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“Ew!” Prompto shrieks, shooting almost wildly. “This is disgusting. I am disgusted.”

            “Blondie,” Gladio growls, annoyed. “If you don’t shut up.” He swings at another flan. His claymore sticks for a second, then it passes slowly through the ugly daemon. “I will make you shut up.”

            Noctis can’t help but agree, more with Prompto than Gladio. “I hate mushy desserts.”

            “Good thing you don’t have to eat these ones,” Ignis comments idly.

            The flans are easy to fight. Much easier than the first time, or the second, or even the third. Noctis shoves his engine blade into the nearest flan. It hits home but gets stuck. He tries to yank it out, only to give up quickly. He calls his blade into the armory instead as the flan fades into a purple goop that turns into a miasma. The leftovers sink into the ground, a small circle of newly tarnished stone. Noctis wrinkles his nose.

            “Noct, watch out!”

            He calls back his blade in time to defend against a surprisingly fast flan. It stills end up too close, colliding slightly with him. Flan mush splatters against him, soaking through his clothes and getting on his face. He shrieks almost as high as Prompto can when he finds a spider in the shower. He scrambles backward, dragging his engine blade free. The flan dies with little fanfare, making another splotch of darker stone.

            Noctis doubles over, gagging at the taste of daemon in his mouth. He scrapes his tongue on the sleeve of his jacket without realizing there’s flan mush on that too. Oh, Six. He’s pretty sure he swallowed some. Gross.

            While he’s distracted trying to decide if he wants to throw up or not, the guys finish up the rest of the flans. Ignis shoves a bottle of water directly in his line of sight, the cap helpfully already off. He snatches it up, downing half of it in one breath and the rest of it in the next one.

            Prompto’s expression twists in disgust when he comes closer, dismissing his guns back to the armory. “I vote Noctis sleeps outside tonight.”

            “Hey!”

            Gladio laughs, but then even he makes a face. “I agree with Prompto. You look like you took a dip in a trash swamp.”

            Noctis scowls at him. “Screw you,” he sneers. He shakes himself like a dog, trying to get some of the bigger clumps off. They splatter to the ground at Ignis’ feet. His advisor clears his throat, adjusts his glasses, and takes a step back.

            “There’s a creek near the Haven,” Ignis offers pragmatically. “It’ll be cold. But perhaps you can stand it, Noct. It’ll be best for all of us.”

            He groans. “Treason,” he grumbles. “You’re all traitors.”

            But he agrees. He’ll risk the cold. The slime, for some reason, isn’t fading away like that flans and most daemons do. Instead, it’s soaking through his clothes to his skin. He strips off his jacket and shoves it in the armory. He’d rather go jacket-less than feel the gross moist flan goop. That sentence alone is disgusting.

            They make their way out of Fociaugh Hollow, grateful that the sun is still shining through the thin gathering of clouds even an hour away from sunset, and they didn’t lose track of time. It’s bad enough having to fight daemons in caves and hollows and other dark, spooky places, Noctis is glad they don’t have to add fighting them in the middle of the night to the bad day today has been. At least no one got hurt.

            He’s exiled to the small creek running just a hundred or so feet from the Haven. Gladio follows him to make sure he doesn’t drown or something. Ignis stays behind to start up on dinner. Prompto’s there under the pretense to help him, but really to just steal juicy bites from under their resident chef’s nose. Like Ignis doesn’t see him coming from a mile away. Noctis snorts at the thought. He wipes the sudden sweat that breaks out on his forehead, anxious to get into the cool water.

            It turns out to be more than cool. He yelps at the freezing water, Prompto’s laughter is loud enough to travel the distance. Noctis scowls even thought it can’t be seen by the blonde.

            Gladio sits with his back towards the creek as Noctis begins to wash. He hears the tell-tale rustle of a book being pulled out and knows that Gladio isn’t actually reading it, despite how much he probably wants to. His Shield gets lost in books too easily, and when he’s set himself up for guard duty he can’t let it distract him.

            “No peeking.”

            He gets a middle finger waved in the air for that. Noctis sticks his tongue out at Gladio before going back scrubbing flan mush out of his hair. It takes longer than it should, but eventually he feels clean and he’s pretty sure he’s clean. He yanks his jacket out of the armory, dumps some body wash on it, and attempts to get that as clean as possible too. Ignis will scold him later for not leaving it for him and for using body wash to clean his clothes.

            “You gonna be there all night, princess?” Gladio calls.

            Noctis stares at the soaked jacket in his hands, suddenly feeling lost. He’s still hot despite the chill of the water. He can’t tell where the stains are anymore, having washed away the goop and soaked the fabric into uniformed darkness. Something about that makes him want to cry. The sun is sinking below the horizon, waking daemons and night birds. Fire bombs light up in the distances with a soft whoosh of fire. Thunder rolls ominously, the sky flashing dark grey with lightning. The storm is still a few hours away.

            He lets the jacket dissolve into the armory and presses the heels of his palms against his eyes sockets. Gods, what is wrong with him?

            “Noct?” Gladio calls again, a hint of worry in his voice. Oh, right. He was supposed to respond the first time, wasn’t he? “I swear to Bahamut, Noct, if you don’t—.”

            “I’m comin’,” Noctis croaks out. He frowns, clears his throat, and tries again. “Stop being so impatient.”

            Gladio’s whole body moves when he rolls his eyes. Noctis snorts. But he climbs out of the creek anyway, waves a hand and fresher clothes drop to his feet. He blinks at them, vision unexpectedly blurry. When did he put just clothes in the armory? He normally keeps them in his duffle and then in that strange place he and his own can access.

            He shrugs and pulls them on, not bothering to dry his dripping, curling hair as he walks past Gladio. He slaps his Shield’s shoulder sharper than necessary. Gladio taps against his back with the toe of his shoe, stretching long to reach him. Noctis stumbles forward and shoots him a glare. The older man smirks, snaps his book shut, and follows.

            Dinner is average. Ignis’ food, of course, is five-star worthy and more. He keeps trying to plan for the next day—collect their gil and continue southeast towards Accordo, they’ve spent too much time going north—but Prompto’s attempts to distract Noctis with King’s Knight succeed. The advisor gives up before they’re even halfway through their meal, huffing as he sits heavier in his seat. He ignores Gladio’s snicker with the ease of a man who has years of practice doing so.

            Noctis shoots his friend a grin, but doesn’t stop tapping at his phone, food sitting precariously in his lap. His rolling stomach isn’t letting him enjoy it as much as he wants to. He feels like he can still taste the flan on the back of his tongue.

            Eventually, he can’t deal with it. He closes the app and tosses his phone into the armory to let it charge. Prompto whines and grumbles, but, in the end, he shoves his phone in his pocket and picks up his food again. He keeps side-eyeing Noctis like he can tell the prince isn’t doing well.

            It’s Ignis who brings it up, after he notices Noctis not eating. “Are you feeling well?” he asks with a concerned frown.

            “I think so,” Noctis answers. Ignis raises an eyebrow at the unacceptable answer. He shrugs. “I dunno what to tell you. I feel weird, not sick.”

            That doesn’t stop Ignis from abandoning his own meal to press a hand against Noctis’ forehead. He huffs in annoyance but doesn’t bat him away like normally would. It probably makes it even worse, Ignis’ worry.

            “You don’t feel warm,” Ignis muses. His hand flips, moving to cup Noctis’ cheek. He leans into the touch this time. The back of his shirt clinging between his shoulder blades. “You are pale, though.”

            “’m tired,” he hums.

            Gladio snorts. “You’re always tired,” he says. But he points at Noctis with his fork and says, “Go to bed,” anyway. “Food will be here in the morning.” If Gladio’s letting him dip out early, he must look bad.

            “Probably a good idea,” Noctis says. Ignis takes his plate wordlessly. Noctis gives him a grateful look. “Sorry.”

            Ignis shoos him away. Prompto fist bumps him as he passes. Noctis pulls off his boots and socks and doesn’t bother changing into anything else before he curls up in his sleeping bag. He quickly becomes overheated. He unzips it all the way, flips open the top part, and closes his eyes to cool air brushing his skin. He falls asleep to the sound of thunder rolling closer and daemons shrieking in the distance.

            He wakes up standing in a familiar corridor he thought he’d never see again. Open spaced, with floor to ceiling windows to his left, and ornate wall carvings to his right. Black and white, dressed in gold trimmings. The sun shines through the windows, drawing his attention. He moves closer to them, pressing his palm against the clear glass. The sun hangs high over Insomnia’s skyline. Cars and people move below him. If he closes his eyes, he can pretend he hear horns honking and people going about their days.

            Noctis barely notices the tears streaking down his cheek. He blinks rapidly at the blurring scenery, wipes his cheek. His fingers come back wet.

            “Son.”

            He whirls around at the familiar voice, coming face to face with his father’s crinkling smile and glittering eyes. The king leans on his cane as normal, but the lines in his face are shallower than he remembers. Like he’s grown younger in the last month.

            “Dad,” he whispers, voice hoarse and wavering. As much as he wants to go running into his father’s arms, he hesitates.

            His dad frowns, opening his arms in waiting. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you glad to see your old man? Surely you can’t be upset that I had to cancel last night, I’m here now.”

            “Dad, I—,” Noctis beings, then stops, hesitates. He realizes he has no idea what he was going to say, or what he even wants to say.

            “Walk with me, will you?”

            And he does. Noctis walks side by side with him down this endless corridor, their arms brushing and his father laughing at every stupid thing Noctis decides to blurt out. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, he wanders from topic to topic. The Regalia, the Wall, the Liede countryside, Ignis’ meals, Gladio’s sparring, Prompto’s photography.

 “Oh, you know Gladio is really obsessed with camping? It’s worse than that. I thought I knew, but oh my Gods.”

“Ignis has only gotten better at cooking, you should see what he can do even with a camper stove.”

“I don’t know how Prompto can frame things so well. It’s like I’m flipping through an Eos Geographic every time.”

            He walks with his dad, happiness swelling in his chest and laughter coming easier than it has in years. He can almost ignore the way the flat tiled floor seems to roll under his shoes, or the fact that it sounds like rain pattering against the windows despite the sun still shining brightly without a cloud in the sky.

            Regis loops his arms through Noctis, they walk with their elbows locked together, practically in each other’s sets. The corridor goes on and on, unnaturally so, but Noctis looks up at his dad with shining eyes and listens to him tell stories of his own adventures before he became King. It’s like he’s eight all over again, anticipating going out beyond the Wall for the first time in his entire life, not knowing the amount of work that had gone into one two-day trip.

            He stumbles once. Noctis lurches towards the ground, but he father holds him steady. He frowns at his strangely feet, wondering at one point did he lose his shoes? His toes are dirty, he’s missing two nails on his right foot, and the big toe on his left foot is swollen and purple.

            Noctis’ frown deepens. What happened?

            “Ah, here we are,” his dad says, not even noticing the injuries that appeared out of nowhere on his son. Wait…that’s not right—?

            Noctis looks up and gasps. Before them the corridor has ended, opening to a balcony that looms impossibly high over Insomnia. The horizon stretches for miles upon miles, a dark line almost too thin to make out. The sun started its descent long ago, painting the sky deep, rich colors. He shuffles towards the railing despite the pain sparking on his heels and looks down to the courtyard, the trees are pinprick ants down so far. Something inside of him is screaming, pressed against his ear at the loudest volume on the radio.

            “Dad, what’s going on?” He turns around to his father, but King Regis is gone.

 


 

 

Gladio lurches up for his sleeping back at the first rumble of thunder. Lightning flashes, the tent lighting up, and a mere minute later thunder rolls again. Rain smashes against the fabric making up their tent, causing their roof to dip into caving in.

            For moment he just thinks the thunder woke him up. It’d started raining before he fell asleep, just a small shower. This, though, is a full-out storm. But then, he notices the entrance to the tent isn’t full zipped up, the pieces flapping in the wind.

            He scrambles for his phone, turning on the torch without caring about waking the other guys. The light lands on Noctis’ empty sleeping bag.

            “Shit.” The light swings over to where Noctis’ shoes still sit. “Shit,” he says again, louder. Ignis stirs with a grumble. “Iggy, wake up.” He shoves his phone away and starts yanking on his boots. “Ignis!”

            Ignis jerks up, sliding on his glasses. “What?” he demands, instantly awake. He doesn’t give Gladio the chance to answer, already noticing the spot between him and Prompto empty of their prince. “Where’s Noct?”

            “You think I know?” Gladio snaps. “The godsdamn tent is open.” He shoves Prompto awake. The blonde wakes with a yelp, soul crystals forming around his hand instinctively before he realizes with bleary eyes where he is and stops summoning his handgun. “Wake up, blondie. Crownsguard duty.”

            Prompto wakes instantly at that. The gunner normally wakes up pretty fast, but Gladio’s learned over the years that ‘Crownsguard duty’ is like zapping the kid with a shock of wakefulness. Ignis gives him is boots, Prompto puts them on without question. He’s picked up the problem, he’d have to be unbelievably oblivious if he didn’t notice Noctis missing. Every now and then Prompto proves his competence in the best ways possible.

            “Where’d he go?” Prompto asks. He summons his gun, peering out through the opening of the tent.

            “I think we’d be a lot calmer if we knew the answer to that,” Ignis says sharply. “Is he out in the haven?”

            Prompto shakes his head. He zips the tent open the rest of the way and walks into the down pour. Instantly his hair and clothes are soaked through. Any tracks Noctis could’ve left behind have been washed away.

            “We need to split up,” Gladio says over another roll of thunder. The lightning has barely faded. No one argues with him. “There’s cliffs around here, be careful.”

            Ignis eyes the surrounding area warily. “Meet back here in forty minutes whether we find him or not.” It sounds like it pains him to say that. “We can’t help him if one of breaks our neck from a rock slide or if he’s somewhere we’re not looking.”

            Gladio calls up his claymore. Not that he expects to run into any daemons. They may strive in darkness, but even the not-so-mindless mindless beasts are smart enough to stay out of a rain like this. He goes north, Ignis and Prompto west and east respectively. With their great luck, Noctis will be south of them.

            His boots sink into mud, the darkness and rain cause him to trip over rocks. He tries for his torch, but the reflection off the falling water droplets makes it even worse. His heart hammers in his chest, a lump forms in his throat. He can’t let it get it him. He’s terrified for his prince—his friend—but he can’t let it get in the way of actually finding him.

            When Gladio trips over the fifth rock in twenty minutes, he stops and swears. He fumbles in the armory and pulls out the heavy duty torch that they only have one of and barely use because of how cumbersome it is. The powerful beam cuts through the rain no problem, illuminating the darkness around him. It reveals cliffs a hundred or so feet in front of him. He sighs in relief that he thought to pull out his light before he accidently went over one of those. It’s probably pure rock down there, it’s next on their list to explore tomorrow morning. (Now, probably not.)

            Gladio swings the light around almost wildly. Almost, he can’t let his concern and fear get the best of him damn it. It shines bright on a figure dressed in black, standing on the precipice of the furthest cliff.

            “Noct!” He shouts, running to him.

            Noctis doesn’t look at him, doesn’t even flinch. He sways in the darkness and rain, pitching forward precariously before swaying back.

            “Noct, damn it!”

 


 

 

“Dad?” Noctis calls, shivering. Cold seeps through his clothes and lodges into his bones. He looks around wildly, rooted in one spot. “Dad?”

            He backs away from the edge of the cliff, grass and the petals of wildflowers brushing against his bare calves. Sun shines down on him, warming his hair and arms, making him squint. The sky is crystal clear blue with just a few clouds, the wind is cool and soft. The confusion of where his dad went fades quickly, leaving him tilting his face up to catch some rays.

            There’s a familiar chirping noise behind him. Noctis turns, catching sight of an almost recognizable figure. Shaped like a cat or a fox, he can barely see it. The wildflowers behind it are visible, becoming clearer every second as the figure fades, fades, fades away. Noctis lurches towards it, hand out, but it’s gone before he can even get close.

            He stares at the spot for a long moment, still shivering. Shivering despite the sun and its warmth that he can feel.

            “Noctis!”

            He flinches.

            “Noctis! Noctis! Come on!”

            He turns around in time to see a figure dressed in white take a flying leap off the cliff. His heart slams up to his throat. A shout lingers on his lips, but never escapes. The figure hovers in the air for a split second, curling into a ball, and he sees blonde hair and blue eyes and a smile so wide it’s breathtaking. Luna winks at him, then drops with a scream of laughter.

            Noctis scrambles to the edge, peering over. Luna lands in the glittering lake below with a mighty splash. Prompto yelps as the resulting wave goes over his head, but he’s laughing too. When Luna breaks the surface with a gasp, he shoves her back down. Ignis and Gladio are playing chicken, Talcott and Iris on their shoulders. Cor and Clarus sit on the edge, their feet in the water. His father is there too in the water, talking quietly with a softer looking Ravus. His mom…Oh, Gods, his mom is there, yanking on Cor’s ankles. Her younger brother refuses to budge, whenever he gets the chance he kicks his other foot out to splash her.

            There’s more people on the grassy shore. Like it’s just one giant picnic. He’s never been to one that’s like a party before. Noctis chokes, tears welling up at the picture in front of him.

            His mom notices him first. “Noctis!” she calls, waving. Noctis is a splitting image of Aulea, always has been. “Come join us! The water’s great!” Noctis tilts over the edge, yearning, but doesn’t fall into it.

            “Noctis!” his dad shouts.

            “Noctis!” Luna calls.

            Everyone starts shouting his name, encouraging him to join them. Noctis climbs to his feet, toes curled over the edge. Someone starts up a rousing song below. He sways to the beat.

            Prompto grins, whooping. “Noct! Dude, what are you waiting for?”

            Noctis laughs. Wind catches his hair, blowing it back, he closes his eyes to it. He throws is arms open wide, laughs again at the jittery feeling bubbling in his stomach. He listens to them shouting for him.

            Just before he tips over the edge to the waiting water before, he opens his eyes again.

            And comes face-to-face with their faces grinning at him, drenched in black goo, their eyes glowing dark purple. He shouts, throwing himself back, but it’s too late. Their clawed hands reach for him, their laughter high and piercing. He’s falling, falling to them, into their open, laughing maws.

            He screams outright, twisting to grab onto the ledge he just leapt from. His hand misses by mere inches. But moments later, something catches him. Noctis pendulums into the side of the cliff, slamming against rock. It knocks him daze, his vision darkening.

Noctis looks up, shrieks at the daemon snarling above him, it’s claw tight around his wrist. He pries his fingers between his skin and the daemon, trying to loosen the monster’s grip. It growls at him, slowly pulling him up. He kicks his feet, leveraging himself on the rock face.

            “Noct, stop.”

            He continues shouting blindly. The slick, warm feeling of blood slides down his skin. He can’t tell where it’s coming from.

            “Noct!”

 


 

Gladio clings to Noctis even as the prince kicks and fights his grip. The ground far below is muddy from the rain, covered in dangerous, sharp rocks. Noctis looks up at him with glazed blue eyes, blood soaking the side of his face from where he slammed into the cliff side.

            Where Noctis claws at him rakes up blood. It wells up, seeps between their skin, making it all that harder to hold onto him. Gladio grunts and struggles to pull him up, his shoulder straining.

            “Noct, snap out of it!” he shouts over the next crash of thunder. Noctis moans in fear, eyes rolling. “Noctis!”

            Gladio takes a deep breath, closing his eyes momentarily, then heaves up with all his strength. Noctis practically goes flying into his arms. He wraps his prince up in a tight embrace even as Noctis flights him weakly. His massive arms engulf the smaller man, cushioning him when they go crashing back. Once upon a time, Noctis actually enjoyed that sort of thing. Said, in moments when he had let himself be vulnerable, it always made him feel safe. It’s been a while since Noctis had let any of them comfort him wholeheartedly, leaving them to rely on fleeting touches and awkward words.

            Now, though, what had given him comfort, just seems to terrify him.

            “Noct,” he murmurs the best he can. It still comes off as his normal volume in an attempt to be heard over the rain. Noctis’ struggling slows, weakening. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s Gladio. You’re okay.” He can’t tell if Noctis is just tiring out or if he’s realizing who’s holding him.

            Noctis presses his forehead against Gladio’s collarbone, allowing his Shield to feel the heat radiating from him despite the cold clinging to his skin. He’s crying, Gladio realizes. His fists twist into Gladio’s shirt, his shoulders shaking, his tears mixing with rain water.

            He drags a hand up and down his mud covered back, pressing his cheek against the crown of Noctis’ dark hair. “It’s okay,” he says again. “You’re okay.”

            Noctis sags, going limp. Gladio looks down at his face, barely visible from the light of the torch sitting in the mud at their side. His eyes have gone half-lidded, staring into the distance. His face deathly pale except for two bright spots of red high on his cheeks.

            Gladio wills the torch into the armory as he shifts to his knees, cradling Noctis by his shoulders and under his knees. He hefts his prince up against his chest, standing. His boots slip in the mud, but he holds firm. Noctis is a ragdoll in his arms, head lolling back. He adjusts so Noctis’ head rests on Gladio’s chest.

            In just a few minutes, his time will be up. Ignis and Prompto will be waiting for them at the haven, practically sick with worry. Gladio glances down at his friend again, heart twisting.

            The walk is slow going, with him constantly getting stuck in mud and Noctis slipping from his grip. If they had known the storm was going to be this bad, they would’ve gotten a caravan instead. He only hopes that the tent can hold up. And if not, that there’s a motel nearby. Driving in this weather is definitely not ideal.

            The haven’s blue smoke comes into view just as Gladio comes right on top of the stone surface. Ignis launches himself out of the tent, hurrying close. He presses his hand against Noctis’ forehead, expression twisted in fear and concern. Prompto stays back, only his head visible from the tent.

            “Inside,” Ignis is saying, his voice lost in a sharp gust of wind. They hadn’t left any of their supplies outside like they normally do, so at least their chairs or stove don’t get torn away. “Quickly.”

            Inside the tent is damp and cool. Gladio lays Noctis out on the towel bed Prompto hastily put together. Working together, all three of them strip the shivering Noctis of his wet, dirty clothes and shove him into something thick and warm.

            “What’s wrong with him?” Prompto asks, voice trembling.

            Gladio drags a hand down his face. “I dunno,” he answers. “Found him on a damn cliff. It was almost like he was sleep walking. He went right over the edge and I barely managed to catch him in time.”

            Prompto frowns. “When you say, ‘went over the edge,’ do you mean he slept walked right over it or…?”

            Gladio silently mimes leaping and falling with a hand. Prompto curses. Ignis grunts but doesn’t look up from where he’s trying to assess the situation. His hand is back on Noctis’ forehead, fingers pressed against a pulse point at his neck.

            “His heartrate’s elevated,” Ignis murmurs.

            “Gods, look at his feet,” Prompto breathes, eyes wide and fixated on the sorry state of his friend’s feet. Shredded. Bloody. His big toe purple and swollen. “Can we get a potion in him yet?”

            Gladio folds his legs until he’s sitting cross-legged. Gently he lifts his prince’s feet into his lap as Ignis shakes his head at Prompto’s plead.

            “They’ll hold,” he says. “I don’t want to give him anything before we figure out what’s gotten him into this state. It may interact badly.”

            It wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened.

            Noctis groans then, eyelashes fluttering. His head rolls, his expression twisting in pain. He reaches up to shove at Ignis’ hands as he mutters something inaudible. Ignis doesn’t let go, in fact he tightens his grip almost possessively.

            “I’m going to blame that flan,” Ignis says eventually. He calls out an antidote from the armory and pops open the cap. “Prompto, if you would…”

            Prompto shuffles around to heave Noctis up, propping him the best he can. Ignis supports Noctis on the other side, tilting his head forward so he doesn’t choke. Carefully, he urges the half-aware Noctis to drink it down. He does chokes a little, feet kicking out in protest, but he drinks the rest down with no argument.

            Almost instantly the red on his cheeks fades and his complexion gains some color back. The moment Ignis deems him poison free, he practically shoves a potion down his throat. Gladio is witness to the injuries on his feet healing without a mark, leaving behind the scars that had already been there. He’ll be sore to walk tomorrow, and probably a few days after that, but nothing else lingering, especially something serious.

            Noctis groans again as his expression smooths out and goes boneless in Prompto and Ignis’ hold. Prompto sweeps a hand through the prince’s fringe, trailing his hand to cup Noctis’ still cold cheek, thumb pressing against the corner of his mouth. Noctis leans into the touch, sighing in a content way that makes their hearts twist.

            “Perhaps we should call it a night,” Ignis says softly, eyes unwavering from their friend.

            No one argues against it. To the sounds of lessening rain, they curl around each other and try to fall asleep to Noct’s blissfully steady breathing.

 


 

 

Noctis is warm in his dreams. He can’t remember the last time he dreamed of being warm—a comfortable warm, not the kind that comes a fire burning too close that grows and grows into a blazing pain. He’s used to that kind. The all-consuming pain that comes from sinking slowly into lava.

            It’s nothing like this. Sunlight warming his skin, a breeze through his hair, grass brush his cheek. Noctis smiles sleepily. Something tickles his nose. He scrunches up his face, tries to bat it away. There’s giggling above him. He cracks his eyes open to find a familiar face hovering near his. Blue eyes a few shades lighter than him, darker skin than most Lucians, and black hair so dark it’s almost blue under the sunlight.

            “Mom?” His voice breaks.

            She laughs again, tickles his nose with an eight-petal flower. He closes his eyes against the sensation, and when he opens them again it’s to the dark canvas roof of Gladio’s tent. Confusion clouds his train of thought. Gladio’s tent? Why would he be in Gladio’s tent? The last time he went camping—

            —But then Noctis is lurching up, his core muscles burning and screaming, glancing wildly around for the sight of his mom again. Prompto’s curled up near him, eyebrows wrinkled in sleep. Ignis and Gladio are barely visible through the small crack of the entrance. No flowers. No breeze. No sunlight. No mom.

            He gasps, doubling over. His chest aches, his eyes burn. Something thrums in the back of his mind. He curls his knees, choking out a whimper when his feet protest being dragged across the fabric of his sleeping bag. Noctis reaches out blindly for them, wrapping a hand around the arch of his left foot. The skin there is dry and rough, littered with scars from past…traumas is the best way to put it.

Whatever happened, the guys healed him. It’s all a blur in his mind.

The lightness outside tells him it’s through the night. The sun is dim, a blanket of grey coloring everything. The air tastes like a lingering storm, all his scars ache and creak. An old man at twenty.

            Noctis leaves Prompto to sleep, judging by the bags under his eyes he needs it, and carefully, creakily shuffles out of the tent. Well, it’s generous to call it a shuffle. More like a hobble. He hobbles out of the tent, careful not to stretch his ankle tendons too much when he takes a step and avoids certain parts of his feet.

            Ignis and Gladio very nearly don’t notice him. It’s only when Ignis turns to grab the pan he’s been boiling coffee on that he sees Noctis up and about. He calls the prince’s name, abandoning his coffee to rush at him. He catches Noctis just as his left foot gives out, sending him stumbling.

            “Noct!” he half-exclaims, half-scolds. His expression is all relief though. He helps Noctis sit in one of the chairs and kneels in front of him. “How do you feel?”

            “Ugh?” Noctis offers. He rubs at his eyes with his knuckles until Gladio taps his elbow in reprimand. Gods, it’s bad enough when Ignis knocks his elbows off tables. They have been spending way too much time together. “I don’t really…remember anything past taking a bath?”

            Ignis’ lips press into a thin line. “You were poisoned,” he tells him. “Memory loss is uncommon but not unexpected.”

            Poisoned, Noctis mouths, struggling to wrap his head around that. He’s been poisoned before. They all have, with their life choices. But…his mom. He’s never seen his mom before. He can’t shake this feeling of sunlight and breezes and laughter and happiness.

            Ignis touches Noctis’ forehead, looking for a fever. “Your coloring is better, and your fever is gone. How are your feet?”

            Noctis brushes him away gently, giving him a soft smile. “Sore,” he admits. “But I’m okay…now. I promise.”

            Gladio’s hand descends to rest on top of Noctis’ head. He glances up at him through his bangs, noting the heavy look on his face and the way his grip tightens just a little in his hair. But Gladio doesn’t say anything, just loosens his grip, drags his hand down to rest briefly on the back of Noct’s neck, and then his hand his leaving, taking a sharp point of warmth with him.

            “I’ll go wake Blondie,” he announces. “You might want to feed Princess before he passes out again.”

            Ignis and Noctis watch him go silently. Ignis squeezes his hands once before going to the stove to make breakfast. Second lander Prompto is stumbling out of the tent, Gladio not far behind, like he’d pushed him. Prompto collapses in the chair next to Noctis, pulling his phone out. He waves it teasingly until Noctis rolls his eyes and gives in, yanking his phone out of the armory. It’s battery fully charged.

            Gladio sits down with his book. Ignis passes around oatmeal. And they sit there until the clouds start to lighten, the sun starts to shine, and Noctis falls asleep with the smell of flowers in the air.