman, not Ignis.

He hadn’t. And it would haunt him every day for the rest of his life, whether Noct was encased in crystal or on his throne where he belonged.

So, being in a place where Ignis was given this gift, where he could see again even if his eye stayed the same milky grey it had been for eleven years now? It was tough to swallow, and not simply because he shouldn’t have had to suffer like that to begin with. What really lit Gladio up was that this wouldn’t last: in a land of Astrals where everything was perfect and shiny, Ignis got to witness it. When they went home, that would all be over. They’d return to the way things were, hopefully with their brother in tow, and Ignis would be in the dark. Gladio could tell he was just as aware of that—it was impossible for someone as smart as him not to be—although he was obviously trying not to let it show. Wasn’t that typical?

Gladio wasn’t capable of that sort of restraint, which came as no surprise. As they picked their way through the miniature canyons that made up the Mencemoor, it was ever on his mind; the fact that Ignis didn’t need a guide in front of him or someone offering a heads up on rough terrain was a constant reminder. Ignoring the inevitable loss he’d once again have to face wasn’t an option, much as Gladio tried to remain positive. This made their journey easier, after all. He was managing fine on his own, and while Prompto stuck close to his side, it seemed more out of habit than anything else. There was no danger in the difficult path they’d chosen to take or the utter silence outside their footfalls and strained breathing.

Even so, just like that fateful night in Altissia and Ignis’s temporary sight, it wouldn’t last. The good stuff never did.

Maybe it would have been easier to write off if he had something else to distract him. That silence? It wasn’t the peaceful kind. The Six probably disagreed, but what did they know? They’d been out cold for centuries, letting humanity tear itself apart and Ardyn pick at their remains like the rabid chickatrice he was. If anybody could tell the difference between a pleasant hush and an eerie void, it had to be them, and the reality of the situation was that no world populated by people was meant to be this damn quiet.

Then again, perhaps Gladio was the one who didn’t know up from down anymore. In the past, he’d appreciated the silence: that was part of what he’d enjoyed about camping, even if the ambiance was constantly broken by Prompto’s whining or Ignis’s reprimands or Noct’s sarcastic comments. There wasn’t much that could rival an evening of merely chilling by the fire, sometimes playing a game of King’s Knight and sometimes not. On occasion, it was just nice to sit around and watch the stars as the backdrop of the sky changed color behind them. In those moments, being a Shield hadn’t been so hard. His charge had been by his side, and things were all right. Quiet? It hadn’t been so bad.

That had changed after all was said and done, though. When Noct left them and Gladio was on his own again, the silence hadn’t been the same. It wasn’t necessarily different from before—there was no eliminating the wind that rustled the trees and what remained of the Lucian wildlife going about its business—but there was a certain heaviness to it that seemed to strangle him these days. He spent most of his time trying to hold his thoughts at arm’s length, especially when he was still attempting to figure out what the hell he was supposed to be when they finally got Lucis back on its feet. With nothing to keep him occupied, with nothing to call his attention to other things, he was trapped in his head.

Not a nice place to be, he mused humorlessly to himself.

But, while they traversed the field of stone that began to look like waves on the ocean after staring at it for too long, that was all he had to do. Ignis was busy absorbing their surroundings, probably so that he’d remember in perfect detail when they returned to normal; Prompto was too hungry to speak and appeared to be letting his stomach do it for him. That being said, Gladio had nothing better to do than reflect on what a shitty excuse for a Shield he’d been, both to Noct and everyone else he should have been able to protect.

For all he knew, the downward spiral wouldn’t end there either. It was yet another dimension of their struggle that had been gnawing at his insides since they’d departed the Citadel, although it had been easier to toss out as paranoia when the excitement of their discovery had been fresh. Right now, he had something to be doing; he had a destination plotted, uncertain though they were about what exactly they would find there. How long that would last, however, he had no clue. Every time he thought he’d finally gotten over the past, that he had found a path for himself and was ready to walk it, something else cropped up to throw him off course again. It was like being set adrift at sea, only there were no lighthouses to guide him home.

Because home didn’t exist anymore, not really. Home was Insomnia, sure; home was the house he’d grown up in. Those were places, though—things. He didn’t have to be in the Crown City to feel at home, not as long as the guys were with him and Iris was safe. That was what had made it more bearable to continue on their journey when they’d wanted to turn back and see what they could salvage of the capital eleven years prior. The decision to do so had been out of their control, and they’d been forced to take solace in each other instead. Gladio figured they hadn’t done too bad a job of it for the most part. There had been a few moments, of course; they didn’t get along all the time. Still, they’d made it this far. That had to count for something.

Except a piece of the equation had been left out for a year. A bit of home had been set on fire and scattered to the wind, and not even the presence of his friends could really anchor him the way it used to.

It all came down to that inescapable feeling, the sensation of not being a Shield anymore when that was all he’d ever worked towards. Whenever he had a second to breathe or half an instant of silence, those old thoughts and fears started eating away at him until he wasn’t sure how he managed to shake them off most days. It was like being that same idiot who’d ventured out from Insomnia without knowing what he was doing, although at least he’d been arrogant enough to cover it then. As the years passed and his ego fell by the wayside, all that remained was the garbage he hadn’t had the courage to face before. The stench of it was so pervasive that it seemed to have become a part of him by now—the wondering, the second guessing, the disgust even if he had a goal in mind. Gladio masked them as best he could by staying busy, by shouldering missions that would occupy both his hands and his attention, but it didn’t always help.

It definitely didn’t this time. Hiking through the Astrals’ version of Eos, that unnerving crystal throwing up ghostly reflections to follow them on their path, Gladio couldn’t tamp down the niggling concern that maybe this was just too good to be true. His luck, after all, hadn’t been so great lately, and it increasingly tended to originate from the Six. At the end of the road, was this going to be some big, divine joke? Had Gentiana been serious about Noct waiting for them, or were they going to reach the Citadel to find that their liege had simply become a giant, shiny rock? Now that would be a sight and a half, the three of them dragging it back to the real world to sit on a throne forever, never moving or actually ruling at all.

As if there wasn’t enough floating around in his head, Gladio couldn’t decide which was worse: Noct being dead or a glorified statue. The selfish side of him was unequivocally opposed to the former, but… Well, there was some closure in that, which was better than nothing. There was some finality, even if they didn’t get to see a body. Knowing that he was trapped in crystal and that they couldn’t get him out, on the other hand? That meant Gladio would while away the rest of his days guarding someone he’d never be able to reach. That was fine by him, of course: he would gladly spend every hour he had left in this world—or, technically, the other one—watching Noct sleep if it meant holding onto him a little longer. Even so, it was simply…easier somehow to say that he was gone and had ended up in a better place than the one he’d left.

Oh, what was he talking about? That was why they were here, wasn’t it?

Huffing in irritation, Gladio slammed his foot against the crystal a little harder than was probably necessary. It would have been more satisfying if he could crack it even slightly, but the damn thing appeared to be stronger than the last Crystal they’d bothered with.

Figures.

The sudden sound, in any case, caught Ignis’s attention—as if that wasn’t the absolute last thing he needed right now.

“Everything all right, Gladio?”

All right? Well, that was one way of putting it. At first, he was going to leave it at a curt nod; that would have been the smart route.

Instead, he muttered, “This place ain’t exactly paradise, is all.”

It was vague, but he could tell Ignis and Prompto caught on to his meaning anyway. The two of them exchanged a tentative glance before the former carefully replied, “No, I suppose it isn’t.”

“If it were, there’d be chocobos,” suggested Prompto. Knowing him, Gladio didn’t believe for a second that it was really a joke like he made it seem. “And food. Lots and lots of food.”

Gladio scoffed. “Hell, at this point, I’d just take some noise.”

From the looks of it, he wasn’t the only one. Prompto’s grimace was indicative of his agreement, and while Ignis’s poker face didn’t waver for an instant, it was clear that he wasn’t the biggest fan of their surroundings either. The seeing was nice and all, but he’d spent too long relying on sound to get him where he was going. If it were Gladio, he’d be going out of his tree listening for something that wasn’t there. This was Ignis, though, and Ignis would never say that he was uncomfortable—he simply had to take the tactful approach.

And it drove Gladio crazy.

“Paradise appears to be subjective,” he pointed out, unruffled on the surface. “To the Astrals, this must indeed be quite the retreat.”

“Would’ve thought they got enough retreating on Eos. Not like they had to come all the way out here to do it,” grumbled Gladio scathingly. He hadn’t meant to direct his ire at Ignis, but without the Six there to receive his indignation, it wasn’t like he had many other options.

Given that the guy had been trained to nod and smile no matter which diplomat was verbally flogging him, Ignis didn’t take it personally. All he replied with was a didactic, “To fathom the mind of a god is improbable; six, impossible.”

Oh, yeah. That much was certain, and Gladio couldn’t refrain from snorting in contempt as he shoved past his companions and continued along the route they’d set at the Coernix Station.

As far as he was concerned, Gladio couldn’t begin to imagine what the Astrals had been thinking, bringing Noct to a realm like this. Maybe it was their idea of a better place, but he begged to differ. The silence was stifling; the surreal landscape was as familiar as it was strangely distant. This wasn’t the kingdom where Noct had grown up, nor was it the land they had explored together when they were young and stupid enough to assume that Ardyn was just some creepy old man without any ulterior motives. This place was other, the residence of gods that Noct didn’t fit in with, whether he was their servant or not. He didn’t belong here, didn’t deserve to be stuck in this world even if he wasn’t aware of it. Waking him up ultimately didn’t matter: he should have been at home regardless. He could sit on his throne, sit inside his crystal, or sit beneath the ground in the grave they should have been able to give him for all Gladio cared—as long as he came home.

This realm wasn’t going to cut it.

He doubted he was alone in his assessment, yet there was no agreement forthcoming from either of his friends. In fact, he ended up getting the opposite.

“We must be patient,” Ignis chided, his tone gentle yet patronizing to Gladio’s ears. “Allowing emotion to get the better of us will only end in disaster, especially when we don’t know what we’ll find when we reach the Crown City.”

“Nobody’s gettin’ emotional,” Gladio ground out.

“Clearly.”

It took every bit of willpower his father had instilled in him not to rise to that bait. Ignis had never been keen on poking at his nerves when he noticed they were fraying thin; they had worked together for so long that stepping on each other’s toes was harder than the alternative. Over the last year, though, he’d gotten to be an expert at plucking on the one chord that would send Gladio over the edge. He could usually walk away and come back when his temper cooled, but that wasn’t a possibility at the moment.

As such, it was difficult to contain the sudden flare of heat within his chest. Why couldn’t Ignis understand that what was going on in his head wasn’t anyone else’s business? Why couldn’t he seem to get that if Gladio wanted to be pissed off, that was on him? Ignis always mentioned how the Six had been dealt a shit hand just like the rest of them, but had they really? Had they truly suffered as much as the people they’d left out to dry all this time? Yeah, the Infernian had turned on them along the way—that guy was a fickle bastard in the first place, so it wasn’t much of a loss in Gladio’s opinion. That didn’t give them the right to do what they had, to pass the buck to Noct until he’d been forced to give up everything in order to meet their silent demands and then dump him in a spot like this.

But sure, don’t get emotional.

The problem with Ignis? Gladio didn’t have to voice any of that for him to hear it. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say the guy could read minds.

“For now, all we can do is focus on Noct.”

“The hell you think I’ve been doing?” he huffed incredulously, not slowing his pace for a second. He’d gotten good at running, shameful as that would have seemed to him when he was younger. Now wasn’t the time to stop.

Skeptical wasn’t even the word for it when Ignis nevertheless continued, “We’ve all done our best. We cannot afford to fall apart now.”

“Who’s fallin’ apart?”

“No one, and it would behoove us to keep it that way.”

“Ain’t a problem.”

“Isn’t it?”

Is he serious?

Okay, he’d tried—he’d tried so hard not to react, not to lose his grip on everything that held his mouth in check. That, though? The insinuation that had Gladio wheeling around to glare at Ignis where the smug bastard had stopped a few feet away, inscrutable and unaffected as always? That was more than he could take.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he growled, temper flaring like it had so often over the weeks and months that had passed since Noct vanished. This time, however, it wasn’t about his constant absence or his distance from all the political crap Ignis said he should be a part of. No, this had nothing to do with that and everything to do with thoughts that he had no right to judge.

So much for that.

If Ignis cared that he was overstepping, he didn’t show it. Instead, he stood firm and sounded equally determined when he retorted, “I feel the same as you. We both do. But losing sight of our goal is not an option.”

Scoffing, Gladio folded his arms over his chest and rejoined, “I’m not losin’ sight of anything. I’m here, aren’t I?”

While he’d encountered some rough obstacles in the past, not many measured up to the discomfort that swept through him at the reminder of a day a hell of a lot longer ago than he cared to dwell on—a day when his charge had told him the exact same thing, although Gladio hadn’t believed him then. That definitely didn’t help, and the words caught in his throat, making it impossible to swallow or speak around them as Noct’s voice echoed in his head and his heart.

Not now.

Ignis being Ignis, he didn’t give him a chance to compose himself. Admitting defeat wasn’t his style, even if he had to play dirty.

“Being here and being present are two entirely different matters,” he qualified, his expression calm despite the fire in his colorless eye. “Don’t forget, it’s not the Six we should be angry with.”

Gladio figured he deserved a goddamn medal for not blowing his top right then and there. He was a hothead—Cor had been telling him that since he was a kid—but he wasn’t stupid. The logical side of him got that and had been mentally eviscerating Ardyn rather than the Astrals every single day.

But the more clues they uncovered and hoops they had to jump through, Gladio found himself growing angrier and angrier with their divine overlords than he had been at the start. Ardyn hadn’t taken Noct away from them, at least not directly; Ardyn hadn’t stuck him in a crystal and thrown him into some creepy imitation of the real world as if it were a gift. That he was allowed to blame the Six for, whatever Ignis had to say about it.

“I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and they’re just as guilty as the chancellor. Not like any of this would’ve happened if they’d pulled their shit together before the war,” he shot back in disgust.

“It’s far too late to correct the mistakes of the past. You of all people should know that,” sighed Ignis with a shake of his head.

For a second, it was like the earth stood still—well, more than usual since it didn’t appear to be spinning here.

“Me of all people,” echoed Gladio once he had his wits about him, eyes narrowing. Ignis must have predicted where he was going with that, because he hurried to amend his slip of the tongue.

“I was merely saying that we’ve lost a great deal,” he reasoned, the strong scent of bullshit wafting around every word. “There’s no going back, however much we might like to. Bemoaning the results of the Astrals’ folly, as well as our own, is an exercise in futility.”

There it was again, and Gladio didn’t pass up the opportunity to observe, “Our own, huh? Funny, I thought this was about the Six.”

A pause, then, “The two are inextricably linked.”

“Oh, yeah? How’s that?”

The flat look he received would have shaken a lesser man down to his bones, but whether it was nerve or idiocy, Gladio stood tall in the face of Ignis’s disdain. He’d been doing it for a year, so why disappoint now?

Luck still wasn’t on his side, though, because Ignis wasn’t pulling his punches. Nope. He was aiming for the throat.

“You aren’t blaming the Astrals, Gladio. We all know that.”

The silence that followed was longer, and he was pretty sure he could have cut the tension with his sword and served it for dinner. Where Ignis’s eyes bored into him as if he was searching for something Gladio had gotten good at hiding, Prompto’s examined just about anything else. There had been a few instances where he’d thought for sure that the latter would speak up, either to tell them they had better stuff to be doing or to implore them to stop before they gave him a headache. Each time, he seemed to think better of it, and he stood off to the side scuffing his boot against the ground as if he were the same twenty-year-old wimp he’d been when they’d left the Citadel. Somehow, that only made this worse.

As would whatever else Gladio could possibly add to the conversation. So, fully aware that he didn’t have an adequate response that wouldn’t embarrass them further, he turned his back and started walking again.

“Should put your glasses on,” he threw callously over his shoulder. “Eyesight’s messin’ with your head.”

“I see things as clearly as ever,” Ignis called after him, not moving an inch.

If it weren’t for their present circumstances, Gladio would have left his ass behind, but his hands were tied on this one. The best he could do was keep his damn mouth shut for a change where he was forced to stop again.

Well, until Ignis pressed, “We all carry the burden of responsibility, but we’ve been given the opportunity to fix this. That is the important thing.”

“Yeah? So, what happens if we get to the Citadel and he ain’t there?” spat Gladio, fists clenching at his sides. It wasn’t really what he’d meant to say, but it sounded a whole lot better than wondering what happened if they got there and he was.

He must have unintentionally struck a nerve, because it was Prompto who hastened to reply, “Then we do what we’ve always done: we keep on going. For Noct.”

And what if we can’t?

That probably hadn’t crossed either of their minds. Why should it when they’d done their jobs? Ignis had stood by Noct even when Gladio hadn’t, offering advice and support and anything else Noct required on his way to a kingship he hadn’t been prepared for yet. Then there was Prompto, who had taken everyone’s expectations and shot them to hell. He’d been able to hold his own—there was no denying that one. Between his natural ability with a gun (which Gladio never would have anticipated) and the training Cor had concocted on the fly, he’d turned out to be a damn good bodyguard in spite of his tendency to distract Noct when he needed to get his head in the game. Neither of them had failed their respective missions.

Not like Gladio.

They’d been so eager to get Noct back that he hadn’t stopped to think about what would happen when they did. When they returned to Insomnia, when they brought Noct home, when he was installed as king—where did they go from there? Ignis would do what he always had, and so would Prompto.

Then there was Gladio, a failed Shield by every definition. Prophecy or not, he’d dropped the ball. Nobody could convince him otherwise. When Noct had been unsure, Gladio had thrown him in what he’d believed was the right direction. When he’d been grieving, Gladio had shoved his behavior in his face and made it worse in an attempt to keep him motivated. When he’d gone into the Crystal, Gladio hadn’t been at his side.

When he’d died on the throne, Gladio hadn’t borne witness or had the guts to go before him.

So, what did he do if all their efforts amounted to what they hoped? Things would never be normal; he wouldn’t be able to deposit himself at Noct’s right hand and just move on as if he deserved the position. There wasn’t enough training or apologizing in the world to make up for his inability to act in the instances when it mattered most.

And that wasn’t him getting emotional or whatever: it was being realistic. The Six had dictated Noct was supposed to die, just like all the other Lucian kings, but a Shield’s duty wasn’t to stand outside and wait for it to be over. A Shield was the vanguard, not the one who went chasing shadows or fixed shit after the fact.

Looks like the Blademaster’s right. Guess I’m nothing but a wanderer after all.

A hand on his shoulder shook him from his reverie, and Gladio peered around to see Ignis behind him with an all too knowing look on his face.

“Whatever we find,” he remarked, calm and quiet and the total opposite of Gladio’s thoughts, “we shall weather the storm as we always have.”

It was a good thing Prompto appeared on his other side since words utterly failed him. His smile was strained, but there was no mistaking his sincerity when he agreed, “Yeah, what Iggy said. We’ve already made it this far. Nothing’s gonna stand in our way now.”

It was such a Noct statement to make that Gladio was struck dumb. Neither of them seemed to expect an answer, thankfully, not with one of his usual retorts or anything more genuine either. That was about as comforting as it was going to get: there was so much clamoring around in his head that he didn’t think he could put any of it into coherent sentences, nor would he want to for fear of sounding exactly like what he knew he would. Being a sap hadn’t fit into his agenda, not in the last thirty-four years and certainly not today. Fortunately, he didn’t have to resort to that.

Unfortunately, someone must have decided that he didn’t have enough people ganging up on him.

Before he had a chance to even consider opening his mouth and letting something out, the ground quaked beneath his feet, sending him toppling to his knees. Ignis and Prompto weren’t far behind; raising his head, Gladio just barely managed to reach out in time to keep Prompto from losing his balance as they huddled together.

“W-What the hell was that?!” he shouted, hardly audible over the sound of the earth rumbling all around them.

Gladio braced himself against the crystal and called back, “An earthquake? Here?”

It shouldn’t have been possible. Paradise or not, natural disasters couldn’t be something the Astrals actually wanted. (Except maybe Leviathan, but she didn’t really qualify as normal.) This was supposed to be the land of sparkles and sunshine, not a typical day in Duscae. If it weren’t for their surroundings and the conversation they’d been having mere seconds ago, Gladio would say…

He’d say…

Oh, shit.

“Get outta here!” he yelled as he shoved Prompto forward and moved aside for Ignis to follow him. All of a sudden, coming so close to Cauthess seemed like a stupid idea.

Ignis appeared to be thinking along the same lines, because he didn’t waste any time asking what he was on about. Rather, he set the pace, staggering along ahead of them with one hand against the stone outcroppings while the ground heaved under them.

That day in Altissia had nothing on this. Crashing waves, collapsing cities, careering airships—none of it held a candle to the feeling of solid earth being torn asunder where you stood. To both his amazement and his annoyance, the crystal didn’t shatter as everything else had in the wake of the Hydraean’s wrath; it was weirdly pliable, stretching like elastic even though it was still hard to the touch. It roiled and churned, imitating boiling water and nowhere near as pretty to look at as it had been earlier—nowhere near as divine either. While Gladio hadn’t been a fan to begin with, there was something ugly about getting their wish for noise. All the stuff they’d been in awe of took on a different shape, a different character that reflected everything he’d been thinking about the Six. Where it had seemed nice and majestic at first, its true nature was showing now, and it was as malignant as it was formidable.

Leaning against the towering pillars of rock didn’t keep them upright. Going it on all fours just meant their jaws hit the ground instead of their knees. There was no way to avoid it, no way to keep from being tossed around on the maelstrom—

And no way to stay together.

As hard as they tried to remain within shouting distance, it simply wasn’t possible. Every time Gladio looked up from where he was focused on putting one foot in front of the other, Ignis and Prompto were further away. Leaping forward, reaching out, calling to them was pointless. They couldn’t hear him over the deafening roar of the beast the world had turned into, nor could he understand the words they were crying out. It was all swept in the other direction, carried off to where it wouldn’t be of any use.

That wasn’t the worst of it, though. The worst was what happened when Gladio was too busy attempting to read the panic in Prompto’s eyes and the warning on Ignis’s lips to pay attention.

Whatever was doing this must have been hoping for an opportunity to catch him off guard. As soon as it was certain he was distracted, it made the distance between him and the others explode in a flash of sound and color—

The blast knocked him off his feet, plunging him backwards—

Something heavy and solid hit his chest, knocking the wind out of him—

And then it was quiet.

For a minute, Gladio was positive he’d lost consciousness. It was the only reason he could fathom for the tumultuous chaos disappearing in the blink of an eye as though it had never been there at all. Yeah, that had to be it. His skull was dully aching where it had connected with the ground, sending little shockwaves of pain through his neck and back as he struggled to sit up. It wouldn’t have been impossible for him to have blacked out and woken up again when the earthquake—or whatever it was—stopped. That would explain the sudden silence, the searing agony in his head when he registered the sunlight through his closed eyelids…

What it didn’t explain was where Ignis and Prompto had gone.

Or where he’d ended up.

Because when Gladio managed to pry his eyes open, blinking until they adjusted to the bright illumination directly overhead, he wasn’t where he’d started. There were no trees or landlocked promontories, no elevated roadway in the distance to mark their route. The far-off forest of the Nebulawood was gone, and in its place was nothing but…rock. Just rock. Dark, jagged, uneven rock.

And no crystal to cover it.

“What the hell…?” murmured Gladio, wincing as his own voice seemed to split his head even further down the middle.

This…wasn’t right. It wasn’t right at all. He was supposed to be with Prompto and Ignis, yet a scan of his new surroundings showed him they were nowhere to be found. He was supposed to be in the middle of a damn earthquake getting smacked around by crystal grass, not…wherever he was.

The strangest part was that he already knew. He hadn’t seen the place in ages, not when it was light out anyway, but there was no forgetting the look of it.

The Disc of Cauthess kind of left an impression. 

Either he’d hit his head harder than he’d thought, or this had to be a dream. There was no other explanation for what he was seeing, especially when his brain finally caught up with his eyes and registered that nothing about this could be real. It would’ve been one thing to find himself inside Cauthess without his friends—weirder stuff had happened, after all. They’d been waiting for the Six to rear their ugly heads, and while Gladio couldn’t exactly regret the truths he’d spilled out there, he also couldn’t deny that he hadn’t been the most reverent of the Astrals’ underlings either. Who was to say that they hadn’t decided to dump his ass inside this empty canyon to think about what he’d done for a bit?

Except, like every single complication they’d encountered on this trip, it wasn’t that simple. The crystal might have been stripped away, leaving the ancient rock around him dull and shapeless, but it was replaced by something that definitely shouldn’t have been there if he was still in the Astrals’ realm: the Meteor. Gladio didn’t know how or why the damn thing was there; it hadn’t been a few seconds ago. Yet there it was, towering over the stone courtyard he’d been dropped in, the heat of its fire glowing blue and red against a sky that didn't reflect the dawn that the Six had formed for their idea of paradise. It was as if Titan hadn’t vaporized it years ago, potent and perfect as ever.

So were the puffy white clouds that sailed in and out of view over the lip of the crater where there had only been blue before. So was the sun where it was beginning its slow descent towards the west.

Call him crazy, but Gladio got the feeling he definitely wasn’t where he’d started out.

The awkward sensation of déjà vu merely worsened when he raised a hand to his face, intent on smacking himself around a little if that was what it took to wake up from this nightmare of days past. Most people hated the thought of having scars like his, of seeing them in the mirror or feeling them with the tips of their fingers. To them, they were something to be ashamed of; if you had some permanent etching on your body, it had to be from a mistake or an accident that you didn’t want to talk about. For Noct, that hadn’t been too far from the truth: his run-in with a daemon when he was a kid hadn’t left him the same, and he’d never really gotten over his aversion to letting people spy the line that ran across his spine thanks to the Marilith’s blade. Not Gladio, though. Unlike most, he was proud of the various nicks and scratches that hadn’t fully healed; he reveled in the sight of them, even if they’d been kind of jarring at first. Mistakes were how you learned, just as accidents were trials to be overcome. That wasn’t something to hide—it was something to celebrate.

Which was why his heart damn near skipped a beat when his hand brushed his forehead and didn’t smooth over the gash the Blademaster had gifted him. A second pass—a third turned up the same, not to mention the close-cropped hair near his ears that scratched his wrist with every desperate attempt to figure out how a scar he’d had for a decade could up and vanish like that.

…Can’t be…

But it was. With shaking hands and wide eyes, Gladio ran his fingers through his hair, or what was left of it. This definitely wasn’t the style he’d been sporting on their way to the Tempering Grounds: the strands were shaved close at the sides while the top was slicked back so that it joined the rest in a trail down his neck. It was the sort of thing he’d done when he was younger and actually had the presence of mind to prioritize his appearance. He hadn’t necessarily let himself go or anything, but he hadn’t felt this immaculately groomed in years, not since haircuts had gotten to be too annoying and time-consuming to deal with—there was more important stuff to worry about during the Long Night. These days, he was fine with tying it up so that it wasn’t in his face, yet there wasn’t any point now. There wasn’t enough in front to bother him much less wrap in elastic.

If he thought that blast from the past was insane and out of place, though, it was nothing compared to what he saw when he glanced down at himself in utter shock. The environment, for better or worse, wasn’t all that had changed: so had his clothes. Gone were the jeans and tank top that he’d donned for this venture rather than official attire. Instead, he was wearing the Crownsguard uniform he’d been given by his father a few days before they’d departed for Noct’s wedding. They’d all gotten something similar, as it wouldn’t have been appropriate to engage in their first technical diplomatic mission in their usual outfits. (That was what Ignis said. Gladio didn’t see much difference, and the getup he’d worn around the Citadel had been acceptable enough to him.) Despite that, Gladio’s was different. Where Prompto was meant to look inconspicuous and Ignis had to fit the part of a royal advisor, the plans for his own attire were designed with another idea in mind. His intimidating physique was on display through the leather of his jacket, unmarred like his forehead and a warning to anyone who got within attacking distance of Noct; the lines of black that had embraced his collarbones for about sixteen years peered out from behind the fabric, a badge of honor and station that couldn’t be stripped from him, even if he tried to hide it most days to avoid the inescapable reminder of how he would be regarded by history.

A failed Shield, and now a lost one.

Lost might not have been the right word for it, in hindsight. He knew exactly where he was, from the shattered flagstones that littered his path through a narrow passage in the side of the crater to the dilapidated tomb that had been recreated when it should have been destroyed by the Archaean’s bad temper. That, however, didn’t appear to have happened yet. It was right where they’d found it eleven years ago, a little lopsided and clearly bereft of the weapon Noct had claimed, but otherwise intact.

That was more suspicious than anything else. An empty grave, no friends, and no way out? Yeah, that wasn’t a trap at all.

“All right,” sighed Gladio, inching towards the edge of the effigy with all the care in the world. He’d already played this game, and he was well aware of how it had ended the first time. “What’s the deal here?”

A minute passed without incident, not a sound permeating the silence that had descended around him. If he wasn’t so painfully familiar with the differences between the two, he would have said that he truly was still in that hellhole of an afterlife or underworld or whatever they wanted to call it. It would have made sense, especially if this was some kind of punishment for his verbal transgressions.

Whether it was or not, it didn’t take long to find out. As if in belated answer to his question, the same rumbling he’d heard before he was separated from Ignis and Prompto rang out, and he preemptively dropped to his knees in preparation. He wasn’t caught unawares, although it wasn’t completely due to his quick thinking: the lithified Meteor at the center of Cauthess couldn’t fool him as it rose from the ground, seemingly of its own volition. Stones rattled around him, shaken loose from the carved pillars of the defunct crypt, and Gladio had to cover his face against the dust that carried up to him on the wind. It had been the stuff of nightmares a decade ago, but now? Now it threatened to choke him, and not simply because it filled his lungs with ancient particles that hadn’t been moved in centuries.

It had more to do with the inscrutable yellow eye that glared down at him from beneath the shadow of the Meteor, piercing as it had been when a god had decided to test a king to see if he was worthy of a divine blessing or five.

Something told Gladio he wasn’t going to get the same negotiable courtesy that Noct had, if he could even call it that. What, had Titan believed he wasn’t being as respectful as he should and brought him here to teach him a lesson? Or was this what the Blademaster had meant when he hinted that they weren’t going to be allowed to see Noct as easily as they had hoped? Talk about a joke. The Archaean had been stuck in that crater for so long that the locals made it a holy site, complete with shit named after it and T-shirts and everything. If he wanted to show Gladio a thing or two, it would have been smarter to pummel him on more equal turf—by which he meant slightly less unequal, since fighting Titan at all was a one-sided battle. Either way, displaying his impressive, divine strength would have been a lot less problematic where they’d been than in this hole.

Unless they didn’t want to mess up all that crystal. Considering how much time they’d sunk into fixing things in Eos, Gladio figured it must have taken them forever to get their little retreat just right. They probably weren’t big on duking it out there.

So…they’d gone back in time. For real. All to…stare at each other.

Coughing through the hazy cloud around him, Gladio opened his mouth to tell His Enormousness exactly what he thought about that—

And froze, the words knocked right out of his damn head as effectively as he’d been yanked out of his own time. He’d been prepared for a lot of things on this journey of theirs, so many that even this wasn’t anywhere near as surprising as it should have been. When you grew up in a world with magic and gods and dead kings that lived in a ring, there wasn’t a whole lot that could still surprise you. Gentiana’s unexpected clue had been about the extent of it, and everything that had happened after was simply icing on the cake.

Discovering that he wasn’t as alone with Titan as he’d thought, on the other hand, packed a stronger punch than anything he’d ever felt in his life. It shook his brain loose from its moorings until he was pretty sure the vertigo alone was going to be his undoing, both physical and mental. It stole his sense and deposited a flame of fury in his chest that he hadn’t felt in… Actually, never mind. He didn’t want to think about the last time he’d been as pissed as he was now, staring down into the crater at the Archaean’s feet to find the one person he’d grown to both anticipate and dread seeing in equal measures.

Noct was there. He was there, and he was alive.

And he was unconscious, because why not make today that much worse?

This had to be a setup, a divine setup born from the Six reading his mind. How else would they have known that this was everything Gladio had dreamt about for years, and not purely during the Long Night? His evenings after their initial encounter with the Archaean had been plagued with thoughts of what would have happened if Noct didn’t gain the Astral’s favor or if he’d passed out from those inconvenient headaches. Titan hadn’t gone easy on him regardless of the gods’ alleged affection for the kings of Lucis, and more than once that day, Gladio had worried that that was going to be the end of their road—that they’d made it from the Crown City to Lestallum, gathering the weapons of Noct’s ancestors as the marshal had instructed, only for it to turn out the way he was seeing it here and not as it had in reality. Contrary to what he’d been touting to get Cor to agree to help him take on Gilgamesh, his steady path towards the insecurities that still gripped him at times hadn’t begun with Ravus, but with this. His best had been enough in that singular instance, both to protect Noct and get him through his trial in one piece. He simply hadn’t trusted how long that was going to be the case when they weren’t merely gathering approval—they were fighting gods for it.

And those bastards sure knew what they were doing, then and now. It wasn’t Noct whose head pounded this time, not that he would have felt it anyway where he lay prone too far away for Gladio to reach. He didn’t even have a chance to try: the persistent ache he’d been able to ignore in light of his new circumstances returned with a vengeance, hellbent on making him bow before the so-called greatness of Titan as the Crystal shard that had remained around his neck in spite of his transformation burned into his skin.

“The hell do you want?!” he growled past gritted teeth, holding his head in his hands and willing the double dose of pain to abate in vain.

Through his eyelids—when had he closed his eyes?—Gladio was only distantly aware of the grating, deafening shift of the rock. If it weren’t for the pain, he’d be able to picture it: Titan turning towards him, towering over him and Noct like the helpless, worthless humans they were in comparison to his might. All of a sudden, Gladio had a brand new appreciation for what Noct had gone through to get this guy’s blessing. He wouldn’t say his prince had been weak per se, yet he was still too wet behind the ears for half of what he’d shouldered in those first few weeks of their journey. It had been Gladio’s duty to ease the transition their experiences made necessary, and he’d embraced it fully, reforming himself into the sort of person who could stand no matter what came at them.

This? This was insanity. This was more than any person could take, Shield or not.

Except Noct, divinely destined King of Kings and self-proclaimed pain in the ass.

It would have been easier to handle if the misery didn’t come in waves, shocking him every time as the agony increased tenfold. As soon as it ebbed, as soon as he stupidly thought that it was over, it washed over him yet again as a reminder of who was boss here. Unfortunately, it wasn’t him, and the real boss played as dirty as Ignis when the latter put his mind to it.

Titan must have considered that a challenge, because he was apparently prepared to take their standoff to the next level.

Images of the past inundated Gladio’s mind before he could brace himself, barraging his consciousness until he couldn’t be sure whether that was what truly kept him in such brutal pain. Here, he was sliding down a seemingly endless hill to grab Noct by the wrist before he fell to the bottom of the crater; there, he was launching Noct over a ledge so he could make a run for it while Gladio held the Archaean off with nothing more than the brute strength he’d been reprimanded for relying on by more than one person in his lifetime.

“Only he who possesses both muscle and mettle of equal caliber deserves the honor of fighting beside the Chosen King as his sworn Shield.”

“You may have the strength to defeat the darkness, but do you have the spirit to survive these trials?”

“Knock it off,” he shouted, utterly enraged for no other reason than that these weren’t Titan’s memories to manipulate. Those weren’t his experiences, his successes and his failures to relive as he liked.

It didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Either it was the natural order of things at this point or Gladio really was being punished as he’d thought, because the discomfort didn’t let up—it intensified immeasurably.

With it, he was subjected to even more reminiscing on the sort of stuff that shouldn’t have mattered to the Archaean: running through Altissia with Prompto on their way to the altar, carrying Ignis back to the hotel while Prompto hauled Noct along beside them, walking the train to Cartanica alone as he tried to decide what the hell he was going to do about a reluctant prince that needed to grow up sooner rather than later. There were angry words spat without thinking, comforting ones that had never been spoken when they should’ve, all the little things in between that he hadn’t given voice to when it would’ve meant something…

And his own personal ghosts, back to haunt him again.

“Stand tall, for the Shield of the King must kneel in subjugation before no man.”

“He was scared of failing as leader of the Crownsguard—and as Shield of the King. He couldn’t leave His Majesty alone, weakened by the Wall as he was. After all, what good is a Shield with no one to protect?”

Oh, hell no. He wasn’t going there. Of all the things this bastard could make him remember, his father was not going to be one of them. They’d chosen their own paths, and yeah, maybe his dad’s had been the more successful of the two. Still, Gladio was willing to live with the consequences and his own shame.

That, apparently, was what Titan was coming for next.

“Will you stand tall, even when your flesh fails you, or will you fall to your knees?”

“Be true, for the Shield of the King must deceive none—not even himself.”

“You lack his conviction.”

“’Do you dare risk all for naught in return?’”

“You are strong—yet so long as fear binds your heart, the power you possess is wasted on you.”

“No,” breathed Gladio in sudden comprehension. It took everything he had, yet he managed to maneuver himself onto his feet—bent and crouched, but on his feet regardless as he stared up at the Archaean in defiance. “I kneel before no man!”

The utter torment that assaulted him for that was staggering, and Gladio nearly toppled right back to the ground with the force of it.

“It took me a while, but I realized something: you’re right—I am afraid,” Titan spoke to him in his own voice, echoing off the walls of his skull to add to his misery. “Afraid of accepting the fact that maybe I’m not really cut out for the job I’m expected to do.”

Oh. So that was his problem. Or, more appropriately, Gladio’s problem. It was why Titan had dragged him down here and shoved Noct in front of his face, but not the Noct that had been able to stand on his own two feet without anybody at his side; not the Noct that hadn’t relied on Gladio’s strength, Ignis’s intelligence, and Prompto’s support so much as merely their friendship. No, the Archaean wanted him to witness a Noct that was in danger of getting crushed every second, incapable of spotting the danger around him.

A Noct that needed his Shield, whatever his own fears might be.

All right. He wants proof I can do this? I’ll give ‘im proof.

He simply had to believe it himself.

While that part was easier said than done, Gladio nevertheless jerked his head upright to glower once more at the mighty Archaean when he threw a little of the guy’s own medicine at him. Titan could play with Gladio’s head all he wanted—he’d respond in kind.

“I may be all muscle and no mettle, but I’m gonna keep protecting Noct the only way I know how.”

And just like that, without caring about the pain or the consequences or the senseless recollections that Titan decided to dredge up from the depths of his conscience, Gladio leapt over the edge of the cliff into the unknown below.

To put it in Ignis’s words, it was a foolish idea for anyone and especially for Gladio. But hey, what else was he supposed to do? Rocketing towards the ground, towards where Noct was waiting for him, he finally got why he’d been brought here. It wasn’t for punishment, although there was no doubt in his mind that that played at least some role in the Archaean accompanying him on a trip down memory lane. Petty revenge wasn’t in the Astrals’ playbook; if it were, Ardyn would have been a blot in the history texts, not a stain on their collective past. Rather, this was something Gladio was a bit more familiar with: it was a test. It was a trial, a chance for him to show the Six that he had what it took to be for Noct what they hadn’t been for humanity—protection. He planned on being a good Shield, his shoddy service record notwithstanding? Then he needed to prove he could be. He wanted to take over for the Astrals and safeguard the King of Kings in their own realm rather than letting him rot here under their watchful eyes? Then he needed to prove himself worthy of that honor. This wasn’t about Noct garnering their support anymore, but about Gladio doing it. Presumably, Ignis and Prompto would have to do the same, which was going to be one hell of a sight.

But first things first. He could warn them later.

For the time being, he cast aside the subtly diminishing ache in his skull to whip his sword out of its sheath, battling the wind on his way to the bottom of the crater. He hadn’t been considering the logistics of his fall when he’d made the plunge, but that was no big deal. Sometimes, you just had to take a leap of faith.

This one, thankfully, worked out for the best. Gladio’s arms protested violently when he swung his blade around and embedded it into the solidified dirt at the side of the enormous impression, his fingers gripping the hilt so tightly that he was pretty sure it would leave a permanent indentation on the leather. Initially, it didn’t seem to do much good: his momentum worked against him, and his sword cut through the soil rather than slowing his descent as planned. It wasn’t until he dug his heels into the earthen wall that he was able to save himself from becoming a bloody splat on the rocks mere yards below, which was a relief when he got a load of the Archaean’s foot hovering over the platform Noct was lying on.

Not gonna happen.

Gladio wasn’t sure which side took over first—Shield or brother or a bit of both. Whatever it was didn’t give a shit about the twinge that shot up into his shoulders when he wrenched his blade from where it was holding him upright and let himself fall the rest of the way to the ground. It didn’t care whether he maneuvered himself so that he didn’t feel the worst of the impact or whether he rolled to his feet without pause; it wasn’t listening to the rhythmic pounding of his boots against the stone that rang out oddly in time with his beating heart. In that instant, his priorities narrowed down to only one person—their comfort, their safety, their survival—and it sure as hell wasn’t him.

Shields didn’t put themselves before their lieges. Brothers didn’t leave each other behind. They were connected, through life and death and the giant goddamn foot barreling towards Noct when the latter couldn’t defend himself.

Lucky for him, he had Gladio there, not that he was of much use. The best he could do was dive in at the last second, sword raised to clash against the Archaean’s stone appendage with a deafening clang. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t his smartest idea: his muscles spasmed with the sheer effort it took not to crumple under the weight of Titan’s wrath, and a hoarse cry was ripped from his throat against his will as he struggled to keep the god on one side of his sword and Noct safely hidden behind his back. His prince—no, his king—wasn’t getting turned into jelly today. Not so long as Gladio still drew breath.

He couldn’t help but think that this was more than slightly counterproductive, though: Titan had released him from his crystal and put him back the way he was when they were younger all to test Gladio? Or was it a replica, a vision like the rest of this place had to be? The pain was real; there was no denying it when he almost fell over batting the god’s attack away. His irritation, too, was more realistic than the hand that reached down to swipe him aside. Still, he couldn’t quite believe that this place wasn’t a figment of his imagination or a trick of the mind, that the Archaean had really gone to the trouble of taking them back in time so he could stick his divine foot in Gladio’s face.

In spite of his doubts, he wasn’t about to gamble it. He’d risked his own safety since he was a kid, be it on their journey or simply protecting Noct from some bully in a bar. That had been his duty and his honor, and he would toss himself into the fires of hell before he’d ever let them get close enough to make Noct sweat. He was a Shield—maybe not an effective one, but that wasn’t the question here. The question was whether he was willing to fortify his stance and stab his sword into Titan’s palm, shouting with the strain of holding on as it pushed him back like little more than a bug.

Illusion or not, Gladio would protect the prince collapsed behind him even if the Archaean and the rest of the Six tore him to shreds over it. At least if they did, he wouldn’t have to live with the failure like he had last time.

So, while his muscles ached and every nerve was alight with agony, Gladio didn’t let up for an instant. There was no stopping the steady force that shoved him ever closer to the side of the crater, seemingly intent on crushing him against it. Of course, Gladio wasn’t dumb enough to try: instead, he reared back to pull his blade free and ducked between Titan’s humongous fingers in a mad dash for where Noct hadn’t budged an inch. It was with a bitter pang of regret that Gladio realized this would have been much easier if they still had access to magic in the process. A little bit of ice, a flask to hold it in…

It was a nice thought to take with him when he went soaring through the air, struck hard by Titan’s retreating fist.

What wasn’t so nice was the feeling of serrated stone against your skin when your bare chest slammed into it. Yeah, that was going to leave a mark.

Gladio tried not to focus on that, however, staggering to his feet and wheeling around once again. Shields didn’t tire or slow down because of a few bumps and scratches. The blood that began to ooze from the shallow cuts on his skin was his motivation; the trembling of his limbs, his challenge.

The bastard who’d caused them? His target.

With a cry of frustration and rage, Gladio didn’t bother beating around the bush now. Perhaps the one thing he had that Titan didn’t was speed, and he used it to his advantage as he leapt into the air and brought his sword down hard on the Archaean’s arm where it had returned for Noct. Admittedly, it wasn’t very satisfying when the god didn’t shout in the same pain that Gladio was feeling, but it did what it was intended to. Titan’s fingers twitched, flicking heavily to the side in a failed attempt to swat him away.

In this instance, Gladio was already ahead of him. With the Archaean momentarily distracted, he dove towards Noct, grabbed his arms, and dragged him as far from the pissed off deity as possible. It wasn’t much, yet if it made things even slightly more difficult for Titan while Gladio figured out what the hell he was supposed to do here, it was worthwhile.

Until he was sent flying again, this time with Noct alongside him. Damn, he hadn’t pegged Titan for the type to sucker punch a guy when he was down, but here they were.

That was the part that didn’t make any sense. Given the crap the Archaean had put in his head, Gladio had been certain that the Astral was trying to test his strength, of body or mind or whatever else he could think of. Now, however, he wasn’t so sure. The longer this went on (and the more tumbles he endured), the more it seemed as though Titan was trying to crush his strength, not test it. It was pretty obvious that muscle was no good here, not when it was nothing compared to the might of a giant rock god. There wasn’t a thing Gladio could do, not when he’d been repeatedly rebuffed before and not when he saw the bottom of that immense foot moving into position above them as he rolled over.

What kinda trial is this?

It was all Gladio could do not to spit that at the Astral along with every other combination of foul curses he could throw together, but he figured he’d done enough to tick Titan off for one day. That wasn’t going to keep them from getting squished, nor was it going to help him determine what the Archaean wanted from him here. His blows were worthless, as were the tricks that would have helped him out if they were up against some dumb animal. There was no fighting something that could wipe you out with a single strike, and although Gladio hated to admit it, he simply wasn’t strong enough to withstand the onslaught much longer. His body was already beginning to fail him, refusing to rise from where he was crouched next to Noct and choosing without his input to provide cover instead. Not even that was any use—all it meant was that he would be turned into a pancake before Noct, if the latter was as real as he seemed.

This wasn’t working. His calculations were wrong, and this was his actual punishment. That was the only guess he had. If that was the case, though, then what was he even here for? To play fetch with an idle puppet while the Six made them dance? That was a little out there even for them. The Astrals had gone to some serious lengths to gauge Noct’s ability in the past, but this? This was impossible. This was ridiculous.

This was…exactly the opposite of what he’d been expecting.

Gladio would never know what made it all snap into place, yet with a surge of heat from his Crystal shard came a suspicion that he had no choice but to believe. For as long as he could remember, Gladio had trained to become the strongest person he could, both physically and by just about every other definition in the book. Years of his life had been spent in the Citadel’s training rooms with weights and practice weapons and instructors and anybody who could possibly aid him in his quest for the power to do what he must to protect Noct. Other people would have scoffed at him; some of them had. They said he was wasting his youth, that he had plenty of time to become a formidable Shield without giving up all that the world had to offer. A part of him had wondered at various points if they were right, but it had never been enough to change his course. Ultimately, he’d enjoyed what he’d done, and he took pride in what it meant both for him and his liege.

Pitting him against the strongest of the Six, however, was a rotten trick. He was completely right: there was no way he’d be able to stand up to Titan’s power. No amount of training or preparation could have allowed a human to take on a god and win. Noct didn’t count: he’d had his lineage on his side, so the cards had been stacked in his favor long before Titan had woken his sorry ass up.

The same wasn’t true for Gladio, whose certainty was growing with every moment he spent vacillating over which rock and hard place he wanted to get stuck between. How many times over the years had Cor reminded him that he should use his brains over his brawn on occasion in spite of his natural preference for the latter? How many times had Gilgamesh warned him that his brute force wasn’t enough when he needed to face his fears head on? The Blademaster’s trial was one where, even though he’d passed, he hadn’t really done what he was meant to. He’d never branched out from that reliance on bodily strength, from the beginning of his quest right up to the very end. Hell, it was still what he resorted to in a pinch: there was no sitting in the Citadel and planning things out when his other muscles served him much better than what was inside his head. He could carry equipment, hunt monsters, or whatever else he physically could to keep his mind out of the equation. For the last year, that had been sufficient.

It wasn’t now, not if he was going to prove that he could use his mind as thoroughly as his body to protect Noct. That had to be what Titan wanted, though Gladio considered it pretty hypocritical for a guy with unlimited strength to tell him he needed to think through it. That was Ignis’s job—Gladio’s was to smash shit.

Later.

At this rate, it would be much later. Real or imagined, Noct needed him. He was the King of Kings, the one who’d saved them all and brought back the light—no one was going to come at him, not even a god.

That was true mettle, as far as Gladio was concerned. Standing when all he felt like doing was lying down and giving up, hefting his sword over his shoulder when it seemed to weigh a million times what it usually did, turning his back on the Archaean’s incoming attack when every bone in his body thought he should stand and fight—that was mettle. It was hurriedly eyeing the cracks that trailed up the wall to the uneven protuberance at the top, renewing his grip on their salvation, and driving it straight into the side of the crater before he could ponder too hard on the likelihood that the blade would break.

It was accepting that defending Noct required the willingness to lose a fight when he never had before.

That wasn’t how it felt when the gap in the crevice widened, imperceptibly at first and then wider as he sliced further into the stone. Defeat was something he’d become intimately familiar with since returning to Insomnia; he knew it like an old friend, the annoying kind that you wanted to ditch but for some reason kept hanging around. That being said, Gladio could tell how it felt when your best just wasn’t good enough: it squeezed your heart and crushed your lungs until you couldn’t breathe for fear of making things even worse than they already were. In defeat, it was as though the clock stopped and everyone was watching your failure unfold around you. Outside, they pitied you—inside, they ridiculed you. There was no escape, either, because you could never outrun your own shame.

None of that applied here. Sure, there was the twinge of disappointment that he hadn’t gotten to show one of the Astrals the kind of frustration he’d been living with thanks to their creepy opinions on what constituted a reward for sacrificed kings. Besides that, though, there was only a grim satisfaction and subsequent panic when pebbles rained down on them, shortly followed by boulders nearly as big as the Meteor itself.

There was no time to waste, not to watch Titan reel back in what he hoped was surprise and definitely not to see him immobilized by the avalanche that threatened to bury them in a less fancy tomb than Noct deserved.

“Come on. Let’s get outta here,” he grumbled, leaving his sole weapon sticking out of the rock and slinging Noct over his shoulder. He only had time to deal with one, and when push came to shove, his brother was more important than a sword. The marshal would forgive him.

Hopefully.

If he didn’t, then Gladio had to believe that coming home with a decent consolation prize would even things out.

Of course, the mere thought must have alerted the Six to the fact that they were about to let him get away with something, because he’d barely made it halfway to the rapidly vanishing tunnel they’d traversed on their first visit a decade ago when his heavenly hosts decided to throw him a curveball. Again.

This one, at least, was a bit better than the others. That was what Gladio attempted to tell himself when the ground suddenly disappeared again, seemingly torn in two by the deteriorating remnants of the crater’s wall. Yeah, it left him falling through darkness, unable to gain purchase on his invisible surroundings—but they hadn’t been crushed. That was the main thing.

Then Noct vanished from his grasp. There was no tug to indicate that he’d gotten caught on something or even that the Astrals were taking him back to wherever it was they kept their playthings, merely the unexpected chill of losing what little body heat he’d been exuding and the far greater pain of that ever-growing crack in his own heart.

Dwelling on it wasn’t an option, luckily. Almost as soon as he came to terms with the trick they’d played on him, light burst before his eyes, temporarily blinding him as he was unceremoniously dumped on the hard rock once more.

Except it wasn’t rock. It was crystal.

And it was blurring in and out of focus, sparkling and shimmering in the perpetual dawn but somehow out of reach, as if…as if…

“True is the heart of the King’s Shield,” a voice whispered in his ear, and Gladio latched onto it like a lifeline in his desperate attempt to retain his consciousness for just a second longer. “He has proven his worth and his devotion to the Chosen King. To him, the path is unbarred.”

Well, what do you know?

Chuckling weakly, he vaguely registered the fact that he’d fallen to his knees, shivering slightly against the icy breath on his neck and the freezing Crystal shard against his throat. The Glacian seemed to be waiting for an answer, and while he was pretty sure something sophisticated and refined was in order, Gladio could manage only four words before the world turned sideways and faded to black.

“Son of a bitch.”

Chapter Text

Ignis had gone to great lengths to predict what they would encounter when they departed the Citadel for the Tempering Grounds. There was no way to be entirely certain of what awaited them, of course: they were dealing with the Astrals, all of whom were capricious at best. They claimed affection for humanity and then fought a war that devastated the people they allegedly cared about; they declared themselves allies to the Lucis Caelum line and then chose to test their Chosen’s faith with trials that, in some cases, proved deadly. At every turn, they had done what served their own purposes at the expense of their loyal followers, inciting the sort of discord that was capable of razing entire civilizations to the ground.

An optimistic man might have believed that this was different. One of the Six visiting them in their dreams, spurring them on their path to rescuing their lost king? It spoke more of their support than their contempt, especially when none in Eos had recently warranted the Astrals’ attention until now. An optimistic man, despite his caution, might have considered that a sign of the gods’ favor.

Ignis, however, was not an optimistic man. He was a realist, and a realist comprehended that contingency plans were necessary regardless of your conviction that things couldn’t possibly culminate in the worst.

Losing Gladio undoubtedly qualified as the latter.

In hindsight, Ignis recognized that it had been a strategic misstep to venture forth as they had during the sudden and unabating frenzy the so-called earthquake had caused, and this was the consequence of their stupidity—separation, perchance permanently depending on what their hosts had in mind for Gladio. Not once in the agonizing minutes of horrified silence afterward had he harbored the belief they had merely meandered into a natural disaster of epic proportions, not when the Six were supreme in this world and the uproar had diminished immediately after Gladio had been spirited away. The sensation was familiar enough, reminiscent of their journey into the Disc of Cauthess to gain the Archaean’s blessing for Noct, but it was simply too convenient to be any less than an orchestrated endeavor.

Whatever its purpose, it had worked. In the chaos, he regretted to say that he hadn’t paid close attention to what was going on. Otherwise, he may have realized sooner that they should have stayed together rather than attempting to flee the inescapable onslaught. If they had, maybe they all would have been taken wherever it was the Six decreed.

Instead, they were another man down with no idea of how to locate him.

“I still don’t see him!” called Prompto from where he had climbed atop one of the taller stone formations to survey the lay of the land from a better vantage point.

Frowning, Ignis suggested, “Perhaps it would be best to double back. It’s possible he was thrown in the other direction.”

It was a tenuous hope, and they both knew it. Given that they were running low on options, though, he supposed it was as reasonable a course as the next. There was no use in hunting around the same area they’d already scanned for any indication that their missing companion had come this way, even if they couldn’t be sure that their search wouldn’t lead them further from where he’d landed either.

His own uncertainty was reflected in Prompto’s features when he descended from his perch, lips downturned and gaze uneasy as he replied, “I dunno, Iggy. Would the Six really go to all that trouble just to dump him back where we started?”

“It’s difficult to say, but we can’t rule out the prospect.”

“Guess it depends on whether they heard all that stuff from before, huh?” Prompto joked, although there was little humor in it.

A noncommittal hum was all Ignis could manage in response, glaring into the distance as though he might spy Gladio if he tried hard enough. That was one factor of their predicament that he had been attempting to ignore, so it was hardly a surprise that Prompto gave it voice. The Astrals were, by all accounts, as tolerant as they were changeable: Bahamut had spent countless decades watching over them from the heart of their Star, and the Glacian herself had presumably lived amongst humans for centuries. While the others had slept for much of that time, the fact remained that they did not easily turn their backs on those who were meant to venerate them as the protectors of Eos. Only the Infernian had been capable of such treason, both before and after Ardyn’s influence had tainted his judgment; he had paid for it dearly as a result. Mere insults, if Ignis could refer to Gladio’s admittedly justified grievances in that manner, were therefore unlikely to earn their ire to the point where they would enact some heinous revenge. A silly prank like forcing him to start fresh where they had entered from the Tempering Grounds, perhaps, but nothing drastic—nothing fatal.

That, in any case, was the gamble he had chosen to accept. He had been wrong in the past and would be again. Ignis simply kept his fingers crossed that this was not one of those occasions. They’d already lost one member of their party—that was more than they could handle as it was.

Uncannily, Prompto seemed capable of sensing his thoughts, albeit with rather a different conclusion than Ignis would have preferred. Obviously interpreting his silence as agreement, he recommended, “Maybe we oughta split up. We could cover more ground and meet in the middle?”

“No,” Ignis immediately declined. “There’s no telling what might happen if we spread out, and we’ve no way to contact each other should we run into trouble. It’s safer to remain together for the time being.”

“Or till the next earthquake,” lilted Prompto sarcastically. It was a valid point in spite of Ignis’s irritation.

“It is a distinct possibility.”

“Better that than a flood, though. No towels around here.”

Ignis nearly groaned at the mere notion of what an unmitigated mess that would be, biting the inside of his cheek against it at the last moment. It was a small comfort that they were nowhere near the water, but the laws of nature did not apply here and were thus rendered useless. Staying together had proven impossible under present circumstances; he did not want to imagine what it would be like if their next disaster was of a wetter variety.

So, he didn’t. He merely nodded tightly and seamlessly changed the subject.

“We’d best be quick before anything else occurs to set us back.”

“Aye aye, captain. Where to?”

Pausing briefly, Ignis tore his gaze from the nearly invisible line of green where they had first arrived and focused instead on the distant Nebulawood. If he knew Gladio as he believed he did, then the latter would doubtless want them to keep moving, not waste time searching for him. He would say that they had more important matters to be getting on with and that, should he still be breathing, he would catch up eventually. For his part, Ignis didn’t agree in the slightest: they needed each other, as did their king. This undertaking wasn’t designed for one or even two of their small group; wandering the unknown as they were, they required every available hand on deck. While it would mean keeping Noct and the Six waiting, he wasn’t ready to give up the hunt just yet.

“We press onward,” he ultimately decided with careful deliberation.

Prompto didn’t let him explain, automatically assuming, “We’re just gonna leave Gladio out here?!”

“Of course not,” Ignis retorted impatiently. “We’ll watch for him as we go. If we haven’t found him by the time we reach the main thoroughfare, then we’ll work our way back around. It will be easier to see him from the road, in any case.”

If there was anything left to find, that was. He didn’t mention it aloud, but he could tell that Prompto was thinking the same.

They couldn’t afford to let the shadow of grief immobilize them, though. Doing so was detrimental to their mission, and Ignis would have none of that. They’d come too far to falter now.

More than anything, the idea of failure made it a bit more palatable to continue on, neither of them venturing further from one another than the distance required to stay atop the rocky outcroppings that haloed the Disc of Cauthess. All the while, Ignis sent up a silent word of thanks to their hosts for allowing him use of his sight. As discomfiting as the silence remained, it would have been incalculably difficult to stand their separation if he had to stumble through this world as he did their own. They needed two pairs of eyes for this; Prompto would have been overwhelmed by the task of searching for Gladio himself. He wouldn’t have said so, nor would he have complained that it was beyond what he could manage—they were long past those days. Even so, Ignis was glad to be of some help in this instance, given that it was more than he could say for his behavior prior to the Astrals’ interference.

He didn’t regret what he’d done. It was necessary, whether he chose to remark on Gladio’s demeanor here or the Citadel or anywhere else. There was never a good time to address the subject, and for the last year, they had beaten around the proverbial bush so that hurt feelings wouldn’t mar their already strained friendship. Ignis loved Gladio like the brother he was, just as he felt the same affection for Noct and Prompto; as such, he had been careful to approach him about his guilt and his grief without sparking the emotional explosion they had weathered earlier. Nothing ever worked, and if he was being honest, Ignis wasn’t entirely surprised. Gladiolus Amicitia had one of the hardest skulls Ignis had ever seen, which was quite the achievement when they had all witnessed the grandeur that was the Archaean. Subtlety was not the former Shield’s strong suit; neither were gentle hints. Whenever Ignis made mention of his state of mind in the roundabout manner he frequently utilized, Gladio vanished so quickly and thoroughly that he put the gods’ efforts to shame.

Something had to change. Something had to give, and Gladio wasn’t the sort to cede ground of his own accord. Therefore, it fell to Ignis to take the first step. Recently, and especially in light of the marshal’s orders, he had resolved to do more. The wall of stubbornness and shame that Gladio had built around himself had to be broken; if he wouldn’t tear it down willingly, then Ignis had committed to doing so by force.

This, however, hadn’t been the opportune moment as he’d originally anticipated. Ignis couldn’t claim not to have known what he was thinking in pressing the issue, because he did: in this place, there was no escaping the conversation at hand. Here, Gladio would have to listen without running and hiding the way he usually did with those self-appointed missions of his. If ever there were an occasion to take advantage of, he had believed that this was it—with those walls down and Gladio’s soul laid bare for them to shake some sense into.

Needless to say, Ignis had vastly miscalculated.

The worst of it wasn’t that he hadn’t gotten through to Gladio when he’d been laboring under the delusion that this was his chance. Ignis could accept that it was going to take longer for them to reach the level of understanding he sought where the former Shield’s dignity was concerned, and both he and Prompto had silently devoted themselves to the uphill struggle it presented months ago. No, the worst was that so many of the final words they’d spoken to each other had been in anger. Perhaps it was due to a superfluous fear born of his misgivings about their plight, but he couldn’t quite dispel it either. After all, they had learned at multiple junctures that you weren’t always given the option to say what you ought to—a decade’s worth of junctures, to be precise. He refused to admit that Gladio was gone or that the Six had decided to dispose of him forever: it was far too early to come to that conclusion regardless of the difficult position they had been placed in. Even so, Ignis couldn’t control the twinge of remorse that had him wordlessly praying that they would find him in one piece if for no other reason than to bring some closure to their conversation.

In this instance, luck appeared to be on their side. They were within sight of the road, Ignis’s heart hovering somewhere near his appendix, when something entirely out of place in their surroundings caught his eye. It was hardly visible, a mere speck in the distance, yet recognizable all the same.

“Prompto, there!”

Ignis didn’t wait, not to verify that Prompto noticed as well or that he was following. The sound of a second pair of boots against the crystal was indication enough as he leapt from the mound he’d been traversing and sprinted in the direction of the anomaly. It may have been foolish of him, but in that instant, he refused to consider the possibility that it wasn’t Gladio: the gods were known for many things, unpredictability included, yet their recent experiences pointed to the opposite. Not once since they’d arrived had there been a tremendous change in the environment; besides the divinely inspired quake, everything had remained static. The crystal, the angle of the sun, even the unnerving stillness in the air—all of it was as it had been hours ago. It was statistically improbable that the Six had decided to drop a lump of cloth in the middle of a field at random.

That they had chosen to drop Gladio in the middle of a field at random, however, was apparently more likely.

Ohhhhhh, man,” Prompto murmured, both of them hovering over their friend where they skidded to a halt beside him. “He doesn’t look so good.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?” huffed Ignis, incapable of restraining his brittle sarcasm when the miniature mountain that was Gladio didn’t remotely register their presence. It hadn’t been often in their travels that he had been rendered so utterly helpless, unconscious as he was and without any defense if the two of them hadn’t happened upon him. Indeed, Ignis hadn’t seen him at any less than his best form since they were boys, the altercation with Ravus notwithstanding. Gladio wasn’t one to show weakness, at least not of the physical variety, yet that was all Ignis could see as he prodded him gently.

So much, then, for luck. Tentative pokes or rough shaking, it made no difference—Gladio was unresponsive to their efforts in rousing him. And, oddly enough, that wasn’t the strangest part.

“It…doesn’t look like he’s hurt,” observed Prompto with a perplexed frown.

Nodding, Ignis mused, “The same thought had occurred to me.”

“Maybe the Six were just messing around?”

“I doubt that,” scoffed Ignis before admitting, “although there don’t seem to be any signs of a struggle.”

“Cosmic smackdown. Nice.”

“If by nice you mean you’re agreeable to carrying him, then yes, it is.”

That certainly caught Prompto off guard, and it was nearly comical how far towards the ground his jaw dropped. “You’re kidding, right?”

Ignis merely raised an eyebrow. “How else do you intend to transport him?”

“Uh… I figured we’d wait for him to wake up,” Prompto suggested as though that should have been the obvious course of action.

Any other day, it may have been the simplest choice if not the clearest one. With all that carefully toned muscle, Gladio was the heaviest of the three of them; hefting his weight would be no mean feat, especially when his height merely added to the trial. They hadn’t come here for simplicity, though, nor were they likely to find any if they remained where they were. Now that they knew the Six were watching as closely as the Blademaster had indicated—and that they weren’t averse to using rather cunning methods of throwing them off track—Ignis had his reservations. He doubted they would find any spot in the Astrals’ creation that was entirely safe from their brand of intrusion, but there was something to be said for the illusion of security, however fleeting it might be.

So, shaking his head, he argued, “I don’t like the idea of stopping in the open. It leaves us vulnerable.”

“So does being here at all,” countered Prompto, cottoning on to what Ignis had long since realized. “Not like they can’t find us pretty much everywhere.”

“All the more reason to keep moving,” Ignis insisted, much to Prompto’s apparent confusion.

“And how’s that exactly?”

“The Six have already seen fit to separate us once. Should they decide to do so again, it would be advantageous to have covered more distance first.”

Fragile excuse or not, neither could deny that there was some merit in the notion. The Glacian hadn’t brought them this far so they could sit idly and bask in the privilege of not attending to their normal duties, after all. In this remote corner of nonsensical space, he did not have to host meetings or draw up plans; no one was looking to him for advisement, nor did he have to enlist the assistance of others for his own purposes. If it weren’t for the imposing silence and the nature of their quest, Ignis would have found it somewhat enjoyable to relax in this haven of sorts—but he couldn’t. They couldn’t. Noct was waiting for them, asleep or awake, and their mission was to find him, not to treat this as a vacation or dawdle because of minor setbacks.

Though Prompto’s reaction was less than keen, he nevertheless refrained from complaining further and grabbed one of Gladio’s wrists to swing a sizable arm across his shoulders. Grateful for his cooperation, Ignis did the same on his side, biting back a groan at the sheer exertion it took merely to haul him to his feet. Musculature, while useful for a Shield, was an impressive nuisance in moments like this.

It wasn’t their only frustration either. Once they were situated, Ignis nodded to where Gladio’s sword lay abandoned a short distance off and commanded, “Don’t forget that. He’ll be needing it when he wakes.”

“Why don’t you get it?” grumbled Prompto, shifting uncomfortably under Gladio’s bulk.

“You’re nearer.”

“Am not!”

“Would you care to hold him while I retrieve it, then?”

“All right, all right! I’m going.”

Ignis should have known that his victory would be short-lived: bearing the full weight of their comrade was more difficult than anticipated, and by the time Prompto returned to his post (after taking a few extra seconds purely for the sake of retribution), Ignis was already sweating from the strain. Yes, he’d certainly lost a great deal of his physicality in the last year. First the trek, and now this? It was emasculating to realize that he had fallen so far in such a short amount of time. A strict workout regimen was definitely in order when they returned to the Citadel. It didn’t matter if he never went on another excursion as long as he lived—at least he would know that he could if needs be.

As it stood, he was regretting his lack of attention to his own physique as they struggled to drag Gladio’s over the uneven terrain towards the road. Each step seemed to cost them more energy than they had to spare with their empty stomachs and protesting kidneys, and not for a moment did their burden regain any consciousness to even involuntarily ease their passage. That, of course, would have been too convenient. Rather, Ignis’s sole comfort stemmed from the fact that Prompto was similarly beleaguered, his tongue poking out from between his teeth in concentration. Unlike Ignis, he had been more proactive in his training, for both personal and professional reasons. While his position also necessitated a bit more inactivity than they had been accustomed to for the last decade, he still ventured forth from Insomnia often enough that he had to keep an eye on his stamina. Of the two of them, he should have been better equipped to handle this chore, but it appeared that they were equally matched in the face of this test of strength.

How remarkable it was that the Six, in punishing Gladio, had chosen to penalize them as well.

Neither did the Astrals commute their sentence until they were so near the Nebulawood that they could see the crystal-sheathed surface of Alstor Slough beyond, which merely added to their combined irritation. Admittedly, Ignis would have been lying if he claimed that the physical stress was exclusively to blame for it: their concern grew the further they staggered with no reaction from Gladio forthcoming. He had no visible injuries, with the exception of a lump forming on the side of his head where Ignis assumed it had struck the ground; they could spy no broken bones, no unnatural protuberances, no blood oozing from cuts hidden from sight. By all accounts, Gladio was perfectly fine. Nothing but the ire of the six—or perhaps their humor—should have kept him from waking.

Yet that was precisely what happened. They were approaching the edge of the trees, Ausace Haven rising up to greet them, before a groan of pain finally broke the silence.

“Good morning,” he managed, somehow without gasping. It was possibly his greatest achievement all day.

The same could be said for Gladio when he groggily lifted his head, his feet finally assisting them of their own accord as he glared around in a bemused daze.

“Wha’th’ell ‘appened?” he slurred almost incoherently.

“You—You were—out, dude,” huffed Prompto, who managed to combine just the right amounts of relief and indignation when he shot Gladio a look out of the corner of his eye. It was a testament to how disoriented the latter was that he didn’t comment, so much so that Ignis wasn’t sure whether they should be concerned or not.

“Out?”

“Like a light.”

“And some distance from where we were separated,” prompted Ignis in an attempt to jog his seemingly spotty memory.

That was easier said than done. Despite Gladio’s wordless insistence that he could walk under his own power (which he could, albeit with a good bit of wobbling at first), he didn’t appear to have any idea what they were talking about. It was either that, or he was simply lost in his own thoughts so that their words filtered in through one ear and out the other. Ignis couldn’t tell which was more likely, though he leaned towards the latter: there was a different sort of heaviness to his gait that had nothing to do with the knot on his forehead or his gradually disintegrating bewilderment as Gladio regained his bearings, and unless Ignis was quite mistaken, his eyes darted about as if he expected something to be watching them from the shadows of the tall pines ahead. Of course, that had never been in question, even if they likely wouldn’t be able to see their audience unless the latter desired it. In this place, Ignis doubted they would find any true privacy whatsoever.

That was fine. They didn’t need privacy or the peace of mind that a closed door and empty room often provided. There were higher priorities to be managed: they had a long way to go, and they needed to be sure that all three of them were in decent enough condition to make the journey. Gladio, while upright and growing steadier by the moment, was their weak link. It was a problem to be remedied as soon as possible, not when they were on the run from yet another alleged natural disaster.

The glance he exchanged with Prompto indicated that he felt the same, and Ignis did not attempt to subdue him when he tentatively inquired, “You all right there, big guy?”

“Huh? Yeah, I…” Frowning, Gladio shook his head as if to clear it and pasted a distinctly fabricated version of his typical grin into place. “What, you worried about me?”

Snorting, Prompto shoved past him and called over his shoulder, “Nope. Just making sure you’re not gonna make us drag you all the way to the haven or anything. You’re no lightweight.”

“You callin’ me fat?” he demanded, although it fell a bit flatter than usual.

Prompto was by far the better actor in this instance. While Ignis concentrated on cataloguing the inconsistencies in Gladio’s behavior, he casually retorted, “Gotta lay off the Cup Noodles, man.”

“Cup Noodles are healthy.”

“They’re a sodium-fueled nightmare,” Ignis contradicted him with a roll of his eyes. What he wanted was to press the subject of what had happened, especially now that Gladio was attempting to divert their attention with this seemingly lighthearted banter of his, but he wasn’t given the opportunity.

Barking a strained laugh, Gladio evaded, “You should be happy. Least they’ve got vegetables in ‘em.”

“Freeze-dried cubes of negotiable nutrition hardly qualify.”

Gladio didn’t deign to respond, not that Ignis believed he would ever be lucky enough to win that battle. He had been struggling with Noct’s penchant for unhealthy eating since he was a child, and having a Shield that was hardly any better hadn’t helped matters. To put it plainly, Gladio was a creature of habit; adaptable as he was, there were still numerous facets of his personality that never changed regardless of the circumstances. Cup Noodles, for all their failings, were one of them.

Another was his irksome habit of hiding the contents of his mind when he would have been better served by sharing them.

As they followed in Prompto’s wake, Gladio’s feet dragging slightly in his apparent exhaustion, Ignis nearly opted not to say anything about it. He’d already crossed a few too many boundaries today for comfort, and the Astrals’ interference had highlighted the fact that he needed to be more careful with how he phrased things lest he alienate Gladio even further from their brotherhood.

Boundaries, however, were only of use when what lay beyond them was worthy of protecting. Whatever had happened earlier, whatever Gladio had endured when he wasn’t with them was not something that he had the luxury of keeping to himself. His grief, his self-loathing, even his obsession with staying busy rather than transmuting his pain into some form of closure were his crosses to bear. Ignis knew better than anyone that there were some daemons you couldn’t eradicate, particularly the ones that inhabited one’s own head; those were Gladio’s to deal with, much as he tried to assist in the endeavor.

This wasn’t the same. This might very well be the difference between success and failure, and failure was not an option. Not here—not when Noct’s fate hung in the balance.

So, Ignis paid no attention to the voice in the back of his head that urged caution. To do so would be to prioritize emotion over duty, a folly of which he was not capable. That being the case, Gladio would have to forgive him for his candor.

“Are we to ignore the behemoth in the room?” Ignis therefore inquired, slowing to a halt and waiting for the others to do the same.

No explanations were required: he could see in the stiff set of Gladio’s shoulders that he understood what he was being asked. For half a moment, Ignis thought perhaps he wouldn’t reply; Gladio merely turned his head a fraction, not meeting Ignis’s eyes but also not berating him for once again choosing not to mind his own business. He didn’t walk away, though, which was encouragement enough for Ignis to pry a bit further.

“We can’t leave this unaddressed,” he pressed, cautious yet firm. “What happened back there may be the key to our quest.”

In spite of his obvious reluctance, Gladio nevertheless chuckled darkly before he rejoined, “What do you think happened? I got my ass handed to me.”

“Ooh, the Six weren’t feeling the blame game, huh?” sympathized Prompto. His gaze drifted to Gladio’s hand where it was clenched tightly into a fist at his side, as did Ignis’s. It was impossible not to notice the subtle tremor there; whether it originated from emotion or mere fatigue, however, was anyone’s guess.

“You could say that,” grunted Gladio vaguely.

“And what else could you say?” asked Ignis with a sigh. They already had a difficult road ahead—he did not need the same characteristic in his companions.

As it happened, Gladio either heard his disdain or was suffering a bout of rationality for a change. His eyes were grim when he eventually glanced over his shoulder at Ignis, and what he saw in their depths was not so heartening.

“That we got bigger problems than just getting to Insomnia.”

Ignis nodded, the muscle in his jaw twitching. “Of course.”

“Wouldn’t be an adventure without trouble,” posited Prompto, ever the voice of optimism if not reason.

“If they wanted to give us a break, I wouldn’t mind,” Gladio grumbled. “Had my fill of trouble for one day.”

“You said it.”

“What brand of trouble are we set to encounter this time?” Ignis inquired, silently agreeing with them. It felt like they would never be rid of the constant trials that had been waiting around every corner since they had learned of Noct’s engagement, and while he wouldn’t deny that there was a certain excitement in the unknown, some occasions begged the question of why they couldn’t attend to their errands as most people did. Escorting a prince to his wedding, infiltrating imperial bases, scouring the countryside for weapons that hadn’t been seen in centuries—they were never bored, but they were never quite out of the woods either.

Based on the grimace Gladio wore, this time would be no different, and there was a pregnant pause before he hesitantly evaded, “Let’s find somewhere to sit down first. It’s kind of a long story.”

Ignis surmised without hearing another word that to call that an understatement would have been inaccurate. There were no short stories when one was taken by the Astrals, whether it was Noct being drawn into the Crystal or Gladio’s own experience. For now, however, there was nothing more he could do but nod his assent as Prompto once again led the charge towards the nearest haven. Given the state in which they had found him and the timing of his disappearance, Gladio seemed to require the chance to compose himself; Ignis was willing to cede that much for a greater reward later. Besides, it was impossible to deny that all three of them could benefit from a well-earned respite, which was exactly what Ignis had in mind when they approached Ausace Haven and caught a glimpse of what had been set up to greet them.

Nothing could have prepared them for the sight of their old camping gear, identical to the last venture it had accompanied them on, assembled and waiting like a shining city upon a hill. They hadn’t used the equipment in years; what they had left in the car at the Taelpar rest area was a decent enough replacement but hardly its equivalent. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to remove the superior products that were still sitting in the trunk of the Regalia, more an homage to their past than a functional piece of their present. Even so, Ignis recognized every bit of the utilities before them as if he’d just seen them yesterday: the tent that somehow fit all four of them with room to spare, the portable stove where he had concocted some of his finest culinary creations, the chairs where they had whiled away the hours playing games or purely relishing in each other’s company. Of the lattermost, there were four rather than three, the Six apparently choosing not to remind them of their loss when it was so close to being found again. Ignis had to appreciate that, even if he nevertheless vacillated between disappointment at not having another friend to fill the seat and utter bewilderment as to how this was possible in the slightest. As far as he could tell, the Astrals were unlikely to have retrieved their gear from the actual Eos; that was a chore he doubted they would undergo for the Chosen King much less his friends. No, it had to be yet another recreation, albeit one that wasn’t bathed in crystal. That in itself was a refreshing thought.

“Well, would you look at that?” murmured Gladio so quietly that Ignis nearly missed it. “Looks like our luck’s changin’ after all.”

Wincing, Prompto warned him, “Don’t say that too loud. They might hear you and make this all some big mirage or something.”

“This ain’t a desert.”

“Tell that to my stomach. What’re the odds there’s food up there?”

Surprisingly, in their favor. Their gear wasn’t all that had awaited them without their knowledge: the container at the edge of the camping stove was full of every possible combination of ingredients Ignis could think of, which was certainly saying something. There was fresh fish that could have been caught mere hours ago from the looks of it, vegetables that were ripe enough to have just been plucked from the earth, and more rice than a man could eat in a single day let alone one sitting.

And that wasn’t all.

“It seems that Gladio was right,” announced Ignis, gingerly removing a can of Ebony from the box and praying that it didn’t vanish with the onset of his confidence. He’d gone too long without it already; that would simply break his spirit.

Prompto was of a similar mind, his brows furrowed in suspicion when he leaned around Ignis to wonder, “Think they’ll be okay if we try to take them back with us?”

“One can only hope. Sadly, we won’t be finding out.”

“Uh, how come?”

Shaking his head, Ignis reluctantly set the heavenly beverage aside for later and answered, “It would hardly be appropriate to carry all this across the kingdom on our way to Noct.”

“I’m with Iggy. Gonna be tough makin’ it to the Citadel without extra baggage,” called Gladio, already seated in his usual spot and sounding like he might fall asleep if they didn’t do something to keep him awake.

Fortunately, Ignis had just the thing.

“Speaking of which,” he began. Motioning for Prompto to join him, Ignis tore himself away from the bit of paradise on his cooking station and moved to the familiar canvas chair in which he had made some of his favorite memories. “Perhaps now would be an excellent time to discuss where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

While his own demeanor shifted, edging closer to the detached professionalism he had perfected during his long years of service to the crown, Prompto remained in high enough spirits to jeer, “Yup, give us all the deets, man. What was it like, getting a good old-fashioned butt-whooping from the Astrals?”

Yes, because that is the important part, Ignis internally scoffed.

Gladio surprisingly didn’t remark on Prompto’s flippant taunt. Actually, he didn’t respond at all, his eyes closed and head resting against the back of his chair. If it weren’t for the tension that returned the instant the Hexatheon was mentioned, Ignis would have believed that he had dozed off. That wouldn’t have been such a bad thing either—drawn and pale from whatever encounter he’d had with the Six, it appeared that Gladio could have desperately used a nap of Noct’s proportions.

Later, Ignis reasoned. The information was too important to postpone discussing.

A Shield, particularly one of Gladio’s competence, couldn’t fail to recognize the same necessity. It was only a few seconds before he heaved a sigh and straightened in his seat, his expression shuttered. When he opened his eyes, Ignis was hard-pressed to find anything that might offer insight into his thoughts, which was concerning to say the least. Although Gladio was by no means an open book, Ignis could generally sense his moods with but a glance. This time, there was nothing to be gleaned. Humor, grief, determination—all of it had been leached away, leaving an unspeakable distance in its wake.

Considering the contents of his anecdote, Ignis supposed they couldn’t ask for more than that. The tale he spun, after all, was neither one of encouragement nor disappointment.

To have been accosted by the gods was a trial few had survived without some supernatural aid. For Noct, the power of his ancestors and Lady Lunafreya’s assistance had been instrumental in securing his receipt of the Astrals’ blessings; for Ardyn, a darker force had been at work. He and his magitek infantries had felled the gods on numerous occasions, even if the latter had returned time and time again. Ultimately, it seemed quite impossible that anyone of normal birth—namely, birth that didn’t involve magic rings or fatal prophecies or daemonic indulgence—would manage to hold their own in the event that the Six chose to smite them down.

Gladio, for all that his stature indicated the opposite, was but a mere mortal. He was no different from Ignis and Prompto in many respects: fallible and, compared with the Astrals, fragile beyond description. Being placed in front of the Archaean in a battle for not only his own survival but Noct’s as well was, to put it bluntly, utterly unthinkable.

Yet that was what had happened, all to test…something. His resolve or his strength of heart, but certainly not the measure of his physical prowess. If that was what they had in mind, they would have pitted him against a manageable foe, not a giant made of stone.

From the way Gladio explained the situation, however, it sounded as though the Six wanted to be assured of more than merely their capacity for defending Noct from bodily harm through sheer brute force. In that case, there was a method to their madness: their covenant to the kings of Lucis and the Oracles was protection and eternal life in exchange for their sacrifice, which meant they couldn’t be willing to part with their servants without ensuring that their security would be provided for in Eos. It was an understandable consideration if a seemingly redundant one. The three of them had stood at Noct’s side through thick and thin, taking the good and the bad as they came and weathering the storm together all the while. Perhaps it was presumptuous of him, but Ignis had been operating under the assumption that they had already proven themselves both worthy and willing to protect Noct from whatever sought to depose him, regardless of whether it fell within their typical operating parameters.

Wasn’t that why there were three of them, not to mention the countless other retainers and guards the Citadel had to offer? Wasn’t that why they had worked in tandem and developed the sort of synergy that had become second nature after all this time? That Gladio was a multifaceted individual capable of more than merely throttling potential threats within (or past) an inch of their lives was of no surprise to Ignis, yet in his opinion, there was no need for him to demonstrate it to anyone—not even the Six. Each of them boasted different strengths and weaknesses alike; they were humans, and although the Astrals might not remember, it was in their nature not to be good at everything. (Ignis, of course, had attempted to minimize his inadequacies to the best of his ability, but he was painfully aware of the fact that not all of his endeavors were as fruitful as he would have liked.) King Regis had recognized that they could not each in turn be all that Noct required from retainers and brothers alike, hence their threefold presence at his side. Honestly, it was the best possible approach.

When Noct needed advice and support in his decisions, Ignis was there.

When he needed the strength and will to carry on, Gladio was there.

When he needed to step away from his royal duties for a moment and just be Noct, Prompto was there.

Had he been present in that crater, Ignis would not have faltered as Gladio had done. He didn’t mean to boast, which was why he kept quiet on the matter, but he was positive that he would have spotted the weakness inherent in their geography and recommended exploiting it right away. Without access to Noct’s magic, there wouldn’t have been any other options available to them. Making those sorts of assessments was what Ignis had been doing since he was a lad, hardly capable of tying his own shoes let alone guiding a prince towards the greatness he was destined for. It was admittedly his best quality, as far as he was concerned: he excelled at setting his personal feelings aside and examining the terrain, literally or metaphorically, almost to the point of overanalyzing.

That wasn’t a Shield’s duty.

While Gladio relayed his account, describing in suspiciously sparse detail how he had attempted to engage the Archaean in combat before realizing what he was ultimately meant to do, all Ignis could dwell on was that his trial hadn’t been a test meant for a Shield. The loyal protectors of the kings of Lucis were precisely what their titles dictated: barriers against physical and emotional harm whenever possible. Gladio had always embodied that description, even if his more abrasive tendencies occasionally had him standing in his own way. That was neither here nor there, though. The point was that Gladio didn’t need to strategize when Ignis was there to do so for them. In a fair trial, one in which they were together rather than divided and disoriented by their dilemma, the Six would have seen that.

But we won’t always be together, Ignis reminded himself solemnly. If the gods don’t separate us, then time will.

That, unfortunately, was the natural order of things. No matter how many years it took, they would eventually be parted from each other. Unlike the Astrals, who had to be as intimately aware of their mortality as they were, the three of them would not live forever. If they left Noct where he was, then it wouldn’t matter: he would be defended for the rest of eternity—the Hexatheon would be on his side. Indeed, was that really so terrible? They had already isolated him in a place of relative peace. There were no more monsters, no daemons, no threats whatsoever besides boredom. A lack of mortal intruders meant that Noct could remain here indefinitely, unbothered by the outside world, whereas the Eos they sought to return him to was fraught with inconveniences if not outright dangers. They had come here to deliver him back to reality, a reality where his immortality would be stripped away and he would have to die again someday. It would be a more difficult road; Noct would have weighty responsibilities as king. That tantalizing gift of infinity, crystal casket notwithstanding, would be a thing of the past. It was a trade that Ignis thought few would consider equal—eternal peace for finite struggle.

It was no wonder, then, that the Six were testing them in such an unexpected and seemingly unfair manner. All they had to offer—all they could swear to their liege in return for his presence—was that they would be beside him, but for how long was not up to them. No, they would not live forever; it could very well be the case that a day would come when they perished while Noct lived on without them. There would, of course, be others that they could train to take their places. Retainers came and went, their service defining them more than their personalities in many ways. While those jobs still fell to them, however, they had to prove that they were capable of fulfilling them. If something happened to Ignis, then it would be Prompto and Gladio who were required to take the reins in his absence. There would be no looking to him for answers or inquiring after his opinion. He would be gone, and they would carry on without him.

With that thought in mind, Ignis merely nodded sympathetically when Gladio muttered, “It took me a while, but I figured it out. They can’t complain about this Shield not doing his duty.”

“Not when you basically dropped a mountain on the bigger big guy,” Prompto pointed out, his voice thick with both awe and a touch of humor at the idea.

“It wasn’t like we were gettin’ outta there any other way.”

“The ultimate combination of strength and strategy, I should say,” agreed Ignis.

“Guess I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeves.”

“Unless we’re very much mistaken, so do the Astrals.”

Ignis hated to sully the mood, yet his brittle reminder stopped them in their self-congratulatory tracks before they could venture too far off course nonetheless. Praising Gladio for his triumph over the task he had been set couldn’t distract them from the gravity of their situation, however tempting it was when they were comfortable and safe for the time being. The food waiting to be cooked and the tent waiting for them to retire inside didn’t erase the path ahead of them; if anything, they made it all the more intimidating. Barreling into the unknown had always presented certain challenges, and this was by far the greatest they’d come across since they had been too young to truly understand the meaning of the word. Gladio’s trial had been suited to his greatest struggle: how would he protect Noct if physical strength was of no use? It was a question the Six clearly wanted an answer to, one that they had both gotten and accepted from the sounds of the Glacian’s blessing.

What questions could they wish to ask of himself and Prompto? They were both at least proficient in utilizing mind over matter—Ignis had no other choice, and Prompto had demonstrated his ability purely by surviving Niflheim on his own. Their assessments therefore had to be something different, something that he couldn’t even begin to predict. All he could be sure of was that the same divine logic would apply to them. Whatever the Astrals wanted them to prove before they were allowed to see Noct wouldn’t be simple, nor could they possibly prepare for it in advance.

They wouldn’t turn back, though. They were close, so close to retaking everything they had lost. He wasn’t going to leave Noct here, not while the possibility remained that they would see a day when they were together once more. Perhaps it would be around another campfire, reacquainting themselves with their ancient equipment in memory of who they used to be and celebration of who they had become. Well, maybe that was a bit too optimistic on his part. More realistically, they would merely encounter new adventures within the walls of the Citadel, embarking on them in partnership and providing each other with the fortitude they had been lacking for a year now. Either way, what happened when they returned to Insomnia didn’t matter—he had sworn an oath regardless. If Noct was alive, then that oath was still applicable. Gods, as formidable as they were, could not stop him. Fear had no place here.

That was why he didn’t allow it to overwhelm him in spite of the apprehension gnawing at his insides. There was nothing he could do to alter what was inevitably approaching; dreading it would render him vulnerable in the moment. For now, he could merely watch and wait.

And cook, because if the Astrals were going to present them with an opportunity to rest and refuel, then he wasn’t going to let it pass unobserved.

As it happened, their previous concerns turned out to be rather misinformed. Where they had been admonishing the gods in the latter’s absence for not considering the needs of the average human, the Six had apparently done more than merely take their dietary requirements into account. They had all they could desire for quality meals that would not only feed them for a week at the very least, but which would put Noct’s standard fare to shame. (The fare he had insisted on ingesting when he was younger, in any case. It was with a pang of sorrow that Ignis remembered he had, in fact, eaten all his vegetables before the end.) Yesterday, Ignis would have cautiously portioned each ingredient so that they would last in the event that there was a future shortage. He would have planned his recipes well in advance so that one dinner sufficed for multiple nights without wasting what he didn’t have to.

Today, he saw no point in sparing their provisions, so he put the admittedly excessive pantry and his familiar stove to good use with the sort of reckless abandon he hadn’t exercised in years. Even with Gladio’s story echoing in his head, warning of what was to come, it was almost as pleasant as the old days.

Almost, but not quite.

There was something oddly disquieting about the situation when he remembered their predicament, even though it seemed so distant as he flipped the tide grouper fillets and watched them sizzle in the pan. Sipping an Ebony, listening to Prompto and Gladio wearily trade witticisms… It was so easy to believe that they were young men on their first journey away from home or that Noct was simply fishing nearby. The idea that home was under reconstruction, that what was bountiful here wasn’t so plentiful there, and that the fruits of the sea were safe from his brother’s enthusiasm felt much further away than it had hours ago.

It was nigh intoxicating, and Ignis forced himself not to grow accustomed to their new surroundings as he finished plating their meals and settled next to the others for their first camp-prepared dinner since they had said goodbye to Noct. The Ebony, while pleasant and sorely missed, would run dry; the food would be left behind. Rationing would become their way of life again. Like the Blademaster had told them, they would have only what they could carry, which made the Astrals’ gifts fleeting at best. Their attachment was to Noct, not to trivial material goods. Ultimately, it would be better for everyone to remain focused and resist the enticement of indulging overmuch—even if he did plan to bring just a can or two along. Energy would be important on the road ahead, so it could hardly be considered a luxury.

Not like all the rest.

“Man, why can’t it always be like this?” groaned Prompto once the dishes had been cleared and more of their provisions consumed than Ignis would have thought possible. After years of uncomfortable awareness with regards to how long their consignments would stave off their hunger, it was a pleasant change to expend little attention on their appetites.

Even Gladio, who had practically fallen over with lassitude when they’d arrived, perked up somewhat. His smirk was more genuine when he retorted, “If it were, we’d all need a workout. My compliments to the chef,” he added, raising his cup in Ignis’s direction.

“Come now, it’s nothing special,” he sniffed, although he couldn’t deny that the compliment was encouraging. Even here, even now, he hadn’t lost his touch. That would come in handy, especially if they had to venture back to the gateway with Noct—and, presumably, Lady Lunafreya—in tow.

“Best meal we’ve had in a while,” Gladio argued. Prompto nodded vigorously in agreement.

“Totally. Noct would be so jealous if he knew we were out here getting the good stuff while he’s stuck…wherever.”

That had Ignis rolling his eyes as he deposited the last of the dishes on his workstation. “He’ll have plenty of opportunities to sample more delectable cuisines than I am capable of scrounging up.”

“Oh, yeah?” snorted Gladio. “You hiding an army of kitchen staff somewhere?”

“No, but it is merely a matter of training. I suspect the lines to serve the king of Lucis will stretch throughout the city when Noct returns.”

Prompto’s grin was mischievous, reminiscent of days past when he nearly cackled, “I can see it now. He’s gonna be so embarrassed.”

“Guess we’ll have to help him escape every now and again, just to make sure His Majesty doesn’t permanently turn red.” It sounded like a joke, but Gladio certainly had a point. Noct’s nature had always been more reserved, particularly after his injury; having anyone besides the three of them waiting on him had tended to fluster more than flatter him.

Even so, Ignis felt it was his responsibility to advise, “Perhaps on occasion, but it won’t all be fun and games. If we overcome the rest of the Astrals’ trials and bring him home, he will have a kingdom to run, not to mention the fact that he will be married as well.”

“Aaaaaaand there goes the fun,” sighed Prompto, his lightheartedness not quite covering a flash of something that Ignis had spotted in his eyes before. It wasn’t jealousy—he doubted that there was a jealous bone in Prompto’s body where Noct was concerned. The former didn’t have the mentality for the latter’s position and was well suited to his place behind the proverbial curtain. Still, it wasn’t normal, and Ignis logged it away for further examination.

If Gladio noticed, then he apparently chose to do the same, because he ignored Prompto entirely to inquire, “You think the Six are gonna let us take the Oracle too?”

“I doubt they would have much choice in the matter,” observed Ignis, shrugging a shoulder. “These trials seem designed to test our ability to do for Noct what they intended as reward for this Focus business. That being the case, I don’t believe they would force him to live without his bride.”

“Plus, Gentiana was always Lady Lunafreya’s number one fan, right?” added Prompto, to which Ignis hummed in approval.

“Indeed. The two of them were fast friends beyond the connection of mere god and vassal. At least, that was my understanding.”

“So, she’ll definitely let us take her back too! She wouldn’t make her stay here without Noct.”

“Yeah, talk about lonely,” murmured Gladio, immediately amending, “if she can sense that kinda thing.”

“I should think it is quite likely. After all…”

Ignis trailed off, unsure of how he wanted to phrase his assumptions. Admittedly, they were fairly rudimentary: he hadn’t begun to entertain the notion until the Glacian had imparted her message to them, and even then, it hadn’t seemed realistic. Flights of fancy seldom were.

Then again, was there anything more fanciful than a crystalline world of eternal dawn?

“What’s up, Iggy?”

Gladio’s voice shook him from his musings, and Ignis glanced up to see both him and Prompto watching him curiously. Ordinarily, Ignis would have said that it wasn’t important; looking as ridiculous as he felt about the subject wasn’t something he openly invited. But these were his friends—they were the only ones who would comprehend his speculations and, unless he was further off base than he thought, perhaps even concur.

Ignis therefore cleared the hesitation from his throat and continued, “I…can’t help wondering whether those dreams where Noct was there… On many occasions, it was as though I could sense his presence for hours afterward.”

Just as he’d hoped, Prompto nodded right away. “Same here.”

“Yeah, me too,” Gladio chimed in, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “Kept feelin’ like he was standing right behind me.”

Ah. So that, too, was no mere coincidence.

Was anything anymore?

“I experienced the same. There’s no way of knowing without more information about Noct’s condition”—or the alleged blessing of the gods, debatable as that was—“but I would wager that he has been reaching out to us somehow.”

“You mean, like, reading our minds,” guessed Prompto with narrowed eyes and a puzzled frown. Ignis should have predicted that he would attribute this to some comic book-fueled drivel or other. At this point, he couldn’t even say that he was entirely mistaken.

“Not quite, but I suppose it would be similar in nature,” evaded Ignis, his frustration with their lack of insight piquing. “Whatever it is, and whatever it means, it does appear to indicate that Noct is at least distantly conscious of what is happening.”

“And decided to pay us a visit way before Gentiana did,” surmised Gladio.

Ignis nodded pensively, qualifying, “This is all conjecture, but it seems as logical as anything else.”

“Which isn’t much,” Prompto murmured.

“Admittedly, no.”

Gladio grunted noncommittally, his expression twisted as he ventured, “I mean, I guess it could happen. It would take some pretty powerful magic to get that to work, though.”

Sighing, Ignis reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose against the oncoming headache this subject always left him with. “Magic that he would no longer have any access to.”

“And that ain’t mentioning how he’d cross between realms. Who knows if it’s possible for anybody but the Six?”

“Plus their faithful servants at the border.”

“Yeah, them too. I don’t think a giant hunk of crystal’s gonna have much luck getting through that.”

“Unless he had another way to talk to us.”

Ignis paused, his mouth open to deliver a response he hadn’t yet constructed, and looked to Prompto. It was Gladio, however, who asked, “Meaning?”

The thoughtful expression on Prompto’s face as he reached beneath the collar of his shirt was equal parts uncertain and hopeful, a peculiarly similar sentiment to the one that had Ignis’s heart beating faster when the former pulled his shard of Crystal out from where it had been hidden. None of them had second-guessed the souvenirs their hosts had left behind when they’d taken everything else; besides their memories, it was all they had of Noct, and that in itself made them precious beyond words. Why there had only been three, why they were the sole pieces large enough to be removed from the throne room, why they were hot to the touch in the aftermath of nightmares they hadn’t realized were more than they appeared—none of that had given them pause. The Astrals had mysterious methods, and Ignis wasn’t going to look a gift chocobo in the mouth if they could glean any solace from doing the opposite.

Perhaps he should have pried its beak open instead.

“We’ve all got one, and we’ve all been having those weird dreams,” Prompto mused with a smile that lacked the skepticism of his shrug. “Noct’s in crystal too, sooooo…”

It made sense the same way an airship remained aloft or the Meteor had retained the heat they required to power Lestallum—without explanation yet simultaneously not requiring any. The connections were there, albeit with numerous holes they couldn’t hope to fill in, and they were more intelligible than any other reason they had considered thus far. As a result, Ignis wasn’t going to question it for once. The answer didn’t matter so long as the Hexatheon didn’t plan on descending to confirm or refute their suppositions.

“That does appear to be what ties it all together,” he agreed nevertheless. “The Crystal and those bound by it share that common element. Even as a simple mineral, it possesses extraordinary elements that our scientists have been examining for centuries. Doubtless there are facets that we cannot possibly imagine, especially with the Six involved.”

Scoffing, Gladio mumbled wearily, “Well, maybe they could use some other mineral. Gotta admit, I’m getting kinda tired of this one.”

“Ugh, same. It’s pretty and all, but sheesh, I’d pay serious gil to change it up a little,” sighed Prompto.

Ignis hummed, although he avoided agreeing outright. The beauty of the view didn’t detract from the reality that they couldn’t truly touch anything in this world. That much was a constant wherever they roamed: the stone and runes of the haven were buried inches deep in the crystal, in sight yet out of reach. It was all like that, and while the sun shimmering off its surface was pleasant to behold, its initial appeal had long since worn off. In its place was a sort of distant utopia that was both idealistic and disdainful in its overt insinuation that it wasn’t meant for them. As he stared out over it—the vast plains and mountains they were never supposed to see—Ignis wondered if even the gods could be entirely happy here.

But that wasn’t any of his business, nor was it his place to besmirch the land the Astrals had created in part as a reward for their loyal servants.

Detaching his own feelings from the situation, Ignis therefore chided, “If Prompto is right, then it would be wise not to complain. After all, it may very well work to our advantage.”

“Not so sure on that one,” countered Gladio without heat. He sounded more disappointed than anything else when he observed, “Dunno about you guys, but it hasn’t felt like Noct’s been around since we got here.”

“We also haven’t slept since we got here,” Ignis pointed out, although it sounded like a thin excuse to his own ears. Prompto, luckily, was willing to overlook it in light of their present circumstances; his gaze was almost awkwardly longing when he peered significantly towards the tent.

“Probably something we should fix, right? It’s gonna be a while before we get to the Citadel…”

“And we still don’t know what we’ll find along the way,” Gladio finished for him. For his part, his affirmation didn’t seem feigned in the slightest: he was already on his feet, stretching his arms over his head in a manner that clearly indicated he had been mentally prepared to sleep for some time.

Ignis, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. In hindsight, it had been optimistic to the point of foolishness to believe that he could regain his sight with no unpleasant consequences. He had been blind for eleven years—longer, if he wished to count the months. The habits he’d formed weren’t going to vanish purely because he could see again, whether it was his now innate reliance on noise or his inability to sleep when it wasn’t dark around him.

While the absence of the former had been unsettling, the latter was positively maddening.

Maybe that would be his trial: completing their pilgrimage without a wink of sleep as it increasingly seemed that he would have to. The sun didn’t rise and set in the Astrals’ world, as far as he could tell. It had remained stationary throughout their journey, from Secullam Pass straight to the haven. Not once had it shifted in the sky, the shadows unnaturally static and unbroken by any movement besides their own. There was no reason for darkness to hold sway in what was designed to be paradise, though; night had no business here, just as they didn’t to a certain extent. As such, the problem wasn’t with the environment so much as it was with Ignis.

Like it or not, he was used to living in darkness, be it in his waking hours or his sleep. Yes, he could see in his dreams, but there was something different about that. No matter how compelling or absorbing the vision, he always knew that it wasn’t real, that he would wake to the same dull blankness that had been his world for over a decade. By now, anything else would have been an abnormality, and he had grown content with the idea that that was all he had to look forward to. There was a measure of peace that accompanied resigning oneself to their fate—that was a lesson he had learned from Noct, in a sense. Despite his duty, he’d had every reason to rail against the destiny that awaited him. Death at the hands of the former kings and the gods so that he might ignite a dawn he would never see? It was more than most people could stand to think about let alone endure, yet Noct had done so with the grace of a monarch. It was inspiring, and Ignis had done everything in his power to live by Noct’s example.

So, he didn’t fret over the eye that itched with exhaustion or the muscles that cramped with fatigue. He didn’t attempt to lie down when the others pressed him, insisting that their relative safety didn’t excuse them from keeping watch on the surround. He could utilize the time to plan their next move anyway. Now that they could partially predict the dangers they would encounter before they reached the Citadel, the game had changed. Sleep wasn’t anywhere near as important as devising a strategy that would err on the side of caution while not marking them as cowards either.

That, of course, was his first mistake.

Chapter Text

When Noct was younger, he’d asked Ignis what purpose the Astrals served.

Hardly older than a child himself, Ignis hadn’t quite known how to react. The Six were simply the Six, the beings that watched over them and had bestowed upon the royal family of Lucis a fraction of their power. They had been the sentinels of Eos since time immemorial, as the Cosmogony claimed, and would presumably remain so for the rest of eternity. All that they had, all that they were, they could attribute to the gods that had shaped humanity into what it had become. That was what his instructors had taught him, and he’d not inquired as to whether there was something else worth discovering. What more could mere mortals possibly require?

As far as Noct had been concerned, a great deal. His queries had been unwavering in their intensity and unfaltering in their rapid application—what was the point of them? Why weren’t they there? Why didn’t they intervene against the empire? Why did they allow suffering when they could have stopped it? Why, if they were such powerful guardians, did they never seem to guard anything?

On and on the interrogation had stretched until Ignis was too speechless to formulate a response. After all, what could he say? Back then, he had been a pupil, a novice: his job was to listen and obey, not issue the sorts of questions that Noct had the privilege to voice. If he was being honest, that distinction between their stations was the furthest thing from his mind at the time. That he had been entrusted with tutoring his friend and liege in the history of the Astrals at all had been too exciting a prospect to leave room for other musings—or questions of his own. Perhaps he had been shortsighted, given his age, but he hadn’t considered whether Noct would foster a deeper curiosity beyond a few definitions or some awkward and ancient phrasing. That, he would have been more than capable of fielding.

This, he had not been prepared for.

His inability to cobble together the answers Noct had craved wasn’t owed singularly to his confusion regarding where the latter’s sudden vehemence had originated, although that played the largest role. As if sensing that his teacher was not so educated as he pretended, Noct hadn’t offered him more than a moment to consider his reply in his haste to drive home the point.

“Why did they leave us the Crystal if they weren’t gonna help protect it?”

While the force behind his inquiries had already been startling, Ignis was even further taken aback when he outright demanded a response to that one. Through fire and lightning, water and darkness, Ignis could still see it: Noct’s eyes blazing beneath his shaggy hair, his fists clenched in his lap, his lower lip jutting out slightly in a pout that he was failing to subdue. It was the kind of fire that Ignis hadn’t witnessed since before Noct’s injury two years prior; if it hadn’t been directed at such an unexpected subject, he would have been relieved to learn that some of the old Noct yet lived deep within the boy who had been struggling to recover ever since.

There had, however, been one unarguable advantage to his outburst: he’d given himself away. For all his subtlety, there was simply no masking the distant grief that was hiding behind his anger and his pain.

The chink in Noct’s armor had always been his father.

The years passed, yet Ignis couldn’t forget the days when Noct had been glued to King Regis’s side. If His Majesty was in the Citadel, he would trail around in his wake even if it meant concealing himself so as not to be seen during official business; if the king was out, Ignis was hard-pressed to remove him from his perch on the front steps where he waited for his father to return. When he did so, Noct would fly to his arms as though they formed the door to paradise, and Ignis had eventually abandoned his post beside his friend to preserve what fleeting privacy the two of them could steal. It hadn’t taken the consciousness of an adult to understand that they were utterly devoted to one another in spite of their circumstances.

But that had changed. As the empire grew more hostile and ambitious, and especially as King Regis’s health had begun to decline, the two of them had not been so inseparable anymore. Days would slip by, in some cases, where they didn’t see each other for an instant. Noct would linger outside the Citadel only to retreat with his head bowed and tears in his eyes when his father didn’t come home or rushed past him on some errand; he would sigh over his work and perform as well as he could when his thoughts were elsewhere. He would be everything he should, yet it nevertheless wasn’t enough to bridge the ever-widening gap between father and son.

Was it so unheard of for someone in his position to believe that the gods had failed them as a result? Not only had royal duties stripped from him the attentions he had been accustomed to receiving, but with each increasingly rare visit from King Regis, there had been no ignoring the steady toll maintaining the Wall was taking on his body. Age had set in well before Noct’s teenage years; it hovered like a phantom above him, gradually leaching the color from his hair and the strength from his limbs.

All for the sake of the gods.

Ignis couldn’t tell him that, though. He couldn’t agree with the sentiment regardless of how it shone from Noct’s eyes and the nearly imperceptible wetness that had gathered in their corners. Despite his youth, Ignis had comprehended that he was treading along the edge of a knife in that conversation. If he erred too far to one side, he would be confirming Noct’s obvious fears for his father, which was unacceptable. It was Ignis’s job to recognize better than anyone how greatly the prince missed King Regis’s presence at a time when the latter had been too preoccupied with politics to communicate his affections the way he had before. Stoking his son’s concern, even slightly, would be unspeakably cruel. If he swayed in the other direction, however, he would be blaspheming. That sort of thing might not have mattered to most, but back then as in more recent years, Ignis had been cautious not to tempt fate. There was no crime more deplorable than committing treason against his prince, and defiling the reputation of the gods meant to aid his reign had seemed like nothing less in those days.

So, Ignis had filed carefully down the center of the road and left his response at a hushed, “Sometimes we must do for ourselves what the Astrals aren’t able to.”

Noct hadn’t been a very receptive audience to that, not that Ignis had assumed he would be. He had been too young to fully appreciate his meaning, although to an extent, so had Ignis himself. All he’d been taught was that it fell to the kings, not the Astrals, to safeguard their interests in Eos through the divine presence of the Crystal. What that duty had been doing to King Regis was regrettable, to be sure, yet there was no alternative. There was no escape, much as Ignis would have liked to provide one. Eventually, the task of sustaining the Wall and defending the Crystal would be Noct’s, and he didn’t need to be wasting time and energy wondering where the gods were when he would have been better served by building confidence in his own abilities. That in itself had been lacking for years by that point.

Had he ever learned to trust their deific sentinels? Or had he gone to his doom with the disquieting certainty that he was alone—as alone as his father before him and every other Lucian monarch that had preceded his short-lived sovereignty? If for no other reason than his own shameful comfort, Ignis hoped that it was the former. They had traversed kingdoms and empires, forfeited family and friends, and undergone the transformation of soldiers on the battlefield to earn the favor of the gods. At the very least, Noct deserved some semblance of reparation for all he’d sacrificed, all he’d gambled, all he’d become. Surely, the Six weren’t so detached from humanity as to deny him that.

Chuckling morosely at his pitiful bout of optimism, Ignis sipped from his third can of Ebony with a heavy sigh. His metabolism must not have been accustomed to such heavy doses of caffeine anymore, because it wasn’t sitting right in either his stomach or his head. Rather than calming his nerves while concurrently sharpening his focus, it was turning his cognition to nonsense and made his heart beat faster for no reason. That, in any case, was what he had to assume. What else would have accounted for the reminiscing he engaged in while Gladio and Prompto’s soft snores filtered out from between the flaps of the tent? Hadn’t he just gotten through imploring the former Shield not to allow his emotions to run rampant and distract him from their goal?

Of course, he had. That was his duty for as long as he was destined to remain with their entourage. It didn’t seem to mean much to his own conscience, however, which was apparently convinced that he had plenty of time for self-reflection in light of his undoubtedly impending trial. And what he found when he delved deep within himself was both comforting and terrifying in equal measures.

Yes, it had to be the Ebony.

As it sent his unprepared psyche into overdrive, he had no choice but to follow the avenues of his memory to places that he had been avoiding after dwelling on them for ten years. His lack of adequate rest didn’t help matters; it merely intensified the sensation of both familiarity and fathomless despondency when he mentally strolled through the throne room he hadn’t seen in over a decade. The Astrals might think him weak for believing so, but Ignis couldn’t quash a pang of longing when he considered all the milestones that had occurred in that simple yet elegant chamber. That was where they had departed for Galdin Quay, leaving home and all they’d ever known behind. That was where the king had erected the Wall that had allowed Ignis to flourish as a scholar, an advisor, and a friend over the years. That was where the fate of their world had been decided, the test of his loyalty conducted, and the loss of his brother guaranteed.

Most importantly, however, it was where the two of them had first met.

Ignis’s life had changed that day, and not solely because he had made the acquaintance of the person to whom he would be by honor bound for the rest of it. No, it went far deeper than that: his entire existence had essentially revolved around Noct every second of every hour of every day since then. As children, they had played and learned together until Noct went off to public school and Ignis remained behind to study the intricate workings of the Citadel. Even then, they had hardly been away from each other’s sides, Ignis taking his duty as Noct’s brother seriously and the latter unfailingly ecstatic to have someone near his own age who desired closeness with him rather than the monetary compensation that was inherent in the position.

In retrospect, while he supposed there were instances in which he may have done too much to ensure Noct’s happiness, he likewise couldn’t bring himself to regret his efforts. After all, there hadn’t been any harm in looking the other way if the prince pilfered a few too many cookies from the Citadel’s kitchens or hastily covering the mark he’d left on a painting of the prophecy in his boredom. Ignis had indeed promised him everything under the sun—within reason—but had never gone so far as to neglect his responsibility to be a good brother and also keep him on the straight and narrow. Noct was destined to be a king one day, not to mention a proper prince in the meantime, yet that didn’t exclude him from the trials and tribulations that would similarly transform him into a grown man like any other. That required a very different training from the one that both of them had been offered at the palace.

As Ignis had gotten older and realized what it meant to become the sort of man that everyone had faith Noct would embody, he had wanted only to impart his newfound experience to his brother regarding all that the nuances of age entailed. That had been a profoundly optimistic venture, as well as one that was easier said than accomplished when the prince had been so reserved in the wake of his injury. It had been in those harrowing weeks afterwards that Ignis made a different vow, a vow that wasn’t required by his instructors or the king so much as his conscience: he had sworn to himself that no harm would come to Noct so long as he lived, albeit in a varying context. Eventually, the prince would have his Shield and his advisor, both of whom would be tasked with protecting him, but Ignis refused to let the boy behind the royal suffer needlessly either. Too few cared about that person—the person who had graduated at the top of his class and who had spent the last years of his relative freedom performing community service as opposed to engaging in political proceedings, even though Ignis had frequently reminded him that a balance was necessary.

Huffing a humorless laugh, Ignis set aside his empty can and absently reached for another. Too few, indeed. Years later, it still seemed as though none but the king and Noct’s close circle of friends had truly understood who he was beneath the pomp and circumstance of his station. Everyone else saw the veneer, the façade that they had constructed in their heads when their prince had proven an elusive target for the press. To the young ladies of Insomnia, he was but a handsome dream, a fairy tale made real; to the Citadel retainers, including many of those who spent a good bit of time in his presence, he was their liege. Yes, he and Gladio—and Prompto, to a degree—had seen him in a similar light. Like it or not, he was their prince and future king. Whether they called him Highness or purely acknowledged his duties as heir to the crown, they were unable to look at him without even distantly recalling the role he had been ascribed at birth.

Still, they had made every provision for the boy masked by a shell of royalty that they could in their own ways. Prompto had catered to his less than regal desires, accompanying him on his forays into the realm of the common folk. Gladio had worked perhaps a bit too indefatigably to make Noct strong so that he could look out for himself, and not purely in a monarch’s capacity—he would have his Shield for that, so it wasn’t something he would necessarily require so long as he remained in the Citadel. Sparring with Gladio and enduring his endless stream of mingled encouragement and teasing, however, was enough to fortify the frailest creature’s confidence.

Then there was Ignis, who simply did whatever needed to be done in the moment.

Perhaps that is my weakness, he mused wryly to himself.

Admittedly, it wasn’t an entirely exaggerated notion. Despite his part in their group dynamic, he had always suffered a blind spot where Noct was concerned, both before and after his sight had abandoned him. He never thought through his actions, never considered the consequences for himself—when Noct needed him, he was there, consequences be damned. That was what had happened in Altissia, in Gralea, for ten years in a land of shadows. If they retrieved Noct and brought him home, he would undoubtedly do it again.

And gladly.

He would wear a smile in the face of his own demise if it meant the opposite for Noct. He would cheerfully waltz through the invisible gate that separated this world—or, more appropriately, their world—from the next. He would nod to the Astrals on his way by, falling into oblivion content in the knowledge that he had fulfilled the duty he had assigned himself. That, at least, would be of some comfort to him when everything else faded into obscurity.

Either he’d become too engrossed in his own musings or the nature of his thoughts had simply distracted him, but Ignis didn’t register the distant sloshing of water immediately. It instead played into the memories that assaulted him from all sides, bringing to life the events of Altissia once more until he was forced back to the present by a sudden and startling splash.

Where…?

Almost before he was aware of moving, Ignis was on his feet, his eyes drawn towards the Slough. He couldn’t possibly have heard what he believed he had. It was likely a figment of his imagination, an unfortunate byproduct of allowing his mind to wander. In the aftermath of the Hydraean’s attack on Altissia, he had suffered similar spells of paranoia: they would be comfortably seated inside the train to Cartanica when, without warning, his senses would be submerged beneath the swelling waves of recollection. It hadn’t made a difference that they had been surrounded by desert or that no one else had reacted to the same sounds that had haunted his ears. The specters of that night had plagued him nevertheless, unwilling to extend to him one moment of peace in his idleness.

That had to be what was happening now: too much caffeine, too little sleep, and too long without anything to occupy his time had culminated in the past catching up to him. In a place such as this, there simply wasn’t any other alternative. The crystal sheath laid out over Alstor Slough was unbroken and unbothered, and their only supply of water was neatly stored in closed bottles next to the rest of their rations. Inside the tent, Gladio and Prompto didn’t so much as twitch at the noise that appeared to exist purely in Ignis’s head; they had fallen asleep without pause and hadn’t stirred since. No, it was a mere trick of the mind. It had to be.

His conviction, however, was transitory at best.

Unable to calm the nerves he had set on edge with his own irresponsible binging on Ebony, Ignis managed to pace the length of the haven only once before he heard it again, nearer this time than it had sounded before and accompanied by the sort of earsplitting clamor that had razed the majority of a city to the ground long ago. The foreboding cacophony had him whirling on his heel and again scanning the horizon for any indication that he had merely fallen asleep and was dreaming about days that were better forgotten, but there was nothing. There were no towering serpents, no displaced waterfalls, no enemy ships sent careering through the air by the gods themselves. All that awaited his gaze was the same endless sunrise and even scenery as far as the eye could see, strain them as he did. Even the odd dissonance, as if in an attempt to malign his sanity, didn’t echo over the landscape in the manner it should have.

Gladio and Prompto slept on.

That remained the case as he crept past the tent on silent feet, climbed off their sheltered plateau, and picked his way cautiously towards the nearest shallow pool. He would never quite fathom what possessed him to do so, but it was as though a magnet had been attached to his shoes, attracting them to its partner somewhere in the Slough. There was no question in his head of staying where he was or even of waking his companions before he ventured off on his own, which he dimly realized wasn’t exactly the most sensible course of action given their predicament. Even so, gone was the ironclad determination not to part from the others that he had harbored in the wake of Gladio’s disappearance. In this, somehow, he was increasingly cognizant of the fact that he must go alone.

If this was the Astrals’ way of calling to him, then at least they had chosen a more peaceful route than their initial attempt at garnering attention. While his reminiscences of their role in all that had transpired in Eos weren’t what he would call flattering or overwhelmingly deferential, they were a far cry better than the verbal abuses the Six had suffered by Gladio’s tongue. They were well within their right to flex their proverbial muscles in order to prove a point, in the former Shield’s situation. In Ignis’s, however, there was little need. He was, after all, a willing participant in this ever-unfolding production.

But why here? That was his foremost ponderance as he crossed the crystalline path and veered right in the direction of the solid water. There had been some method to what had happened at Cauthess: it was where they had encountered the Archaean for the first time on their journey, though he had subsequently followed them elsewhere. The Slough, on the other hand, bore no remarkable resemblance to holy ground. Actually, Ignis had suspected that they would not meet another deity until they approached Fociaugh Hollow. They had traipsed throughout Duscae hunting for the runestones that would bestow upon Noct the full might of the Fulgurian’s blessing, but it wasn’t until they’d reached the ancient cavern that they had accomplished that feat. That being said, he couldn’t imagine what it was that chose to summon him all the way out here—if that was the case.

Perhaps it wasn’t so unlikely that he was losing his tenuous grasp on sanity, after all.

That was how it felt when he stopped at the edge of the meager dip in the ground that constituted one of the Slough’s many ponds and stared bemusedly downwards. It, like everything else, was buried beneath a thick layer of crystal that seemed more like ice in this context. His reflection stared back at him, but it was muted, distant despite the mere feet that stood between him and the still water below. Ignis half expected to see life beneath its surface, a school of fish or an errant frog that might have survived the Astrals’ disdain for animation in their perfect, sterile world. That, at the very least, would have accounted for the noise if he didn’t contemplate it too deeply.

No movement caught his attention, however. Above or below, the mere was as bereft of life as the rest of the tableau before him. Not one ripple broke the calm, and although it would have seemed a pleasant sight in another life, Ignis couldn’t help the tingling sensation at the back of his skull that warned him he was not the only one here. There may not have been footsteps—there may not have been the sound of human breath besides his own—but he was not alone.

In wordless confirmation, Ignis started at the eruption of yet another splash, albeit one that was not quite so violent as the last he’d heard. If he didn’t know any better, he would have said that it was just Noct casting a line into the water or Prompto skimming a stone across the surface in order to stave off the prevalent boredom he often shouldered when they whiled away the hours watching Noct enjoy his favorite hobby. It was so quiet that it nearly evaded his senses entirely; it would have if not for the decade he’d spent growing attuned to the noise of his surroundings.

Which was how he knew it had come from behind him rather than ahead.

Peering furtively over his shoulder, he noticed that insatiable pull against his feet returning, prodding him on like a man possessed. It took every bit of the carefully crafted willpower he had spent countless years accumulating not to obey its silent command, his eyes darting between the direction of his latest clue and the haven where it stood like a beacon of safety against the darker backdrop of the trees. He shouldn’t stray further without alerting the others to his departure—he was well aware of that. They had already dealt with one unanticipated surprise; they didn’t need another, especially considering how fragile their understanding of this world was. For all he knew, if this was the beginning of his own trial as he assumed, his eyesight could vanish entirely the moment he was far enough from camp to satisfy the gods’ demands. That would be an unmitigated disaster, to be sure: without sound or the ability to adequately feel his path when a crystal barrier blocked anything recognizable to him, he would be utterly lost.

It wouldn’t be permanent. The Astrals’ previous test was evidence enough of that. Still, he didn’t like the idea at all, not when he couldn’t be certain that he would find his way back should his sight return after whatever they had planned for him.

Either that made no difference to the Six or they were sending him yet another of their trademark messages, because his feet submitted to the invisible tug before he had a chance to decide what he would do. They were entirely heedless of his unspoken orders to remain stationary, to allow him more time, to carry him in the opposite direction rather than further into the Slough. In that instant, they were not his to utilize so much as a tool of the Astrals, hijacked for their purposes as he practically staggered closer and closer to the slightly larger lake nearby.

Where nothing met him. Nothing but the familiar silence, the eerie stillness, and the unconscious sensation of divine eyes scrutinizing his every move.

The idea had his heart pounding even faster in his chest, hammering a desperate and annoyed tattoo against his ribs. Was this a game to them? Had they nothing better to do than tease him like this, appealing to his fears and his insecurities alike so that they could simply string him along without end? Gladio’s trial had been straightforward and succinct: the Archaean had removed him from their present reality, dropped him into the middle of his ostensible doom, and prompted him to locate whatever existed within himself to escape. From the outside, it had not seemed so easy; they had been operating in the unknown, and until Gladio had been returned to them, they could only believe the worst. In general, however, it was a fairly forthright trial—which apparently wasn’t in the cards for him. Unless, of course, slowly driving him to madness was the nature of his test. If so, the Six were already doing a marvelous job.

Because there, behind him, was another splash.

Breathing deeply, Ignis didn’t even attempt to stall his advancement. He didn’t wait for the imperceptible engine that had taken control of his body to engage, choosing to tread into his fate of his own accord this time. Maybe if he was fortunate, the Astrals would see that as his preparedness to continue with this heretofore farcical trial. He had no other word for the absurdity that had him trotting all over Alstor Slough and stopping at every pond as though their next meal might leap from the water to present itself for inspection.

The largest awaited him much as the others had, unchanging and steady in its adherence to whatever laws dictated the way of things in this place. It was jarring, in a sense, not to see a catoblepas or two wandering at its center; they were a staple of the landscape, always present whether their retinue was passing through the wilderness or merely driving by. Here, like any other organism that Ignis would have expected to find, they were glaringly absent. No mournful, grinding howls rent the air, nor was the surface of the lake constantly displaced from their lumbering footsteps. Water towers loomed in the distance, shacks and boulders dotted the plains—but the life that should have been there was gone. More than anywhere else they had yet traversed, the unreality and the bizarreness pervaded everything in this very spot.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that this was where his doom would be decided.

As suddenly as it had begun, the game ended with such abruptness that Ignis had no opportunity to steel himself. His gaze was firmly rooted on the hard crystal at the center of the Slough, ostensibly impenetrable like the rest of the gods’ creations, when it exploded without notice.

His reaction was instinctive, owed to sheer reflex rather than anything more intelligible, and he raised his hands before his face as a geyser erupted from the center of the mire and sent innumerable shards of shattered crystal flying. The force of it was enough to knock him backwards, although he couldn’t tell which was worse—the pain of striking the ground unprepared to catch himself or the unmistakable sensation of his forearms being torn to shreds where the ruined surface of the marsh ripped through his shirtsleeves. The minuscule daggers slashed any inch of skin they could reach, his vulnerable flesh growing so raw that he couldn’t imagine using them to break his fall. Rather, his spine hit the ground hard enough for the impact to echo through his rattled brain, and he was hardly aware that he was rolling until his injuries struck hard against…

Pavement?

Ignis didn’t immediately open his eye, huddled against the ground as the onslaught abated and attempting to make sense of his observation. If it was simply more of the Astrals’ trickery, then they were certainly going out of their way to make it convincing: the ground beneath him wasn’t the smooth, infallible crystal that had just showered him in debris a minute earlier. This was rougher against what little skin remained on his arms, almost as if someone were rubbing sandpaper over his wounds instead of pouring salt into them like most tormenters would opt for. Lines ran along the harsh stone—the brick, he belatedly registered—nearly imperceptible through the fabric of his trousers where his hip was pressed uncomfortably to what he could only surmise was a road of some sort. That was quite impossible, though. Besides Lestallum, there was nothing of the like in Lucis, nor would there be until they were finished patching the nigh irredeemable scraps of asphalt that constituted most streets throughout the kingdom these days.

That he was no longer in Lucis didn’t occur to him until he finally opened his eye—both eyes—to see one of the few sights he had ever hoped not to: Altissia, and not in its finest state.

Suddenly, it was difficult to remind himself that this must be but a vision, a trick of his consciousness brought about by the gods’ need to put him in a location better suited to their trial than where he had been before. The place bore too many similarities to the one he had read about at the Citadel—or, more accurately, what had been read to him. The flames hadn’t risen from Accordo’s capital in eleven years, and the smoke should have cleared by now, but the rest was as he had been informed.

Desolate. Absolutely desolate.

Buildings that had stood for centuries were laid to waste, their roofs missing or windows blown out while black pillars billowed from their obstructed depths. Tables and chairs where innocent civilians had spent their days, eating and fraternizing and caring not a whit for the troubles of the world or their imperial overlords, had been reduced to little more than rubble; their umbrellas were all that had survived, carried off by the sea breeze in a mocking rendition of flight. Here and there, the detritus of the city’s destruction was scattered, indiscriminate of where it fell or how unforgivable a betrayal it was for doing so. Behind it all was the inescapable backdrop of the waves crashing against what remained of the levees and sloshing over the embankment as though a hurricane had burst into Altissia before they’d had a chance to prepare for it.

Ignis recognized it all as he gradually forced himself to his knees, his good eye wide while the other burned with the phantom pain of what he had sacrificed the last time he had witnessed this sort of devastation. It was a sensation he hadn’t felt for a decade, yet being plunged into the selfsame scenario that had necessitated his actions brought the memory flooding back to him with such agonizing accuracy that he had to wonder what it was the Six hoped to accomplish in bringing him here. Did they suppose that he would go to pieces at the reminder of his simultaneously greatest and most foolish endeavor? Were they operating under the belief that the mere sight of this nightmare would be adequate to steal his resolve, his positivity that he could reach Noct in the present just as he had that day? Were they anticipating that he would curl into a ball on the ground and wait for them to deposit him back with his friends, more a failure than ever?

They were mistaken. If that was what they expected, then he would prove to them the opposite. Ignis couldn’t fathom for an instant why he was here besides the obvious emotional ramifications the locale held for him, but he refused to be cowed by a specter of the past. He refused to allow his mind to be bent to the Astrals’ disdain or his flesh to betray him the way it had under Ardyn’s insidious gaze. He had ventured forth from the Citadel without sight nor conviction that they weren’t insane; he had wandered a world of gods where man was never meant to tread. All that so he could find Noct and protect him as he once had.

This was no different. What he’d done in Altissia, he was still doing now. Let the Astrals deem him incapable of navigating the same plague of destruction he had a decade ago. Ignis was nothing if not determined to outperform expectations.

At least he wouldn’t have to outwit imperial troopers in the process.

It would have been putting it mildly to say that the lack of anything animate around him was unsettling, yet that was all he could think as he maneuvered himself to his feet and surveyed his surroundings through a more strategic frame of mind. There were no soldiers waiting for him; the magitek infantries that had been present on their last visit to Accordo were conspicuously absent. Not even the multitude of imperial airships that had attempted to precede him to the Altar of the Tidemother were within view, though he didn’t consider that a hardship in the slightest. He would require every available ounce of his concentration to determine why he was standing in the courtyard by the eastern bridge and what the bloody hell he was supposed to do now. Spending it on an incessant stream of adversaries would be a waste.

Without the transceiver he had been fortunate to receive from the First Secretary before, he had but two options: follow in the ghostly footsteps of his past self or pause for further instructions. The latter initially seemed the lesser of two evils, especially considering the fact that there was no telling what would await him if he attempted to do what he had before. From what Gladio had told them about his own trial, however, there hadn’t been an opportunity to play it safe. He hadn’t echoed his motions a second time, instead diving into the depths of Cauthess heedless of the risks. That was what Ignis faced now. Standing still, as King Regis had told him longer ago than he cared to remember, was a sign of weakness. Kings could not afford such feebleness of will or heart lest their reign fail; it had been Ignis’s duty as friend and brother alike to see to it that Noct didn’t hesitate. It was reasonable to assume, then, that a king’s advisor couldn’t lower themselves to the same behavior. He was to provide an example, whether Noct was here to witness it or not.

Thus, his decision was made for him, unappealing though it was. There was no ignoring that it must have been the gods’ conclusion as well, not when the eastern bridge had conveniently remained in one piece rather than crumbling into the sea as it had eleven years prior. That was what had stalled his arrival at the altar that day, and not a moment had passed in his subsequent musings on the subject when he hadn’t considered what might have been had he traversed the river in time.

It appeared that he would finally have his answer, if things stayed the course they seemed to be on. Nevertheless, Ignis didn’t take the duplicitous ease of passage for granted and cautiously approached the crossing with a silent prayer that he would not be cast aside again.

He needn’t have bothered: the airships that had made his path all the more difficult before couldn’t very well materialize now to pester him. Well, perhaps that was being too optimistic—they couldn’t very well materialize without the Six willing them into position. That, from the looks of it, was the last thing they wanted. While his previous visit had been riddled with obstacles and distractions, there were none in this instance, and he reached the opposite bank without incident. He would have seen it as quite the achievement if not for the divine intervention involved and what that consequently meant for him.

What it meant for Noct, however, was entirely different.

Ignis hadn’t spied the telltale beacon at the far edge of the bay upon his arrival, but it was all he seemed capable of registering once the bridge was behind him. Its golden luminescence stopped him in his tracks, and shameful as it was, he could do little more for a moment than stare in amazement. Gladio hadn’t mentioned the Oracle at Cauthess, which was only to be expected: she hadn’t been present in the original affair, so there was no reason for her to have been there even as a phantom in his trial. As such, the Astrals must have interpreted his actions as evidence that he was capable of protecting both Noct and Lady Lunafreya, considering the nature of the situation.

While her appearance would have been out of place in his examination, Ignis’s mind was awhirl with the possibilities of what it indicated that they hadn’t removed her from his own scenario. All of a sudden, this wasn’t so simple. He hadn’t predicted that he would have two targets rather than one and had been endeavoring to convince himself that he was supposed to merely locate Noct, that that was what the gods wanted since they hadn’t chosen to obliterate his straightest course like the empire had done. With Lady Lunafreya in the mix, he wasn’t certain that it would be so benign as that. The Six knew that he would always find Noct, eyesight notwithstanding. In the darkest night, he would be there for his brother and his king; he had been, every step of the way. If he had to crawl to the altar like a beast of the field, then that was what he would do—but he would make it.

Now, he wondered whether Noct was truly the purpose of his mission. The sun was relatively high in the sky, as he calculated it would have been when the Oracle was still alive. There was no telling when she had perished, though a part of him hoped that if he had been quicker in arriving, he could have done something. It was impossible to negate the impact of the covenants on the human body, and even if that weren’t the case, it would have taken much greater power than Ignis possessed to have managed it. Could he have prolonged the inevitable somehow? Could arriving sooner rather than later have required less of the Oracle’s remaining power being used to protect Noct given that Ignis would have been there to do so? Could the Astrals’ task for him include rescuing Noct and providing him what closure he could find with Lady Lunafreya?

There was no way of knowing, but it was a chance that Ignis wasn’t going to take. Not with the gods watching.

So, he ran. His chest heaved, his lungs burned as he struggled to draw breath after breath, his muscles protested each step with stark reminders that he had already been thrown for quite the loop already—yet he persisted. The streets of Altissia were his own kingdom now, bowing to his whims rather than thwarting him at every turn. Not once was he forced to fight or to so much as consider drawing the daggers he vaguely registered were back at camp with the others; there were no enemies here beyond time itself, and he could sense it ticking away with every jarring impact of his shoes against the pavement and his heart against his rib cage.

When he reached the entrance to the altar, dimly indignant at the confirmation that it would have been so much easier had the empire not interfered, dusk had not yet fallen. The waves were crashing against the jagged edges of the bridge that would lead him to his quarry as they had years ago, but he could see them clearly in a way he hadn’t when he’d trod this path with Ravus. The Archaean remained as absent as he had been since Ignis arrived; despite the Hydraean’s similar neglect, he was positive that her presence dogged him ceaselessly. Would any of the other Astrals be so bold as to use not only Altissia, but the scene of his ultimate humiliation, for this venture? No, he found it highly doubtful. The Tidemother was as vindictive as she was petulant, so this sort of exacting trial was precisely what he would expect from one of her unique traits.

But what was the endgame? As he darted along the causeway and swerved left towards the altar, he was no closer to understanding his task than he had been at the eastern bridge. Lady Lunafreya’s magic towered overhead, unwavering in the rapidly waning light. He could only hope that both she and Noct would be waiting for him to…what? Drag them from this place? Put himself between them and whatever the Hydraean next decided to throw in their direction? It would be foolish to assume that nothing would happen as soon as he was within shouting distance—a mere hunt was too simple a feat—nor had he forgotten what had stalked him the last time he’d been there.

He’d looked like Gladio, spoken like Gladio, even moved like Gladio—but Ardyn Izunia had been anything but. Ravus had noticed before he had, although Ignis hadn’t known the extent of his powers then.

He had learned. They had all learned.

Would he be here now? Would the Astrals have gone to the trouble of resurrecting even the image of that blasphemer all for the sake of measuring Ignis’s mettle?

Well, if that was the case, then they could go ahead with it. Ignis had stood before him once and survived, albeit not in entirely one piece. In the event that Ardyn had returned, as an apparition or a nightmare or whatever nonsense the gods deemed necessary, Ignis would meet him head on as he had that fateful day.

What he wasn’t prepared to encounter arrived in the form of a white dog, one that he felt no particular pleasure in approaching. Instead, his heart fell into his stomach, and it took more than he could say not to retreat from the quadruped trotting towards him.

Here was yet another reason why he was incapable of calculating what it was that the Six desired him to do. Everything about this pantomime of the Hydraean’s wrath was both right and so very wrong. The destruction remained but not the army that had contributed to it; the key players were in attendance but not the gods that had laid them low. And now Pryna, striding up to him on strong paws, unlike their last interaction. Then, she had perished with her mistress, if such a thing was possible for divine Messengers. She had done her alleged duty and relayed the vision she was meant to impart to him of Noct and the fate that he was destined for prior to her passing from their world into the next. It had clearly cost her something in the process, yet the strain did not appear to have taken the same toll here. In fact, Ignis had to wonder whether he was witnessing an echo of the past in this instance or if this was indeed the same canine that had guided Prompto to the text that had, in turn, guided them.

Either way, he wasn’t eager to learn whatever she had to convey now. He already had plenty from his last venture to keep him wallowing in guilt and grief for many lifetimes to come; the last thing he needed was to add to it. Besides, what more could she hope to communicate? She had already given him everything he required in some form or other, so he couldn’t fathom what she could possibly provide to him that he hadn’t already considered at great length before the Astrals had whisked him away to this nightmare.

Or so he believed.

As they had during their first and final meeting, Pryna’s piercing amber eyes seemed to stare straight into his very soul as the landscape vanished in a flood of pure light. It was warm against his skin, soothing the aches and stinging cuts in the manner he’d always believed the Oracle’s powers must. Ignis had been fortunate throughout their journey not to be afflicted with the Starscourge, but he had seen how it wrought havoc on Noct’s system when he was a child. The night terrors, the pain, the inability to accomplish simple tasks on his own—not to mention its impact on his magic as he’d gotten older and should have mastered warping sooner. The sole comfort Ignis had taken in the situation was that he had been whisked away to see the former Oracle in time to avoid lasting damage, at least physically. On so many occasions in the aftermath, when he noticed Noct staring into the distance or refraining from the activities he’d once lavished in, Ignis had pondered what it must have been like to stand in her presence and feel that power coursing through him. It couldn’t have hurt: the Oracle was meant to assuage pain, not cause it. Perhaps it had been his child’s mind attempting to locate some semblance of comprehension in a situation that was increasingly incomprehensible, yet he hadn’t been able to shake the conviction that what Noct had gone through felt precisely the way he did in that moment.

Ignis hoped that it lasted longer for his brother than it did for him, because he’d hardly been blinded before a string of images erupted before his mind’s eye—and they were about as unpleasant as his last bout of canine-inspired visions had been.

The odd part was that they weren’t unfamiliar, invoking a strange sense of déjà vu that had him shivering despite the heat that was still emanating from the Messenger. No, Ignis had been in this place before, albeit not when he’d been able to see it for himself.

How he recognized that it was Zegnautus Keep, however, he would never fully understand.

The Ignis of his past—the Ignis of his daydreams—stood from the floor and peered around himself without the aid of his glasses sharpening his focus. His hair hung lank in his face from too many tumbles into salty water, and his ordinarily impeccable clothes were wrinkled seemingly beyond repair. If he was afraid of his circumstances, of the sacrifice that he had made to be brought here unawares, he offered no indication.

For that was why Pryna was showing him this, was it not? This was not merely a prediction of what was to come, but of what might have been.

Ignis would be lying if he said he hadn’t imagined it on many occasions over the years: considering Ardyn’s offer, accepting his request for Ignis to accompany him in order to preserve Noct’s life when the latter had been helpless following his trial with the Hydraean. The images that flashed before him now encompassed everything he had wondered about, from discovering that he had been spirited away from Altissia to wandering the vastness of the Keep to locating the Crystal and being accosted once more by Ardyn. He knew them like he knew himself; they had become as much a part of him as his arms or his legs. His Messenger companion had clearly been sent to give them more tangible form, yet they were his own musings nonetheless. Well, not his musings—that would have been a far too blasé term. Suffice it to say, then, that they were nothing more or less than his deepest, most desperate desires.

Ever since he was a child, Ignis had weathered the constant accusations that he thought too much. Gladio had pressed him to relax on occasions when his duty dictated that he needed to have his wits about him; Prompto had complained in more than one instance that it couldn’t possibly be healthy for someone to use their brain to the extent that Ignis did. They weren’t the only ones: besides his instructors, so many of the people he had grown up knowing reminded him that there were moments when he should simply let himself take a step back and ease his conscience.

Not bloody likely.

His job wasn’t to chill, as Prompto and Noct had called it years ago. It wasn’t to stand by and let the world spin around him, governance and economics ebbing and flowing of their own accord. Noct required an advisor who planned for every eventuality, every variable, every scenario—not a lackadaisical retainer who spent as much time lollygagging as actually achieving their ends. As such, Ignis had taken to considering their taunts and insults as a positive affirmation that he was doing as he should rather than the corrective devices, however useless, they were intended to be. Thinking too much equated to being prepared for whatever Noct might require assistance with; examining a situation too closely was the equivalent of not only doing his job, but doing it well. With compliments like that being bandied about, he hardly needed anything else.

The sole disadvantage to having internalized that routine so thoroughly was that he applied the same mindset to everything, not just what would benefit Noct. It was what had made his encounter with Ardyn at the altar that much more difficult to stomach. Ultimately, it wasn’t the loss of his sight that plagued him most; it wasn’t his ostensibly meaningless sacrifice. No, while those would forever haunt him, the true phantom residing in the depths of his subconscious was the possibilities.

What would have happened if he’d made a different decision? What would have happened if he’d gone to Gralea with Ardyn and played into his trap? What would have happened if the others had been forced to find him rather than Prompto?

What would have happened if he’d made a different bargain with the kings of Lucis than a trade of his vision for the power to defend his brother?

So many questions, and not one answer forthcoming. The maddening cycle of frustration at those eternal dead ends used to leave him raw and, if he was being honest, a bit self-conscious. There was nothing worse, in his opinion, than realizing in hindsight that he could have acted in another manner and possibly incurred an improved conclusion. In spite of his ongoing ignorance, however, Ignis had finally reached a point where he had simply accepted that it was better not to know, especially when he had no way of gleaning further insight beyond mere speculation.

And, it seemed, a divine canine.

Because Pryna was more than willing and capable of not only echoing his wildest imaginings, but showing him what would have occurred had he chosen another path.

The results were startling, although not entirely unexpected. Watching himself give his life to the kings so that Noct wouldn’t have to left him nowhere near as discomfited as witnessing Noct’s death in advance had; seeing his body wither into the darkness before his friends arrived seemed natural, if immeasurably and unspeakably heart wrenching. Or…perhaps that wasn’t what he saw. There were layers upon layers filtering through his mind at the Messenger’s behest, all the possible outcomes whirring past with dizzying speed.

There he was, passing away with no one there to comfort him besides his distant and altogether unsatisfactory conviction that at least it wasn’t Noct perishing alone in the dark.

Then he was on the other side of the room, dodging attack after attack that Ardyn sent his way—a daemon in human form, and invincible besides. It wasn’t enough—until it was

He was on the ground again, his friends hovered over him this time. Prompto was silent, Gladio was equal parts furious and grieving, and Noct was reaching out to the Crystal—but it was impossible, he couldn’t…

He could.

Amidst the flux of happier endings and bitter defeats, the more effective sacrifices and the tearful goodbyes, there was a spot of light in the distance. It was a possibility he hadn’t entertained for more than a fraction of a second in the rare instances that it occurred to him, not when it was too devastating to hope for.

Noct, on his throne because Ignis had banished Ardyn in his stead.

For now.

Whether as a natural course of her purpose here or in apology for what she had forced him to witness last time, Pryna offered him that brief snippet before unceremoniously dropping him back into the here and now. As the scene vanished like the smoke of their innumerable campfires and their innocence along with them, replaced by the raging waves and unsettling reminder that he needed to keep moving, he was allowed to savor the…the possibility.

One that he couldn’t convince himself truly was.

Oh, but he wanted it to be. He wanted to believe that had he chosen a different course, he could have saved Noct from his fate long before they had departed the Citadel for the Tempering Grounds. He wanted the certainty that his sacrifice, if in another form, might have made a difference.

That it still could make a difference.

Frowning, Ignis turned towards the altar where he had no doubt Noct and Lady Lunafreya would be waiting. What if…?

What if?

Ignis wasn’t aware that he’d moved until he was rushing between the ancient stone columns that had been built to honor the Tidemother as well as ward off any who might incite her ire. They loomed over him in the gloom that was rapidly descending as dusk turned to night far quicker than it should have, eerie sentries urging caution rather than the reckless abandon he was demonstrating. He had no other choice, though, because…

What if?

On his only other invasion into this sacred territory, he had been accompanied by a friend and enemy encapsulated in the same body. His had been the hand that dealt grave blows to the imperial troopers; his had been the words that guided Ignis to realizations he never would have come to otherwise. Ravus had been an abrasive figure at best, more impatient than Gladio and less tolerant of inconveniences than Noct, yet he had ultimately been good. He had assisted Ignis until the very last moment not because he necessarily wanted to after his sister’s passing, but because he recognized that it was the right thing to do—saving Noct and allowing him to fulfill his destiny.

Ignis supposed it would have been asking too much for him to be waiting at the altar.

It was. And he was by no means surprised to see it.

At least he was spared Ardyn’s nonsensical illusions and his ridiculous propensity for toying with their heads purely to satisfy his own amusement. The gods, in this instance, must not have cared to listen. They had done a good deal of that during the long and fraught existence their ancient failure of a king had endured, and Ignis had no doubt that they were unwilling to tolerate more regardless of his trial. That was the sole explanation for the former chancellor standing over Noct, knife in hand, without bothering to flex a few of his more antagonistic muscles. Not even at the end of all things had he been one for making their road easy or streamlining the process inherent in his revenge—far from it. If anything, he’d put the Astrals to shame with his limitless cycle of pointless tests. Navigating Insomnia would have been difficult enough without the added benefit of dodging his silly games, from the mocking depiction of his own Wall to his pet monster to the Infernian himself. Even the kings of yore, none of whom should have been present for that affair, had been torn from the remains of the Old Wall in order to block their path just once more. The mere reminder made their endeavor to find Noct appear elementary and simplistic in design, which certainly gave the Six no compunction in not letting the image of him further outmatch them.

For a brief moment, Ignis nearly forgot that that was what leered at him when he skidded to a halt a few feet shy of where Noct was sprawled upon the bridge, Lady Lunafreya nowhere to be seen. The specter was so accurate, so appallingly real that it temporarily erased the intervening years and transported him right back to that day—as he assumed it was meant to. The same niggling guilt for not having arrived sooner so that he might aid the Oracle still roiled in the pit of his stomach; the same unspeakable fear that the end had come for Noct when none of them were prepared for it yet squeezed his lungs. His breathing was labored not merely from his sprinting across the city, and more than anything, he was uncomfortably aware that he’d been wrong thus far about every single prediction he’d made regarding this trial.

Every single prediction but one.

What if.

“Well, well. What have we here?”

Ardyn’s simpering broke through the haze of recollection versus reality, and Ignis had no time to prepare before he was roughly thrown to the ground by the magitek troopers that unexpectedly appeared all around them. Although he had no spectacles to break this time, the pain was excruciating as they pressed his face into the stone beneath him, and he mentally cursed his foolishness. Hadn’t he learned already that he needed to remain cognizant of his surroundings? He was a blind man, for heaven’s sake—he should have heard them coming from a mile away. Instead, he had been too busy reflecting on and dreading the past to simply pay attention.

But that was all right. That was undoubtedly what he was meant to do. For what other purpose would the Six force him to relive this moment?

What if.

Sighing mockingly at his predicament, Ardyn shook his head and knelt beside Noct to lament, “Come now. Why not follow your liege’s lead and stop resisting?”

Ignis would never be certain of whether it was the gods’ will or the memories that flooded his consciousness at every turn today, but he couldn’t refrain from echoing a version of himself he was simultaneously proud and ashamed of in equal measures: “Never!”

“You risked life and limb to safeguard the King of Kings,” Ardyn continued as though he hadn’t replied, “only to witness him fail so spectacularly. You must be so disappointed.”

“Unhand him!” Ignis shouted across the distance between where he was held prone and Noct lay supine. As he had a decade prior, the chancellor ignored his pleas.

“I know I am. Oh, what good is a world that only ever lets you down? Why not end it all right here?”

“No… You can’t…”

What if?

“Can’t I?” inquired Ardyn, his grin devilish when he turned it upon Ignis.

There it was: the departure he’d been searching for. Logically, he was well aware that things couldn’t go the way they had a decade ago. For one, Ravus’s absence meant he couldn’t save Noct and, in effect, Ignis. He wasn’t there for Ardyn to accost, nor would he stall for time while Ignis threw off his assailants and snatched the Ring of the Lucii from where it landed when Ardyn tossed Noct aside like so much refuse. None of that was possible here, not when key elements were missing.

That, too, was all right. The Astrals obviously neither wanted nor required Ravus’s presence. The ones who truly mattered in this equation were himself, Ardyn, and Noct.

What if…

Humming in a pantomime of genuine thought, Ardyn straightened to survey him through narrowed eyes. His expression wasn’t shrewd, however; it wasn’t as calculating as Ignis had expected. No, he appeared too confident for that—too sure of what Ignis’s answer would be when he finally asked precisely what Ignis had been anticipating.

“Very well, then. Permit me to make a suggestion,” he declared, as calm and casual as ever.

…What… What if…

“Rather than follow this flotsam and float away to a watery grave, why not come with me?”

What if?

Ardyn extended a hand to him with the sort of grin that would have found a home on a goblin or any other manner of foul creature. That it adorned his visage was no surprise, further emphasizing the beast that lay beneath the collected façade he’d portrayed until the very end.

“What do you say?” he wheedled darkly.

What did he say? What did Ignis say?

He said what if. He said what if he didn’t make the same choice that he had before. He said what if he didn’t jump in headfirst and live with the consequences, knowing as he did that they were unnecessary. Ardyn wouldn’t actually kill Noct—that would have destroyed the carefully laid plans he had been concocting for two millennia. He was putting on a good show, but what he really wanted was to hurry Noct along. That, in any case, was the only alternative Ignis could surmise. There was no other reason for him to desire a hostage, whether himself or Prompto, but to hasten Noct’s arrival and ascent into the Crystal.

Ignis hadn’t realized that eleven years ago. Rather, he had been all too keen to sacrifice his sight in exchange for ensuring Noct’s protection, mistaken though he’d been that it was indeed as endangered as he’d believed. All he’d been certain of was that the gesture was worth it, the various possibilities being a mystery at that point.

Here he was, though, right back where he’d begun. Could this be the gods’ way of saying that he had made the wrong choice? Were they trying to tell him that if he was going to prove his allegiance to Noct, then he needed to sacrifice something different from what he had before? He supposed that made sense, especially as it was the only option available to him now. He had fretted over that decision almost every day after Noct disappeared; in his own mind, he could have done better. There had been so many denouements, which Pryna’s vision confirmed, and he had spent ten years wandering the paths that led to each.

If he decided to go with Ardyn, there was a possibility that he could strike a bargain with the Six and the kings. Perhaps he would be able to rescue Noct not by buying him time, but by taking his place. The Astrals weren’t so particular that they would demand the blood of the Lucis Caelum line when they had a willing participant volunteering to act in his stead, were they? If they truly wished to eradicate Ardyn, then he doubted that would be the case. It would be a simple matter of transferring Noct’s sentence to Ignis, and he would have agreed to that without hesitation.

In his most idealistic imaginings, he’d wondered if that might earn him some reward—a delusion that Lady Lunafreya’s canine companion had played on mere minutes ago. Or was it hours? Centuries seemed to pass as he lay there, vacillating between repeating history and changing the course of the future. Even so, that wasn’t enough to entirely quash the flicker of hope the illogical part of him preferred to harbor. It whispered that Noct was the King of Kings, that perhaps he would be able to heal any damage Ignis incurred and, when the time came for his final reckoning against Ardyn, he would emerge unscathed. It attempted to convince him that, at the very worst, he could delay the inevitable so that at least Noct wouldn’t be the one doomed to handle it. If the Six were insistent that the royal family deliver the parting blow to the perpetrator of the ongoing Starscourge, then Ignis could nevertheless postpone it until another time. He could have used the ring to banish Ardyn temporarily from Eos and then returned it to Noct; their plague would eventually resurface, but a new Chosen King would be born who would then be tasked with making that sacrifice. It wouldn’t be Noct, though—he wouldn’t have to die before he’d had a chance to live. Ignis would start the process, and that was sufficient for the moment.

After all, did future generations of kings even matter? That was the point of this trial: to prove that he would serve Noct, even forsaking all others who might descend from him.

For the span of a breath, he was certain he’d solved it. He was positive that that was what the Hydraean was waiting for wherever she was hiding beneath the raging sea. The Six would rather he sacrifice himself, shouldering the burden of the Ring of the Lucii and damning some unknown successor if it meant Noct’s safety. And, if he was fortunate enough for those surreal dreams of his to become reality, then he could live to see the day that Noct ruled on his own throne. It was everything he’d wanted—everything he’d once fought for—and the logic behind it was sound.

That was the problem.

It wasn’t until Ignis made to accept Ardyn’s proposal that he was struck with a sense of awareness so all-encompassing that it drove the breath from his lungs. The words died in his throat, and he was left staring openmouthed at the bane of their shared existence as his grief renewed itself tenfold.

Because this wasn’t about logic, just as Gladio’s trial hadn’t been about strength. It was quite the opposite, in fact.

The test didn’t require him to save Noct or Lady Lunafreya, nor was its purpose to alter what had already happened by choosing a more logical path. Rather, he was supposed to confront that which he struggled with the most. For Gladio, that had meant finding a method of protecting Noct when brute force had forsaken him. That, doubtless, was his most commendable talent.

What was Ignis’s besides his impeccable and unfailing logic?

So, the gods were stripping it from him, because Noct wasn’t a logical person. He would never be happy or whole if Ignis took his place. Bodily, he would survive and live to see a healthy reign, but in spirit? Ignis did not mean to elevate himself in importance or bask in his own hubris, but he had known Noct for so long that he was hard-pressed to remember a time when they weren’t together. As such, he had no delusions about the painful truth of the matter: if he went through with this and tread the logical road, he would shatter his brother. That was the only thing that remained constant in all his daydreams and his musings—Noct’s devastation. Utter and complete devastation. He had already come close in the aftermath of Ignis’s prior sacrifice.

There would be no coming back from this.

Logic dictated that there would be other retainers, of course; he would find any number of competent individuals to replace one lost chamberlain. Still, they were so much more than that. Brothers mourned each other deeply, perhaps even deeper than anyone else.

To give up his life in an attempt to save Noct’s would not protect him.

To prolong Noct’s existence without his bride—but not without the guilt that her death had wrought on him—would not protect him.

To condemn future generations of Noct’s family to dealing with Ardyn when he inevitably returned, unchallenged in Providence so that his Scourge would someday reappear, would not protect him. Whether it was his son, grandson, or any variant thereof, Noct would someday die knowing that his descendants were doomed to facing the fate he had willingly accepted for himself. It was both the antithesis of what Noct would desire and what would keep him safe.

There was no logic here. There was only a matter of the heart, and Ignis’s was telling him not to go with Ardyn even as his head relayed another message.

He could count on one hand the number of times in his life that he had abandoned the rational path in order to follow what the organ in his chest dictated to be right. Many of those occasions had occurred when he was younger and prone to fits of emotion, particularly where Noct was concerned.

Some things never changed.

Some things weren’t meant to. Not throwing off his assailants and grabbing the accessory that would be their salvation and their doom. Not viciously rejecting Ardyn’s offer. Not jamming the Ring of the Lucii onto his finger or the instant agony that spread through every limb like lightning.

For Noct. Always and forever.

And as the world burned, fading behind spots of black and purple flame, Ignis knew that he had passed his test—because some things did change.

The freezing shard of Crystal at the base of his throat, for instance, and the whisper on the wind that told him, “True is the heart of the King’s General. He has proven his worth and his devotion to the Chosen King. To him, the path is unbarred.”

Chapter Text

Thirty-one wasn’t old. It wasn’t. It was…mature. Yeah, that was it—mature. It was the age where you were old enough to hold down the fort; in a world where things were normal, you’d have your own place and pay your bills and all that boring stuff. Thirty-one was when you started looking more like an adult and less like a kid, even if you still felt like the latter at heart. (Then again, maybe that was just Prompto.) Thirty-one was when you had finally—hopefully—gotten your shit together and were ready to take on the world one step at a time.

Nope, thirty-one wasn’t old. But damn, sleeping on solid crystal with nothing but the thin floor of the tent to cushion it was murder on his back.

Don’t get him wrong: it was way better than trekking across the kingdom when his feet were killing him and his knees were threatening to rebel. The second they’d reached the haven, he’d thought for sure that he was going to need at least a week to convince them to stop whining at him about how far they had left to go. They should be used to this stuff by now! How often had they gone traipsing through the wilderness on a hunt or just attempting to put some distance between themselves and a few magitek troopers? And that wasn’t even counting the years they’d spent with no beds, no havens, and no chance to lay low for a while. All things considered, he simply should have been grateful that they had a tent and food to begin with—which he was.

Still, gratitude and awareness that he was so not as young as he used to be weren’t mutually exclusive. He could have slept in any number of awkward positions when he was a kid; spending the night on uneven rock hadn’t been too tough on their journey, although it wasn’t an ideal scenario regardless. Now, however, his joints popped as he sat up and stretched his arms over his head. The pervasive ache in his muscles had disappeared, which was good since they had a hell of a hike ahead of them, but the rest? He was going to need a professional masseuse when they got back to the real Lucis.

Maybe it was the fact that he’d actually gotten a full whatever-they-wanted-to-call-it of sleep, or maybe a few of his marbles had been shaken loose at Cauthess. Either way, it struck him as sort of funny that he wasn’t immediately attacked by the involuntary suspicion that perhaps he should be saying if they made it back to the real Lucis. That was all they’d done for eleven years: whenever they turned around, they had to wonder if it would be the last chance they got. The daemons could have slashed them to bits or the empire might have dropped an airship on their heads or Ardyn could have decided he was bored with them and annoyed them to death—any number of terrible fates could have befallen them, yet here they were. If had never come to pass, and now there was no if to think about for the first time in too long. They were going to find Noct and go home. They were going to succeed even if it was harder than it sounded. They were going to be okay.

They’d never be normal again, though. Just like the muscle spasms that made it difficult for him to stand, there was no returning to the days when that wasn’t the case. Training and staying active could only do so much. Eventually, with or without his permission, some stuff was bound to get harder. Today, it was shaking his sore limbs loose from their slumber and shrugging off the incessant pins and needles that erupted in his legs as he put his weight on them. Tomorrow, who knew? They were different people, constantly changing. When they found him, so would Noct. Like Ignis had said yesterday—or earlier today? Whatever—he would be married. They’d all have jobs to do, and not the kind where they could skive off every now and again by faking an exam to study for. That wouldn’t leave them much time for reminiscing let alone enjoying the things they used to. As with his physique, it was a fact of life he had no choice but to accept. The past was gone no matter how badly they wanted it back.

But that was a little too heavy for him to be thinking about, right? He was supposed to be happy. He was supposed to be barging out of the tent, wondering what they were going to have for breakfast before he stuffed his feet back in his boots and pretended that they didn’t feel ten times too small after all that walking. The depressing stuff wasn’t what he needed to be focusing on. Aches and pains would fade; so would the pangs of longing he totally wasn’t having. Now was the moment to look on the bright side. He’d slept reasonably well despite the situation, and Gladio’s snoring hadn’t kept him up for more than a couple of minutes. Ignis’s cooking was still fresh in his memory and his breath (apparently the Astrals hadn’t considered the noble art of teeth-brushing when they’d sent a divine care package their way), and they were at least a bit closer to their goal than before. This was positive! He could do this!

He thought.

It was a good thing Prompto was talented at rolling with the punches, because they just kept coming.

He’d barely slipped out of the tent, tiptoeing over Gladio where the latter was still asleep, when he registered that something wasn’t right. Sure, it could have been the usual weirdness they had discovered was the norm here—the sun remained in the same position as it had been when they’d stopped to rest, and the crystal hadn’t changed in the meantime. There was something missing, though, something that was never gone when he first woke up at camp every morning.

“Uh…Iggy?”

Prompto vaguely heard Gladio shift behind him, but he couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty for waking the big guy when they were down one member of the party.

That was how it looked, anyway. The campsite was abandoned. Ordinarily, Ignis would have been making breakfast or something; he wasn’t the type to sit around and wait until they were awake enough to leave, preferring to be prepared for departure as soon as they were mobile. That being said, it was more than a little disconcerting that he was nowhere to be found. His chair was empty, the stove wasn’t running, and all the food the Astrals had left for them was untouched. There were a few more open (and empty) Ebony cans strewn about than earlier, but that was really the only difference as far as he could tell. So, either Ignis had overdosed on caffeine and gone on a walk to burn off some steam, or…

“Hey, Gladio. I think we got a problem out here.”

“That’s all we ever got is problems,” the former Shield grumbled drowsily, joining him outside regardless. “What is it this time?”

“I…think we lost Iggy.”

There was a pregnant pause where it appeared that Gladio might just sock him in the jaw, although whether for losing part of their trifecta or making it sound like they’d misplaced a fork, he couldn’t tell. Whichever it happened to be, Prompto was inordinately relieved when Gladio’s eyes slid past him to the rest of the haven with a frown of confusion.

“Where the hell’d he go?”

Shrugging, Prompto halfheartedly suggested, “Maybe for a walk?”

“Not like him to wander off without saying something.”

No, it really wasn’t. Then again, was anything normal around here? Getting one of Ignis’s signature meals and spending a few hours sleeping in the familiar surroundings of their tent (or a tent that looked just like theirs) didn’t mean that things were on the up and up. In fact, Prompto had a feeling that the gods had an ulterior motive in preparing such a nice spot for them. On the one hand, they were being rewarded after Gladio bested Titan like they’d figured; on the other, it was the perfect opportunity to get another of them on their own for more fun.

Somehow, Prompto thought he knew which one it was this time.

“You think we should go look for him?” he asked, already moving towards the edge of the haven. Even from this height, he couldn’t quite tell the difference between the rocks jutting out of the ground and the crystal-coated trees that dotted the landscape. Determining which one might be Ignis, if he was upright or even here, would be impossible if they didn’t leave the relative safety of their perch.

Gladio must have been thinking along the same lines, because he didn’t hesitate for a second in hopping down to the flat ground below and heading towards the Slough. “Ain’t gonna do us much good staying put. There’s no tellin’ how long he’s been gone.”

“Or if he’s by himself,” Prompto observed as he trailed along in Gladio’s wake. The latter’s grunt of affirmation wasn’t exactly the most comforting.  

“That too.”

At this point, Prompto figured the opposite was pretty much a given, not that he was going to say that out loud. Initially, it had seemed like they were on their own path, choosing where they would go and how they would get there and what they would do along the way. Now, however… Well, they clearly weren’t as in control of the situation as they’d thought. It was more like those amusement park rides where you got to drive a car, but it was on rails so that you weren’t actually doing anything. Sure, you’d tell it to go faster or slower, but ultimately it would follow the designated path until you reached your starting point again.

That was what the Six were doing to them—he could practically guarantee it. They were driving along in their fancy Citadel car and wearing their fancy Crownsguard shoes, but they weren’t the ones pulling the strings here. They had assumed they were; they could have stopped and turned around anytime, after all. So long as they chose to continue, though, it was the gods who had taken the wheel. They could either get with that program or go back home without Noct.

So, that decision was obviously made for them.

It probably should have made him feel better to know that things were out of their control; there was something to be said for the unknown, at least to him. If you could keep walking, even though you had no idea what was waiting around every corner, then you’d be fine. Well, maybe not entirely fine—there was always the possibility that you would fall over a cliff or get tossed off a train, but that was neither here nor there. The point was that keeping it cool and putting one foot in front of the other was the best way to press on. It got you to the end of the line, regardless of whether it was an easy road. Ever since he was a kid, he’d figured that he was that sort of person, that it simply came naturally to him. They’d survived so much over the years—stuff that was far worse than waking up to see that Ignis was missing—and he’d bounced back every time. When he was little, he’d basically taken care of himself; as he’d gotten older, he had struck the perfect balance between his responsibilities and hanging out with the sole friend he’d really made throughout their high school career. Their road trip from hell had been slightly different, but the principle was pretty much the same: get there and back again without having a nervous breakdown. He hadn’t done such a bad job there, right?

This was more of the same, that was all. It didn’t matter which god was waiting to test him or who had claimed Ignis’s trial for themselves. It didn’t matter if the examination was as physically stressful as Gladio’s (he was really hoping not, since he was strong but definitely no Gladio) or mentally taxing as he assumed Ignis’s would have to be. None of that was a big deal. He’d be fine. He always was, with or without his friends at his side.

He merely had to remember that as they strode carefully along the grassy strip that ran from the haven down towards the Slough, scanning every inch of the place for a sign that Ignis had come this way. It would have been so much easier if it weren’t for the crystal underfoot: in the real Alstor Slough, they would have been able to spot footsteps in the mud. The ground was always squishy and spongy, so it was no hardship to track a hunt or spot where some imperial airships had decided to get up close and personal with the flora. Here, though, they didn’t have that option. The hard and unyielding earth beneath them didn’t change, not to fossilize a footstep or even to offer them any traction. In the back of Prompto’s head, he couldn’t help but be grateful that they weren’t on a slope—now that would have been a hell of a hike.

Lucky for them, it didn’t take long to locate their quarry. They’d barely made it past the outlying pools when they saw a familiar figure silhouetted against the perpetual dawn and, exchanging a glance, broke into a run to reach Ignis before he could once again vanish before their eyes.

Okay, so he hadn’t vanished before their eyes last time. Still, they should have heard him leaving—that was totally something they’d hear!

From the looks of it, they weren’t the only ones who appeared to need some earwax removal. Their footsteps pounded against the solid ground, but Ignis didn’t budge an inch. Actually, it was almost as if he had become part of the crystal himself: he was utterly still where he stood at the edge of the mere, his shoulders rigidly straight and his arms pressed to his sides with his fists clenched. If Prompto didn’t know any better, he’d say the guy was about to take a dive into shallow water, he was that steady. It was more than a little weird given that he would have jumped face first into some pretty badass and wholly unbreakable rock. Now was probably a good time to intervene.

“Hey, Iggy!”

Or…not?

He may as well have kept his mouth shut for all the good his greeting had done. Ignis didn’t turn to face them, nor did he so much as register their presence. His back remained to them as they slowed to a halt at his rear, Prompto peering around to see what it was he was looking at.

Which was nothing. He was looking at nothing.

This is…weird. Like, super weird.

If Gladio’s furrowed eyebrows were any indication, then the latter wasn’t feeling a whole lot better about the situation than he was. That didn’t stop him from easing forward and reaching out to give Ignis’s shoulder a light shove, though.

“Iggy? You with us?”

It was like someone flipped a switch: Ignis immediately reacted, hauling in huge gulps of air as though he had been trapped underwater instead of simply watching it. He wrenched his arm out of Gladio’s grasp in a blur of motion, whirling around to stare at them both with a wide and kind of wild-looking eye. Honestly, it was the most disheveled he’d ever seen the guy, which was saying something since they’d been through Altissia and back again.

Altissia… Oh, man…

“Whoa! It’s just us,” Gladio assured him, taking a step back nevertheless with his hands raised in a show of capitulation. It was a nice gesture, as far as Prompto was concerned, but sort of…what was the word he was looking for? Oh, yeah—pointless. None of them were armed! All that stuff was back at the haven. Where they’d left it. Because they were too worried about Ignis to grab it.

Yeah. They probably should have thought harder about that one. Not that their weapons would do them much good against the Six, but still, it paid to be cautious.

It also paid not to startle Ignis, who was staring at them as if he didn’t know them. Well, maybe that was taking it a step too far—there was familiarity in his gaze, albeit the type that you usually saw when someone wasn’t happy to see you. That didn’t make sense, though. Why wouldn’t he be happy to see them? Gladio was pretty quiet about stuff like that, but even he had been visibly relieved when they’d hauled his ass halfway to the haven rather than a giant stone god and his pet rock. Ignis, on the other hand, looked more like he would rather run in the opposite direction.

At least, for a second. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t enough to keep the rational part of Ignis’s brain from kicking in again. He blinked once—twice—then shook his head before turning to gaze out over the water in silence. If he was hoping to spot something, then he was sorely mistaken: nothing had changed in the last few seconds, and Prompto highly doubted it had in the time he’d been standing there either. However long that had been.

Thankfully, it wasn’t his job to call Ignis on it, nor was it Gladio’s. Nah, their resident genius was plenty capable of shrugging off an awkward situation. That, after all, was what he’d been trained to do.

“Apologies,” he murmured, although he didn’t quite meet their eyes as he put the Slough behind him and strode straight towards camp with his head held high. They eyed him and each other warily for a moment before hurriedly following suit.

“That’s it?” snorted Gladio as soon as he drew up alongside him and matched his rapid pace. “You’re not gonna tell us what the hell that was all about?”

“Certainly, you’ve already guessed,” retorted Ignis brusquely. He had a point there, even if they weren’t going to let him off the hook that easily.

“Damn right we did. Was guessing it’d be time to share with the class, too.”

“There isn’t a great deal to divulge.”

This time, it was Prompto who scoffed. “Not much to share? Dude, seriously?”

“Suffice it to say that I passed the trial to their satisfaction,” Ignis explained vaguely, waving a hand over his shoulder in obvious dismissal.

Ooh. Must’ve been bad.

That was the only reason Prompto could think of for why he wasn’t more forthcoming with information. Ignis wasn’t the emotional type: he got upset about things from time to time, but he tended to shove them aside to deal with later so that he could stay focused on whatever it was they needed to get done. He’d been trying to teach Noct that lesson for just about as long as Prompto had known him, so he was well aware that Ignis had the art of avoidance down to a science. This, however, was going a bit too far even for him. It wasn’t like how things had gone after Altissia; it wasn’t as though he had gotten quiet and shut himself off from the rest of them until he determined how he was going to handle the loss. That had been dodging, evading, protecting himself from the truth he never would have admitted he wasn’t ready to accept back then.

This was pretending that everything was normal. Prompto wasn’t sure which was worse.

Gladio, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have the same problem. He similarly didn’t appear to have any qualms about grabbing Ignis’s arm to stop him and insisting, “No, that doesn’t suffice. Give it up, Iggy. What’d they want from you?”

A decade ago, Ignis would have shrugged him off and insisted that it wasn’t important. A decade ago, he would have said that they were wasting valuable time with superfluous details that they could further discuss on the road if they so chose. A decade ago, he would have turned right back around and gotten breakfast started because that was just what Ignis did.

But this wasn’t a decade ago, and Ignis’s impeccable posture slumped slightly when he got a load of Gladio’s expression. Whether he figured he wasn’t getting out of this (which was true) or that it was merely easier to give them what they wanted (which was also true), Prompto couldn’t tell. Either way, he heaved a sigh and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose like he always did when he was stressing over something. This time, however, it wasn’t anywhere near as benign as which type of fish would be best with whatever sauce he was cooking up.

“It was…rather different from what you described,” he deliberately elaborated, his gaze locked on a point somewhere in the distance that neither of them could see. “They did not wish for me to demonstrate my intellect.”

“No surprises there,” grunted Gladio, to which Ignis nodded absently.

“Indeed.”

When he didn’t immediately continue, Prompto gently prodded, “Then, uh…what did they want you to do?”

Ignis’s wince was almost imperceptible. Almost.

“They wanted me to make a choice.”

“What choice?”

For a second, Prompto was positive it would be something terrible. Maybe they’d forced him to choose between saving Noct or someone else he cared about? Or perhaps he’d been made to decide between keeping Noct alive and helping the rest of the world? That sounded like the Astrals, especially recently, and it definitely would have fit with why they were here. The whole point was that they were supposed to forsake the planet for Noct, right? Gods and all that—they didn’t matter if the three of them could find a way to make sure Noct was cared for. Gladio had literally dropped half a mountain on one of them, and instead of getting ticked off, they’d given him such a rough pat on the back that they’d knocked the guy out. Prompto wouldn’t say it made total sense, but hey, that was the theme of the week.

So was sacrifice, in which case, it wouldn’t have surprised him at all if they’d laid that choice before Ignis: Noct or the world.

Pfft, as if he’d say no.

That was one thing Prompto could predict with absolute certainty. Ignis’s loyalty and devotion to Noct had never wavered for an instant, not when the chips were down in imperial territory or when Noct refused to eat his vegetables or when he’d insisted on hanging out with some commoner rather than attending to some of his royal duties. Whenever Prompto turned around, it had been to see Ignis doing something for Noct—cooking his meals, cleaning his apartment, mending his clothes, summarizing his meetings, driving him where he wanted to go. The list was so extensive that Prompto didn’t think the most dedicated archaeologists would ever find the end of it. The two of them were close, maybe even closer than Prompto or Gladio could claim to be. Yeah, they were all best friends; they loved each other unconditionally and would do anything for one another, whining and teasing notwithstanding. With Ignis and Noct, though, it went a step further. There was simply no accounting for the fact that they’d known each other practically their entire lives. It didn’t mean that Prompto or Gladio were any less important to Noct, but it nevertheless spoke volumes about the depth of his relationship with Ignis. If the latter had to decide between Noct and setting the world on fire, then he’d be the one holding the match. Always had been, always would be.

Presumably. So much had changed that Prompto wasn’t too sure about how anything would play out when they returned home.

But not Ignis. He was a rock—a sturdier one than Titan, too. He’d take up professional soap carving before he’d let Noct come to harm, and the gods had to know it.

Which they did. Apparently.

“One I never should have lamented making,” was all Ignis said by way of response, a slight smile twitching at the corners of his lips as he set off for the haven again.

They didn’t get anything else out of him after that. He cooked in silence, ate in silence, indicated that he needed to get some sleep in near silence—he was a closed book. It was only because they knew him well that he and Gladio were able to piece together what must have happened, and considering what they came up with, Prompto couldn’t really blame him for wanting to keep it to himself. Ignis had suffered enough after Altissia, and in more ways than one. Having to relive that? Having to come to terms with it again and make the same choice even if it wouldn’t change anything? That had to be killer, especially for a guy who prided himself on never making the same mistake twice.

Except the tofu. Prompto would never understand what had possessed him to try that again when they’d all either been sick or gone hungry the first time.

Just like his nastiest culinary creation, Prompto had believed that Ignis’s injury would remain in the past, as well. There was no arguing that they’d been shaped by their experiences, of course; that was a given for anyone, not merely the retainers to the last king of Lucis. Even so, none of them were ready to jump in and go through an encore performance. They’d done their time, so there was no reason for them not to put those obstacles behind them and move the hell on.

If they were normal people, that was. Normal people got away with that sort of thing.

Lucky.

The more they learned about these trials, the more obvious it became that the gods seemed to have something else in mind for them. Part of Prompto had to wonder if being a deity meant being trapped in the past, to a certain extent. They never really escaped anything: all their mistakes followed them forever, as did their successes. Spurning Ardyn one year had led to devastation millennia later, not to mention that they were apparently harboring some pretty major bitterness toward the old world given their stupid idea to use the l’Cie as an example instead of a cautionary tale. Yeah, those guys were obsessed with things that had happened rather than the stuff that was going to.

Humanity, at least as Prompto knew it, wasn’t like that. Sure, some people got caught up with what they couldn’t change; their regrets took over until, eventually, it was too much to stomach. They ditched friends over senseless grudges and built families on the stuff they hadn’t gotten when they were kids—but they still moved on. Most of them tried to fashion something better for themselves, whether they actually managed it or not. Sheesh, that was all they’d been doing for the last year, technically longer if they wanted to count the decade they’d spent holding the world together until rebuilding was a possibility. Improvement meant learning from your mistakes and your experiences alike, but the Astrals? They were a bit too into the irony of repetition for Prompto’s tastes.

That more than anything else was why he found himself breathing a little quicker and scanning their surroundings more carefully when they left the haven a few hours later, a handful of snacks (and almost a whole case of Ebony) stowed in the packs the Six had left for them while the rest remained behind. Between Gladio’s test and now Ignis’s, Prompto was really beginning to dread the road ahead, excited though he was to find Noct. Both of them had been transported backwards to their defining moments; both of them had been forced to navigate their pasts a second time, albeit under very different circumstances. All in all, they’d come through in one piece. Actually, Ignis was looking better than he had when they’d gotten here. Strike that—he looked better than he had for eleven years straight. It wasn’t like he’d spent that time moping around or anything. Prompto didn’t think he would be capable of that even if he got all his limbs cut off and had to go through life being dragged around by a flock of rabid chocobos. Regardless, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t occasionally prone to the kind of frustration that betrayed emotions he would never mention aloud. Even a saint like Ignis wasn’t immune, nor could anyone blame him for it. A lot of people would have given up if they’d lost their sight and then immediately gotten caught up in an apocalypse. Ignis? He made it look easy.

Mostly.

As they continued their pilgrimage east towards the Malacchi Hills, however, there was a spring in his step that Prompto hadn’t seen there in years, and it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he could see again. No, when they’d entered the Blademaster’s gateway, Ignis had seemed more wary than relieved. Like Prompto and Gladio, he had to know that this arrangement wasn’t permanent. What was the point of getting excited when it wouldn’t last? If the Astrals hadn’t fixed his eyes way back when, then they weren’t about to change things up now. The kings had made this decision; they had chosen what Ignis would have to sacrifice in order to use their power since he didn’t have a drop of royal blood in him. That didn’t appear to disappoint him anymore, though, which was comforting. Ignis was more deserving than most of finding happiness, and the peace that had settled over him in the wake of his trial totally qualified.

It also totally set Prompto on edge. The last time they’d been this close to Fociaugh Hollow, the trees had been enough to do that. They loomed overhead here exactly as they had at home, a dark canopy against even the pink-tinged, Astral-inspired sky above. When he was younger, they’d been far more imposing than the towering skyscrapers he’d grown up with, and he’d wondered on numerous occasions what could possibly be waiting in the undergrowth to jump out and grab them. (Depending on the hour, they ranged from cute to oh god, oh god, get me out of here. What you got was a toss-up in those days.) It never mattered that he had a perfectly good firearm in his arsenal or that he was surrounded by guys who had literally been training their entire lives to defend themselves and their prince—he’d always leapt a few feet in the air and left his skin behind at the tiniest snap of a branch.

Now, that wasn’t what had him peering nervously into the shadows that even the Six hadn’t been able to banish from their perfect world. Rather, he was busy pondering when he was going to be taken from the others and dropped into his own past so that he could do…something. He had a feeling he already knew what it would be, but he didn’t want to commit to the belief lest he end up disappointed—and utterly unprepared.

As if there’s any other alternative.

Preparation was for stuff you could see coming. They had prepared for a journey to Altissia; Gladio and Ignis had spent years preparing to serve Noct. King Regis had prepared for Niflheim to take over Lucis, and Ardyn had prepared for his simultaneous victory and defeat at Noct’s hands.

This was different. This was so different that Prompto couldn’t count the ways.

Rolling with the punches would only get him so far where the Astrals were involved; improvisation could only do so much. After that, he simply had to hope that luck was on his side. It hadn’t been for a couple of decades now, but who was to say that he wasn’t due for a little visit from the goddess called fortune? Ignis had already danced with the other goddess, so it wasn’t like he was entirely out of left field, right?

Man, he sure hoped so.

If he was being honest, it wasn’t actually the possibility that he might screw up his test that got to him, not really. Ultimately, the gods were on their side; the Six wanted them to make it to Noct as much as they did. That, at least, was how it looked from the outside. In that case, it wasn’t like things could go too badly. His insecurities stemmed instead from the idea that Gladio and Ignis had already won the Astrals’ respect while he was mentally scrambling to figure out what the hell his task was going to be. Gladio had gone a few rounds with Titan, and it sounded as though Ignis had appeased Leviathan, which left three gods waiting for him to wrangle some approval from them. Well, that was what he was counting on, anyway. Somehow, he had a feeling that Ifrit wouldn’t be hanging around after they showed him what was what. That made him feel better, albeit slightly.

Then he remembered that he would have to face Bahamut, Ramuh, or Shiva and felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Odds were, he already had a fairly good idea of who would be coming for him. After all, they had one thing in common: both of them had been personally victimized by Niflheim.

That thought consumed him as Prompto followed along behind Gladio and Ignis, silently wondering what would be waiting for him when he inevitably returned to what Ardyn made out to be his home sweet home. Nothing else would make any sense: that was the sole instance on their journey when he’d been both alone and vulnerable, which fit the trend of their trials so far. Of course, that didn’t answer all of his questions, like what they would want to see from him in the empire when he figured he’d already come to terms with all that a long time ago. Gone were the concerns of what the others would think of him if they found out that he was born a Niff; his insecurities about being more a nuisance or a threat to their brotherhood were a thing of the past. He didn’t even feel so bad anymore about having shot the guy they’d cloned him from—he’d deserved it! Besides, if it were up to him, Noct would have died and he would have become a god capable of taking down the Six. Maybe they had reason to be leery of the Astrals, but that didn’t mean Prompto wanted them out of the picture. They had their moments where they were super useful.

Unlike his…old man.

Ugh, don’t even!

It didn’t sound right—it had never sounded right. His parents had been Lucian. No, they weren’t the greatest people on the planet, not when they certainly hadn’t understood how to raise a kid. Years later, Prompto still didn’t know what had happened to them; he couldn’t even be sure of whether the silence was a sign that they were dead or purely that they didn’t care to find him. And that was fine! That bridge had been crossed, and he had no plans to turn back. Whatever they had or hadn’t been, though, they had fed him. They’d clothed him. They’d provided a home and everything he could possibly want except the company to go along with it. Prompto had fended for himself much of the time, but he’d managed because they provided the tools he needed to do so. Maybe they weren’t the best humanity had to offer—maybe they weren’t going to be getting world’s best parents gifts from him, like, ever—but they’d done right by him. That was more than he could say for the guy who claimed to be his father eleven years ago.

Prompto had accepted that and was ready to put a few bullets in him again if that was what it took to prove to the Six that he was prepared to set everything aside for Noct. He just… Well, he really didn’t want to have to.

And he definitely didn’t like having to guess that that was what they wanted in the first place.

“Gonna have to get over it somehow.”

Blinking, Prompto shook himself from his reverie to deliver a retort when he realized Gladio wasn’t talking to him. He also couldn’t read minds, so that was a stupid idea anyway.

Pay attention!

“Climbing is the fastest route,” Ignis posited, staring at the dark hills that rose up to meet them and the fence that stood in their way. “If we follow the road in either direction, we’ll lose precious time.”

Gladio hummed in agreement. “That’d be a waste. Longwythe is just on the other side.”

“And from there, it’s a simple matter of entering the Crown City.”

“Up ‘n’ over it is, then.”

“Uh, guys?” Prompto interjected with a frown as he skeptically surveyed the green barrier. “I don’t see anywhere to climb.”

That would have been too easy, and far be it from the Astrals to lower the bar. The whole crystal thing was pretty, if a bit old after a while, but there were distinct drawbacks. For one, it was killing his feet: the padding in his boots wasn’t designed for this. It was accustomed to dirt roads and uneven, rocky terrain, not hard surfaces with no give whatsoever. For another, the smooth surface was awesome…until you had to find something to hold on to. Then you were in a world of trouble.

Ignis must have realized the same thing, given that his eyes narrowed as he concurred, “It’s a bit too steep to ascend without anchorage points.”

“Then we’ll have to give each other a boost,” Gladio shrugged them off carelessly, already leaning against the side of the fence and lacing his fingers so that Ignis could climb up over his shoulders.

“Well, when you’re the size of a hill,” muttered Prompto.

“Less talking. More hiking.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

One of these days, they needed to have a serious talk about the difference between normal people and meatheads who spent too much time in the gym.

That wasn’t today, though, and Prompto had enough on his mind without the added benefit of Gladio’s admittedly handy muscles. Ignis had a point, after all: once they were over the Malacchi Hills, they would pass through Leide and approach Insomnia. They were rapidly running out of time for the gods to accost him, if they were planning on doing it before they arrived at the Citadel, which meant that it could happen anytime now. Maybe when they got to Hammerhead, given that that was where he’d sort of made his second home until Noct got back. Ooh, or the Six were waiting until they moved into the city—it would make sense, considering the fact that the destruction had been caused by a monster that originated from the same creator he had. Oh, man. What if they wanted to test him when they reached the throne room? That would suck. They’d be right there, so close to the end of their road, when bam! He was back in Niflheim, freshly tossed off a train and frozen within an inch of his life.

That would be so like them.

Which was why he was caught completely unawares when Gladio launched him upwards only for him to land somewhere entirely different from the hillside where Ignis was reaching out a hand to catch him.

Uh… What the hell?!

Prompto stumbled forward, his feet weighed down by heavy boots that climbed up his leg to his knees rather than the shorter ones he’d grabbed specifically because they were meant for hiking. These weren’t unfamiliar, though—nothing about his situation was unfamiliar. The boots, the long jacket, the ceremonial silver fastenings on his sleeves were all a real blast from the past. It had been a while since he’d had the guts to put on his Kingsglaive attire; there was no point in standing on ceremony without a king, and he was in and out of Insomnia so often that dressing up didn’t make much sense. All he’d do was toss the uniform aside and don something more appropriate to his mission when he set out again, so why bother going to the trouble of cleaning the entire ensemble purely so he could strut around in it for a few hours? He had plenty on his plate without adding that into the mix, yet there he was, constrained by the familiar cut of the fabric and standing in a spot where he hadn’t ventured in over a year.

He had to hand it to them: the Six were definitely pulling out all the stops on this one. Of all the places in the world where his trial could have occurred, he wouldn’t have thought the Citadel would qualify. Niflheim had been the most likely; it was all he’d spared a thought for, really. That was the lowest point in their journey, at least for him. He’d been torn down and built himself back up from the pieces that remained, which had taken a lot of effort and some serious ass-kicking from Aranea to pull off. It would have been so poetically ironic if the Astrals had sent him there to do it all over again like they had Ignis and Gladio.

Instead, they’d brought him to the Citadel, and not the one they were expecting to discover when they reached the Crown City of the divine plane. As far as he could tell, Prompto wasn’t even in that weird alternate reality anymore. The crystal that ensconced the world was conspicuously absent, leaving everything the way it always had been rather than an eerie imitation of itself. The shiny floors were waxed within an inch of their marble lives; he could tell from the slight slipperiness beneath the soles of his boots. Sunlight filtered in through the windows at the head of the chamber, the bright illumination of late afternoon a stark contrast to what he’d grown accustomed to in the Astrals’ creation. Perhaps the most drastic change, however, was that he wasn’t alone here—there were other people all around him. They stood at intervals along the walls, their expressions impassive yet very much alive all the same. It was the sort of thing he was positive they weren’t going to find in the other Insomnia, not unless it was part of yet another trial.

He really hoped there wouldn’t be another. When his eyes drifted towards the throne that overlooked all of it, he figured he was already going to have a hard enough time getting through this one.

Because Noct was there. Noct was here, seated on the chair that had been passed down through generations of his family and looking every bit the true king he was. It was simultaneously surreal and a punch to the gut that Prompto hadn’t anticipated. This was what they’d wanted. This was what they were working towards, what they were hoping to achieve as they approached the crystalline Crown City. Seeing it, though? Having more than a mere vision of it before his eyes? Overwhelming wasn’t quite the word for the sensation that assaulted him as he stood in that spot, staring up at his best friend and monarch where the latter’s father had addressed them eleven years prior. He’d felt about as prepared then, too, which was saying something since he hadn’t been tried and tested at that point. After all that had happened, he should have been able to handle it better. He had proven himself; he’d gone above and beyond to make sure he was the kind of person who could be there for his best friend in spite of his serious lack of training in that department. He should’ve been able to hold his head high, ignore the fact that this was totally the beginning of the Astrals’ test, and ask if there was anything his liege needed.

He didn’t. And it wasn’t only because his mouth had gone too dry to speak.

The doors at the other end of the throne room chose that moment to open, admitting someone Prompto hadn’t expected to see. Well, he hadn’t expected any of this, but he was struck dumb anyway.

Lady Lunafreya was as radiant as she had been in the pictures of her that had circulated over the years, practically glowing with a light that he didn’t think had anything to do with being the Oracle. It was in her smile when her gaze fell on Noct, and her eyes gleamed with something that at once made Prompto feel like maybe he shouldn’t be intruding on a private moment between…between…

Husband and wife.

The golden ring on her finger was unmistakable: Ignis had shown it to him once before they’d left the Citadel, explaining that the king had ordered it for the ceremony he would never have the pleasure of seeing. That none of them would have the pleasure of seeing, because it wasn’t destined to happen in their world. Not yet.

Here, however, it looked like they’d already tied the knot. Lady Lunafreya was officially queen of Insomnia and Tenebrae, that ring a match for the familiar crown that poked out from the side of Noct’s head. The two of them were here and they were happy

And Prompto was so in the way.

“I should—Uh, I can go,” he offered, pointing towards the door behind Lady Lunafreya as she approached.

It was as if he hadn’t said a word: she didn’t pause to so much as glance in his direction, nor did Noct acknowledge him or his discomfort. They carried on like he wasn’t in the room, the queen brushing past him while the king descended from his throne to meet her on the dais. They didn’t say a word, not to each other and definitely not to him, but they didn’t really need to. The way they were looking at each other basically said it all.

Oh, yeah. I should go.

“I’ll just be outside if you need me,” he murmured as he turned to go. His heart dropped into his stomach when there was still no response, and it took every bit of effort he could muster not to be insulted by it. Noct was king, after all—he had tons of retainers and guards, plus a wife he needed to prioritize. He didn’t have time to cater to Prompto’s irrationally hurt feelings like he had when they were kids.

He shook that thought aside as soon as it occurred to him. What right did he have to be upset? This was how it was always going to go—how it was meant to go. Prompto had known that the day he’d befriended a prince, and he was equally aware of it now.

Admittedly, it was everything he’d ever feared. It had consumed him on occasion when he was younger, long before they’d left for Altissia and again once he had reason to wonder what it would be like when Noct got married. He’d always recognized, of course, that their friendship as he’d known it couldn’t last forever. Noct was royalty, and Prompto was a commoner. Eventually, even if he joined the Crownsguard and earned his spot on the team, he would have to take a backseat to other stuff. There were meetings for Noct to attend, diplomatic decisions to be reached, foreign asses to be kissed. Any time he had outside of that, he would probably want for himself. That likely wouldn’t happen, not when kings were followed by their retainers night and day, but he would crave the solitude regardless.

And really, Prompto wasn’t even the most important of Noct’s retainers to defy his wishes. Ignis was his advisor and Gladio his Shield; Cor would be his marshal as with his father before him. He had a whole host of people who had trained their entire lives for this job. If anyone was going to be hanging around after he retired from his duties for the day, it would be them.

Then there was Prompto. Plain, simple, fortunately competent Prompto. He was perfectly capable of doing his duty, but it didn’t set him apart the way it did the others. It didn’t make him worthy of Noct’s attention when he had every right to hoard it for his own privacy and spending time with his wife.

Yeah, Prompto had seen this coming a mile off, yet it hurt nevertheless. Was that what this trial was supposed to be? Was he meant to accept the fact that things weren’t going to be the same, that he would be relegated to the shadows and forced to watch his best friend thrive without him? It didn’t seem like much of a test, not when there were a million other things the Six could have saddled him with. Reminding him how woefully unprepared he was for the moment when Noct left him behind was pretty mild, especially for them.  

Or maybe there was more to it than that.

The strangest part wasn’t that he was practically invisible to his best friend. While he hadn’t been anticipating that, it also didn’t come as any major surprise. No, it got even weirder when he realized that he appeared to be invisible to everyone.

The Kingsglaive had always been professional and had only grown more so under Cor’s leadership, but they were still people. Their eyes should have followed him as he approached the doors; the two stationed on the entrance should have opened them for him to pass. Someone should have smirked at the nonverbal slap he’d just gotten for being here when Noct didn’t want him around.

None of that happened. The doors remained shut, the gazes remained stationary, and the mood was set by the king and queen rather than his own shame where it stalked him towards the exit.

Frowning, Prompto paused in front of the operative to his left, who stared past him as though he didn’t exist. Waving a hand in front of her face or dipping down so that they were looking each other straight in the eye didn’t do a damn thing: for all she reacted, he might not even have been there.

Uh…okay? This is weird.

He’d almost decided to bypass her entirely and open the door himself, whether it meant shoving her out of the way or not, when the Glaive finally decided to throw him a bone.

Sort of.

She inclined her head deferentially, as did her partner beside her, and they both stepped aside to pull open the doors so that Noct and Lady Lunafreya could pass. Prompto barely had time to hop out of the way so that they wouldn’t walk right into him, not that they noticed. They were too busy talking in hushed voices about what had happened that day—about a meeting with the First Secretary of Accordo and calling it an early night so they could survey some monument being built near the Crown City’s ramparts. It was all so normal, how they nodded to their retinue—except him—and strode into the corridor together. It was all so natural, how they spoke as both spouses and best friends.

The sight of their happiness, the feeling it evoked in his chest, left him rooted to the spot. All he could do was watch their retreating backs where they vanished around the corner, a steady stream of Glaives waiting at attention without pursuing them. Inside the Citadel, there was no reason to: it was the safest place on the planet now that the empire and Ardyn were gone. Noct didn’t need protection everywhere he went; he didn’t need hangers-on to have his back, figuratively or literally. He had earned the right to go about his business and ignore their presence like his father always had. On Prompto’s first visits to the palace, it had struck him as odd that King Regis had been able to so aptly pretend that he was alone despite the fact that he was surrounded. There were so many guards that he’d thought for sure it would be like living in a fishbowl, constantly on display and constantly aware of it. Not the king, though: he’d handled the situation with the sort of grace Prompto never could, and Noct had learned from the best. To him, his guards were simply part of the scenery. To him, they were as good as invisible.

How was he supposed to protect his best friend if he was invisible, though? How would he protect Noct when, as Ignis had reminded them at camp mere hours earlier, he wouldn’t have the same freedom as he had before, the freedom that had allowed their friendship in the first place?

Whichever god was messing with him now—he was assuming Ramuh, given that that guy had been big on the symbolism—must have been thinking along the same lines, hence his trial taking a turn for the future rather than the past. It would be one thing if Ignis was invisible: he had the brains to keep Noct intact regardless of whether the latter acknowledged it. Gladio, too, had any number of tools in his arsenal. Neither of them had been brought up in the spotlight. Actually, it was the exact opposite. They’d always known that they would play second fiddle to whatever the kingdom prioritized, so this would be no big deal to them. It would be different after all they’d been through, sure, but they’d manage somehow.

Prompto didn’t have the same luxury, not even after all he’d done to earn it. If he couldn’t be seen, if the Glaives and Crownsguard operatives around him ignored his presence when he trudged into the corridor as though he was less than them, how was he supposed to be the guardian he’d vowed he would be?

Guess that’s my trial, he mused silently, his eyes scanning the faces of his disinterested audience in trepidation. That thought, however distant, had remained at the back of his mind. This was a test; of course Ramuh wasn’t going to let him off easy. Gladio had traversed uncomfortable terrain, and he didn’t want to think about what it had cost Ignis to encounter the events that all of them had believed were long since over.

This was his cross to bear, if he could.

No, not if.

His inadequacies wouldn’t hold him back. He hadn’t let them in the past, and he wasn’t about to start now. Like he’d told Noct years ago, he was simply grateful to have been included in their group for as long as he had. Those moments they’d shared—playing video games and bemoaning their classes and annoying Ignis and taunting Gladio and sitting out under the stars and saying goodbye—meant more to him than life itself. They were the memories he cherished when he woke up panting after those stupid nightmares, wondering whether the sacrifice had been worth it given all that it had cost them for so little apparent gain. They were what he held on to when he was feeling down and the world seemed darker than it should have.

Being invisible wasn’t a big deal. He’d been alone before, and he could do it again. He could watch Noct’s back from the shadows, just like he had as a kid. Well, okay, that had been more like stalking than anything else, but that wasn’t important. The point was that Prompto Argentum had always been there for Noctis Lucis Caelum as his friend and brother, knowing that the end of the line would eventually come for one or both of them.

This test was merely confirming his suspicions, or perhaps playing on them. As much as he wanted to run, as much as he would rather return to the chambers he had claimed for himself (if they were still his in this version of reality) and start over again later, he wouldn’t. Prompto had been dropped right smack dab in the center of the throne room for a reason. It must have been his station—must be his station in the future, according to Ramuh. He wouldn’t abandon it for anything. The Six wanted to know what he’d do if he couldn’t be seen? They wanted proof of what would happen when his personality ceased to make Noct smile and his king’s life had to revolve around his marriage rather than his friendships? They wanted the reassurance that he was going to make up for the protection they were stripping from Noct when Prompto was such a worthless speck in the grand scheme of the universe?

Bring it on.

In Niflheim, he had been one of millions.

In Lucis, he had been another face in the crowd.

Prompto was used to being invisible. Maybe that was how he thrived.

So, he didn’t give in to the urge to admit defeat. He didn’t leave to hunt down Ignis or Gladio and see how their fates had been decided in this trial. Instead, Prompto did as he had always done: he followed in Noct’s footsteps.

As far as they would take him, anyway. The elevator doors were already closed when he rounded the corner with renewed determination, but that wasn’t what stopped him in his tracks.

When they’d returned to the Citadel and begun putting things back to rights, one of their first orders of business had been rerouting the generators that had kept the Glaive operating in the city to the palace. It was a consideration that Cor and Ignis had agreed on: without the Crystal, they needed contingency plans in the event of an emergency. If the lights went out for some reason, despite daemons not posing much of a threat anymore, they required security measures to ensure that the Citadel remained secure. The process meant a lot of trial and error—it was tough to rig a building that size to a few measly generators until they could stabilize the kingdom enough to make bigger ones—but it eventually worked out. You know, after a few dozen power outages and the most colorful language Prompto had ever heard from the marshal.

Needless to say, it filled him with utter panic when the lights went out and didn’t come back on.

The sudden shift in atmosphere finally broke through the Glaives’ idle facades, but they didn’t automatically spring into action like Prompto would have expected. The waning light filtering in through the windows in the antechamber to the throne room illuminated their expressions just enough for Prompto to see their eyes darting between the elevator and the fluorescents above, their gazes expectant yet uneasy as they shifted nervously from foot to foot.

Rolling his eyes, Prompto gathered every bit of authority he could and ordered, “We need to check the generators!”

Nothing. Either they didn’t hear him or they didn’t want to, because nobody moved a muscle to reply or recognize that he’d spoken.

Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me here!

This was fine—it was going to be okay. They didn’t have to listen to him. They just needed to get off their asses and do something.

…Why weren’t they doing anything? Why wasn’t anybody doing anything?! Why were the guards just standing there? Why weren’t they running around, trying to get the power back on? Why weren’t they trying their transceivers or signaling to their superiors or something?!

And why the hell was no one considering the fact that Noct and Lady Lunafreya were in that elevator, which must have stopped on its ascent? They were peering through the gloom in that direction, yet their obvious concern wasn’t enough for them to lift a finger to help. They were too busy eyeing the lights, waiting for someone else to do their job.

They were busy doing what they had been taught. What their training had dictated was right.

Training that Prompto wasn’t obliged to abide by because he didn’t have it.

That realization was what made his decision for him. Perhaps he wasn’t the best at what he did and never would be; maybe there was no chance that he’d ever amount to what these elite warriors had. He wasn’t going to wait to follow their lead, though. Someone had to help Noct, and if that meant his invisible former best friend took the reins on this one, then so be it. Ramuh’s version of Cor could chew him out for breaking the chain of command later.

The second he stepped forward, however, everything changed. The motionless Glaives sprang into action, clamoring for the lift with shouted orders to reach their monarchs and find out what was wrong with those generators. They sprinted past him as if he wasn’t there; he was like a common kid on the streets rather than someone wearing the same uniform as them. None of them heeded his presence, nor did they ask for his assistance. They were singularly focused on prying open the elevator with their bare hands and, in a few cases, the points of their daggers. It was futile, though: the more they struggled, the more resolved the doors appeared to stay shut.

Which made sense. They were electric. Seriously, these guys weren’t thinking straight at all.

Meaning it was up to Prompto, and given that he wasn’t getting anywhere near that lift anytime soon, he had to come up with a different plan—and fast. He wasn’t sure what was happening or why Ramuh was offering him this scenario, but he didn’t like it one bit. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end in apprehension and anticipation of something he couldn’t quite decipher. It was a familiar sensation, at least, not to mention one that he had felt on multiple occasions over the years. In some situations, it had left him reeling; in others, he hadn’t gotten a chance to panic. This was one of the latter. Hesitating, even for a moment, might indicate to the Six that he wasn’t as ready to protect Noct as he needed to be. Pausing to think might be construed as unwillingness to help, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ignis’s trial had been about using his brain. Prompto believed that his was about a different organ.

So he ran, and not in the same direction as his fellow Glaives. Rather, he whirled on his heel and tore through the corridors on his way to the staircase that was their only salvation if there was ever a crisis on the upper levels. No one used it unless they were within a floor or two of their destination; any more than that would have left you too winded to function.

In this case, that was a boon: the gaping chasm that stretched before him when he threw open the door was devoid of anyone that could impede his path to Noct. There was no yelling or pounding footsteps, no crowd of Crownsguard operatives belatedly realizing their charge needed their aid. It was just Prompto, propping open the door to let in whatever minuscule amount of light he could before taking the stairs three at a time in order to reach Noct’s level as quickly as possible.

The strain it put on his body was considerable, from his burning lungs to his aching legs to the agonizing cut of his boots into the bone behind his knees. There wasn’t time to pause and catch his breath; there wasn’t time to loosen his jacket or adjust his obnoxious footwear. He couldn’t stop, not in the dark and slightly scary silence and absolutely not when he saw a pair of yellow eyes glaring hungrily at him out of the darkness ahead.

What are daemons doing here?!

It was a question he didn’t necessarily want the answer to, although he had a feeling it was more to do with the Six than the actual possibility that they would ever have to deal with daemons again in their lifetime or anyone else’s. That didn’t stop him from whipping his firearm out of its holster and shooting the damn thing between the eyes or anything, but still, they couldn’t be at least a little more creative than that?

On second thought, maybe that was for the best. As he sped up the stairs, counting the floors in his head since he couldn’t see the signs by each door, he figured it would have been so much worse if some big nasty was waiting for him that he didn’t know how to deal with. Daemons, disgusting and obnoxious as they were, had become manageable over the last decade. They were predictable and, if Prompto was being honest, he’d grown bored of them by about the third year into the Long Night. That wasn’t to say that they had ceased to be a threat—that would never happen. Even so, once you learned the nuances of kicking their asses, life got a bit easier.

Too bad this trial wouldn’t be the same.

When Prompto burst onto the floor where the royal residences were settled, his chest heaving and his head swimming with mingled distress and breathlessness, he discovered that the handful he’d encountered in the stairwell weren’t the only daemons that had made it inside the Citadel. More were battling the Glaives on this level, the goblins joined by imps and hobgoblins; the red-tinged luminescence further down the corridor heralded the bomb daemons long before Prompto saw the flames emanating from their stone cores. And at the center of the chaos was the elevator, closed here as well and without anyone defending it.

The implications of that were terrifying, and before Prompto realized he was moving, he had fired off a few shots at a rampaging snaga and was rapidly approaching the ominously dark lift. If the Glaives weren’t guarding the elevator, then they had no idea that Noct and Lady Lunafreya were still inside. The two of them were nowhere to be seen, so it was doubtful that they had already arrived before the power went out. That being said, they didn’t have time for the small fries, not when precious cargo was dangling precariously within that elevator shaft. Neither of their monarchs were armed; Noct wouldn’t have access to the Armiger anymore, nor would he wield the Crystal or the Ring of the Lucii, which Prompto distantly registered hadn’t been on his finger when he’d left the throne room. If something got to them, they’d be trapped and helpless. They needed protection, be it from a Glaive or an invisible former somebody.

Prompto could be that somebody.

No one seemed to notice him attempting to slip his fingers between the doors, too concerned with the onslaught to bother helping him pry them open. It was a good thing that wasn’t his plan, because he never would have made it work all by himself. When you were invisible, it paid to go with ingenuity rather than brute force.

Sorry, big guy.

It would have been easier to prop the door open an inch if Gladio were here, but now wasn’t the time for that sort of thinking. The metal was pressing painfully into the sides of his boot where he had stuck his foot between the panels for added leverage, and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to hold it for long. Fortunately, he only needed a few seconds to dig a starshell out of his pocket (because he somehow knew it would be there), lodge it into the limited space he’d created, and dive out of the way with a painstakingly aimed shot over his shoulder.

Okay, so he’d planned to blow the doors open. He’d also planned to put the daemons on the defensive, which he sort of had.

He hadn’t anticipated blowing half the wall to hell.

Oops.

He’d have the contractors send the bill to Noct. He was good for the gil.

Hopefully, he’d have enough left to fix Prompto after all was said and done, because there was no way he’d be making the jump down to where the elevator car had stopped at least ten floors below without incurring some serious damage. Thirty-one wasn’t old, but holy shit, that was a huge drop!

But Noct needed him. Suck it up, Prompto.

It wasn’t like falling from the train. There was no confusion, no burst of panic when his feet left solid ground and he found himself airborne. All things considered, it wasn’t so bad as he leapt from the shattered edges of the doorframe. This time, it was a choice. This time, it was his choice.

Ramuh and whoever else was watching must have been impressed, because his legs buckled beneath him when he hit the roof of the elevator, and he rolled into the wall with only a bump on the head to show for his trouble. It was so easy to forget that none of this was real in the heat of the moment, but instances like that? Yeah, they brought him right back down to earth, in this case with a deafening crash.

After that, it was all…kind of a blur. Tearing open the emergency hatch, diving into the daemon-infested pit where Noct and Lady Lunafreya were waylaid, firing off a few rounds before the lights flickered back on.

The interminable moment where all the monsters vanished.

The hand on his shoulder. Noct’s eyes finding him—seeing him. His smile. The way he opened his mouth, Prompto’s name on his lips.

And then it wasn’t Noct at all.

“Hey, you with us?” Gladio demanded, shaking him roughly.

“W-Wha…?”

This wasn’t the Citadel. This wasn’t Insomnia.

It was the Malacchi Hills, and Ignis and Gladio were staring at him as though he’d lost his mind. It didn’t help that his first response wasn’t an answer to Gladio’s question so much as a distant, terrified, “Where’d Noct go?”

A pause. A long pause.

“Prompto,” Ignis began cautiously, shooting a warning glance in Gladio’s direction. “Noct isn’t here.”

“He… He’s not?”

“No. It’s just us.”

His head bobbed in what would have been a nod if he wasn’t entirely incapable of controlling it. “Just… It’s just us.”

“Yes. Just us.”

That was right. It was just the three of them—Noct and Lady Lunafreya weren’t there. They were waiting at the Citadel. The Citadel that the Astrals had created for them. A Citadel encased in crystal and probably full of kings who had been rewarded with eternal life.

Because what he’d seen hadn’t been real. It was a test. Only a test.

And Prompto had passed.

He wasn’t certain at first, yet as his head began to clear, he realized that he wouldn’t have earned Noct’s attention in those final moments if he hadn’t. He wouldn’t be able to breathe easier and set aside a part of him that hadn’t known peace since they’d started on this journey to bring their king home for good if he hadn’t.

Instead, his chest rose and fell evenly, and it felt like a weight that had been sitting on his shoulders for decades had been lifted. He could sense the distance growing between the kid he used to be and the person he’d become, and for the first time in his life, he recognized that he could finally put that part of him to rest. Gladio could make do without brute strength, and Ignis could give up his sight to avoid bringing Noct an ounce of regret or grief, illogical though it might be.

Prompto could be a Glaive—one of the best—even if he had to sacrifice the relationship he’d had with Noct before. They’d always be friends, Crystal and duty notwithstanding. And Prompto would always be there for him.

That had to be enough.

It was enough. The Six were as sure of it as Prompto.

“True is the heart of the King’s Avatar,” whispered Gentiana from a place both far off and very near. “He has proven his worth and his devotion to the Chosen King. To him, the path is unbarred.”

Chapter Text

Longwythe. The Three Valleys. Merrioth Haven. Hammerhead.

It got to the point where Prompto lost track of the familiar sights he should have been excited to approach, too focused on maintaining a steady pace and ignoring the niggling feeling that they were missing something. With each milestone they passed, each step they took, each road they traveled, they were that much closer to reaching Noct. Pretty soon, they’d be on their way home—their actual home—one king and queen in tow.

Hard to believe.

Even more difficult to fathom was that the Six were simply going to let it happen. Where were they? Shouldn’t there have been some sort of celebration that they’d gotten this far without messing up their trials? Or was something else awaiting them as they had discussed at their last campsite? All three of them had been in agreement on that one: they needed to keep their guard up. It wasn’t that they thought the Astrals were going to turn on them or anything; they’d proven themselves worthy, so the Six had no reason to squash them now. That still didn’t account for the fact that nothing had really changed—they walked, they drew closer to Insomnia, they waited for the other shoe to drop. Lather, rinse, repeat. Seriously, it just wasn’t the gods’ style! It was never easy with those guys—they’d learned that the fun way on more occasions than he could count.

Despite their reservations, however, the Astrals didn’t appear, not to accost them or to help them. It was like they’d vacated this world as they had Eos, and in their wake was an emptiness that didn’t exactly lend itself to comfort. This place had been creepy enough as it was, pretty crystal aside. Without the constant fear of being sucked into some alternate reality to play games with their hosts? Yeah, that made the trip tougher, not easier.

Prompto tried to tell himself that that was why the maelstrom of his memories refused to subside as they trod closer to the Crown City, although he was positive that the lack of a distraction was only part of the problem. The real issue was in their surroundings; it was the scenery that he was studiously attempting to ignore that had the hair on his arms standing upright. All of it held a certain amount of sentiment, both good and bad, and it transported him back over a decade to a much happier—more ignorant—time. Wandering through Leide for Cindy when she’d been the focal point of his obsessions; laughing at the sand that had gathered in Noct’s hair during the dust storms that constantly plagued the region. Going at their own pace, unconcerned by the idea that Noct’s wedding was waiting for the guest of honor to arrive since it wasn’t like they could go through with it until he got there. That leg of their trip had been the most fun, in a sense. They hadn’t been introduced to what losing the war with Niflheim meant yet, nor had they been required to come to terms with how that loss would impact their futures. The days before they’d made it to Galdin… They were something else, all right.

Prompto figured Ignis and Gladio had to be reminiscing as well, because the further they hiked, the less they had to say. Eventually, the banter that had reignited when they’d set out was all but nonexistent, giving way to the uncomfortable sort of camaraderie that had become commonplace in the aftermath of Noct’s disappearance. They worked well together; they didn’t need words to communicate what needed to be done or what they were thinking. Even so, it would have been nice to make a bit of conversation that could take his mind off…

“So, Noct. I’ve been taking pictures of whatever catches my eye, but what do you want to see?”

The answer had always been a toss-up. A lot of the time, Noct hadn’t had a preference: he’d enjoyed sifting through whatever Prompto captured, whether they were the same old shots of Ignis chauffeuring them around or Gladio falling asleep in the backseat. He’d hurry past photos of himself, but that was typical Noct. Unless it was something cool Prompto had snapped in the heat of battle (with monsters or fish, it made no difference), he generally shied away from being the center of attention. To anybody else, that wouldn’t be the most encouraging characteristic for a king, but to them? Well, it was just…Noct. That was what made him who he was, and those evenings spent around the campfire taunting Ignis and Gladio for their appearances in Prompto’s pictures were some of the best memories he had.

They were what had him smiling sadly when they strode under the crystallized gates that led them into the Crown City, as well. Something had to.

Part of Prompto’s job on their journey had been to document everything—every place they’d visited, every person they’d met, every major accomplishment they’d claimed. It was a daunting task yet one that he had accepted gladly in light of his excitement at being chosen to accompany the guys at all. What he’d ended up with was a compilation of pictures so thorough that he doubted a genuine court photographer ever would have matched its magnitude. (The side of him that craved validation no matter how old he got liked to believe that King Regis would have been proud of the visual smorgasbord, not that he’d ever admit that to anybody.) During the Long Night, he’d whipped those photographs out every now and again to remember the good old days and what the world had looked like before everything went to hell. That had been a large part of what kept him going: if life had once been as it appeared in his pictures, then there was no doubt that they could learn to live that way again. The docks of Altissia could be restored to the majesty that had stared back at him from his own creations; the forests and plains that comprised Duscae would be green someday instead of the various shades of grey that seemed to move in once the clouds did.

Insomnia was the one place he didn’t have any photos of from their trip—not when they’d left anyway. He had plenty from their return, given that they’d known their time with Noct was short and he’d wanted to make the most of it while he could. There was a special stack that housed his most recent pictures from those last few days at the end, but he rarely even glanced at them. He didn’t need to be reminded of the shambles that the Crown City had been reduced to when it was the fortunately diminishing reality they’d lived for over a year. He didn’t need to feel his heart racing or his blood pounding in his ears at the injustice that had left their home a wreck and their brotherhood worse. All that did was make him pine for a time when things had been simpler—when they’d been happy.

So, as they made their way through the ghost town that the Astrals had erected in Insomnia’s image, Prompto couldn’t help but wish he’d brought his camera with him.

This was more like what he wanted to recall: the towering white structures, the unbroken effigies of the Old Wall, the sunlight glittering off the buildings in a manner that would have been divine with or without the gods’ interference. All of it was both familiar and surreal, which made sense when this wasn’t exactly what they saw when they looked out at the city anymore. Where rubble was slowly being cleared out of the low-traffic areas at home, the streets were empty here. There were no overturned cars or any cars at all, and if this Insomnia had ever seen a stone out of place, he thought it might just be the end of the world. Everything was so perfect, almost too perfect, yet he nevertheless felt the incomprehensible urge to preserve the memory in print if for no other reason than that he wanted to show Noct.

It was a stupid idea, of course: it wasn’t like he wouldn’t see all of it on their way out. Still, it would make a nice end to the photo album of their journey, right? He could throw it all together and make it a wedding present for his best pal and Lady Lunafreya. Even though Noct wasn’t the most sentimental guy—not when anyone was looking, at least—she’d probably want something to look back on. They’d come too far to leave it at the darker photos he’d snatched or the destruction that had been waiting for them when daylight broke.

The Astrals’ version of Insomnia definitely would have been a nice addition for the final page, that was for sure. You didn’t have to be some sophisticated photographer to appreciate the sight.

Prompto probably would have appreciated it more if he wasn’t dead on his feet, though. All of them were about ready to drop, much as Ignis and Gladio tried to hide it. Their legs were aching, their muscles were sore, their bodies were utterly exhausted—all in spite of the fact that they had been stopping at havens throughout Leide to ensure that they were ready for whatever the Six had to throw their way once they made it to the Crown City. Call them pessimistic, but they couldn’t believe that they would be allowed to just waltz into the throne room and haul Noct out of there regardless of whether they had passed their individual trials to the gods’ satisfaction. No, a shudder ran through Prompto’s spine at the mere thought, and he was certain that the Six were hovering overhead somewhere with that shoe.

It didn’t help that things were so chill as they traversed the familiar streets that would ultimately lead them to their goal. While it would have been an awesome photo op, there was no denying that they didn’t belong here. That wasn’t to say that they’d belonged anywhere in this world—the Astrals were making that abundantly obvious with or without their constant mishaps. Even so, there was something about being in a place so much like home, a place that should have been theirs, yet simultaneously remaining so far removed from it all. They knew everything, from the streetlights to the shops to all the other haunts they’d frequented when they were younger, but they weren’t the same. There was the corner where Ignis had always picked Noct up after school so that he could drive him back to the Citadel or his apartment or wherever it was he wanted to go. And there was the road Noct had repeatedly complained was too steep every time he had been forced to accompany Gladio on his early morning runs so that they could avoid the rush. On the other side of the street was the arcade where they had spent far too many hours when more pressing responsibilities were clamoring for their attention, Ignis standing outside with that look on his face that practically screamed that he disapproved. Prompto recognized everything, and he could tell from a glance at the others that they were equally nostalgic at the sight. Gladio was grinning at those old jogging routes in obvious amusement, and Ignis… Well, this wasn’t the first time Prompto had been glad that he never had to witness what the Crown City had become. The only Insomnia he had was the one from his memory, the one that existed around them here the way it wouldn’t at home, which Prompto figured made him one seriously lucky dude. He’d borne enough burdens—he didn’t need the burden of knowing.

As if reading his thoughts, Ignis’s eyes skirted in his direction and a minute smirk creased the corners of his eyes. “It’s quite the dazzling view.”

“Yeah,” Prompto agreed with a wistful sigh. “You can say that again.”

There was a brief pause in which it appeared that Ignis was battling himself over whether to say more or not, but the illogical part of him that the Six had tested must have won because he haltingly continued, “I suppose…if it is to be my last… Perhaps that would not be so terrible.”

Gladio’s shoulders immediately stiffened. “Let’s not count our chocobos before they hatch. We’ve still got time.”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” observed Ignis, impassive as ever. “It won’t be long before we reach the Citadel now.”

“Then we’re probably gonna have to make it back to the Tempering Grounds,” argued Gladio stubbornly. “Got a lot left to see.”

“Perhaps.”

It was pretty obvious that Ignis didn’t believe it, and Prompto was admittedly having a difficult time as well, but neither of them were prepared to debate the point further. Regardless of who ended up being correct, the fact of the matter was that Ignis wouldn’t be like this forever—he’d go back to normal as soon as they returned to the real Lucis. It wasn’t fair—it wasn’t right—yet there was nothing they could do to stop it. To put it in terms that Ignis would approve of, they were better off admitting the inevitable now so that they could prepare themselves. If Ignis wanted to think that this was it, if he was content with witnessing the ethereal city surrounding them before the darkness overtook him again, then Prompto wasn’t going to deny him that.

Nor was he going to deny himself, because oh man, this place was so awesome! Talk about splendor of the regal variety. Just like the Six had pulled out all the stops on their trials, they had outdone themselves with Insomnia. Not once on their approach to the Citadel did they encounter anything less than absolute utopia of the sort that he used to think actually existed. As a kid, everything in the Crown City had always seemed so amazing; he’d blocked out the trash in the streets and the overcrowded outer districts to focus on the marvels of their urban paradise. It wasn’t until he’d gotten older that he realized there was no perfect place, no perfect home, no perfect family. Everything had flaws, and while Insomnia wasn’t immune, it definitely had plenty going for it even with all the imperfections that made it what it was.

Imperfections that didn’t exist when you were a god and could literally snap your fingers to get rid of them. At least, that was what Prompto assumed. Was that a thing? Could they simply snap their fingers and poof! No scratches anywhere?

That had to be it. Otherwise, what was the point of being a god?

Clearly, the Astrals agreed with him, because they had one more marvel waiting—the last marvel they had left to encounter.

The Citadel was especially glorious where it adorned the center of the city like a crown. Not King Regis’s crown—this was more the fairy tale variety than the low-key symbol of authority that he had worn. That was something that Prompto had never understood, although he recalled that Noct hadn’t minded a bit. If they were royalty, why not go all out? Why stick with some dinky little twig when they could have an enormous, heavy, jewel-encrusted heirloom that would put any other kingdom’s too shame? (If there were any other kingdoms, which there really weren’t with the empire around, but the point remained.) According to Ignis, it was a sign of their modesty and a silent promise that the royal family of Lucis was there to protect their people, not garner praise that was actually owed to the Six instead of their earthly counterparts. While it made at least a little sense, however, that didn’t change the fact that it would have been so much more awesome to have something like… Well, like the Citadel of the gods’ construction. The crystal that crawled up the walls to the palace’s apex looked like a million glittering diamonds where the sun struck it from the east; each window winked down at them as they approached the gates, dark on the inside but easily mistaken for polished onyx rather than vacant space from this distance. The effect was pretty amazing, and that was counting everything they had seen up until now. The rest of the world? It had nothing on the soaring pinnacle of greatness that acted as the obvious centerpiece of the Astrals’ domain.

“Would you get a load of that?” murmured Gladio.

Humming in apparent agreement, Ignis couldn’t seem to find more to say than, “Magnificent.”

That, in Prompto’s opinion, was probably the best any of them could come up with. There were simply no words for the wondrous display or the magic that it exuded. It was the sight, the aura, even the knowledge that this was the center of the universe—both theirs and the gods’—that brought it all together, and unlike their own kingdom, they didn’t need a Crystal to create that divine image. Here, there was no pillar of light reaching skyward to form the Wall that had protected the Crown City before Niflheim’s attack; the magic that had once declared Insomnia the last bastion in Lucis was absent, yet the sensation it had always engendered in them hadn’t gone anywhere. In a sense, that was what this world had in common with their own: they didn’t need magic in order to make this the most beautiful place on earth. If anything, they did that every single day that they didn’t give up and sink back into the darkness, albeit the kind that only existed in their heads.

Maybe it was the surrealism that emanated from their surroundings, or maybe they were merely as mentally exhausted as they were physically. Whichever it was, they’d messed up. They’d goofed. They’d agreed to maintain the walls of their caution and keep an eye out for anything suspicious, anything that might indicate the gods were about to smack them around again.

And they hadn’t. In fact, they’d allowed such a glaring blind spot that it put Ignis’s to shame.

Because when they swung open the gates to the Citadel, the gates that had both bid them farewell and heralded their return too long ago to appreciate, they discovered that the palace wasn’t all that had been waiting for them to show up. They discovered that it wasn’t as simple as ascending to the top of a fancy tomb-type thing for the kings of Lucis, old and new-ish. Instead, they staggered to a halt in the face of the one sight they hadn’t counted on in the time it had taken them to get there.

Ignis, being the smartest of their group and probably the rest of the world as a whole, had laid out their plan. He had thought through every contingency, almost to the point where Prompto was just waiting for his brain to explode and shower them with oozy intelligence. If they were lucky, a little of it might sink in to them. It hadn’t happened, but they’d followed Ignis’s line of reasoning regardless. After all, it was reasonable to assume that they would have nothing to fear from Ifrit when they arrived: the guy was up in his ashy heaven. Or hell. Or wherever it was that traitor gods ended up after they kicked it. Shiva had also been stricken from Ignis’s list of mental possibilities when it came to who was most likely to boot their asses back a few paces. Given that she was the one who had brought them here, it would have been more than a bit hypocritical of her to pull that crap. The Six were fickle, but they weren’t that fickle.

That left one Astral that they had sort of counted on while simultaneously hoping it wouldn’t come to that. They had good reason, too, considering the fact that Bahamut hadn’t seen fit to descend from his lofty perch at all since they’d begun their journey. Okay, so he’d helped them with Ifrit, but could they really call that helping? Besides a fancy light show and cutting off an antler—with Noct’s help—he hadn’t really done a damn thing. When Prompto added his inability to contain Ardyn to the mix, he had to say that it didn’t make for an impressive figure. Sure, he was a force to be reckoned with; his was the prophecy that had dictated Noct had to allegedly die in order to save the world. They simply hadn’t brought themselves to think too hard about what would happen if he decided to step in and test them. It was far more likely that the others would team up for a final showdown instead.

As they approached the grand steps that led to the doors of the Citadel, Prompto genuinely couldn’t tell if they’d been right or wrong.

Standing before them wasn’t the adversary they had expected, whether it was the Draconian or the rest of the Six who were at all invested in what Prompto and the others were attempting to do. Standing before them wasn’t a god at all, and for a split second, Prompto wondered if he had fallen back into the vision Ramuh had thrust upon him near Fociaugh Hollow. That was the only explanation for Noct’s presence that he could think of besides the three of them going insane.

Wait… What?!

Years ago, before he’d learned how to temper his excitement into something a bit more cautious as Ignis had frequently instructed him, he would have run straight to his friend to give him hell for freaking them out like this. The old him would have slapped his best friend on the shoulder and made a joke about him not making this hunt easy. Back then, he would have thought nothing of the sword in his hand or the blank expression on his face.

But that was then. Now, Prompto knew better than to leap without looking.

They all did. Ignis halted a few feet from Noct, raising a hand for them to do the same. From this proximity, the differences they hadn’t been able to catalogue at the gates were starker. Yeah, it was definitely their brother; he looked exactly as he had the night he’d died. The stubble he hadn’t had time to shave shadowed his jaw, making him appear more like his father than he ever had when they were kids. His hair wasn’t sculpted into the fashionably messy coif he’d preferred before he’d gone into the Crystal; it hung lank in the back while the sides were carelessly tucked behind his ears so that they didn’t obstruct his vision. The suit, the sword, even the smudges of dust on his cheeks were identical to that night, so much so that it sent a jolt through Prompto at the recollection. If he’d had it his way, they wouldn’t have lost Noct at all—given that that was impossible, though, he should have had a better send-off than battling the forces of evil and dying alone on his throne. Talk about disrespectful to the King of Kings.

While the similarities racked up, however, the distance in his gaze was undeniably not Noct. If anything, he was one of the most animated people Prompto had ever met in his life, second only to Iris. (No one could match that girl’s energy, especially when she was little. Yikes!) It didn’t matter what Noct was feeling—anger, boredom, sadness, regret, happiness. They all shone in his eyes regardless of how hard he tried to hide it; his face betrayed him every time. Well, every time but this time. Prompto glanced over at Ignis to see his brows furrowed in concentration as he struggled to read Noct to no avail, which was somewhat encouraging. It meant he hadn’t lost his touch, although the sentiment was bittersweet at best.

If this isn’t Noct…

“Who are you?” Ignis called before he could finish that thought, a low fire blazing in his good eye as he surveyed this phantom from the past.

Silence was the fake Noct’s only response, and Prompto felt more than saw Gladio bristle on his other side.

“He asked you a question,” the former Shield pressed with an even tone that Prompto didn’t think he could hope to imitate.

Either his composure was the key or his veiled demand triggered something, because the Noct in front of them replied in an uncharacteristic monotone, “You come in search of the King of Kings.”

Yup, definitely not Noct.

He had his moments where he could be pretty full of himself, but there hadn’t been one occasion in all the years they’d known each other where he referred to himself in the third person, not even as a joke. So, it was just a matter of figuring out which god had decided to imitate him.

Somehow, Prompto thought he might already have some idea.

“We have. We were invited,” Ignis added cautiously.

“Invitation does not nullify the promises made to the King of Kings,” not-Noct automatically rebuffed him.

Ignoring the fact that he was probably talking out of turn to an Astral, Prompto blurted out, “Maybe not, but we’re still here.”

“Yeah,” Gladio seconded. Prompto wasn’t sure when he’d put his hand on his sword, but he watched it tighten on the hilt in preparation and reached for his own weapon as well. “And you’re gonna let us pass.”

There was a pause—the ominous kind of pause—then not-Noct argued, “Only once the vassals of the King prove themselves worthy can the King be released to their custody.”

Uh… Haven’t we done that already?

Prompto had been laboring under the delusion that their previous trials had served that purpose, that whatever lay ahead would be icing on the cake rather than some huge deal.

Silly him.

Ignis was apparently equally irritated at the prospect, because his tone was laced with disbelief when he retorted, “And what must we do now? We have proven ourselves worthy in each of the trials we have faced thus far. What must we do to set the Draconian’s mind at ease?”

Oh, good. They were on the same page, then.

In their travels over the years, they’d never really had any interaction with Bahamut beyond what Noct had told them about him. Even that wasn’t much: the guy was a mystery. A giant mystery. Shrouded in even more mystery and a really stupid—but kind of awesome—suit of dragon-shaped armor. Unlike the other Astrals, he stayed out of the picture; no one knew a whole lot about him except that he was the leader of the pack where the Six were concerned. He didn’t offer advice, didn’t descend to walk amongst them (that they knew of), and didn’t feel the need to explain why things were the way they were. Either you trusted him or you didn’t, and when the most glaring example of the latter happened to have been Ardyn, Prompto was leaning towards the former.

Or he wanted to. It was pretty tough to trust someone who dressed up as their previously dead friend and raised a sword in their faces.

Oh. Shit.

 

***

 

The change was immediate. One moment, the caricature was addressing them in as civil a manner as a wrathful god could; the next, any divine presence that had resided in this specter of their brother was gone. In the vacuum the Draconian left behind was nothing more than a puppet, and that puppet lunged for them with an alarming level of malice well before they were able to steel themselves for the assault. That, in any case, was what Ignis could glean from this unfortunate marionette’s actions: its expression was blank, empty in a way that Noct never had been even in the most trying of circumstances. It was yet another scrap of evidence that this was not their friend and liege, but a facsimile of the person they’d been seeking all this time.

Perhaps that should have been comforting. It wasn’t truly Noct that was relentlessly attacking them. He would never do such a thing.

That didn’t make it any simpler to counter him.

Gladio, unsurprisingly, was the first to react. Unlike Ignis and Prompto, and certainly contrary to the lesson he was meant to have learned in his trial, he had been ready. He hadn’t bothered with formalities or offering the Draconian the benefit of the doubt, nor did it appear that he had anticipated the latter to extend the same courtesy. As such, he was in motion immediately, stepping between them and the false Noct’s blade while Ignis and Prompto armed themselves.

“Uh, guys? Is he for real?!” Prompto called over the clashing of metal. While his voice betrayed naught but surprise, the wavering firearm in his grasp made it obvious that he suffered the same apprehension as Ignis.

“The hell do you think?” Gladio ground out with a shout of exertion as he shoved Noct back a few steps and retreated to put some space between them. “He ain’t kidding around.”

Prompto shook his head, readying his weapon when Noct charged forward even though Ignis knew he wouldn’t shoot—not unless he had to. “But why?”

That, it seemed, was the million-gil question. None of their trials had been so ambiguous in their meaning or their execution, and Ignis was at a loss to provide the explanation that Prompto desired. Indeed, he was hoping for one himself—had been hoping that the Draconian would deign to deliver one prior to this unexpected show of force. That may have been too optimistic. Yes, they had gotten this far; they had traversed emotional and physical hardship alike to come within spitting distance of their destination only to be stopped at the doors. Still, the leader of the Six desired more.

The sole problem was that Ignis, for all he prided himself on his intellect, was unable to fathom what else he could possibly be searching for.

Was it not enough that they had given up everything in the first place in order to accompany Noct on his journey? Was it not enough that they had stood at his side and acted as his vanguard both during their pilgrimage and the Long Night that had followed? Was it not enough that they had continued as Noct had instructed, toiling away so that they might rebuild the kingdom that he should have survived to rule?

Was it not enough that they were here after enduring the trials that they had already faced?

Apparently, it was not. It was never enough, and the ringing of steel as he raised his daggers to defend against Noct’s renewed blitz sneered at him for believing that anything could be. Mere hours ago, they had been bemoaning the disconnect that existed between the Astrals and their human subordinates, that endless chasm that separated their all too mortal struggles from the lofty dealings of the gods. It had been foolish of them to assume that such removed beings would ever be willing to accept their suffering as the evidence of their worth that it would have been had they encountered human adversaries.

There was nothing human in this trial, not the motives behind it that they could not decipher or the nature of the examination itself. If there were, then the Draconian would not have pitted them against a foe that looked so much like Noct—that may very well have been Noct for all they knew. After all, the gods were capable of a great many things, the extent of which they would likely never uncover. Whatever their purpose was, Ignis wouldn’t put it past them to animate Noct’s body so that the Six could observe one final test, especially now that they had arrived at the location where he was bound to be interred.

The more Ignis thought about it—the more he dodged and ducked and parried to avoid both injuring this phantom and incurring any damage in equal measures—the more it made some semblance of sense. Noct appeared exactly as he had when he’d emerged from the Crystal. Except for Prompto’s, he had been fashioned into the image of how he had looked as a prince newly come of age in their other ordeals. Now that they were within the shadow of the Citadel, or would have been if there were shadows to be found here, the Astrals could easily have mirrored that form once again. In fact, Ignis thought that would have been the more painful of the two: battling a younger Noct, a weaker Noct, would have eaten at his heart more thoroughly than it was to trade blow after blow with this older incarnation. If they were to stand trial in this, their final endeavor, then he would have expected the Draconian to use whatever tools remained at his disposal to throw them off guard. A Noct in his youth, a Noct who hadn’t wielded the Ring of the Lucii, a Noct who needed them more than he had after his transformation—that would have broken them.

This Noct, on the other hand, was the one who had walked tall into destiny despite his uncomfortable awareness that he would walk no further than that. This Noct was the one that Ignis had not gotten to see in person but whose visage Pryna’s vision of the future had seared into his memory. The premature aging of his skin, the streaks of grey, the way his hair had lost much of its luster and his frame was even thinner than it had been when they were young men—all of that was Noct, just not the version of him that Ignis had been fortunate to look upon for himself. The only contrast to the Noct of his memories and his nightmares was the emotionless void in this impostor’s eyes as he accosted them.

Accosted was rather a pleasant word for it, all things considered. Although Gladio and Prompto were similarly reluctant to harm their adversary, whether he was the real Noct or not, it appeared that the latter was unwilling to return the favor. The force with which he brought his sword down upon Ignis’s crossed daggers hinted at his desire for a more decisive victory. It didn’t seem to matter whether Prompto was leveling a shot at him only to dive to the side instead or Gladio used the blunt end of his blade to shove Noct off balance; he regrouped and resumed regardless.

Perhaps that was what assured Ignis that this being, whoever it was, could not possibly be their brother. Their Noct would never attack them like this; he would never bear down on them the way he did Prompto, seeking to slice him in half but thwarted at the last moment by a bullet ricocheting off his blade. Their Noct would have engaged in some sparring, of course, even a measure of disgruntled training wherein one of them might grow too enthusiastic with their task. Not once in all the years Ignis had known him, however, had he demonstrated a proclivity for true malice. Even at his most distraught, he had tended towards lashing out with words or emotionally closing off more than anything else. The idea of raising a weapon to any of them would have repulsed him, which meant that this either wasn’t their Noct at all or the Six had somehow stripped his senses from him.

Unlikely.

Ignis shook that thought aside as soon as it occurred to him, ducking below the impostor’s riposte and kicking in a wide arc to sweep his feet out from under him. The gods had engaged in behavior that Ignis would call appalling in certain situations, but he had neither witnessed nor heard of them controlling the minds of humans. Indeed, he highly doubted that they had the capacity to do so. If they could, any number of atrocities might have been prevented; any number of hardships, from those caused by Ardyn to the betrayal of ancient Solheim, could have been avoided. No, the evidence pointed towards the Astrals having a bit of fun with them while Noct slept somewhere above. They simply had to reach him.

But first things first. The Draconian wanted something from them, something they needed to decipher quickly.

“Hey, Iggy—heads up!”

Gladio’s warning rocked Ignis back into the present, and he rolled to the side to narrowly escape the sword that clashed against the pavement where he’d been kneeling a fraction of a second later.

“You okay?” Prompto called as he scrambled to put a few extra yards between himself and their opponent.

“Fine,” answered Ignis brusquely, feeling anything but. This wasn’t working, and if they didn’t determine what the Draconian was hoping to glean from this impromptu battle, then it wouldn’t be long before they fell.

This didn’t have to be the real Noct for him to defeat them, although the real one would undoubtedly have been able to do it as well after all he had become. The phantom had the full might of the Astrals behind him; his power was already vastly immense compared to their own. Ignis was finding it increasingly difficult to rise to his feet, his knees in agony from how many times they had struck the ground in an attempt to deflect Noct’s attacks. He wasn’t the only one flagging either: Prompto’s chest was heaving with the exertion of defending himself while simultaneously failing to incapacitate their assailant. Gladio appeared to be soldiering through the worst of the physical torment, but it was obvious from the crease between his eyebrows and stiff set of his jaw that the emotional toll was astounding. If he was being honest, Ignis could but imagine what he must be feeling, a Shield sworn to protect his liege when the latter was endeavoring to strike them down. It was perhaps the cruelest trial the Astrals had conjured thus far, not to mention one that showed no signs of abating in the near future.

It would need to, though. If it didn’t…

If it didn’t…

We’ve come too far to fail now, he reminded himself sternly, redoubling his grip on his weapons.

That was the mantra he repeated unfailingly as he shoved Prompto out of the way and dove in the other direction. It played over and over, a tune in the background of the slashing steel and crashing limbs when they were sent flying by their refusal to harm a hair on Noct’s head. It was the soundtrack of their suffering, the milieu of their pain.

But it kept Ignis going. Logically, that was all that mattered.

Illogically, frustration mounted within his chest as he struggled to both fend off their attacker and solve the puzzle that the gods had left for them before the doors of their home. This trial wasn’t like the others—not that that was a tremendous surprise. Even so, there had been a method to the Astrals’ actions before; there had been a common theme threaded between their tests despite the variants of their circumstances. In this case, that seemed to have been tossed out the proverbial window. This trial wasn’t about how they were going to protect Noct when their instinctive approaches were of no use. It wasn’t about how they were going to protect Noct when brute strength failed or logic was absent or their positions in life did not afford them certain privileges. It wasn’t about their brotherhood at all, the one thing that they admittedly had no idea how to operate without. That was the reason why they’d wandered Insomnia like ghosts for the last year, why they hadn’t truly moved on regardless of how painstakingly they pretended the opposite.

That was…the reason why they were here.

Realization didn’t creep up on him. It didn’t wriggle in the deepest recesses of his mind until he acknowledged its presence. Instead, recognition came tumbling down from the heavens faster and heavier than a battering ram, slamming the riddle into place until Ignis’s head was ringing with it. That was why they were here—that was why the Draconian sought to set them against their brother rather than allow them easy passage to his side. That was why they’d been brought here rather than the fight coming to them.

Their abilities were no longer in question. Their motives were no longer considered too fragile.

Their brotherhood, on the other hand, was.

For how would they protect Noct when their brotherhood failed?

Whether their liege’s blade was turned on them or his mere absence stopped them in their tracks, whether by the Six or mortal enemies, whether they remained such close companions or the steady march of time stole from them their proximity—what would they do when their bond was eventually, inevitably, irreparably severed?

The thought momentarily paralyzed him, and the false Noct spied the opening immediately. Ignis knew, of course, that he needed to move. He recognized that there was no point in standing idly and allowing their adversary to win. Contrary to what he had initially believed during his own trial, he was no longer of the mind that his death would bring about any sort of satisfaction, not for Noct or anyone else. Nevertheless, his limbs were laden with an invisible burden that refused to subside no matter how heartily he attempted to pry it loose, leaving him vulnerable as his conscience sped through innumerable possibilities in the span of an instant that seemed to last forever.

Yes, they had all carried doubts when it came to their relationship with Noct. Their brotherhood had not withstood the test of time, nor had it overcome the greatest daemon to plague Eos in their history. If they managed to piece together the shattered remains of that bond, what form would it take? Would it be able to shoulder the weight of Noct’s royal destiny, or would it disintegrate as professionalism and duty superseded it? Those were old fears, ones that Ignis hadn’t realized he’d fostered until he’d initially grown into responsibilities that Noct hadn’t been old enough to attend yet. He wouldn’t say that it had driven a wedge between them; they’d been friends and brothers for too many years by then. Even so, there had been a certain distance to their interactions that Ignis simply couldn’t bridge. They cared for each other, loved each other as much as they did their other friends, but the shadow of age and station had been ever present at their rear. That was when he had begun to wonder what it would be like when they had both come of age, Noct sat the throne rather than his father, and their daily interactions were forced into a mold more impersonal than they were accustomed to.

And it was what the Draconian was playing on now. If Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto were relegated to the role of any other retainers—which he had no doubt would not be the case, in spite of his irrational concerns—how would they maintain the closeness with Noct that had set them apart from the other attendants in the Citadel? Perhaps it was a bit more symbolic than was strictly required at this juncture, but Ignis could decipher the metaphor all the same: how would they simultaneously defend themselves and their positions at Noct’s side when the specter of duty would be battling them at every turn?

By doing what we always have, he firmly resolved.

Whatever had been holding him in place snapped, and Ignis raised his daggers to intercept the phantom’s thrust with a grunt of pain when the latter’s sword nicked the side of his wrist. It wasn’t a deep cut, barely enough to break the skin, but it still weakened his grasp. Fortunately, Gladio and Prompto were there in an instant, the former knocking him out of the way to replace him while Prompto used the fleeting chaos to hook his elbow around Noct’s windpipe and yank.

The sound that emitted from his mouth was one that Ignis would never forget, just as the sight of him being dragged backwards toward the ground would be seared into his memory long after he relinquished his eyesight to this splendorous world of the divine. The regret that lodged itself in his throat was unfounded, he knew—this creature was not Noct and would have skewered them alive if they allowed it. That did not ease the guilt with which Ignis leapt forward and drove both of his blades into its sleeves, effectively pinning the impostor to the ground.

“All right!” whooped Prompto breathlessly. “Did we win?”

Grunting in pain when the phantom Noct’s knee made contact with his ribs, Gladio shot him a scathing glare and retorted, “Doesn’t look like it.”

“We haven’t fulfilled the Draconian’s requirements,” Ignis reminded them. Panting for breath, he adjusted his grip so that he could lean on Noct’s wrist with one knee and toss aside his daggers to grasp the other. Call it insanity or mere force of habit, but using weapons to restrain him didn’t sit right with Ignis. This ghost had too familiar a face, too familiar a manner…

Even though he was nothing like their Noctis at all.

It was akin to subduing a wild animal. Prompto had demonstrated the presence of mind to kick Noct’s sword as far away from them as possible; without the power of the Crystal, he had no magic to replace it. He was just as mortal as the rest of them, not to mention equally fragile in this state. That didn’t appear to be on his mind at all, however—if such a being had a mind to begin with. His thrashing indicated the opposite, more the behavior of a creature in panicked rage attempting to flee its captors, and Ignis was uncomfortably aware of every shift of the charlatan’s muscles beneath his hands. The illogical part of him—the part that the Six had encouraged with his brief journey back to Altissia—desired nothing more than to release him. It felt too unnatural to handle Noct this way regardless of the knowledge that this wasn’t him. That side, which he so infrequently gave voice to, ached at the sight of Gladio driving his fist into the false Noct’s stomach to render him immobile even for a moment.

But it wasn’t Noct. It was the symbol of their fears.

And they needed to face it now, before the Draconian added more to this endeavor.

Luckily, he had a plan. Or part of one, he should say. It rankled that he hadn’t the opportunity to analyze their position further in order to construct a more appropriate course of action, but desperate times and all that. Hadn’t the Six prompted him to trust his instincts and set logic aside in order to use his heart rather than his head? Ignis wasn’t in the practice of doing so, nor did he intend to start. That didn’t mean he couldn’t take a leaf out of Prompto’s book on occasion, though.

Like now, for instance.

“Prompto, talk to him,” Ignis commanded through gritted teeth, rearing back to avoid Noct’s attempt at headbutting him. They were indeed descending into the realm of beasts now.

The insanity of it all was obvious to the others as well, because Prompto stared at him as though he had suggested they dive off the top of the Citadel in the nude when he countered, “Talk to him? About what, not killing us?!”

“The Astrals aren’t seeking reassurances that we can best Noct in combat,” he insisted. Prompto, however, scoffed outright.

“Could’ve fooled me!”

It was instances like this where Ignis inwardly bemoaned the trials and tribulations of being the most intelligent one in the room. That wasn’t to say that Prompto or Gladio were simpletons—both of them were sharper than most. It was simply that their wit lay in different areas. When faced with a difficult task, Gladio could scan a room and deduce an appropriate plan faster than even Ignis in many cases; Prompto’s talents were less practical and more firmly attached to emotion, to the heart. His version of astuteness had less to do with the mind and more to do with feelings, which was why Ignis was convinced that he would be the most likely to reach Noct in this state. The Six didn’t desire a warrior or even a strategist; they didn’t want to witness a battle of wills so much as a battle of souls. In the event that Noct’s soul was not the one that they had grown up with, the one that they had accepted as their brother, they had to grip that tenuous connection as tightly as they could to avoid losing him altogether.

If anyone could do that, it would undoubtedly be the person who had spent every day for the last year preaching to the rising sun in absence of his friend. It was the man who saw through the barriers that separated them to the common identity they all shared.

Brothers. Lucians. Humans.

Prompto was a commoner, but he had not allowed that to hold him back. In all the years Ignis had known him, that much had always struck him as Prompto’s most admirable trait. Where he was concerned, Noct’s position as the prince of Lucis and former king of their homeland was a nonentity. That he was royalty had been a distant concept at best, and Prompto had never once treated him as though he were any more or less than the next person. Their shared interests and understanding of one another had shattered formalities until prince and pauper were hardly distinguishable. There was simply Noct and Prompto.

Loath as Ignis was to admit it, that was one position that he and Gladio wouldn’t be able to achieve. They certainly had their moments when they were able to ignore duty and merely exist in each other’s company, brothers and friends without the concerns that frequently overshadowed their interactions within the confines of the Citadel. Regardless, there came a time when they had to set aside the personal nuances of their relationship and adhere to the roles they had been assigned well before they comprehended what that would mean for them both emotionally and professionally.

Except for Prompto. King or prince, schoolboy or exiled royal, Noct would ever be Noct to him. 

And that was what Ignis was banking on.

“He’s a different Noct for a reason,” he implored Prompto, meeting his gaze and refusing to let him look away. “Ours will be, as well.”

 “What? They don’t think we can handle that?” scoffed Gladio. There was a modicum of bitterness underlying his confidence, however, that Ignis could not ignore. He, too, must have cottoned on to their purpose here.

“Evidently not.”

“Startin’ to think they don’t have any confidence in us.”

“Or they merely wish to determine whether we have any in ourselves,” amended Ignis with a significant nod in Prompto’s direction.

The latter was understandably stymied, his eyes widening as he presumably registered what it was that Ignis was attempting to communicate. In the past, he would have turned away and insisted that either Ignis or Gladio were more capable of dredging up the words necessary to appease the gods; he would have viewed his contributions as underwhelming at best and hardly necessary in the endeavor. Ignis wouldn’t have blamed him for his self-consciousness: his position was not mandated by a vow of loyalty or payment from their monarch’s coffers. Honesty, even in a small dose, could have lost him his head with any other king on the throne, and they had all been well aware of that in spite of their positivity that it would never come to pass. The old Prompto would have been difficult to convince of the opposite, at least in those days.

Conversely, this Prompto nodded and glanced down at Noct with admittedly unveiled apprehension. This Prompto was forced to set aside his embarrassment at having an audience for the interactions he reserved for none other than himself and the dawn.

This Prompto was stronger, and Ignis hoped that the gods were listening.

“H-Hey, buddy,” he began, his voice slightly higher than usual in his hesitation and their quarry’s struggling. “You, uh… You don’t have to fight us, you know? We’re kinda here to help and all that.”

If the phantom heard him, he was a talented enough actor not to betray it. Rather, his thrashing intensified to the point where Gladio was forced to literally sit on his chest in order to keep him from throwing them off. Ignis silently breathed a sigh of relief that this was not the real Noct; otherwise, he would have been concerned for the strength of his rib cage.

Swallowing tremulously, Prompto redoubled his grip on Noct’s other wrist in response and continued, “Whatever you’re mad at us about, we totally didn’t mean it. Like, how were we supposed to know the Six were going to bring you here, right? If we had, we would’ve been here months ago. Uh, maybe,” he added with a pensive frown. “On second thought, they might’ve tossed us out on our asses.”

“Focus, Prompto,” Gladio interjected through gritted teeth. His back had to be aching from how many times the impostor had driven his knees into it, but he was holding strong. For now.

“Oh, uh, right,” Prompto chuckled anxiously. “Anyway… We’re here to bring you home. It’s…gonna be kind of different. Insomnia’s pretty messy these days, and the food isn’t anywhere near as good as Iggy’s cooking. We’ve got Cor, but there’s only so much he can do.” Breaking off to snort indelicately, Prompto veered onto a different path than the one Ignis would have anticipated when he inquired, “Remember when we were kids and thought the guy could do no wrong? Well, I hate to break it to you, but he seriously needs a hobby. He spends all his time working—it’s like having a second Ignis around, only he doesn’t make us dessert.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” deadpanned Ignis dryly, quirking an eyebrow at Prompto’s humorous grin.

“It’s totally a compliment, dude. But yeah, he’s running himself into the ground. If you ask me, he could definitely use a vacation. That should probably be your first order of business. You can make some royal decree that he’s gotta take a few weeks off for…is sanity a good enough reason?”

“Sounds like a good reason,” Gladio chimed in, a slight smirk spreading across his face as well. It would have been utter madness if Ignis didn’t notice how Noct’s struggles had begun to weaken and a frown creased his forehead as he surveyed the three of them through narrowed eyes.

This is it.

Nodding in encouragement, Ignis agreed, “Perhaps we could all use a bit of a holiday. The Astrals know that we’ve earned it.”

“And it’s really saying something when Iggy needs a break,” laughed Prompto as if they weren’t currently restraining the image of their best friend and speaking nonsense.

“Pretty sure His Majesty will, too,” Gladio hinted, looking askance at Ignis when the specter’s eyebrows twitched. He wasn’t the real Noct—he couldn’t have been—but he certainly comprehended that they were speaking of his counterpart now.

Good.

“Quite right,” Ignis murmured with a smile in their phantom monarch’s direction. It was painful to peer down at him as though he were truly the man they had been searching for, but he merely reminded himself that it was necessary in order to earn a greater reward and swallowed his bitterness. “Of course, His Majesty will also have his bride to consider.”

Prompto’s grin widened, mischievously so. “Dude, that’s gonna be the wedding of the century. If you thought people from all over Eos were going to show up before, it’ll be nothing compared to the ceremony you’ll have to put up with this time.”

“It will be a regal affair, indeed. Utterly unforgettable, I imagine.”

“And then loverboy’ll have to ask permission from the old lady before he can go out and play,” chuckled Gladio. “No more doing whatever the hell you want once you’re hitched.”

The impostor stared at him as if he was speaking another language. For all that he reacted, he might not have known who Lady Lunafreya was let alone that they were engaged to be wed. There was no recognition in his eyes, not at the mention of his fiancée nor the arrangement that they had been obligated to fulfill before the world turned upside down. Ignis couldn’t be sure whether he understood what they were saying or not, nor could he ascertain whether they were proving anything but their lunacy to the Draconian. Still, they had his attention, and not in the manner that preceded another assault—that was progress. At this juncture, they would have to take what they could get.

Emotionally, it was not so simple.

Prompto obviously felt the same, although that was only to be expected. After hearing him speak of his own trial, which he had described but vaguely, Ignis supposed that this particular conversation was more difficult on Prompto than Gladio or himself. They had been trained to learn when to let go; they had been taught to recognize that their relationship with Noct would change, altered by his status. In practice, it was tremendously trying to acclimate, even with all the preparation they had been subjected to. That was yet another reason why Prompto’s testimony in this instance was perhaps the most valuable, albeit painful at the same time.

“Yeah,” he sighed, his demeanor shifting to one of detached mourning rather than the carefree jests that he had been prone to before. “Things sure will be different.”

In that, he was correct. Wasn’t that the fate of every mortal to walk the earth? Change was inherent in their existences, the sole constant that they could rely on in times of crisis and pleasure alike. Their appearances would not stay the same; they had each aged in their own way, and there was no returning to the stamina of their youth no matter how many hours Ignis spent regaining what muscle mass he had lost in his frequent council meetings. The Crown City would evolve, both for good and ill, and the people that they knew would eventually retire to wherever it was that the souls of those who passed inhabited. Friends came and went, brothers ascended and married…

Yet they would remain. They would always remain.

That was what had Ignis shaking his head, not in denial as much as an altered perspective. When Prompto met his gaze with a confused frown, Ignis managed something akin to a smile and corrected him, “They are merely cosmetic differences.”

Grunting amenably, Gladio looked to the false Noct when he muttered, “Gonna take a lot more than a wedding and some baggage to get rid of us.”

“Time may change us as it has these eleven years past, but that won’t change who we are to one another.”

The phantom blinked slowly, hanging on their every word, and Ignis watched his eyes dart to Prompto. It was almost as though he knew that the latter was their weakest link in this battle of the heart, that he was the vulnerable one in their group. Doubtless the Draconian was examining him for any sign that he could not handle this, any indication that he did not agree and would allow the distance that would predictably grow between them to inhibit his ability to keep Noct safe.

If that was the case, then the Astral was mistaken. They all were, because Prompto did not give in to despair. His expression didn’t falter for an instant, nor was his posture set in that reluctant capitulation that had characterized discussions like this before. No, the gods were witnessing the same Prompto that Ignis and Gladio were: a strong one more than capable of going after what he wanted, even if that meant defying the natural course of the universe.

“Right,” he agreed, his voice more confident than before. “We’re gonna get you home, Noct. And after that, we’re not going anywhere. Ever at your side, right?”

Their adversary didn’t say anything, but it wasn’t necessary anyway. He wouldn’t have gotten far given that Gladio chose that moment to swear, “We’ve got your back.”

“Always,” added Ignis, sharing a glance with his companions in silent solidarity. They could do this—they would do this, even if the Noct they saved was not the Noct they had lost. When it came to halting the flow of time that drew ever nearer to the day when they would be separated once again, quite possibly in the most permanent context imaginable, they were powerless. Only the Six could achieve such a feat, and he doubted that they would be sharing their secrets anytime soon.

But they had plenty of that—time. They’d had a year to put Insomnia back to rights, though they still had a long road ahead; they’d been given an immeasurable expanse in which to operate here, away from all but the prying eyes of the gods.

They would have their day with Noct. They would have their opportunity to say what they hadn’t and make good on the promises that they had issued when last they’d stood at their king’s side.

They had time. Now, they would make the most of it.

Whether the gods heard their shared musings or their words had been enough, Ignis would never know. All he could say was that he would never forget the expression on the impostor’s face if he lived to be a hundred.

Hope. Affection.

Satisfaction.

And in the instant before he vanished into oblivion, they heard the telltale shattering of ancient crystal as the doors to the Citadel opened for the retainers of the last king of Lucis.

Chapter Text

They weren’t alone when they entered the Citadel, but it wasn’t the gods who accompanied them. Well, that they were aware of—as far as they could tell, the Six had decided to let them finish this on their own. The Draconian hadn’t bothered congratulating them on a job well done, nor had Gentiana popped in to tell them that they’d accomplished what they were supposed to. Instead, the silence that had fallen in the courtyard had weighed heavily on the three of them until Gladio couldn’t take it anymore. There was nothing left to wait for; there was nothing more for the Astrals to throw at them. There was only the palace and what lay at its apex.

What he hadn’t accounted for, however, were the ghosts that stalked their steps as they made their way inside. Or maybe it was simply his imagination running wild. It wouldn’t be the first time, and unless the guilt that gnawed at his innards for letting Noct down over and over and over again eventually subsided, he doubted it would be the last. Sometimes, it felt as if he was doomed to listen to the voices of the past and relive the moments where they could have done something different—where he could have done something different—but didn’t. Whether it was the marshal or his dad or any number of allies they’d relied on over the years, Gladio was constantly aware of their presence even when they weren’t around. Echoes of their former selves taunted him endlessly, sneering at his attempts at moving on regardless of the excuses Ignis and everybody else had attempted to reassure him with.

It wasn’t his fault, they’d said.

He’d done what he had to, they’d insisted.

Here recently, thanks to this insanity they’d willingly embarked on, he had begun to believe them. After all, they were about to get Noct back; the mistakes they’d made were about to be forgiven. Of course, the future lay ahead, and forgiveness didn’t change the fact that he needed to be ready for it. With the gods subdued and nothing standing in their way, though, it was a bit simpler to think that he was.

Then, because they couldn’t let him have one good thing, the voices started up again.

“The throne is just up ahead.”

“It’s all lit up.”

“Guess he’s expecting company.”

“He wants this as bad as we do.”

“Think the elevator’s workin’?”

“Huh… Sure looks like it.”

“He is really taking us by the hand.”

“It’ll save our legs the walk up.”

They hadn’t been wrong about that. Ardyn had wanted them to reach the throne room as fast as possible, so much so that Gladio was still wondering why the hell he’d sent the Old Wall to distract them along the way. What was the goddamn point? He’d spent two millennia plotting the demise of the Lucis Caelum line; his entire existence had revolved around killing Noct and spitting in the Astrals’ faces. Did it matter how many battles they had to fight in order to finally put it all to rest?

Apparently, it had, not that Gladio would ever comprehend why. Then again, Ardyn wasn’t one for reason or rationality. In spite of his immaculate plans, he was ultimately a firework—chaotic and uncontrollable, prone to flights of fancy and uncaring of who he set on fire in the process. They’d been no exception, and while Gladio believed that the obstacles they’d faced within the Citadel on that fateful night had been unnecessary at best, it was almost comforting to note that that was where Ardyn stood in stark contrast to the Six.

Because the latter weren’t hanging around to drop an anvil on their heads or torture them any further with the waiting. They weren’t prepared with statues of the ancient kings come to life to repel them once more. In fact, it was as though the Astrals had fled altogether: where their presence had been nearly tangible during the long trek from one side of this fake Lucis to the other, Gladio couldn’t sense them here. As soon as the impostor Noct had vanished, as soon as they’d been granted entry to the Citadel, an unfathomable emptiness had spread around them until Gladio was actually sort of surprised that the world hadn’t collapsed in the ensuing void. It would have been a fitting end to this little game, all things considered.

Instead, they ascended the steps to the doors and threw them open like Noct had a year ago, their heads held high and their arms at the ready just in case.

And the ghosts. They were there too.

They followed them past the lobby. They tiptoed through the darkness at the end of the corridor while Gladio and the others paused by the elevator, gawping in disbelief when they noticed that the control panel was lit up. They piled inside with them, though there definitely wasn’t enough space for everyone.

Not once did they leave his side; not once did they offer him the benefit of the doubt and just let him have this. No, they were too busy reminding him that his job and the shit show that had unfolded mere minutes ago were two ends of a spectrum he should never have been forced to traverse.

But he had. The Draconian had willed it, so it was his duty to step up to the plate, even if that meant doing the exact opposite of what a Shield should.

Gladio was no wuss—he prided himself on his strength regardless of whether other people poked fun at him for being all brawn with no brains. Maybe he would never be as smart as Ignis, but he had an objectively decent head on his shoulders and enough muscle to back himself (and, more importantly, Noct) up. That, at least, was the message he was getting from the Six. They were the ones who wanted him to prove that he could think as well as hit stuff; based on Gentiana’s vote of confidence, he’d say he had managed relatively well. Even so, it had been utter torment to fight that last battle. Despite the hardships they’d faced over the years, he might have gone so far as to say that it was the toughest thing he’d ever had to do, and that was counting the incident in Cartanica. That had been different: it had felt like he was doing the right thing for Noct, undesirable consequences notwithstanding.

This? This felt like there was no damn point. Yeah, they cared about Noct enough to show Bahamut that they would go to the literal ends of the earth for him. They would have let him kill them if that was what it took to avoid hurting him in return. Nevertheless, that didn’t make it any easier to see those blank eyes staring sightlessly at him as though they didn’t recognize him. It didn’t assuage the pain of having to raise a sword against him in more than a simple training exercise or manhandle him in order to protect himself and the others.

He was supposed to give his life for Noct and would have gladly. It shouldn’t have come to this, whether the Draconian had sent a puppet or not. The symbolism, however glaring, stung him more than words could say.

So, he didn’t attempt to so much as think them. Rather, he swallowed every single one that occurred to him and let them all roil in the pit of his stomach where they wouldn’t bother him. There were more important things to process, like the fact that the gods were apparently going easy on them with regards to the elevator. Honestly, he hadn’t been expecting that. It was far more characteristic of the Astrals to let them climb every godforsaken stair in the Citadel to reach the throne room. After everything they’d already been put through, not least of which purely believing the ridiculousness that the gods had left for them to find, he wasn’t feeling that idea at all. His training hadn’t done him a lick of good here; his muscles had reached their limit long ago and had been aching even through their last bout of divine intervention. The mere notion of how many stairs it would have taken to ascend to their destination had his legs protesting, and although the ghosts sneered at him for not being strong enough to put up with a little more hard labor, he couldn’t deny that he was pretty damn grateful they’d earned this luxury if nothing else.

Besides, even those phantoms of his had nothing to say when the doors slid open.

“Well,” squeaked Prompto with his mouth ajar, “that’s not totally, one hundred percent the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen or anything.”

“You can say that again,” murmured Gladio, not faring much better in the dignified entrances department. Could anyone blame them when the kings of Lucis had decided to greet them—and not quite in the manner they’d anticipated?

Actually, that was probably their own damn fault. Everything the Astrals touched turned to crystal, whether it was the heart of their Star or the world they’d created for themselves. Even the Citadel’s interior wasn’t exempt: all the furnishings that were splendorous enough in the real world took on an ethereal quality here, doused in the stuff as they were. Knowing what they did about how the Six operated and what their real promise to the kings of Lucis was, it shouldn’t have come as any shock that their former monarchs lined the corridors in their crystal encasements all the way from the elevator to the throne room.

All one hundred thirteen of them.

Still and silent, they stared down at the three of them as they cautiously emerged into the corridor and began their slow approach to where Noct was presumably waiting. It was eerie, standing in their shadows and knowing that they weren’t just statues. That would have made sense, even if it had never been the Lucian tradition to keep a bunch of moldy old sculptures inside where they could clash with the tile floors. Protocol dictated that monuments were scattered around the Crown City, as much a part of their collective culture as it was their royal family’s heritage. What was the use in hoarding all of it where no one would be able to see? History was supposed to be remembered—history was supposed to be celebrated. They couldn’t very well do that if the rest of Lucis didn’t remember all the great things the former kings had done for them.

Having them here, though, crowding the hallway and seeming to loom over them in judgment? Yeah, Gladio was pretty sure there was an ulterior motive behind the decision beyond simply sharing their heritage. The antechamber was unsettling as it was, what with the portraits of centuries past watching their every move. They didn’t need a bunch of ancient rocks joining the party.

The sole comfort they could take from the whole display was that at least they were in the right place. Most of this trip had been based in guesswork, given that the Six were the worst tour guides in existence. The Citadel had been the only spot where they’d figured Noct could reasonably be, so that had been the focal point of their journey. It hadn’t been until they were approaching the city that Gladio registered the same twinge of mingled skepticism and hopelessness that had pervaded his senses before his trial, that annoying little voice in his head whispering that they might have come all this way for nothing. The Draconian accosting them outside didn’t necessarily mean that this was where they were meant to come, after all, nor was it a sure thing that they’d read the signs right. They’d still been winging it and praying for the best, but now they had visual confirmation. Now, they had an actual guide book so that they could interpret the language in which the Six were yelling at them. With all these kings and their crystal coffins around, it was hard to deny or doubt anymore.

“So…they weren’t kidding about the whole reward thing, huh?” mused Prompto, earning himself one downright scathing glare from Ignis when he tapped an effigy as though it were any other bust. That was enough to deter him, unsurprisingly.

“The Lucian royal family has ever served the Six,” he sniffed haughtily as though he had to put on a good show to make up for Prompto’s lack of etiquette before their immobile hosts. “They gave their lives, often prematurely, so that the Crystal and its power could be passed on to Noct and the world, saved. It’s only fitting that they receive one in return.”

Snorting bitterly, Gladio muttered, “Yeah. Too bad they couldn’t get something out of it in life, though.”

That took a bit of the wind out of his sails, and Ignis heaved a weary sigh when he replied, “Indeed.”

A fate like that would’ve been too kind, and if Gladio had learned anything without a shadow of a doubt, it was that the Six didn’t qualify as kind. Sure, they had their moments where they reminded you that they cared about humanity despite their methods; they’d occasionally offer enough assistance to disprove any theories that they weren’t at least marginally benevolent beings. Kindness, though? Yeah, right. If they were kind, they wouldn’t have dragged the three of them all over hell and back just to find Noct.

If they were kind, they wouldn’t have taken him to begin with, Ardyn and that cluster notwithstanding.

But it was too late to wallow in that mess. That was the other thing that Gladio had come to realize in the time it had taken them to traverse two versions of Lucis and best the gods along the way: looking backwards, dwelling on the past, and allowing it to inhibit him in the present wasn’t the sort of behavior any self-respecting Shield exhibited. Shit, even a Shield who didn’t respect themselves would know better because they’d understand that they had to put that part of them aside in order to serve their charge. That was the crossroads at which he was standing, whether it was here in the Astrals’ playground or at home. At some point, even if he didn’t fully forgive himself and never really would, he had to turn his back on what had happened and focus on what was going to happen. Lucis needed its king, and its king needed him. He’d swallowed his pride and buried his emotions in the face of the most awful denouements that life could throw at them—being separated from his family, his father’s death, the goddamn apocalypse they’d lived for ten years. By comparison, it made his own issues seem pretty mild. His dad never would have allowed some guilt and unease to get in the way of doing his duty, and neither would Gladio.

The nostalgia of the mental image his thoughts conjured of his father standing at King Regis’s side had him bitterly shaking his head at the sight of the latter, the final sentinel outside the door of the throne room. Like all the others, King Regis was resplendent in his crystalline glory: it was sculpted to his familiar form so that he could see every detail, from the meager crown that adorned his temple to the pointed boots that used to click against the Citadel’s floors until his cane drowned them out. The Six must have decided that mortal weakness, even when it was caused by the Crystal, wasn’t befitting someone who would decorate their waiting room for the rest of eternity, because both his cane and the brace that had once sheathed his leg were conspicuously absent. That probably should have been a good sign, an indication that he wasn’t in pain anymore as he had been when the Wall was still leaching his life away, but Gladio couldn’t help feeling as if there was something missing. King Regis was a lot of things—a father, a monarch, a role model—yet the sacrifices he’d made to keep them all safe defined him. The fact that he had willingly given up his youth made him noble; that he had relinquished his strength, a god among men. Wasn’t that worth remembering? Wasn’t that worth carving into the uncaring stone?

No, apparently it wasn’t. Either the gods didn’t appreciate King Regis’s actions like Gladio did or they simply thought it was part of their stupid reward—whichever way he spun it, the deceptive strength in the figure he cut outside the door was more unnatural than the alternative.

It didn’t help that his father was nowhere to be seen, not that Gladio had been expecting him here. The other kings were unaccompanied by retainers, Shields or otherwise, so there was no reason for his dad to get a spot in the gods’ paradise. If he was anywhere, it would be out with Gilgamesh, watching the gate so that no one could reach King Regis from afar. Any closer, and he would be just as much an outsider as Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto.

Because this world wasn’t about those who served the kings so much as the Lucian monarchs themselves, all of whom guarded Noct’s allegedly final resting place as Gladio hadn’t been allowed to. It made sense. It was to be anticipated.

It rankled.

Ever since the Founder King sat the throne of Lucis after Solheim fell, it was ordained that the Lucis Caelum line must be protected by a Shield. Those guardians had always hailed from the Amicitia household, which meant his family was nearly as revered as that of the kings. The vows they took were the same throughout the ages; the promises they made were unchanging. Each and every one of them had sworn an identical oath: to defend their monarchs with their lives and remain at their side in both life and beyond. Always and forever. Time couldn’t divide you, nor could distance and death. If you were a Shield, you found a way to make it work.

Some people thought that the expectations placed on Shields were too stringent, that it was ridiculous to think they should do more than any other Crownsguard or Kingsglaive operative. Gladio didn’t agree. Maybe he’d been a little reluctant when he was a kid, believing Noct too weak to make a good king, but he’d learned his lesson there. Where Noct was weak, Gladio was to be his strength; where Noct wavered, Gladio was to prop him up. That was how it worked, and he actually cringed a little at the thought of how long it had taken him to comprehend that.

Once he had, however, he’d embraced his duty entirely. The rules said that he had to willingly stand between Noct and all the daemons in the world? You got it. The expectations decreed that he should precede his liege in death and secure the afterlife for his arrival? No sweat. He was supposed to stand watch over his charge’s grave in the event that the unthinkable happened and he somehow survived, his shame intact? Of course. It didn’t matter what anyone else said: being a Shield was tantamount to being an object designed for the king’s use and nothing more. When your king happened to be named Noctis Lucis Caelum, it wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as it sounded.

The only problem, in his case, was that he hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do as he’d vowed. The Astrals hadn’t let him, and it had left him unanchored in the aftermath. After all, what was he when he had no one to Shield? What was he when he wasn’t a Shield? It was a question that no Amicitia had ever needed to ask themselves and that he had never anticipated pondering either.

He’d been wrong. He’d been so damn wrong.

But that was in the past. That was in the part of his life that he was turning his back on, the stretch of time that he refused to acknowledge from the second he opened those doors to the moment he gasped out his last breath. What he hadn’t done before was being fixed now. What he hadn’t been before was being remedied now. Gladiolus Amicitia hadn’t been raised a coward—he was brave enough to face his darkness and his daemons if Noct was on the other side.

Which, as it turned out, he was.

When the final barrier separating them from their king swung out of their way, they were greeted with the sight that had haunted their dreams for over a year. Gladio would recognize it anywhere: the throne room, awash in brilliant white light that seemed to emanate not from the windows, but from the seat of their government. Everything looked as it always had, the specks of dust and cobwebs that no doubt gathered in their own iteration of this chamber nowhere to be found. In their place was exactly what they’d been hoping for, and Gladio felt himself rushing in their direction before he really registered ordering his feet to move. Lucky for him, Ignis and Prompto were too busy doing the same to ridicule him for it. What else were they going to do with Noct right there?

He wasn’t alone either. As they’d suspected, Lady Lunafreya was seated at his side, her head pillowed on her arms where they rested against the edge of his chair. Although it was difficult to see more than that until they closed the distance, one thing was painfully obvious: they’d definitely suffered the same fate as the other kings and the l’Cie they’d been destined to imitate.

The crystal that sealed them to the throne wasn’t the same as the rest of this world. Gladio had vaguely noticed that as they’d hurried through the corridors, but as he practically sprinted up the stairs, he truly registered the alteration for the first time. Everywhere they’d been, the crystal had formed more of a casing than anything else; they were still able to see through it, even if they couldn’t touch whatever it was guarding. Maybe the Six had had the presence of mind to consider that doing the same thing to actual people would look too creepy for words—that, or they were all about the aesthetics. Whichever it was, they had gone a little heavy on the rock where their human inhabitants were concerned. They were so thoroughly ensconced that they appeared to have been carved out of stone; none of their features were visible behind the screen of mineral that enclosed them within. Noct was no different, which Gladio had to say sent a shiver through him as he approached the throne. He wasn’t meant to be a statue or a monument or anything else they wanted to call it. Effigies were designed for ancient kings, not the one who grinned when he should have been serious and raged when he should have been accepting of his duties. That was the old way of doing things—the old world way of doing things.

Guess it’s pretty spot on, then, Gladio mused, recalling who it was they were talking about here. The gods were nothing if not stuck on the past, after all.

If it weren’t for the fact that they’d been waiting for this moment longer than he cared to admit, Gladio would have balked at the sight of Noct trapped inside shimmering silver crystal like all the rest. If it weren’t for his identical bride beside him, he would have offered the Six a few choice words for their mode of décor. Instead, he kept his goddamn mouth shut and focused on the positive.

They were here.

Noct was here.

They were going to get his ass home and put a tracker on it. Just to be safe.

Gladio had to say, though, the image of the two of them was a sight he would never forget. In sleep, Noct had finally gotten to wear the suit that should have accompanied him to his coronation, replete with the badges and medals of his station—the ones he’d earned by virtue of his birth and his accomplishments alike. To his right, Lady Lunafreya was dazzling in that wedding dress they’d seen in the shop window in Altissia. They made a good couple, if an eerie one in this state.

And he was not going to tell anybody that. Ever.

Still, that more than anything else was a glaring reminder that this was only possible through divine interference by their holy hosts. He didn’t want to think about what had happened to that dress in the aftermath of Leviathan’s hissy fit, yet it was utterly perfect where it was carved into the face of the crystal in eternal matrimony. Their faces were hidden, but if Gladio had to wager a guess, he’d say that the two of them would be pretty happy with how things had turned out. And hey, it looked like the Astrals were finally throwing them a bone: clearly, they’d wanted that wedding to happen as much as anyone. Why shouldn’t they? Who could ask for better than the Oracle and the King of Kings falling in love like those two had when they were just kids? The Six were probably eating that shit up, especially when they had known the tragedy that would unfold for both of them.

Yeah. Leave it to those assholes to let them have their wedding here, where no one would see it and they couldn’t even enjoy it.

Figures.

He could lambaste them later, though. Right now, he wanted to get Noct and Lady Lunafreya as far from this place as possible before the gods decided that they’d made a mistake and wanted to keep them. Sure, it wasn’t likely, but Gladio wasn’t about to take any chances—not this time. Plus, they still had one more trial ahead of them.

Prompto appeared to realize that as well and, clearing his throat, tentatively ventured, “So…uh…how do we get them out?”

“That,” supplied Ignis with a frown, “is indeed a dilemma.”

“That’s one word for it,” grunted Gladio. If by dilemma he meant that they needed to figure out how to either crack divine rock or haul two giant boulders all the way back to the Tempering Grounds with them, then yeah, it was a dilemma, all right. As far as Gladio was concerned, it was a hell of a lot more than that: they were basically fused to the throne, the crystal making them one with the stone that had stood in their world for thousands of years.

Gladio had heard of kings being a little too attached to that thing, but this was ridiculous.

And they weren’t even the only ones. Where the two of them were invisible behind the wall of rock that separated them from the outside world, the throne peered out from beneath the crystal so that they could see every bit of its grandeur. The red fibers of the cushions, the gold filigree laid into the stone framing, the immaculate carvings that danced around the edges.

The photograph set in a place of honor at Noct’s left hand.

Frowning, Gladio leaned forward to get a better look, that same sense of déjà vu eating away at him just like it had in those dreams. Well, maybe they were more predictions—that was how it increasingly seemed when everything they’d seen for the last year was coming true. Noct was on his throne, albeit not exactly as they’d pictured it, and that goofy picture of the four of them around the Regalia smiled up at him when he gaped down at it. It was no different than it had been when Noct had taken it from the stack Prompto had offered him before his final showdown with Ardyn: the edges weren’t frayed or worn with time, and the image had been preserved perfectly without the sunlight drowning out the colors. They could have taken it yesterday for as perfect as it was.

The picture, anyway. The crystal around it, on the other hand, was another story. Nowhere else had they seen the tiniest sliver out of place, the entire planet apparently coated smoothly until he had to wonder if there were any imperfections in this world. (He doubted it, though. The gods weren’t about to mess up their utopia, after all.) Trees and rocks, grass and pavement, buildings and signs—all of it had been flawless in its encasement.

But not this. There were three fissures in the stone above the picture, distorting the image slightly when Gladio squinted closer. It wasn’t enough to notice from afar; he wouldn’t have recognized it if his face wasn’t mere inches from the throne. Regardless, it was there, and it had to mean something.

“Hey, Iggy? What d’you make of this?” he asked, absently reaching forward to brush his fingers over the indentation.

That, at least, was his plan. The moment his skin touched the crystal, he jerked his hand away with a hiss of pain when the shard beneath his shirt erupted into blistering heat. If the way Ignis and Prompto similarly started was any indication, it wasn’t just him, either.

Fumbling with the chain that kept his souvenir safely tethered to his person, Gladio practically tore the damn thing off only to freeze when he caught sight of it. Since the night they’d lost Noct, their shards hadn’t changed at all: they’d remained the same clear, cold shade as the rest of the Crystal. Not even during their nightmares had they altered more than a few degrees. Now, however, all three of them were glowing with such bright intensity where they held them aloft that it was nearly blinding. Almost like…

Almost like the throne itself.

The thought had barely occurred to him when, with a deafening crack, the bit of Noct he’d held with him all this time shattered into dust. Ignis’s and Prompto’s weren’t far behind, the remnants fluttering to the ground and vanishing against the dark marble.

For a second, Gladio couldn’t breathe—didn’t dare to breathe lest the whole thing be real. For decades, that stupid Crystal had been the center of their world. Whether it was holding up the Wall or waiting for them in Gralea or back in the throne room for Ardyn’s final act, they had gravitated towards it almost as instinctively as they’d been tied to Noct. Even knowing that the heart of their Star was gone, that those shards were all that remained of it, hadn’t been too difficult to acclimate to. There was still a piece of something familiar in the new, strange world they’d been helping everyone to build.

That was why a terrible sort of emptiness began to set in when he distantly realized that it was gone for real this time. There were no bits and pieces to sweep up; not enough was left to even consider mopping into a pile. Their shards had vanished—those little treasures they’d safeguarded as their only connection to Noct had disappeared. Every scrap of that godforsaken rock was finally gone, and all of a sudden, their tether to their past had been snapped as well. Call him irrational, but shit, that notion hurt more than the phantom burn of the stone against his skin.

It eased almost immediately, however, when Prompto’s wordless exclamation cut through the ensuing silence. Gladio whirled around, following his line of sight straight to Noct, who didn’t look so shiny anymore. Neither did Lady Lunafreya.

As their pieces of the Crystal had disintegrated, so had their sheaths.

Gladio had barely enough time to register what was going to happen before he could react. In an instant, he was on his knees, propping Noct up when he drooped forward while Ignis and Prompto steadied Lady Lunafreya on his other side. The former Oracle stirred right away, though Noct—true to form—didn’t budge an inch. Maybe it was stupid, but Gladio had to smile at that: after living without the guy for a year, plus the ten before that, it was actually sort of endearing that he could still sleep through a goddamn apocalypse if given the option. Some things never changed.

His wife-to-be was going to have to put up with that, because it looked like she was more of a morning person. Her eyes were already open by the time Gladio glanced over at her, and she surveyed them with mingled confusion and hope that had his heart aching.

Yeah, they knew they were here.

“How is this possible?” she asked, although the question was more of a rhetorical one. Even so, Ignis took it upon himself to answer.

“Suffice it to say that we had a great deal of divine intervention.”

“Yup,” grinned Prompto with poorly contained enthusiasm. “Consider us your personal valets back to reality.”

Whether it was his flippant relief or purely the idea of getting the hell out of here, something about that had a small smile pulling at the corners of Lady Lunafreya’s lips, and her eyes slid over to where Noct was still leaning heavily against Gladio’s shoulder when she replied, “There is no one I would trust more.”

“Good, ‘cause you’re stuck with us,” Gladio retorted briskly as he snaked an arm under Noct’s knees and hoisted him off the facsimile of his real throne. The two of them were moving—he didn’t want to waste even a minute talking and give the Astrals a chance to change their minds about them leaving. “Now let’s get outta here before any other divine people decide to intervene.”

No one could argue that point, and in a blur of motion that felt unreal with the steady weight against his chest, the scene he’d imagined on their way here played out right in front of his eyes. Prompto and Ignis hurried to help Lady Lunafreya, who wasn’t the steadiest on her feet after a nap that long, while he preceded them down the steps towards the exit. In his head, everyone had been operating under their own power; there had been jokes and hastily stifled tears. At this point, Gladio merely counted it as a stroke of luck that one of them was conscious—he literally had his hands full with Noct and didn’t want to think about how rough it would have been if Lady Lunafreya was in similar shape. They didn’t need anyone else to be incapable of getting themselves around, not when they couldn’t be certain that there weren’t any other surprises waiting for them between here and the Tempering Grounds.

Fortunately, Lady Lunafreya held her own pretty well. She needed some support, but she was mostly moving of her own volition. That was a step in the right direction—a pretty damn overdue one, as well. With her in reasonable condition to continue, he figured they could let Noct slack off for a little longer. He’d earned it.

Just like he’d earned the right to a smile as he stepped out the doors and paused in front of King Regis’s effigy to see that their former monarch appeared to be in equally high spirits. That or he was losing it. Statues didn’t change; giant hunks of rock didn’t suddenly grin the way King Regis appeared to be. Gladio knew that. He must have merely missed that detail when they’d arrived, although the king they had to leave behind did have something to smile about if he could: his son was about to sit on the throne he’d always deserved, and if there was any justice in the universe, then his own father wasn’t too far away. Gladio had seen everything the Tempering Grounds had to offer; he knew that Shields who couldn’t make it through the trial stayed there, their souls bound to serve the kings in death and guard the door to their new realm. Part of him couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t only the ones who’d failed and their executioners, though. Maybe his dad was out there too, hanging with Gilgamesh and watching over King Regis while he slept for all eternity. Knowing his old man, nothing would have made him happier. If it was a choice between finding his own peace and preserving King Regis’s, he was well aware of which side his dad would choose. In that, they were alike.

Which was why Gladio couldn’t quite stifle his groan of irritation when they reached the courtyard to find the Glacian waiting for them.

“Another trial?” whispered Prompto behind him.

“Better not be,” he nearly snarled in response. Ignis’s noncommittal hum wasn’t exactly the vote of confidence he was looking for, but he didn’t say anything else as they descended the steps towards where Gentiana stood calmly at the bottom.

In that moment, what Gladio really wanted was to give her a piece of his mind. The hell was she thinking—the hell were any of them thinking—to bring their sacrificial lambs here and then make the three of them dance in order to get them home? Sure, they were gods; they could do whatever they wanted, and no one could tell them otherwise. Wasn’t that what had brought down the old world, though? Wasn’t that why they’d railed against their own deities in a time beyond living memory? In an age that had been lost to history, they’d been no better than Ardyn, to an extent: they, too, had defied the laws ordained by their own version of the Astrals to do what they thought was right. Of course, Ardyn’s angle on right had been a bit skewed, but it was the principle of the thing that set Gladio’s hair on end and had his arms tightening protectively around Noct. The gods had messed up everything, from the second they’d decided to gift Ardyn with the powers that had nearly destroyed the entire world to their idiotic decision to allegedly reward the Chosen King with eternal solitude. Yet the Glacian had the guts to be here, now, serene and collected as ever? If it weren’t for the precious cargo he had to safeguard, he would have been sorely tempted to offer her a bit of advice for the Astrals’ next foray into the human world.

Namely: don’t.

Instead, he tamped down his anger and his bitterness and reminded himself that they were the victors here. They had Noct; they had Lady Lunafreya. They were heading home.

As soon as she let them pass.

“All right,” he grumbled when they halted before her. “What now?”

The Glacian inclined her head in recognition without opening her eyes, but the veiled reprimand for his pithy inquiry came from Ignis, not Gentiana.

Leveling him with a warning glare, Ignis diplomatically translated, “What he means to ask is what trial you would have us perform this time.”

No, I meant what the hell now?

This was why Gladio would never be a politician. He was far better with browbeating the information out of people than negotiation.

For now, it seemed that the Glacian wasn’t here to bargain anyway. In fact, it was a bit unsettling how readily she offered, “In seeking the King of Kings and the Oracle, the fears of the Glacian have been assuaged.”

Well, what do you know?

“So… You’re saying that by coming here, we already did what you wanted?” clarified Prompto, his obvious bewilderment accurately summarizing Gladio’s stance on the subject, as well.

The Glacian apparently wasn’t in the mood to explain the method behind her madness, though. The smile she wore said it all.

Somehow, that didn’t make him feel any better.

“And you’re gonna let us go?” ventured Gladio cautiously. “Just like that?”

Her head twitched slightly in his direction again. “The fate of the Chosen no longer rests with the Astrals.”

Damn right, it didn’t. That was their job—their destiny—and Gladio wasn’t about to relinquish that again. The gods had done their part in making sure that Noct remained in one piece; admittedly, he’d be forever grateful that they’d taken another route than actually following through on the death of the Chosen bullshit. But they weren’t Noct’s Shield. They hadn’t sworn to serve him so much as forced him to serve them. They weren’t the right protectors for his reign.

Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto? That was on them.

It was for that reason that Gladio merely straightened and nodded when Prompto assured her confidently, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of them.”

Unlike the other Astrals, the Glacian didn’t choose to test that. She didn’t demand that they swear fealty again to their king or prove that they weren’t just spouting meaningless platitudes.

For once, the gods decided to take their word for it.

That was what Gladio assumed, anyway. The reverberation of Prompto’s voice around the courtyard hadn’t faded before Gentiana finally opened her eyes, her gaze and her smile focused solely on Lady Lunafreya where she was leaning lightly against Ignis’s shoulder, and the world turned hazy. Shadows stretched where there had been none earlier, and the world melted away like the old chalk drawings Iris would make on the sidewalk as soon as it rained. The crystal, the Citadel, the dawn—everything vanished in a coalescence of light and color, the previously sharp scenery growing indistinct and unrecognizable. There was no sky, no ground, no left or right.

But they didn’t fall. They didn’t so much as stagger as they gawped shamelessly and waited for either the end or a new beginning.

Gladio knew which it would be when their wayward king stirred in his grasp.

The others didn’t miss it either, not when they were standing close enough for their arms to touch, and three gazes followed his when it snapped down to stare at the eyes Gladio never thought he’d see again in this lifetime. It was more than a miracle when Noct blinked hazily into the chaos and, after a moment of sleepy confusion, zeroed in on Gladio’s face with dawning recognition.

Now, Gladio had heard Noct call his name in varying stages of emotion. When they were younger, it had been with frustration and anger at not being able to best him in their sparring sessions; on their journey, his summons had been filled with a sense of confidence that no matter where or when he called, Gladio would be there. Late night jokes, early morning irritation, snide comments when he thought his Shield wasn’t listening—every instance had merged together in his head, haunting him all year with a voice he hadn’t planned on hearing until he went to join his father as an endless sentinel.

Even so, the groggy, barely audible, “Gladio?” that issued from Noct’s mouth outshone them all.

“It’s all right, Noct,” he murmured. “I’ve gotcha.”

There was a distance in his gaze that made it pretty obvious that he wasn’t completely awake yet, but he nevertheless managed to slur, “’nd… And Luna…? Where…?”

“She’s here. We’re all here,” Ignis soothed him gently, his smile unwavering even as he tremulously raised his visor to sit on his nose again.

“All…?”

Gladio jostled him lightly. “Just rest easy. We’re goin’ home.”

There was a pause in which he wondered if Noct had fallen back asleep, but apparently he had enough stubbornness in him to breathe, “Home...”

Home.

As Noct drifted off again, his head tucked under Gladio’s chin, the world solidified to accommodate his request. The blurry landscape around them cleared, revealing a Crown City that wasn’t entombed in crystal and devoid of life the way the Astrals’ creation had been. Visually, the differences weren’t glaring, yet everything had changed regardless. They stood in the same spot where they had been speaking to the Glacian, only this time, there were Glaives running towards them rather than Astrals bent on testing their resolve. There were people gaping at them from atop the steps, not vacant windows that seemed to breathe of their own accord. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t dawn—it was early evening, the orange and pink hues of coming nightfall waving at them in welcome.

Amidst all of it, Gladio surrounded his king like a wall. Like an army of one. Like the Shield he was meant to be.

“It’s all right,” he repeated in a whisper, more to himself than Noct. “I’ve gotcha.”

And he did. Gladio had him when they were escorted inside. He had him when they ascended to Noct’s old room and laid him on a bed that had been empty for far too long.

He had him when he woke up a week later, and he had him when he officially married Lady Lunafreya the week after that.

He had him when he sat on the throne for the first time as a true king.

Gladio had him—they all did—whenever he opened his eyes to find his brother and his king watching the sunrise like they hadn’t been able to all year: seeing all that they had sacrificed, but also all the possibilities that lay ahead.

Wherever they went, whatever they did, they’d be together as promised.

Yeah. They had him.