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Born to Dance in the Dark

Chapter Text

“His Majesty is with the Marshal and a new recruit at the moment, but he instructed me to let you in as soon as you arrived. He said that you should watch and stay out of the way,” his Uncle Caeli said, opening the throne room door.

Ignis bowed his head slightly as he breezed through the open door. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said in a low voice. Modulating his steps so that they wouldn’t echo in the vast throne room, he came to a stop about halfway inside the room, along the wall and near one of Crownsguard on duty. They met each other’s eyes briefly, and Ignis nodded in greeting.

He looked up to the throne to see King Regis staring down at a man and a girl standing on the landing of the stairs. The man, at least, Ignis knew well—Cor Leonis, Marshal of the Crownsguard. Ignis frequently sparred with him and found him to be a formidable foe, impossible to touch. Even Gladio, who was vastly more skilled in combat than Ignis himself, had never managed to best the man in mock battle.

“Cor,” King Regis said, “I’ve been running Laura through a series of tests to assess her readiness for her latest assignment. She’s already proven herself by sneaking past my security. Why don’t you see if her weapons skills are sufficient?”

Ignis’s eyes shifted over to the girl in surprise. He couldn’t see much from his position, but he guessed her to be somewhere between the ages of sixteen to twenty-four. The hood on her dark blue velvet cloak was pulled down to reveal her long hair, so black that it was nearly blue. The silhouette of her full gown made her appear more at home here in the throne room than in a combat situation, and he wondered how she had managed to sneak past the palace’s considerable security wearing such a garment.

“Yes, your Majesty. Would you prefer I run her in a practice room, or here in the throne room?” Cor replied.

“Here in the throne room, if you please. I would like to watch personally.”

While Ignis was mostly successful in maintaining his neutral expression, a single eyebrow seemed to twitch up involuntarily in shock. He himself had never been asked to display his weapons prowess in front of the King in such a manner, and no one he had heard of had been tested in the throne room in front of an entire shift of Crownsguard. For what assignment could the King possibly be considering this girl that such a measure was necessary? He had to admit that he was curious as to why the King should wish him to witness this. Summoning his notebook and pulling his fountain pen from his jacket pocket, he turned to the first page and readied himself to take notes should they be necessary.

As Cor and the girl moved to the main floor so they would have more room, Ignis was able to see her face. She was clearly high nobility with her black hair and that coloring; her thick black lashes rimmed almond-shaped eyes that glowed bright blue against luminescent alabaster skin. She appeared as though she could be Noct’s sister.

But she was also pale and wide-eyed. She even looked as though she were shaking a little. Was she ill? Perhaps she was nervous regarding her upcoming trial. Ignis knew he would be if he were in her position. Still, she was small and lithe; no doubt she would be quick with a blade if she had the skill. Even if there was no hope of beating her opponent, it was possible she would make a good showing, perhaps even wearing that gown that was so inappropriate for combat.

The girl took off her cloak, placing it neatly on the newel post of the stairs that led from the throne. Without it, her body looked even smaller and more vulnerable.

The Marshal had summoned his katana while he waited for her to quickly pull her hair into a thick plait. She turned to face him, her stance signaling that she was ready for an attack, but Ignis could see no weapons in her hands or on her person. Ignis’s lips quirked up in a small smile. This girl was sneaky. She must have the ability to summon and was waiting for the last moment to bring her weapon into existence so the Marshal couldn’t gain information about her fighting style from her choice of blade.

The Marshal launched his attack, trotting lightly forward, but waiting until the last moment to make an offensive move in order to gain back some advantage after showing his hand so early. It wasn’t until he had nearly reached her that she pulled out her weapons—two gleaming silver-white falchions, with curved blades and delicately sculpted guards of leaves and vines. But Ignis didn’t believe it was the weapons themselves that shocked the Marshal into faltering in his advance, it was the way the world seemed to shift to accommodate her wish as she pulled them out of thin air beside her. The very air seemed to shiver and shriek in protest as the blades appeared, and even she winced a little, as though she weren’t expecting the sound. His hesitation so subtle that even Ignis’s keen eyes barely caught it, the Marshal pushed forward and met her blades with a clang of metal on metal that echoed through the vast throne room.

The girl seemed to choose a defensive tactic at first, spinning to the side with the Marshal’s every thrust and advance. She held her blades out at the ready, but not once did she strike out with them except to defend against his katana. To Ignis, it appeared as though she were dancing with the man, her every move kicking up the heavy fabric of her gown and sending it swirling in a wave of blue and gold embroidery. Her dress seemed not to hinder her at all as she twisted away from his blade, whirling almost faster than Ignis’s eye could track and stopping at the Marshal’s back. She could have ended the contest right there, but she chose to back up and allow him to turn around, her posture assuming a defensive position once again as she held her falchions out at the ready.

After several more minutes of avoiding the Marshal’s blows, her strategy shifted suddenly to offensive, though Ignis could spot no visual clue as to the reason for the change. As she reached above her head with both blades to meet the full strength of the Marshal’s attack, her eyes full of fire, Ignis thought for a fleeting moment that he had never seen a more stunning sight. He’d seen varying levels of skill in bladework since he was a child, had studied the art extensively since he was a teenager, and had apprenticed under some of the finest blademasters of the Crownsguard, including the Marshal himself. This measured and precise art practiced in such a manner, with such a graceful flair, was a practice Ignis could appreciate. He himself had often sought after methods to improve his own form, so he made a note to inquire after her trainer when he returned from Altissia.

The moment their three blades clashed, the girl lowered one of her swords to touch the flat of her blade against the Marshal’s throat—a touch and a point for her. He staggered back slightly before advancing again, his katana a blur of motion. She ducked beneath the strike and swept a leg out, but Ignis could tell that she was too far away to make contact and trip him. Had she done that deliberately to alert the Marshal of a potential weakness? If so, it was quite an insolent move to execute in the middle of a trial meant for her.

At this point, her onslaught became swift and vicious, but still, she didn’t seem eager to end the contest. Despite watching her touch the Marshal five more times, Ignis knew from watching her defensive measures that she could move faster than she was and could end this on her whim. Was she toying with the man? The Marshal appeared to be tiring, his movements growing slower as she continued to make strike after strike, stepping forward as he began to give ground. Sensing his weakness, the girl leapt at him, batting his sword to the side with her left blade. He landed on his back with her perched over him, his right arm trapped beneath her left falchion, his left trapped beneath her knee, and her right falchion at his throat. The fabric of her ornate gown pooled over the man’s legs and on the floor around them like a puddle of water.

The room was still for several moments, stunned to silence, and Ignis wondered who would be the first to break the spell that seemed to hold the room captive.

“Sorry,” she murmured almost subserviently, and the Marshal let out a bark of laughter.

“Don’t be,” he continued to chuckle as she moved off him. “It’s good to be defeated every now and then. Reminds me to keep improving.”

The air shrieked again in a flash of silver light as she placed her blades back into thin air, making it clear to Ignis that she didn’t use the magic of the Crystal. She offered a hand to help the Marshal up, and the man looked around the throne room at the Crownsguard, who stood open-mouthed in their alcoves at regular intervals toward the visitor’s door.

“Don’t think this means you all will be so lucky,” he grunted before catching Ignis’s eyes. “Ignis.”

“Marshal,” he replied, bowing slightly before realizing he had not yet greeted His Majesty. Placing his pen and notebook in his jacket pocket and walking straight-backed to the stairs, he stopped next to the girl, who was still breathing heavily against her corset.

He crossed his right arm over his chest and bowed deeply. “Your Majesty.”

“Ahh, Ignis, my boy. Thank you for coming. Please have my son and the rest of the group meet me here tomorrow morning. I should like to see you all off, and I have a few things to say to my son before he sets out to meet his bride.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. I shall have him ready as early as is possible for His Highness.” It was likely that Ignis would have to drag the Prince out of bed and toss him bodily into the car, as early as they were expected to leave tomorrow. He sighed inwardly. It was going to be yet another sleepless night.

“And a last-minute addition, I would like you to take Laura here with you tomorrow,” he said, gesturing to the girl.  “As you have no doubt noticed, she has . . . skills, which will serve you well on your journey.”

Ignis suppressed the desire to let his mouth drop open as he stared up at the King. His Majesty had been testing her for their own journey? Did he really believe they would need that much combat expertise to attend the Prince’s wedding, even located as it was in Niflheim-occupied territory? Gladio was already coming with them, and Ignis himself was more than proficient with his daggers. The treaty was to be signed in a matter of days, so who was the King expecting them to meet? Still, it wasn’t his place to question His Majesty’s orders.

He turned to the girl, bowing deeply. “Ignis Scientia, at your service. It is an honor and a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”

Now that he could see her face more clearly, he thought there was something familiar about her eyes. Frustrated that he couldn’t place where he knew her from, he said, “Forgive me; do you know where I might recognize you from? You appear familiar, but I’m afraid I can’t quite place from where.”

Her voice was soft as she replied in an accent similar to his own, “I believe I’ve seen you in the library in the past couple of days.” Judging by her elocution, she was most certainly from a noble family, of formal education, and a demeanor of classical upbringing.

“Ah, that’s a possibility. I’ve been in the stacks for long stretches recently, researching the areas we’re to be traveling through for our journey,” he said. And he hadn’t slept a full night through in weeks. He hoped desperately that the temporary relinquishment of his clerical duties in the Citadel would allow him more time to sleep on the road, as he wasn’t certain how many more cans of Ebony his body would allow before committing mutiny.

“So you’re acquainted. Very good,” King Regis said almost jovially, and they both looked up to the throne. “I shall see you all back here tomorrow morning then.”

Ignis disagreed with his king’s definition of ‘acquainted,’ but bowing low, he said instead, “Tomorrow morning, Your Majesty.” He nodded farewell to the Marshal and the girl before turning on his heel and striding out.

There was still so much to accomplish by tomorrow morning—picking up the Regalia from the royal garage, exchanging enough crowns into gil that they might spend the night in Galdin before setting sail, and assisting Noct with packing up his apartment were just the tasks he needed to complete within the next few hours. He would have to move quickly if he was to accomplish everything before they left.

Chapter Text

Noct flopped onto the couch, allowing the cushy black fabric to sink under his weight as it threatened to swallow him whole. He’d miss this couch. The sectional was perfect for getting together with Prompto—and sort of Iggy, pulling the TV out of his room, and just kicking back with a good game for a few hours.

“Takin’ a break already? We just started back up again,” Gladio growled as he taped a box shut and hauled it to the stack by the front door.

“I certainly hope not,” Ignis replied as he leaned over the counter to check his packing lists. “There are more tasks to complete than we have hours left before we leave.”

“What, you didn’t schedule everything out to the minute?” Noct said with a smirk.

Iggy opened his mouth to speak before closing it again. He hesitated before replying, “Apologies, Highness. There’s simply more to do than I anticipated.”

Noct always got the sense that Iggy originally wanted to say something else when he hesitated like that—like maybe he was trying to bite back some sarcastic or witty comeback only Specs could think of. He wished that were the case. It’d be nice to see him let loose a little for once, prove there was a human being under all those manners. Iggy was always so damn perfect, so calm. He never seemed to lose that stuffy stoicism and relax or smile. The guy was a workaholic, bringing paperwork or scrubbing down the kitchen even as he and Prompto tried to get him to play games. And he was always getting on Noct’s ass to do better—to be as good as he was at everything. Basically, Iggy was a pain in the ass.

Noct shrugged. “Whatever. Makes no difference to me if stuff gets done.” He didn’t see why Iggy was always freaking out everything. It wasn’t like someone else couldn’t take care of what they left behind anyway. “How’d the visit with Dad go? There’s rumors all over the city about him this afternoon. Judging by the timing, you should’ve been there to see it.”

Iggy reached into the cabinets, pulled out a stack of plates and bowls, and set them on the counter. As he carefully wrapped each dish in newspaper and placed them neatly in the box next to the sink, he said, “The visit was most . . . intriguing, but to what rumors are you referring?”

Prompto waddled in from the bedroom carrying a huge, heavy box and dropped it next to the pile of the others with a dramatic sigh. “Seriously, Iggy? You haven’t heard? It’s all over Gabbi Sayz.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the time to keep up with the news, let alone the royal gossip sites, as of late,” he said in a dry tone, raising an eyebrow at Prompto.

Noct rolled his eyes as he stared up at the ceiling. “Looks like my dad has a new girlfriend—and she’s my age. Ugh, that’s disgusting. Did you see her while you were there?”

It didn’t really matter to him if his dad dated; his mom had been dead for so long he didn’t even remember her. But it’d sure as hell be gross to have a stepmother his own age, or even younger, if the rumors were true.

Iggy frowned at him. “No. Honestly, you know by now not to trust those sites, particularly when the news is so sensational.”

“It’s not just the gossip sites,” Prompto said, throwing himself into the couch cushions next to Noct. “I was getting my Crownsguard fatigues and meeting Gladio’s dad this afternoon, and I heard the other Crownsguard members talking. Dude. The King had her fight Cor the Immortal right there in the throne room. Cor was even in there talking about it!”

“The Crownsguard themselves are confirming that Laura is the King’s paramour? That seems unlikely.”

Noct bolted upright to stare at Iggy. “Wait, so you did meet her?”

“I did. And I can confirm that she did, in fact, spar with the Marshal in the throne room. Defeated him quite handily—wearing full royal court regalia, I might add.”

“Damn,” Glado said appreciatively. “Wish I coulda seen that.”

That was the rumor Noct had heard, but even though it was pretty awesome that someone had handed Cor his own ass for once, it wasn’t what he really wanted to hear about. “And did she and my dad hold hands afterward?” 

Iggy’s eyebrows seemed to twitch up a little in surprise. “I cannot say for absolute certain; I left just after the match was over. However, I have good reason to have my doubts.”

If Iggy had doubts about anything, it was worth paying attention to. Noct never could figure out how he did it, but the guy was right about everything. It was actually kinda annoying. “Oh yeah, and what reason’s that?”

When Iggy’s lip pulled up into a subtle smirk, Noct knew whatever he was gonna say next was gonna be really, really bad news. Anything that amused Specs was sure to be a pain in the ass for him.

“Because His Majesty has ordered that she come along with us tomorrow.”

“What?!” Gladio and Noct exclaimed together.

Prompto giggled and pushed Noct over on his side into the couch cushions. “Dude, you’re gonna be traveling with your new stepmom!”

“As I said, I highly doubt it. Please, all of you get back to work, else we shall never finish,” Iggy said as he pulled down another stack of dishes from the cabinet.

“Uptight, overbearing, never let me rest for a second,” Noct grumbled under his breath as he and Prompto got off the couch and started removing books from the shelves. He didn’t see why they all had to work their asses off just because Specs had to have everything perfect. It wasn’t like they were never coming back. Couldn’t they do this later?

“Did he say why we had to take her? It’s gonna be a cramped ride with five of us in the Regalia,” Gladio asked.

“He simply said that we did, and I wasn’t about to question his directive,” Iggy replied.

“Huh. Gonna need to pick up some more gear then. Maybe even a bigger tent. Hope she’s got more than ball gowns to wear, otherwise it’s gonna be a rough trip,” Gladio said.

“We don’t even know if we’re gonna be able to camp, though,” Prompto pointed out. “If we can get there in time for tomorrow’s ferry, we’ll be in Altissia by the next day.”

“Prompto has a point, though we may want to stay the night in Galdin before we set sail—as a celebration, of sorts. Let us bring what we have, and she may bring her own equipment with her. I’m certain we’ll be able to purchase equipment outside the city should we need anything,” Iggy said. He let out a small sigh before continuing, “That’s the kitchen sorted. Gladio, Prompto informed me that you had intended for me to use your new cooking utensils. Do you have a list of what you brought so I may know what to supplement?”

“Uhh, no. Sorry, Igs. But don’t worry about it. I got everything. Got the whole line of cooking stuff.”

Noct shook his head. “You’ve only been camping once. Why’d you get all that stuff?”

“When am I supposed to find the time to get to the outskirts? Just cause the forest ain’t big doesn’t mean it wasn’t fuckin’ awesome. You bet I’m gonna try my damnedest to do it again.”

“I dunno. We’ll see how it is once we get out there. Maybe we’ll extend the trip,” Noct said.

“I can’t imagine what it’ll be like out there,” Prompto gushed. “The whole world . . . so much bigger than Insomnia.”

“Yes, I am most eager myself to discover all that lies beyond the Wall,” Iggy said. “Have you finished with the bedroom and bathroom, Prompto?”

“Yeah, got it all done before I came out here. It’s just this room that’s left.”

“And we’re almost done in here too,” Gladio said, putting another box on the stack.

“Finally! I never realized how big this place is,” Prompto said as he flopped back down on the couch. Noct tossed the rest of the books in his box and leapt onto the other section, leaning his head into the armrest.

“And this is the last you’ll see of it. When we return, Noct will begin his new life,” Iggy said.

“It hasn’t hit me at all. I’m sure it’ll all work out, though,” Noct said, shrugging a shoulder. Luna was a great girl, one of his best friends, but he still couldn’t see himself married to her any more than he saw himself becoming King. Besides, as soon as they got married, she was gonna go off on her Oracle duties anyway. It wasn’t like she was gonna be around that much.

“You haven’t thought about it, have you?” Gladio said.

“Give me a little more credit than that. Still, thinking about it’s not gonna change much, is it?” Apparently, his entire life had been decided since the day he was born, or whenever it was he’d been picked to be the Chosen. He’d learned long ago there was no point worrying about it. Stuff was gonna happen whether he liked it or not.

“First things first: completing our journey,” Iggy said, changing the topic, and Noct smiled a little. Specs might’ve been annoying, but he did seem to try to make him happy whenever he got down.

“I can’t believe it’s tomorrow already. I’m so excited! Did you study up ‘bout the outside?” Prompto asked Iggy.

He shook his head. “Briefly. I hadn’t time to dedicate myself thoroughly to the task. I intend to return the foraging book to the library tonight before stopping by the bookstore to pick up a copy to keep as a reference.”

“There’re all kinds of wild animals on the outside, right? Think they’ll just walk on up to us?” Prompto asked, and Noct had to shake his head as he smiled. Prompto and his obsession with animals . . . but still, it’d be pretty cool to see some real live animals roaming around out in the wild. Maybe Iggy would loosen up enough to let them do a hunt or two.

“Dunno. All I heard is that it’s different than Insomnia—least that’s what my old man says,” Gladio said with a shrug.

“The culture is similar to that of Insomnia thirty years ago. Like a sprawling landscape from an old photograph,” Ignis said.

Noct yawned and stopped listening to the conversation. Sprawling landscapes . . . he’d be happy just to get out of this city and maybe see the open sky.

Chapter Text

They had managed to make it an hour outside the city, nearly to the first point of civilization, when the Regalia’s motor seemed to choke on her own breath before giving a spluttering exhale.

“This doesn’t bode well,” Ignis said, frowning as he used the car’s momentum to pull off to the side of the road.

The five of them sat in silence for a few moments as the sweltering heat beat down on the tops of their heads. For all the expertise on sword and gunplay sitting in the car, none of them knew anything about fixing anything that could be wrong with the Regalia. Ignis knew that Prompto had some experience in repairing and working with machinery, but he hardly knew enough to fix something as complex as a vehicle. Sighing, he pulled out his mobile and scrolled through his contacts list to find Hammerhead’s number.

Drat, a busy signal.

And of course, there was no sense in attempting anyone in Insomnia. They’d been warned on departing that their ability to contact anyone in the city would grow spotty just outside the Wall due to the magical interference, with communication becoming nearly impossible the farther they drove.

“I can try to take a look and see if there’s something I can fix, but if the car needs any parts, there’s nothing I can do,” Laura said as she gestured for Prompto to open the door so she could get out. “Ignis, would you mind popping the hood, please?”

“Certainly,” he said, looking down to find the release.

“Prompto, you said you were good with machines, right? Would you like to help?”

“Uhh, yeah, sure!” Prompto said, but Ignis could tell by the tone of his voice he would rather stay in the back seat.

Ignis couldn’t blame him; it was scorching out, and even with the top down, it was hotter on the pavement in front of the steamy engine than inside the car. In their eagerness to be out on the open road, they’d probably gotten carried away as they took turns driving and pushed the car past what she could handle in this weather.

“You sure you know about cars?” Gladio added.

Ignis couldn’t blame Gladio for his attitude either. In the five hours they’d had to make small talk as they crawled through the heavy traffic of Insomnia and out into Leide, he realized that the girl knew very little about . . . well, anything, really, so it came as a surprise that she seemed so confident looking at the Regalia’s engine.

“Well, I’m no mechanic, but you can have Prompto watch me to make sure I don’t take a hammer to the thing,” Laura replied lightly before sliding out and heading toward the front of the car.

“Thanks, Prompto,” Noct grunted.

Once she had raised the hood, Gladio turned to look between Ignis in the driver’s seat and Noct in the back seat, muttering low enough so he couldn’t be overheard, “It’s not just me, right?”

“No way. She’s awful,” Noct replied. “At least you don’t have to sit next to her.”

“Yeah well, no way three of us coulda fit back there if I was one of ‘em. You’re stuck with her unless you can convince Prompto to take the middle.”

Ignis couldn’t understand why they were being so unfair to the newest member of their retinue. As far as he was concerned, the girl had been perfectly pleasant, if a bit sheltered, cheerfully asking each of them about their lives and their roles in the group. He was about to inform them that they ought to try being more patient with the girl’s inexperience when the hood slammed shut.

“Sorry guys,” Laura said. “Looks like your radiator’s been cracked for a while now, and it’s damaged the water pump. And in this heat . . . she’s not likely to start back up again. We’re going to have to push her to Hammerhead, I’m afraid, unless one of you happens to know the phone number.”

“I’ve been attempting to call, but all I’m getting is a busy signal,” Ignis replied.

“Well, then!” she said cheerfully as she walked around to the trunk of the car. “We might as well get moving.”

“Guess we can take turns who gets to sit and steer,” Gladio said, heaving himself out of his seat and bracing himself against the door and mirror. “Come on, Your Highness, get out and push.”

As Noct braced himself against the back door, Prompto moved next to Ignis. “Guess you can go first, Iggy,” Prompto said.

Ignis furrowed his brow in dissatisfaction. Though he had only managed to catch an hour or so of sleep the night before, and his enervated body was grateful for the comfort of the luxurious seat, this was still wrong. He was loath to force a lady to push a heavy vehicle across the desert while he sat, not exactly comfortable in the blazing sun, but certainly more so than those out pushing. And Laura wasn’t just any lady, she was a fair-skinned noblewoman. Though she was clearly expertly trained in combat arts much like themselves, he doubted she had much experience exerting herself physically in this oppressive heat.

The others had just begun pushing when Ignis turned to face toward the back of the car and said, “I’m afraid I must insist that Laura be the one to sit in the driver’s seat. The Regalia is quite heavy, and combined with the heat and your diminutive size, Laura, forgive me, but you’re at a considerable disadvantage compared to the rest of us.”

Instead of the sigh of appreciation he was expecting, he was surprised to see the fire spark in her sapphire eyes.

“Not bloody likely!” she exclaimed, but she seemed to realize that her reaction had been hasty, as her voice immediately softened. “I appreciate your chivalry, but let’s get something straight right now: I don’t want any special treatment. I intend to earn my keep around here. If I have a problem with something, I’ll let you know.”

“Just keep moving. Faster we push this thing, faster we can get outta the heat,” Gladio grunted as he threw his weight into the frame.

After about fifteen minutes of groaning and grumbling complaints muttered in low voices, Noct decided that fifteen minutes would be the switching interval.

“Oooh, my turn!” Prompto said, opening the car door and letting Ignis out.

He decided to join Laura by the back of the car, both because he wished to show his support of her joining their party and because the car was much more efficient to push from this angle. It seemed odd to Ignis that the others wished to avoid her so completely that they should be willing to make their work more difficult just so as to not have to be near her. As he placed his gloved hands against the hot metal, she gave him a small smile before leaning all her weight into the trunk and walking forward.

Between her eyes and her smile, there was something about her that struck a chord with him. She was almost painfully familiar, and he wondered at his own reaction to her. This was too visceral a reaction for a chance glimpse in a library; it was personal in a way that sent a chill down his back. He tried yet again to recall where he might have seen her face before and couldn’t attain any new insights.

“I think we can forget about hitching our way there,” Gladio grumbled as he tried to flag down yet another car that passed by without slowing, and Noct let Prompto out of the driver’s seat to take his turn to steer. “Thought people were friendly outside the city.”

“You can only go so far on the kindness of strangers,” Ignis replied.

“Come now, be fair. Who’s going to pull over for five people dressed mostly in Crownsguard uniform in the outlands? From what I heard, the decision to annex wasn’t exactly a popular one,” Laura said, and Noct muttered an incoherent reply.

So she wasn’t completely clueless after all. Her assessment of the current situation in the outlands was succinct and accurate, despite the information not exactly being well-known in the upper echelons of Lucian nobility. Ignis himself was only aware of the people’s attitude regarding the treaty because he had sat in on a briefing just yesterday for the Prince that had implied a somewhat disgruntled attitude on behalf of the Kingsglaive, though he wasn’t certain the entire council had left that meeting with that impression. She must have spoken to His Majesty on the matter before leaving.

“Besides, Gladio, as charming as your smile is, you look like you can crush a grown man’s skull between your thumbs,” she said with a smile.

“That just means we’re gonna have to push her all the way,” Gladio said, ignoring her.

“It’s probably for the best, given the extent of the repairs needed,” Ignis said. As much as he wished he didn’t have to be the bearer of bad news, he had to inform them that his precaution of bringing outlander money had backfired somewhat with these new circumstances, but it was best to bring up these problems as soon as they came along. “We’ll likely run into some funding issues and not be able afford a tow truck, I'm afraid. I do hope we can find work in Hammerhead to bolster our funds.”

“I saw on the map that the center of Hammerhead is the garage and a diner. We should talk to the proprietor at the diner. Places like that, they talk to everyone that passes through, and I bet they know everything about the area, including where to make some money,” Laura said.

“I highly doubt the proprietor of an establishment of that nature will know too much about the kinds of information we’re seeking,” Ignis sniffed. “There must be some sort of employment agency in the area we could visit.”

“I suppose . . .,” Laura said quietly.

He frowned a little at her subdued tone—he supposed he could have handled that more gracefully. Though he himself was new to the world outside the city, Laura seemed to be new to life in general. Their five hours spent in the car revealed that she knew nothing of television references, video games, books, music, or movies—even common, everyday foods. Given the way she fought, Ignis assumed she must have grown up in a noble household with nothing more than a combat trainer—and perhaps a mechanic. Typically, he had little patience for people such as she, as anyone who displayed such extensive evidence of ignorance wasn’t worth his personal time—though he was always courteous—but her skill in combat, at the very least, denoted an exceptional dedication, desire to be of use, and some level of intelligence. He could hardly demean her for her lack of experience if her ignorance was due to circumstances beyond her control. He would have to apologize for his discourtesy in private once they reached the employment center, and perhaps he could find an excuse to get to know her better as a guide, of sorts, to this new, wider world of theirs.

Though the others griped about their sore feet, the oppressive heat, and how much farther they had to push the rolling brick across the scorching asphalt, Laura didn’t utter a single complaint as she helped them, not even when Gladio had mistakenly skipped her turn to sit in the front seat. Ignis looked over at her, ready to chastise Gladio on her behalf for his rudeness if she was too polite to do so, but she shook her head and went back to pushing without another word. Still, she smiled at their jokes and smirked down at Prompto when he melodramatically collapsed on the asphalt.

“You know, you’re pretty much just lying down on a frying pan right now, right?” she asked with an amused smile. “Both you and Noctis.”

“Just flip me over when I smell like I’m getting burnt,” he replied with a sigh.

Once Gladio had gotten Noct and Prompto off the asphalt and they were underway again. Ignis settled back into the driver’s seat, leaning heavily against the steering wheel. Astrals, he was so exhausted. But they needed him to steer now, so he sat up as straight as he could, hoping the tension in his back would keep him awake.

“Is it just me, or was it supposed to be way closer?” Prompt whined.

“I assure you, the map is correct,” Ignis replied in a dry tone.

“The map said Hammerhead was right there,” Noct argued.

“Literally next door!” Prompto agreed.

“Looks that way, on a map of the world,” Gladio said.

“The world’s a big old place,” Noct said, his voice growing soft. Ignis turned to look at the Prince, who was looking to the mountains on the horizon with a bright, dreamy look in his eyes that Ignis hadn’t seen since they were children. He followed Noct’s gaze and took a moment to appreciate how free he felt now that they had left the city walls behind. For the first time in his life, the horizon ahead of him was completely clear for miles, and though the current situation was rather unfortunate, the fact that there wasn’t another soul nearby felt . . . somewhat peaceful.

As he looked back in the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of Laura, her faced flushed and sweating, her hair falling out of its clip and sticking to her skin, Ignis added, “Filled with wonders.”

***

After they had spoken with Cid and Cindy regarding the repairs, which would deplete the meager amount of gil Ignis had brought along for the stay in Galdin and any emergency purchases they may have needed to make, Cid dismissed them with a “You boys take her in and run along.” Ignis frowned over at Laura, who seemed to take no notice at not being acknowledged.

When they asked Cindy what they could do for money, she attempted to give them back some of their funds, with the provision that they wouldn’t inform Cid, but Ignis couldn’t abide by charity, particularly as representatives to the Crown. He encouraged Noct to instead ask what they could do to earn money, at which point, she gave them a few errands to run in the area. Satisfied that they at least had the means for becoming solvent, the others headed toward the diner to cool off.

But Ignis stopped when he spotted Laura standing by the fuel pump, watching a little girl wail unrestrainedly next to a car parked in one of the spaces by the road. The girl’s mother, or so Ignis presumed her to be, was slamming the hood of her car down, hitting both her fists against the hot metal in frustration. Ignis had to admit he felt her pain quite keenly, having experienced a similar episode without a howling child by his side earlier this morning—that was, unless one counted Gladio, Noct, and Prompto.

It seemed the mother had reached the end of her tether, because she turned to snap at the little girl, “There’s no point crying about it; there’s nothing we can do!”

As Laura narrowed her eyes at the woman and began striding in the pair’s direction, Ignis grew concerned and hissed, “What are you going to do?” but she ignored him. While he himself didn’t care for the way the woman was handling the situation, it wasn’t their business if a woman chastised her daughter, and he didn’t see how causing a scene and drawing attention to themselves was going to benefit anyone. He shot a look over at Gladio standing next to the door of the diner, who held his hands up in surrender and went inside. That was an enormous help.

“Hi there!” she said with a wide smile and a wiggle of her fingers as she kneeled down to the weeping child’s level. “M’ name’s Laura. What’s yours?” She said this in an awed tone that made it sound like the most exciting secret in the world, and Ignis noticed that the girl had already stopped crying to look at the strange woman.

“Cami,” the girl sniffed.

“Why’re ya so sad, Cami?” she asked, tilting her head.

“Daddy’s coming in from assignment tonight, but our car’s broken and they’re too busy to fix it. He’s gonna be gone again by the time we get home,” she said, tears still leaking quietly from her eyes.

It was likely their fault that Cindy would be unable to look at the mother’s car today, even if the woman and the girl had arrived before them. Ignis had a feeling that, despite Cid’s irreverent attitude towards royalty, the Regalia had been moved to the front of the queue, no doubt overbooking the garage even more.

“M’ so sorry to ‘ear that, dear. What’s your daddy do?”

“He’s in the Kingsglaive, like you. Do you know my daddy?”

Ahh, the girl’s father was likely involved in searching Taelpar Crag for evidence of imperial forces that had been rumored to be hiding out in the area. Ignis had sat in on the briefing himself only two days ago when they received word that their forces would be returning today before heading to Insomnia for the treaty signing.

Laura’s eyes seemed to widen in horror for a moment, but then she shook her head. “Sorry. M’ really new to the Kingsglaive. Jus’ star’ed today.” She looked over at the girl’s mother, who was standing with her head down, pinching the bridge of her nose, and Laura’s expression morphed to pity and heartache before turning back to the girl. “Lemme talk to your mum, ‘kay? See if there’s anythin’ I can do to ‘elp.”

“Okay.”

She stood and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Hey,” she said softly, and the woman’s head shot up. She stared at Laura, no doubt taking in her Kingsglaive uniform, before casting a quick glance in Ignis’s direction. Wishing to make a good impression, he bowed his head in greeting before she turned back to Laura.

“Cami’s been tellin’ me bout your car trouble. D’ya mind if I take a look? M’ no Cindy by a long shot, but I know a coupla things bout cars.”

The woman closed her eyes and shook her head. “I mean, you can’t make it any worse than it is, right?”

“That’s the spirit!” she said, grinning madly. “Name’s Laura. You?”

“Shawna.”

“All right, Shawna, ya mind poppin’ the ‘ood and startin’ the car so I can listen?”

“Yeah, all right.”

Concluding that she wasn’t there to cause a scene, Ignis approached Laura, who had already opened the hood and was bending over to inspect the engine.

“Do you truly know what you’re doing? It’s one thing to look at the Regalia, but we can’t afford this woman’s repairs should you break something,” he said in a low voice so the woman wouldn’t overhear.

She turned her head to glare at him, then wiped her brow with the back of her hand before looking down at the engine. “Go ahead and start her,” she called out, apparently choosing to ignore him. She cocked her head to listen and closed her eyes as the engine attempted to fire to life and failed.

“Hmmm,” she said to herself before reaching down to one of four small cylinders and pulling it free from the engine.

“I certainly hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Hey Shawna,” she said, looking up at the woman, who had just come to stand next to them in front of the car, “if ya go into th’ shop there an’ ask the proprietor for four spark plugs for your car’s model, I can get ya on the road in bout ‘alf an hour, maybe less.”

The woman’s expression transformed immediately at her words, her haggard face giving way to a bright smile. “Really? Oh! Thank the gods! Thank you!” she exclaimed before rushing to the shop, leaving the girl standing next to Laura in front of the car.

Ignis frowned after the woman. Customs certainly must have been different here outside the city, as he couldn’t imagine anyone leaving such a young girl behind with two strangers without so much as even asking.

“That was irresponsible of her; we could be anyone. What if we intended to abscond with her child?”

It was only when Laura began speaking to him that he noticed the dramatic change in her accent, transforming from the more common way of speaking in some of the immigrant districts to a more formal diction. He wondered whether the choice was deliberate or subconscious, given the speed of the switch, but he decided that of what he’d deduced of her upbringing, the choice was likely deliberate in an attempt to blend in better with the implication of lower origins, even if they weren’t native to this area.

“Give her a break. She thought she was going to miss out on her only night with the father of her child.” Her voice grew wistful as she shook her head. “Can you imagine for a moment what it would be like to not be there the one day your love is back, not knowing for absolute certain that they’ll ever return? And her husband is Kingsglaive, so of course she’s going to trust anyone in a Glaive uniform. You should know yourself that groups like Kingsglaive and Crownsguard are family. They look out for their own.”

When she turned to the girl, her eyes suddenly glittering with euphoria, that unnerving sense of déjà vu washed over him again, and he wondered what he would have to do to earn that look from her—merely to jog his memory. Ignis never forgot a face; remembering every detail of every nobleman and noblewoman in court was a vital part of his job, and it was irritating him that he couldn’t place her.

“Cami! Guess what?” she breathed, her voice suffused with awe. “You’re gonna make it ‘ome to see your daddy!”

“Really?” she screamed, and Ignis had to step back as the girl rushed forward to cling to her leg.

Laura reached down to hug her before looking up at Ignis. “I won’t be needing your assistance. You’re free to join the others in the diner if you wish. Rest. Cool off. You look exhausted.”

Recognizing a dismissal when he saw one, he bowed his head slightly. “Of course.”

As he stepped over the threshold of the refreshingly air-conditioned diner and slid into the booth seat next to Noct, Noct said, “That was the most painful couple of hours I’ve spent with someone. I was almost glad to get out of the car just so I wouldn’t have to be so close to her.”

“Yeah, what the hell was up with that? Felt like I wanted to jump outta the car and run away as fast as I could . . . or run a blade through her,” Gladio agreed, nodding, and Ignis’s eyes widened at his words. Gladio was the sort to often threaten someone in jest, but his furrowed brow and serious expression indicated he was being completely serious, which was completely out of character for him.

“I don’t like her. I say first chance we get, we ditch her. Not like Dad can do anything from the other side of the ocean. She can go back to the Citadel and marry him, or whatever.”

“I dunno,” Prompto said with a grimace. “Maybe it’s not her fault.”

“Seriously? It’s not just the pain, it’s her too. I can maybe forgive her for not knowing King’s Knight, but when she asked what an alstroom was, that was the end of the conversation for me,” Noct shot back.

Shocked and horrified by the unconventional behavior of the group, Ignis wondered what on Eos this girl could possibly have done to warrant such harsh words. He hadn’t spent too much time with Prompto in the past, but he seemed to be an amiable sort, almost overly eager to make friends with anyone that would treat him kindly. Gladio, in addition to never having expressed a true desire to murder anyone, was friendly with people from all walks of life back in the city. And while Noct was often slow to warm up to new people, he’d never displayed such a blatant dislike for anyone without provocation.

“This is hardly appropriate conversation,” Ignis interrupted as Gladio opened his mouth to add to Noct’s argument.

“Where’d she go, anyway?” Noct asked, glancing out the window.

“She’s assisting a woman and her daughter with their broken-down vehicle.”

Turning back to look at him, Noct asked, “So what do you think of her, Specs?”

He hesitated, determined to give a more diplomatic response than the others had. After all, he knew that his opinion, despite his lower status, still carried heavy weight with the Prince. “While I agree she is an odd creature, she hardly warrants such a drastic response. I should be most displeased if you left her behind. After all, your father likely ordered her along with us for a reason, even if he chose not to disclose it.”

Noct rolled his eyes and collapsed on the table. “Fine, but I’m driving then. You can be the one to sit next to her when we leave for Galdin.”

“Elbows off the table, if you please, Highness,” Ignis said quietly.

“Aww, man. That means I don’t got a choice!” Prompto whined. “And I’m hungry! Can’t we get somethin’ to eat?”

“Not until we complete Cindy’s task or stop at a haven,” Ignis replied. “We’ve run out of local currency, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, we need to figure out how we’re gonna get funds around here,” Gladio said. “There’s gotta be something four guys can do to earn some gil.”

“And a woman,” Ignis said, frowning at him.

Laura stepped in front of their table at that moment, her face flushed and covered in greasy smears. “I’ll talk to the proprietor—just as soon as I get cleaned up. Perhaps he’ll know where the employment agency is.”

“You’ve finished already?” Ignis asked, flushing at the possibility that she had overheard their abhorrent conversation.

“Yes, it didn’t take as long as I expected. Shawna and Cami are on their way home. Aren’t you the one in charge of the finances?”

“I am, normally, but we don’t currently have any finances for me to be in charge of.”

Slapping a neat stack of bills on the table, she said, “We do now—three hundred gil. I have no idea if that’s a lot or not, but I wasn’t about to demand a price. They’re trying to save up to buy a house, and Shawna just found out she’s pregnant.”

“Whoo! That’s enough to buy us something for lunch!” Prompto said, frantically pointing at the menu.

“Great! You guys go ahead and order; I’m going to get cleaned up.”

“What would you like us to order for you?” Ignis asked.

She glanced at the menu board and frowned. “I’ll . . . just have some water, thanks,” she said with a slight smile before turning toward the restrooms, and Ignis frowned after her. The menu was hardly the sort of fare Ignis preferred customarily, but it seemed to be the type of cuisine common to these sorts of places. Though Noct often complained about Ignis’s healthy eating habits, he wasn’t above eating cheap junk food now and then—as long as it was in moderation—a concept that seemed beyond the Prince. Not every meal had to be a sophisticated, five-star experience, either; he was more than capable of adapting and even enjoying a wide variety of culinary experiences. But it seemed that much like the Prince, Laura was going to have to adapt a more flexible palate if she was going to survive the different regions they would be traveling through.

“I wanna try the Hammerhead Hot Sandwich,” Noct said, pointing at the menu, and the others nodded in agreement.

After Ignis had ordered for the four of them at the counter, Laura emerged from the restroom, her face clear of engine grease. Instead of sitting down with them, however, she headed toward the proprietor and leapt up onto a stool on her knees, leaning far over the counter. As the others chatted about the heat and how different the scenery was from the city, Ignis watched Laura call the proprietor over, and her face lit up with that smile she only seemed to reserve for complete strangers. Had they really offended her so much that she wouldn’t look at any of them like that? Perhaps she had overheard the Prince complaining in the car or talking about leaving her behind, and not just Gladio’s final remarks.

Gods, how disgraceful a first impression could they have possibly made?

An employee stopped by the table to drop off their drinks, and after flicking the tab open and taking a measured sip, he cupped the hot can of Ebony with both hands. Despite the morning spent in the heat, he was beginning to feel a bit chilled as the air conditioning dried off his sweaty shirt. He imagined the sunburn forming on the back of his neck was doing little to help the matter and decided he would need to reapply more sunscreen in the restroom before they left. Turning back to watching the proprietor and Laura interact, he took a longer draught of the hot, bitter fluid, letting it warm him from within and shock his system awake.

Laura and the proprietor spoke for about a few minutes before she smiled at the man again and headed toward their booth. Since Gladio had moved to the edge of the bench, Ignis moved closer to Noct to make her feel more welcome to sit down as he cast a displeased glare in Gladio’s direction. Honestly, this was going to be a rather long journey if they weren’t willing to even make an attempt at friendliness.

Instead of sitting down, however, she stood at the end of the table and said, “Turns out Takka is the head guy in charge if you want to know about things around here. He said he had plenty of assignments for us if you want to take them. Sorry, I asked about an employment center, but he said there wasn’t one.”

Ignis’s narrowed his eyes at her, scrutinizing her face. Try as he might, he could discern no trace of smug satisfaction in her expression; it was completely smooth and pleasant, and he felt another stirring of remorse at having dismissed her so readily. He really must find the time to apologize to her in private—and to thank her for not calling him out publicly for his boorishness.

“Very well,” he said, standing. “I’ll see what he has for us, then.”

It turned out that the man had three hunts available appropriate to their combat skill, totaling over three thousand gil in bounties. Coupled with their task from Cindy, they should be in a much more fortunate position within a couple of days. Though none of them had actually seen a wild animal up close before, Ignis was confident that they should have no trouble handling these assignments with their extensive training. It would be beneficial, he thought, to get some real combat experience in before Noct’s destiny came calling.

The proprietor was also helpful in pointing out the locations of havens and foraging points in the area. Ignis decided it would be most prudent to head to the haven just to the north directly after lunch, set up camp, perhaps do some foraging, and they would be in a prime location to begin their hunts the next day. He was about to thank the man for his very welcomed help when Laura sidled up next to him.

“Hey, Takka,” she said. “D’ ya ‘appen to ‘ave a rag I could borrow? My friend over there ‘ad an accident wiv the ketchup, an’ I didn’t wanna leave a big mess for ya.” She gestured with her head back to the booth, where Ignis could see Gladio gesticulating angrily at Prompto while Prompto looked down at the table, which was somehow completely covered in ketchup spatters. How had that happened? Their food hadn’t even arrived yet.

“Yeah, sure,” Takka said as he reached under the counter and tossed her a rag.

“Cheers,” she said with a smile as she held it up in mock toast.

She was about to turn back to the booth when the man stopped her. “Hey, Laura. I was thinkin’. You happen to have any of that levain on you that you were talkin’ about? Been meanin’ to beef up my sandwiches a bit. Homemade bread might be the trick.”

This time when she smiled widely at the man, her tongue poked out to touch the top row of her teeth, and Ignis thought the effect looked . . . odd on her aristocratic features. “Yeah, keep some outside in the car. I’ll bring it in before we leave. If ya got flour, we can feed it after I split it, an’ I can give ya what I spoon off. You can start your own culture from it.”

Ignis assumed ‘outside in the car’ was code for ‘in the armiger,’ as they had all agreed to not exactly keep their identities a secret, but certainly not draw undue attention to themselves. But since levain was one of the many odd items that couldn’t be kept in their armiger, he wasn’t so certain. He didn’t recall seeing or smelling a jar of levain anywhere in the car, so perhaps she kept it in the same place she had pulled her weapons from yesterday in the throne room.

“Thanks!” he said. “Don’t forget to bring that rag back. They keep walkin’ off on me.”

“Will do.” She waved and turned to head back to the booth.

Ignis ordered another can of Ebony, thanked Takka for his help, and followed her. She was leaning over the table and wiping it down when he slid into his seat. Had she even sat down yet?

“Absolutely hopeless,” Gladio muttered under his breath.

“I’m really sorry you guys,” Prompto said quietly, his eyes still downcast.

Laura folded the rag over so she could continue wiping with a clean side. “Honestly, Prompto, it’s no big deal. It didn’t get on anyone’s clothes, so Ignis doesn’t have to do any extra work tonight. No harm done.”

“So, Specs, what’s on the agenda?” Noct asked as the waitress set their orders down in front of each of them.

As Ignis proposed his plan, Laura finished wiping the table and headed back to the counter to return the rag.

“Aww, man. Camping? I was kinda hoping we could stay in the camper tonight,” Prompto complained, and Noct nodded in agreement.

“Please sit up and chew with your mouth closed, Highness,” Ignis sighed wearily. There was absolutely no excuse to allow the Prince’s decorum to slip simply because they were stranded in the outlands for a couple of days. Ignis could only imagine the state of his manners at the wedding if such a thing were to happen. Doubtless, the papers would report Lady Lunafreya’s marriage to an unkempt vagrant if they managed to stay out here too long and ignored his slipping etiquette.

“Ugh, will you just relax already?” Noct muttered under his breath as he sat up.

“You got a problem with camping now?” Gladio asked Prompto in challenge.

“I mean, camping sounds fun and all, but after the day we’ve had, I kinda wanted some soft beds, a real shower.”

“With our money situation being what it is, it isn’t prudent to spend funds on accommodations when there are free options available,” Ignis said.

The rest of their meal was spent in silence, and they were almost finished when he noticed that Laura had still not sat down. His gaze roamed over the diner until he caught a flash of her black hair behind the counter, where she appeared to be spooning a jar of what he assumed to be levain into another jar.

“What the hell is she doing back there?” Noct asked, noticing where Ignis’s attention had been drawn.

“I believe she promised the proprietor some of her levain. It’s used for making sourdough breads,” he added, knowing they would have no idea what levain was. It was quite impressive that Laura traveled with her own. She must have been an avid baker, which was odd, given the lack of knowledge of culinary arts she had shown thus far. Making good sourdough bread was a precise and difficult art, and it was hardly a practice of high nobility to make their own breads, given that most households kept their own bakers on retainer. The more he learned about her, the less this girl seemed to make sense.

“Seems to make friends pretty fast,” Gladio noted, “if she’s gotten behind the counter already.”

“Wonder why no one else seems to feel how we do about her,” Noct added.

As Laura waved Takka away from the counter, pulled a pitcher of water from the shelf behind her, and poured it for a customer sitting at a stool, Ignis thought it likely that the others’ dislike was because she had been forced upon them, and they were being puerile. However, he thought it wise that he hold his tongue, for now.

Chapter Text

Noct leaned back into his camp chair and stared at their newest group member, who was helping Iggy set up the cooking equipment in what Specs had deemed ‘the perfect area of the haven’ for his culinary creations, not that Noct could really tell the difference. Laura seemed friendly enough—definitely weird—but the main problem was that every time she got close to him, he got this sense of wrongness that made him want to kill her, quickly and violently. It was a disturbing reaction for him, as he’d never wanted to actually kill anything in his life. The feeling would’ve definitely been freaking him out, but it wasn’t just him, either; Gladio and Prompto had said the same thing back at the diner. He was pretty sure Iggy was just being polite about the whole thing, but Noct bet he felt it too. No doubt ‘Mr. Perfect’ just didn’t wanna admit he was feeling murderous for no apparent reason.

What could his dad have been thinking, sending her along with them? He guessed that sword fight in the gown had something to do with it, but he had trouble believing that the mysterious girl who beat Cor the Immortal and this air-headed aristocrat were the same person. Only Iggy’s word made him think otherwise.

He studied her clothes. At least she wasn’t wearing a gown now. She was dressed just like some of the other Glaives he’d seen around his apartment complex yesterday, with thigh-high combat boots, a form-fitting fatigue suit, and a short, high-collared jacket. Her long hair was clipped into a loose twist behind her head with a couple of tendrils falling around her face. The only personal item he could see was a necklace—a blue crystal disc that matched her eyes, covered by a silver tree and hanging from a chain of silver links. He had no idea where she was keeping her weapons. She’d implied that his dad had given her access to the Crystal’s powers on the drive out of the city, but she hadn’t placed anything into their armiger yet, as far as he knew.

“Noctis?” She turned to him, and he quickly looked away and back at her so it didn’t seem too obvious he’d been staring. “I . . .,” and she hesitated a moment, biting her bottom lip before raising her head high and continuing in a stronger voice. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you all in tomorrow’s hunt—or any hunt, for that matter.”

Gladio and Prompto stopped what they were doing to stare openly at her with matching furrowed brows. Specs kept up the appearance of setting up the camp stove, but Noct noticed that his movements had slowed to not make a sound.

“Why not?” Noct asked.

She took a deep breath before replying, “I’ll protect you when your life is in danger, and I’ll fight daemons with you, but I will not, cannot hunt down animals.”

“Even if they’re threatening people’s lives and stuff?” Prompto asked.

She turned to Prompto. “It’s complicated. Call it a personal philosophy. I won’t stop any of you from doing your own hunts; I’m not the sort to inflict my beliefs on others, but I’m telling you now that I cannot help you in this.”

“Hmm. Not much use to us then, are you?” Gladio grunted, narrowing his eyes at her.

“I’ll do all I can within those bounds, but not in this, no. I must offer my apologies; the King didn’t quite prepare me for all that we’d be doing on this trip.” She glanced around the campsite subtly, but even Noct could tell that possibly camping had been included in the things his dad hadn’t told her. He had to say he wasn’t all that surprised, as his dad was always close-lipped about everything.

“Fine,” Noct shrugged. “We have enough in the group to handle the hunts anyway.” It’d probably be best if she stayed behind so he could get a break from her.

Gladio let out a final grunt of disapproval before turning away toward the haven ramp, probably to collect more firewood—even though it didn’t look like they needed any more than they had already. Noct exchanged a look with Prompto, who shrugged before ducking under the tent flap to set up the sleeping bags.

“Noct, as long as you’re . . . resting, you may as well take the opportunity to use the energy deposits you collected and put together some elemental spells,” Iggy said as he unrolled his utensil pack. “They may prove useful for tomorrow.”

Noct sighed. Iggy had been on his ass all morning for the stupidest stuff—his language, his posture, his eating habits, even the way he’d been walking as they hiked out to the haven. He didn’t get it—they’d left the city behind, and hardly anyone knew he was the Prince. He thought the guy’d lighten up for a change now that the whole world wasn’t watching, but instead, he seemed to have only gotten worse.

“I dunno why we bother with those. They do as much damage to us as they do to what we’re attacking,” Prompto complained from inside the tent.

Noct secretly agreed. The last training session they’d had as a group, Noct had electrocuted the entire party with a stray thunder spell, and Iggy had used every opportunity he could for the next two days to use the word "shocking" in a conversation just to piss him off.

“Because they’re a good resource to have in case we need them,” Iggy said exasperatedly.

“I’m trying to make ‘em less unpredictable, but it’s hard,” Noct said, pulling out a flask and cupping it in his hands.

“I have a lot of experience with elemental magic,” Laura said from the camp stove, “though not the kind that you use. Do you mind if I feel you make one? I may be able to help make your spells less erratic.”

Feel him make one? What the hell was that supposed to mean? And how could anyone use elemental magic that wasn’t from the Crystal? Whatever she was offering, he definitely didn’t want any part of it. “Uhh, thanks, but I think I learned all I could from Iggy.”

“Oh. All right then. I’m going to go help Gladio collect firewood. I’ll be back in a few minutes to go foraging, Ignis,” she said, pointing her thumb in the direction Gladio had walked off in.

Iggy’s head snapped up in Noct’s direction, frowning at him as she turned, and he strode over to Noct’s chair to lean in close.

“Highness, if her magical prowess equals one-half her skills with a blade, it would behoove you to take her up on her offer,” he said in a low, rushed voice. “Please, call her back.” Before Noct could respond or refuse, Iggy straightened and walked quickly back to his kitchen station.

Gods damn it, Noct didn’t want her any closer to him than she had to be; he didn’t really wanna be working on this crap at all. It’d been a long, hot, miserable day, and he was ready to kick back a little and enjoy the freedom of being away from the city and everything that made him the Prince.

Rolling his eyes at Iggy’s back, he said, “Actually, Laura, could you come back? Maybe I could use your advice.”

Her smile was bright when she turned around, and for a second, Noct could kinda see why the people in Hammerhead liked her so much. But as she came closer, that crawling feeling crept up on him again, and his moment of thinking that way disappeared as though it’d never existed.

She kneeled in front of his chair and put her hands on either side of his, leaving a few centimeters of space between them before pausing, and the prickling stabbing needles traveling up through his fingers into his forearms was already making him want to summon a sword and jam it through her heart. What the hell was that?

“I’m just going to put my hands on yours. This is going to feel . . . odd. I’m sorry. May I?”

Did that mean she was aware of how she made him feel, or was this gonna be some new terrible feeling? He tried not to clench his jaw at her as he nodded. At least she’d asked permission first, he guessed.

As she brought her hands to his, he couldn’t help but shudder; this was more than weirdness, more than needles. This was burning pain. It was bearable though, so he schooled his features and forced himself to look at her. But Six, that bloodlust he’d never felt in his entire life was rising inside him, practically begging him to end her life as quickly as possible.

Her brow pulled down in concern. “Is this okay?” she asked, and feeling a little more under control at the sound of her soft voice, he nodded. “Then go ahead and do the spell. I’ll just feel you this time and assist the next time, okay?”

Closing his eyes and focusing on the elements swirling in his body, he concentrated on bringing the fire energy to his fingertips and pushing it into the glass.

“I see what the problem is,” she said softly, her eyes closed. The pain in his hands disappeared the moment she removed hers, but the weird feeling and the desire to reach out and snap her neck remained. He squirmed a little in his seat against the feeling, and she seemed to notice, leaning back a little. “You have to become familiar with the energy you’re using on a personal level. With each spell you craft, you need to leave a piece of your energy within it so that it knows you and your allies when it’s released again.”

Noct unclenched his jaw and said, “That’s not something I was taught. You talk like the elements are living things.”

“In a way, they are. Try again. I’ll help this time, pushing some of my energy and pulling some of yours into the spell.”

The feeling returned when he summoned a new flask and she put her hands back on him. But this time, as he gathered the fire and pushed it to the flask, he heard the air around him shriek, and a bolt of pure lava seemed to shoot from her fingertips up his arms.

He slammed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth harder against the burning fire, but it seemed to get worse the more he tried to fight against it. Noct gasped as he snatched his hands away, and the flask full of pure fire elemental energy dropped from his shaking fingers onto the stone floor of the haven.

“Noct!” Ignis and Prompto yelled.

Time seemed to slow as he heard the glass flask shattering with a sharp, tinkling sound, but the tent, the kitchen area, and the sight of Iggy and Prompto hurtling toward them was immediately obscured by head-high, bright orange, flickering flame as Noct and Laura were both completely engulfed in heat and light. It was strange, he thought, sitting oddly calm in a chair inside a fire like this. He couldn’t even see Laura as he waited in a surreal daze for the burning pain to come, but it never did. In fact, even his arms were fine now that Laura wasn’t touching him anymore.

It was almost disappointing when the fire started dying, as the dancing inferno had been kinda cool to watch. The first person he saw when the flames fully dissipated was Laura, her eyes wide as she stood and stepped back from him, her hands held up in a gesture of surrender. Prompto stood frozen with his hand reaching out uselessly for them, and Iggy was the only one moving—advancing on them with two potions in his clenched fists. On seeing the two of them perfectly fine, Iggy stopped suddenly, dismissing the potions and rushing to Noct’s side, patting at his jacket and checking for injuries.

“Oh my gods, I’m so sorry,” Laura said shakily, lowering her hands and taking another step back. “I didn’t think it would hurt you, too. Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied, probably sounding a little too impatient as he waved Iggy away. “Just surprised me is all.”

“Really, Noctis, I am so, so sorry. I swear; I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

He shrugged. It wasn’t like there’d been any permanent damage. “It’s cool. Guess your method works.”

“Still, that wasn’t the best way to find out.”

“Not really. But I think I can do what you did myself now.” It was actually really easy, and he wondered why no one, not even Iggy or his dad, had told him before.

Laura didn’t say anything as she collapsed in Gladio’s camp chair with a sigh, folding her legs beneath her and resting her cheeks in her hands.

“All right! Does that mean we won’t get electrocuted anymore?” Prompto asked as he plopped in his chair with his camera.

Laura’s eyes went wide at his words. “You’ve been . . . electrocuting them?”

“Just the one time,” Noct replied with a shrug. “It was an accident.”

“Thrice,” Iggy interrupted from his prep station. “And that’s not including the other elements. I believe I recall there was an incident where you nearly singed off Gladio’s trousers. He was burning mad at you for a week after.”

“All right, ‘thrice,’ then,” Noct snapped back with air quotes. He swore he was gonna put dirt in the man’s boots tomorrow morning if he kept it up. Did Iggy want to make him look bad or something in front of the new girl?

Speaking of looking bad, he was gonna get another lecture if he forgot to bring this up. “Hey, Specs? I popped a couple of buttons off my jacket today. You mind sewing them back on?”

“Certainly, Highness,” Iggy said. “Though I can’t imagine how you managed to achieve such a feat. Just put it in the armiger, and I’ll take care of it after I tie up loose ends after supper.”

After a few moments of silence, Prompto turned to Laura and held out his camera. “Didn’t you say before that you wanted to see my photos?” At his words, that bright smile spread over her face as she turned to Prompto, and Prompto grinned back at her like a fool. Gods, they looked like they were auditioning for a toothpaste commercial.

“Really? Yeah, course I do,” she said as she reached for the camera, carefully twisting her hand at an angle to make sure she didn’t touch Prompto’s skin.

As she clicked through the photos, stopping to smile or inspect certain shots more closely, Prompto kept leaning forward and taking a breath to speak, then flinching and sitting back in his chair. Unbelievable. Guy finally found a pretty girl interested in his photos, and he couldn’t stand to even get near her. Noct bet it must’ve been extra uncomfortable for him, a regular guy who was always cheerful and nice, to be feeling like he wanted to kill a girl like Laura.

“You’ve got a lot of pictures of animals in here. You must really like them. That one of the . . . rhinoceros thing is beautiful with the rock formations in the background like that.”

Prompto tilted his head in confusion before looking to Noct, who shrugged. He’d never heard of a rhinoceros either.

“What’s a rhinoceros?” Prompto asked. “Lemme see.” She tilted the camera in his direction, and Prompto’s eyes met Noct’s briefly again as he said, “Ohhhhh. Um, no. That’s a dualhorn.”

Seriously? The four of them might not have known a lot about the wildlife outside the city, but there were dualhorns in the zoo back in Insomnia. They learned about them in First Year. Hell, one of Noct’s favorite toys growing up had been a whole herd of little plastic dualhorns.

“Dualhorn, got it. Thanks,” she said with a smile and a nod.

After several moments of silence, Prompto rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly and leaned forward as much as he could stand. “So . . . whaddya think?”

“They’re fantastic, Prompto,” she said immediately and enthusiastically. “Such a great way to record our trip. But you’ve got to make sure to hand the camera off to one of us now and then so you can get in some shots.”

“Oh! That’s not even necessary! This baby’s got a timer on it, and I brought a tripod,” he said, bobbing his head.

Her voice grew soft and kinda breathless as she looked up at the sky, “You should do a photo shoot tonight! Imagine what this place will look like come nightfall. This far outside the lights of the city? I guarantee you the sky will be awash with ten billion stars. It’s been a crystal clear day, and there are so few trees here to block our view. You’ll need to break out that tripod to hold the camera still for long exposures.”

Prompto seemed to vibrate with excitement as he jumped from his seat and said, “Wow! I didn’t even think of that. Never seen the stars before. What a great idea! I’m gonna find the perfect angle to take shots from. Wanna come with?”

She shook her head. “Sorry, but Ignis promised he’d teach me to forage this afternoon.”

“Aww, okay. But I definitely want your help with the settings tonight, if, you know, you want to?”

“I’d love to! Soon as we get back.” Looking over to where Iggy was setting his cooking utensils just so, she called out to him, “Are you ready to set out?”

Iggy adjusted the angle of his spatula on the table, turned to her, and nodded. “Yes, I believe I am.” As they headed to the ramp together, Noct noticed that Iggy didn’t flinch at all as he drew close enough to walk next to her. Why did her weird thing seem to bother him more than it did the others?

When they’d walked far enough to be out of earshot, Prompto said, “She’s really not so bad as long as you don’t get too close. She’s actually pretty nice.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s still really, really bad for me,” Noct said.

Touching her was unbearable. Being anywhere near her was too close to the edge of pain. How was he supposed to get back in the car with her in a couple of days? Iggy definitely wasn’t gonna do much driving this trip if he was gonna insist on them keeping her. Leaning his head back to look at the blue sky stretching above him, he figured she was at least making an effort to fit in with the team, he guessed. Maybe he’d get used to her like Iggy and Prompto seemed to be.

Chapter Text

As they walked the dusty plains of the Weaverwilds together, Ignis breathed in a lungful of clean, untamed air, allowing it to settle deep into his blood. If he hadn’t been so exhausted, he might have felt giddy with excitement at the prospect of exploring the wild desert, not that he would have allowed such an emotion to show on his face.

Under the guise of looking past her for more patches of wild tomatoes, he stole a glance at Laura. He’d been waiting for the moment they were alone together to apologize for his behavior earlier, but now that it had arrived, he found himself apprehensive, fearing she would chastise him now that they no longer had an audience. Suck it up, as Gladio would say.

Ignis gently cleared his throat to get her attention, and she looked up at him with bright eyes.

Taking a steady breath, he fought his instinct to look away from her as he spoke. “Laura, I’d like to offer my most sincere apologies for being curt with you this morning, and as it turned out, completely incorrect.”

Her brow furrowed as she shook her head. “Ignis, there’s nothing to forgive. Everyone was on edge pushing that car. If we’re apologizing, I’m sorry for snapping at you. I can have a bit of a temper when people try to coddle me.”

Ignis blinked. While he’d noticed her outburst, he hadn’t truly considered it offensive. “Well, if you won’t accept my apologies, at least allow me to express my gratitude for not calling me out in front of the others, even if they did miss a prime opportunity to take great relish in my being wrong.”

She stopped for a moment and pointed at a place just past him. “Green peas, yeah?” The little green patch stood out starkly against the brown, dry dirt, and he nodded, turning so they were headed in the right direction. “I get it,” she continued. “It’s hard, sometimes, being the one who’s always right. Means you’re never allowed to be wrong. Even your friends—they lie in wait for you to slip up so they can tease you about it.”

He let out a breath and chuckled. “That’s for sure and certain.” Did that mean she held the same role among her own friends? She was certainly right this afternoon. He made a note to ensure to treat her as graciously as she had him should she ever be wrong.

As they picked the last of the peas and he was beginning to wonder how such a plant could even survive out here in the desert, she turned to him. “Thank you for agreeing to teach me to forage, Ignis. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn more about plants in this area—hopefully the animals as well.”

“You’re most welcome. I don’t imagine you had much call to be outdoors in the Crown City. I myself am only familiar with the local flora and fauna because of my studies beforehand. Even with what I’ve read so far, they aren’t as extensive as I’d like.”

She frowned. “I’m no stranger to living off the wild. I may look and sound like one of you, but I’m not from Insomnia—from anywhere in Lucis, actually.”

He froze. That explained so much, really, including why she was unfamiliar with the most basic facts of their society. How could he not have realized? The spark in her eyes combined with the adeptness with which she had handled everything he’d seen her do indicated she wasn’t as dim as he’d first assumed. How could he have read her so incorrectly? This was supposed to be what he did. He found himself wanting to apologize to her again, but he could hardly do so for his private, uncharitable thoughts.

Then he had another thought. “Surely you’re not from Niflheim!” His Majesty couldn’t be so reckless as to place a stranger from enemy territory in their retinue as they traveled to said territory.

Her eyes widened at his outburst, but she stood her ground. “Of course I’m not!”

“Then where are you from? The King neglected to give us the story of your background before we left.”

She broke eye contact with him and looked into the distance. When she began walking again, he followed after her, waiting for an answer. After a few more moments, she scoffed quietly, “From. What does that even mean anyway? I’m from . . . so many places, all so very far away. I’m sure you’ve never heard of any of them.”

“Still, I should like to know,” he replied gently.

She sighed. “I was born in a city . . . well, it would be more of a village to you and your Crown City, called Lliaméra, deep in the heart of the Palomian Forest of Miriásia. Everyone’s gone now though—wiped from existence. I am all that’s left.”

He was disappointed to admit to himself that he had never read any of those names in any Lucian text, but as he registered her full statement, disappointment turned to dismay. “I’m sorry. How did . . .?”

She laughed bitterly, and the expression that twisted her face looked ugly on her features. “The same way every civilization gets wiped out—war and disease. We may have been enlightened enough to live in harmony with the forest around us, but we were too stupid to keep from fighting ourselves into extinction. And here I am again, on the brink of a war.”

“If all goes according to plan, the treaty will be signed in a matter of days, and the war will be averted.”

If all goes according to plan,” she said. Before he could reply, she asked, “Can I ask you a question?”

“That depends on the question.” Just because he found her to be an intriguing companion didn’t mean he was going to give her unfettered access to his knowledge.

“Tell me about Lady Lunafreya?”

“That wasn’t a question at all,” he said carefully. There was too much of Noct’s heart potentially hidden in that question that he would not share with her.

“Sorry. I’ll be clearer. The reports keep reassuring everyone that her marriage won’t interfere with her duties as Oracle, as though the people are terrified that it will. What are her duties, and why are people so frightened?”

“Were your people not susceptible to the very same plague? It’s ravaged the entire world for over two thousand years, yet we know so little about it. It was released on the world during the War of the Astrals. We call it Starscourge, and it causes the afflicted to disappear into thin air.”

Laura paled. “My gods—a virus as a result of a war. That’s exactly what happened to my people. History certainly has a way of repeating itself. But what does that have to do with Lady Lunafreya?”

“Historically, it was the Oracle’s duty to alleviate the darkness’s effect on the population by healing the blight until the True King of Light ascended to rid the world of it completely.”

“And that’s Noctis.”

“Yes. Lady Lunafreya travels from settlement to settlement, healing the Dark Plague, waiting for Noctis to ascend and rid the world of its influence.”

“I see,” she said. “And what would the consequences be should he fail?”

“The end of mankind.”

“Of course. That seems to be the only consequence there ever is.” She froze and placed a hand on the arm of his jacket to stop him. “Shh. Do you hear that?” she whispered.

Ignis closed his eyes and cocked his head, listening. Other than the sound of the wind blowing across the open desert, he couldn’t hear anything that would have caught her interest. He shook his head.

Eyes sparkling with wonder and mischief, she smiled to the distance. “Ignis,” she whispered. “Come with me. Keep quiet.” She turned, and when he didn’t immediately follow, she looked back at him, beckoning. “Come on! Allons-y!” she coaxed quietly. He understood the sentiment, if not the words, and made to follow her.

On silent feet, she trotted off to a nearby rock formation, and he did his best to keep up with her as silently as possible. What could she have heard all the way out here? As they reached the base of the rock, she held a finger to her lips and crept around the corner. He followed behind, looking over her shoulder when she stopped.

The creature was gargantuan. Even lying with its legs curled beneath it under the shade of the rock wall, its neck towered high above their heads. Had it been standing, it would have been seven meters tall. As it turned its head to look at them, Ignis summoned his polearm. Judging by its physiology, it was likely herbivorous, but the dinner-plate-sized hooves and long, vestigial claws were still capable of doing them great damage. And Takka had said that all the animals in the area were dangerous. The creature proved this statement when it bared its teeth and loosed a long, resounding bray.

Hearing the tinkling sound of his summoning, Laura turned to him, her expression shocked and . . . dare he say, hurt? She shook her head at him and stepped away from the corner.

“Laura, don’t,” he hissed. Ignis wasn’t terribly concerned for her safety, knowing she could summon a weapon and kill the creature before it could even stand. Still, given her refusal to hunt, he wasn’t completely certain she would do so, even if her life were in danger.

“This one’s different,” she said. “Perhaps someone tried to keep it as a pet?”

He had no idea how she had reached this conclusion, but it seemed unlikely, given that the animal had stretched its prodigiously long neck taut to meet her as she neared, its lips quivering to take a sizable chunk out of her. Ignis was about to jump out to defend her when she said in a soothing voice, without breaking eye contact with the creature, “Don’t you dare.”

It went against every instinct he had, allowing the head of that enormous wild animal to reach the vulnerable-looking girl, but then he had to remind himself that looks could be deceiving. She reached her arms out as the animal deposited its muzzle, which was nearly as large as her torso, into them.

“Hello, dear,” she cooed, stroking the thing’s cheeks, and Ignis had to splutter a quiet laugh at the absurdity of it.

She looked up at him. “Put that thing away and come here,” she said in a gentle tone.

Ignis dismissed his polearm and swallowed. If the creature hadn’t yet attacked her . . ..

As he approached, she moved around to the beast’s side, settling on the dry, brittle grass, her back against its belly and her legs stretched out in front of her. The animal reached its neck around and deposited its muzzle in her lap, and she ran her fingers lightly over the thing’s velvety tawny nose. It heaved a sigh at her touch that hitched her body forward and back with the movement.

When he reached her, she said, “Sit down with me.”

As much as he would have loved to, he couldn’t help but eye the brittle grass surrounded by dusty, cracked dirt. He had so much to do already when he returned to camp and didn’t want to add laundry to the list just yet.

She seemed to know what he was thinking as she followed his gaze because she rolled her eyes. “I’ll tell you now that this is the first and only creature I’ve been able to do this with since I got here, besides the pets in the city. This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Sit down, and I’ll clean your clothes myself when we get back.”

“That’s hardly necessary,” he said, acquiescing and settling down next to her, his legs stretched out in front of him along the animal’s outstretched hind legs. He tried not to think about the fact that a single kick in his direction could kill him outright as he leaned his back against the beast’s ribs, feeling it rock his body with each breath. The feeling was actually . . . rather pleasant as he sat in the shade and looked out at the view of the sweeping desert. After removing the glove from his left hand and setting it in his lap, he ever so carefully stretched his palm over the beast's leg, stroking the short, wiry fur.

“Do you know what it’s called?” Laura asked. “I’ve been calling it a girafalope in my head, but I’m sure that’s wrong.”

He opened his eyes to glare at her. “You mean to say that you approached this thing not even knowing what it was? You’re mad!”

She smirked and looked away. “Girafalope it is, then.” She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, the curve of her full lips turning up into a soft smile. “Do you smell that, Ignis? It’s life.”

Ignis took in a deep breath, filling his lungs until they tingled from stretching so far. It seemed to be a frequent habit of his since they had left this morning. Beyond the scent of wild animal, he could smell the dirt, the grass, and the heat on the wind. It was so very different than the stench of car exhaust fumes, sewage, and humid trash he had grown up with in the city, even in the wealthier districts close to the Citadel. This aroma was wild, savage, free. “Yes, it’s lovely,” he said, looking over at her and beaming.

“It’s a shame there aren’t any clouds out today. I used to lie in the grass and pick out the shapes.”

He leaned his head back and looked at the sky. “I’ve never done anything like that, except perhaps in my dreams. I tended avoiding looking at the sky as a child, and it’s a habit that’s followed me into adulthood. I didn’t care to be reminded that I was trapped there.”

“I can understand that, but we’ll have to break you of that habit now that you’re out here.”

He closed his eyes as the warm wind whipped through his hair. “Yes . . ..”

***

The animal beneath his back flinched as he started awake.

“Hey there, sleepyhead,” Laura said from above. He looked up to see her standing in front of him.

“I—I fell asleep,” he said dumbly.

“Yes, you did,” she said as she smiled gently down at him.

“How long have I been asleep?” He stumbled to his feet, stretching his legs and brushing off his trousers vigorously. He felt . . . well, not well-rested, but still enormously refreshed.

“A couple of hours,” she said.

“Blast,” he said. “We need to get back. I have more things to do than hours in the day, and I’ve just wasted two.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” she said, wrapping her arms briefly around the animal’s muzzle one more time before heading in the direction of the haven with surprisingly long strides for her height. “I bet you’ll find you’ve earned those hours back somewhere.”

While her sentiment was touching, she didn’t understand what his life was like. There was always more to do. Even if a miracle occurred and he somehow managed to get his entire to-do list completed, someone was going to ask him for a favor. Someone was going to break something, muddy something, need something, and he would be the only one who could fix it.

But as he felt the blood run through his body, making his fingertips twitch and the fog of sleep clear from his mind, he thought that perhaps she had been right. Perhaps those two hours of peaceful rest on the ribs of an impossible beast under an endless blue sky next to her had been exactly what he needed to get through the rest of the day.

The moment they returned to the haven, he summoned his notebook, which contained all his recipes, notes, and lists. He kept his daily to-do list on a folded sheet of paper at the front of the notebook, and he pulled it out to see how much he could get done before he needed to prepare supper for the group.

“Should we be concerned Gladio isn’t back?” Laura asked quietly so as not to wake Noct, who was asleep in his camp chair.

Ignis looked to the fire ring, where a large stack of sticks and wood pieces sat. “He’s likely all right. Gladio seems to enjoy the wild as much as you do. Doubtless he went for a hike.”

“All right. I think I’ll help Prompto set up his shot for tonight, unless you need my help with anything?”

“No, that’s quite all right. Go and assist Prompto.”

“Oh, and don’t worry about making the bread tonight. I already have some I can give you for the group.” She turned before he could say a word and sat next to Prompto. How had she known he was going to need bread this evening? He pulled his fountain pen out of his jacket pocket to cross one item off. It was a relief, really. Making bread wasn’t particularly labor intensive, but it was terribly time consuming. He wondered whether she had made bread this morning before leaving in anticipation of their needing it. It seemed impossible, given how early they had left.

When he found “Make Bread” on his list, he saw that it was already crossed out. His brow furrowed. Had she found his notebook in the armiger? She had already known that the book wasn’t private, as he’d had it out to refer to it several times already that day in front of her.

Running his eyes down the list, he saw that she had crossed other items off. He set his notebook down and summoned Noct’s jacket. Sure enough, the buttons had been sewn back on with tiny, precise stitches.

He dismissed the jacket and summoned Noct’s sword. It had been sitting in the back of the Prince’s closet for years now, gathering dust, as the Prince tended to prefer the practice swords in the training room that he didn’t have to care for afterward. Not only had it been polished, but it bit easily into his fingernail when he gently brushed it against the edge. He checked each of the blades on his list: his daggers, his polearm, even his straight-edge razor, for gods’ sakes, had been cleaned, polished, and sharpened. Had she done all this as he slept? How on Eos had he managed to sleep through that? How had she found the time to do it all in only two hours?

Ignis snapped his head to where she sat next to Prompto, and their eyes met. Her gaze dropped to his razor in his hands before sliding back up to his face. Ever so slowly, her lips pulled wide, the skin around her eyes crinkled, and her eyes glittered with delight.

That. There. That was the smile he had been looking for.

Odd. He hadn’t done a thing to deserve it.

Chapter Text

When Ignis called them all to make their plates at dinner that evening, he frowned when he saw Laura take only a dry piece of toast. He had worked hard to impress her with Grease Monkey's Schnitzel Sandwiches this evening, a recipe he had created earlier that afternoon at Takka’s. “Aren’t you hungry?” he asked earnestly. She had been pushing and walking and foraging in the hot sun, and he hadn’t seen her eat anything of substance all day.

“I’m fine,” she replied quietly so the others couldn’t hear her and headed to where they kept the drinking water.

He remembered she had been pale and shaking yesterday in the throne room. Perhaps she was still recovering from an illness—and today’s exertions would hardly have been a help. He should have remembered and made soup instead. Tomorrow, perhaps, he could try out a recipe for dry-aged tender roast stew if they managed to hunt a garula. Or perhaps something lighter? A veggie medley stew might do nicely.

They had taken their seats by the fire when Ignis looked up at Laura as she returned. He stood, gesturing toward his own chair. “Please, take my seat,” he said. “I’m afraid the King didn’t give Gladio enough notice to procure camping equipment for you, and we weren’t certain if you would bring your own. We’ll make it our first priority once our finances are in order.”

She shook her head and motioned for him to sit back down as she folded her legs to sit on the ground across from them. “This is fine,” she said before picking at her toast.

“We uh . . . need to get another tent, too, and an extra sleeping bag,” Prompto said, wincing. “I’m not sure where you’re gonna sleep tonight.”

“Really, I know I don’t look like it, but I’m used to sleeping anywhere. There’s no need to purchase a completely new setup just because I came along, especially with finances being as they are. I brought a blanket; the sky is clear, and the fire is warm. That’s all I need for now.”

“Still, you’ll need shelter if we camp out when it rains. We won’t get ya nothing fancy, but it’ll get the job done. Make it the first thing we do when we get the bounties for our hunts, Iggy.”

“Indeed, Gladio.” He was glad to see the Shield showing his more compassionate side to Laura, despite his dislike for her. Perhaps they would eventually all become a cohesive unit after all, with some time.

After they had finished eating, Noct crawled into the tent to play on his phone, Prompto went to the edge of the haven to fiddle with his camera, and Gladio began practicing his lunges behind the tent. Ignis turned to the dishes with a sigh.

“Do you need any help?” Laura asked, and he turned to her.

“Honestly, you’ve done enough already. I’m in your debt as it is for taking over my responsibilities as I slept this afternoon.” As much as he would appreciate her company while he worked, he couldn’t possibly ask her to take over more of his tasks. Perhaps she would stay and talk to him, instead; there was still so much more he wanted to know about her.

Her eyes tightened as she shook her head. “No, you’re not. I’ve seen you staring at that list at least thirty times today—every time we took a break pushing the car, at the diner, when we got here. I didn’t want my little experience to end up costing you. Consider it a thank you for joining me in a life adventure. They’re so much better with two. Now, scoot over.” 

“Really, it’s not nec . . .,” he began.

“Nonsense. We’re all in this together, and I need to do my part, especially if I’m not hunting with you all.” She pointed a stern finger at him. “You’re going to keep that list accessible to me; I’m going to help with everything I can, and you’re not even going to thank me for it, understand?”

He turned his head away and closed his eyes for a moment. Could it really be that simple? If he were honest with himself, this went against everything he was—asking a lady and a noblewoman to compensate for his own failures to serve, even if his own title was likely equal to or higher than hers. To ask for her assistance in his own duties was simply not how he was raised by his tutors.

But they were no longer in a royal court; they were out here in the wild, where the others had already mentioned to him several times to relax. Of course, he would never relent in his duties to Noct, no matter the cost to himself. It wasn’t as though he were ungrateful for his position in life; he was only too happy to serve and see the moments when the group appreciated his efforts. But he had to admit that he was tired of always walking alone, of feeling so exhausted all the time, having to pretend to always be perfectly put together in every moment when he was often hanging by only a thread and a cup of coffee. The alluring solution she was presenting him with offered up the possibility of finding relief while still holding true to the decorum necessary for serving the Prince. She had proven herself trustworthy already—that he was permitted to be wrong in front of her. Could he also be weak, if even for only a moment? The afternoon he had spent with her seemed to suggest so.

The offer was too much for him to decline. Besides, it wasn’t as though he could beat her away from the kitchen area. He turned back to her and nodded once.

“Then I shall say it just this once: thank you, truly.”

“You are most welcome, Ignis,” she replied with a bright grin as she finished drying a dish and dismissed it to the armiger.

Apparently, it really was that simple.

When he handed her one of the plates he had just washed, she looked up at him with that expression he had already come to identify as wonder. “The sun has gone down. When was the last time you looked at the sky?” she said in a luminous voice as she dimmed the lamp hanging on a pole standing next to them.

He turned his head to look out over the desert and had to pause in his work as he took in the scene in front of and over him. Never in his life had the sky seemed so . . . enormous—so completely all-encompassing that he felt small in comparison. It wasn’t possible that the night could be so impossibly black that it was almost a void that would swallow him whole, were it not for the twinkling points of light that transformed the inky blackness into a velvety blue he could almost reach out and brush his fingers against. He hadn’t believed her when she’d said ‘ten billion stars’ to Prompto earlier in the afternoon, but what other number could describe the sea of sparkles he was currently humbled by?

“They’re even slightly different colors,” he whispered, full of wonder.

“And each is either a planet or a ball of gas, burning millions or billions of miles away, as big or bigger than your own sun, possibly sustaining life on planets of their own.”

“I’ve never seen anything so dazzling in all my life.”

“And to think, this is only your first night out of the city,” she said with a soft smile. He found himself wondering what else she would draw his attention to as they traveled, and he silently thanked the King for sending her with them, if only for that reason alone.

After they had finished the dishes in silent companionship watching the stars, Ignis sat in his chair, nursing a cup of coffee and watching as Laura sat down cross-legged on the edge of the haven.

Outside the circle of light the campfire provided, the moonlight seemed to turn her hair into living blue flame as she released it from its twist and let it cascade down her back. Her eyes caught the light and reflected it; they shimmered an ethereal blue as she gazed up at the breathtaking sky stippled with stars. She had removed her jacket before sitting down, and her bare arms glowed against the bright light as her hands pressed firmly against the stone.

Astrals forgive him his blasphemy, but he imagined that not even Shiva herself could have looked more beautiful.

Prompto must have thought so too, for he had shifted the focus of his camera to include her form sitting gracefully beneath the infinite glittering sky. She closed her eyes and began to murmur under her breath. Ignis couldn’t hear what she was saying, but he could see her lips moving steadily in the moonlight. After several minutes of this, Prompto spoke. “So, uh . . . are you praying or something? I could leave you alone.”

Laura turned to face him and smiled. “No. I’m . . . sort of meditating, but you aren’t bothering me.”

“What sort of meditation?” Ignis couldn’t help but intrude. He had read about many types of meditation, as well as their benefits, but he didn’t consider himself the spiritual sort to gain any advantage from these techniques, even if he were to have the time for such self-indulgence. The only god he’d ever prayed to was Shiva, for personal reasons, but it had been years.

“It’s not exactly meditation, per se. I am attempting to align my resonant frequency to that of your land.”

What does that mean?” Prompto asked.

Ignis knew of the concept of resonant frequency, of course; the demonstration of a person able to break a glass using only the power of their voice came to his mind immediately after she’d said it. He had never, however, heard of the term applied to a human being before and wondered what it meant for her to need to adjust it.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that you feel uncomfortable near me. I’ve seen you all flinching when I’m near, except for Ignis, who I’m sure is trying too hard to be polite.” She looked back and forth between the two of them.

Ignis was about to shake his head, as he had felt nothing of the sort. Was this what the others had been referring to in the car and at the diner? But Prompto replied before he could respond, “Err, yeah. We were kinda wondering about that, actually. Sorry.” He winced and rubbed at the back of his neck.

“It’s quite all right. My energy, my very essence, vibrates at a different frequency than yours. It’s different from the energy of your bodies, the food, the ground, even the magic you use. You can sense that difference, and your mind interprets it as wrongness. I’m attempting to correct, or at least mitigate, that difference.”

“Why would we feel it though? Just because you’re, uh, vibrating differently,” Prompto asked.

Her brow furrowed as she shook her head. “I’m not completely sure. I believe the Crystal channels the energy of this land and alters it so that it can harvest the energy for its own purposes. As servants of the Crystal, you feel this difference more keenly, Noctis most of all. It’s why I seemed to hurt him when I was helping him with spells earlier. The others in Hammerhead, those individuals not connected to the Crystal, certainly didn’t seem to notice anything off about me.”

“And what about you? How does this energy difference feel to you?” Ignis asked, though he believed he already knew the answer. He recalled with perfect clarity the first moments the flames subsided, when he found that Noct was blessedly safe, and she was saying, “I didn’t think it would hurt you, too.”

Her face tightened, and her eyes opened wider. “It burns,” she breathed. “Every touch, every breath is fire, burning me alive.”

“Then why do you stay here?” Prompto asked. Ignis had to agree. If staying here in Lucis meant as much pain as she claimed, he couldn’t imagine what would keep her here. He thought of every time she had smiled that day and wondered at her astounding ability to hide pain.

She hesitated a moment before replying, “Because I made a vow to the King.”

So it was duty then that kept her, a position that Ignis understood well. He himself would walk through fire with pleasure if it meant keeping his word and protecting Noct. Still, he wondered how she, a denizen of a foreign land, had ended up beholden to the Lucian Kings.

“So what can we do to help?” Prompto asked eagerly.

“Right now, I’m attempting to connect myself to ground below and sort of . . . aligning myself with it.” She shrugged as she ran her fingertips over the stone. “It’s difficult to explain. But the havens seem to be a better place to do this than anywhere else because the magic from the runes is an extra source of Lucian energy. I think I’m making progress. Already, it seems easier to breathe.” She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply to emphasize her point. “But the more concentrated the source of energy, the faster I can align.”

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient if you used one of us? We both have direct access to the Crystal’s powers through Noct,” Ignis asked.

“Yeah, we could do that!” Prompto agreed. “But will it . . . you know, hurt?”

She grimaced and said, “To be honest, I’m not sure. It won’t be comfortable, but I can never tell when what I do is going to cause you pain. I certainly won’t try using my magic on any of you; I never would have offered to help Noctis if I’d known it was going to hurt him.”

Prompto plopped down on the ground beside her. “I’ll give it a shot. Just tell me what I need to do.”

Laura’s lips lifted into a gentle smile. “Just sit there and be you. And promise that you’ll tell me the moment it gets too uncomfortable to bear.” She reached out to his bare arm, her hand hovering, waiting for his assent.

He nodded, his expression serious for once, and closed his eyes. He winced as her hand made contact with his arm, but he covered it with a giggle. “Sorry,” he said as he opened his eyes and smiled at her. “It’s not as bad as it was earlier today, but it’s still pretty weird.”

Ignis wondered exactly what sensation Prompto was referring to. Was it pain? An instinctual feeling? When they’d discussed it in the diner, they had described the feeling as a desire to run or do her physical harm, but that could encompass both sensations. He had thought they had been speaking metaphorically and inwardly scoffed at their closed-mindedness. He had heard enough now to understand otherwise, but even after spending so much time near her today, he had yet to feel what the others seemed to feel so keenly. Admittedly, he had not yet touched her bare skin as Prompto was doing now. He felt his cheeks flush at the prospect of doing so.

They sat in silence for some time, with Ignis sipping at his coffee by the fire while Prompto and Laura sat on the edge of the haven. Noct had long since fallen asleep, and, after finishing his exercises, Gladio had joined him in the tent with a curt nod and a “Night” to them all.

Ignis turned his attention to the spreadsheets in his lap. At the very least, they would need to purchase another camp chair and something that would offer Laura shelter as she slept. The chair was simple; they could pick that up after their first hunt tomorrow. The shelter, however, was another matter. The way he saw it, they had two options: to purchase a small tent to accommodate a single occupant or a larger tent for the five of them. Even if they sold their current tent when purchasing the larger one, the smaller shelter would be the cheaper option by far.

Still, there were some things that were more important than frugality, and that was symbolism. They needed to present a united front to the world, and they needed to let Laura know that she was welcome in their group. She may have made the others uncomfortable now, but she was working on it, and in the meantime, she could always sleep between him and the side of the tent. It was decided, then. He just had to hope that the weather would hold out long enough for them to collect enough bounties to make the purchase.

Prompto’s breath had grown ragged, and Ignis’s attention snapped to the pair of them when Laura opened her eyes and snatched her hand back. “You should have said something sooner,” she chastised gently. “Are you all right?”

Prompto’s relief was instantaneous the moment her hand left him, and he beamed at her. “Yeah, no sweat. I can tell it’s much better already, but I think my tolerance for it kinda wears down after a while. Sorry. Think I’m gonna head off to bed now,” he said as he gestured toward the tent.

She smiled up at him as he stood. “Good night, Prompto. And thank you.”

After several moments, Ignis felt Laura settle into Noct’s camp chair next to him. He finished tallying the bounties for their prospective hunts and looked over at her. She was staring blankly into the fire, her knees pulled up to her chest and the dancing flames reflecting in her eyes. A giant, monstrous looking blanket was wrapped around her, making her look like a child with the brown fabric engulfing her like a garula skin.

“Will you be requiring my assistance this evening as well?” he asked.

She shook her head, and he had to brush away the feeling of disappointment. “It’s been a long day, and you should be heading to bed soon. You’ve been pushing that car in the heat, foraging, cooking, and cleaning. Honestly, Ignis, you look exhausted. I think I’ve imposed myself enough for one day.”

“If you are fatigued, I shall, of course, offer my services another time. You, after all, have been laboring right beside me, and in pain all this time. But don’t feel as though you need to decline on my behalf. My, err. . . predilection for caffeine in the evening tends to keep me up later than the rest.  And I assure you, it’s no burden on my part.”

She seemed to hesitate for a moment, so he made the decision for her. “Here.” Ignis stood and pulled his chair close to hers so that the arms were touching before removing his gloves and jacket, laying them neatly across the back of Prompto’s chair. He put his cufflinks in his jacket pocket and pulled up the sleeves of his shirt, folding them back precisely and baring his forearms. When he sat back down next to her, he took a deep breath. It was now or never. He reached for her hand, which she had pulled out of the blanket and rested on the arm of the camp chair, and entwined their fingers tightly, arranging it so his bare forearm rested on top of hers.

Ignis was relieved to learn that he felt no discomfort from her touch. Her skin was slightly cool, despite their proximity to the fire, and oh, so soft. He’d never touched a woman like this for an extended period, and he was scandalized at his sudden desire to let go of her hand and run his fingertips along the veins on the inside of her wrist and up her forearm. Shoving the feeling aside, he swallowed and turned his gaze from her to the fire. But that didn’t keep her perfume, a sweet, pine-floral scent that he couldn’t name, from taunting him, making his heart beat and his breath come a little faster. He let out a slow, steady breath in an attempt to compose himself.

“I must be getting better at this if you can bear that,” she said quietly, contemplating their entwined arms between them. “The additional skin contact seems to make the connection more intense.” He felt his cheeks set fire at her words and silently damned that his every emotion seemed to show so easily on his face despite how successfully he managed to school his features.

He wanted to tell her that he’d never felt what the others had; however, he didn’t wish her to think he was some sort of freak. But what if he lacked the proper energy she needed to acclimate? He would no longer have an excuse to touch her like this. Putting her through the humiliation of having to hold a stranger’s hand if it wasn’t going to help her was not acceptable to him, even if he was apparently getting some sort of perverse pleasure from it. He decided to ask an indirect question to probe the matter.

“Does my touch cause you pain?” he asked, fearing either answer.

She hesitated. “I can still feel it, but it’s not as strong as it was before my session with Prompto. Hopefully, with a few days’ practice, I won’t rub you all the wrong way anymore, and I’ll be able to breathe again.”

He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. So, his assistance was doing her good after all, and his touch was not unbearable to her. These were the best circumstances he could hope for, really. “Then I shall make myself available every night for as long as I am needed.”

Chapter Text

When Gladio emerged from the tent early the next morning, he was surprised to see Ignis, not at the stove as he had expected, but sitting in his camp chair next to the gently smoking logs. His long legs were stretched out in front of him, his boots nearly touching the fire ring.

What shocked Gladio even more was that Iggy’s neck was craned uncomfortably to the side, and his head was resting against Laura’s shiny dark hair. His right arm was wrapped around the girl’s, their fingers grasping each other’s tightly. Laura was curled up in Noct’s chair like a cat, half covered in one of the ugliest blankets he had ever laid eyes on. Her eyes were closed as well—with her head resting against Iggy’s shoulder and her hair spilling down his chest.

So, this was finally happening, huh? He couldn’t say much for Iggy’s taste. The girl was pretty, he supposed, but too weird for him, personally. But after overhearing their discussion last night about her freaky ass energy and how his need to kill her wasn’t her fault, he had decided he’d at least give her a chance. She seemed kind enough, but a little dumb, which didn’t really matter to Gladio. He’d make friends with anyone so long as they had a good heart—which she seemed to, at least.

After all these years of pushing girls—and guys, just in case—in his direction, Gladio couldn’t help but groan at his friend’s timing. All those years of Iggy not taking the bait and making excuses about his duties to the Crown, he’d just figured that the guy was asexual or something, which was fine too. Gladio had taken his responsibilities seriously as well, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t able to find some time to have more than a little fun. But now, on the road like this, with another member of the retinue, things could get complicated. He didn’t want to put a stop to his friend’s fun, but he would at the first signs of distraction.

Still, it was weird to see Iggy be so . . . expressive with someone after knowing them only a day. Hell, the three of them had known him since they were kids and had never seen him touch anyone beyond a handshake or pat on the shoulder. Not for the first time, he wondered about the girl’s origins and loyalties. Iggy had told them last night that she wasn’t from Lucis. Could she be trying to seduce him in order to get to Noct somehow? If those rumors back in Insomnia were true, was that what she’d been trying to do to the King? He wouldn’t act on assumptions, but he’d have to keep a close eye on them.

Time to meet the morning after, guys, he thought to himself as he picked up an armful of firewood and dropped it unceremoniously onto the smoking pile. Too late, he realized he should have angled this little wakeup call so he was facing them. When he turned around, they were both already out of their chairs, breathing heavily. Iggy’s face was almost adorable, turned away and down, a bright flush spreading across his cheeks. Heh. Poor guy was reminding him of his own teenage years.

“Runnin’ a bit late this morning, Ig?” he asked with a smirk.

“I’d better . . . freshen up a little before starting breakfast,” Iggy mumbled before striding off, not making eye contact with either of them.

Gladio couldn’t help it. He chuckled a little at his friend’s flustered state before turning to the girl. She seemed more composed, but he still noticed the slight blush that was staining her cheeks.

“Ignis was just helping me acclimatize my energy patterns to yours, so I won’t make you all uncomfortable anymore. We must have fallen asleep.”

“Huh,” he smirked at her, “so that’s what the kids are calling it these days.” It was fun teasing her, if only to see the blush on her face deepen, but maybe it was as innocent as she was claiming. This was Iggy they were talking about, after all. “Lemme see what you guys accomplished,” he said before she could come up with a response and held a hand out to her. She grasped it as though she were shaking his hand, and even though he still wanted to summon his sword and slash it across her throat, he had to admit the feeling wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it was the day before.

“Well whaddya know,” he said to her. “You feel a little more normal.”

“A little,” she replied. “A few more sessions with one of you should do the trick.” He noticed that she didn’t name Ignis specifically, and he felt a little guilty for misreading the situation and jumping to conclusions. Of course the guy would only be too eager to help a lady in distress, even if it left him spending the night in an uncomfortable camp chair.

Iggy had returned and was hastily throwing together a cold breakfast. “You’d better awaken Prompto and His Highness now, if we’re to complete a hunt in addition to Cindy’s errands today.”

“Yeah, no sweat, Iggy,” he grinned. Ignis rarely allowed him to wake the others because he didn’t have the patience to let the alarm slowly bring them to consciousness. Let’s see . . . should he go with a wet willy, or something more dramatic this morning? Farting on Noct’s face was particularly hilarious the last time he’d done it, and it had been a while since that tactic was in the rotation . . ..

***

“And that’s how we get it done!” Gladio bellowed in triumph as he slashed his sword through the neck of their final sabertusk for the day. He spared a glance outside the combat area where, predictably, Laura was standing, her face a mask of stoicism.

But he was used to this scene, as they had spent the past several days hunting for fun and profit in the area. He thought they were all getting pretty good at hitting the moving targets—definitely harder to kill than a practice dummy.

He couldn’t understand why the girl insisted on coming but refused to help. She had mentioned something about not being able to protect Noct should something go wrong while she was back at the camp, but then what did she think he was there for? The fact that the King had felt another fighter was necessary on this escort mission still rankled. Hadn’t he proven himself a capable Shield? The others had their own positions in addition to combat skills that didn’t overlap with his—the momma and the best friend. But after hearing about her fight with Cor, Gladio knew that she had been assigned to be an assassin, like him. Clearly, he was still trying and failing to take the high road and consider it extra safety for his liege. He’d have to do better about that, or this was gonna be a long trip.

There was one way to work off his frustration with her, and she should have the energy for it. It wasn’t like she had done anything today besides a bit of foraging. And touching her wasn’t much of an issue anymore. She still felt weird to him, but he hadn’t wanted to kill her at all yet today. “Hey, Laura!” he called out to her. “Wanna spar tonight before dinner? No weapons, just fists. First one pinned has to do the dishes for Iggy.”

It wouldn’t matter if she lost; she had done the dishes with Iggy every night so far. She was almost obsessive about cleanliness, just like Iggy. He’d even gotten up a couple of times in the middle of the night to take a piss to find her awake, polishing Iggy’s boots or washing and pressing their clothes with nothing but a bucket and a flat iron pulled from the fire. The first time it happened, she gave a little wave and said something about not needing much sleep. Six, what a pair they would make, making sure everyone ate their vegetables and brushed their teeth for at least two minutes before bed.

He noticed that her face relaxed into a more natural expression as the group neared her. “Sounds interesting, and I’m sure it’s the only way Ignis is going to get any of your help in the kitchen,” she smirked at him.

“Dayum! We got ourselves a competition going on up in here!” Prompto crowed, jumping up and slapping Gladio on the back.

“This should be interesting,” Noct mused. “Pre-dinner entertainment. I like it.”

“Either way, it sounds as though I win,” Ignis added with a sly smile. “Would you mind staging the performance where I may watch from the stove?”

“No problem, Iggy. I’ll make sure you get front row seats to your new dishwasher getting her ass whooped.”

“Ha!” Laura said before giving them all a sassy tongue-to-tooth smile, turning her back to them, and sashaying in the direction of their camp. She added an extra sway to her hips that even Gladio could appreciate. “Remember that cockiness, now, boys. We’ll see who receives an ass whooping.” Her attempt at mimicking his colorful phrasing sounded awkward in her posh accent, but he had to give her points for trying.

“Looks like Cindy just got a little competition,” Noct said, nodding toward Prompto’s star-struck expression.

“Dude, I think I’m in love. Seriously.”

Gladio had finished clearing out a section of dirt just beyond the haven when Laura emerged from the tent in a pair of black shorts and tank top, her feet bare and her hair pulled back into a tight bun. She walked across the dirt, the tiny rocks dotting the ground apparently not bothering the soles of her feet, and stood at the ready about ten paces from him.

“What, no ball gown this time, Princess?” he teased.

“I had more than ten seconds to prepare for this match,” she shot back. “No weapons, no magic. Any other rules I should know about?”

It was probably unfair of him to insist on no weapons, but if Cor couldn’t beat her at the sword, there was no way he could. If Gladio could win this fight, though, he’d be able to crow about it to all the Glaives and Guards when they got back, even if he would have to add an asterisk to the victory. 

“Nope, that about covers it,” he said, saluting to Noct and Prompto, who sat watching them from the edge of the haven. “Begin!”

Gladio figured that their almost comical disparity in size would be the deciding factor in this fight. His longer reach would make it easier for him to get a hold of her, and once he did, his superior strength would finish the job. Her size would make her faster, and therefore more difficult to catch, however. Still, he couldn’t see how she planned on taking him down. He could probably lift her one-handed and throw her halfway across the clearing. She was almost a full foot shorter than he was. Still, he wasn’t going to underestimate her. It would be best if he could end this quickly.

He approached her as fast as he could, bringing up the fist of his non-dominant hand at the last moment to surprise her. He may as well have been moving in slow motion, because she ducked his fist easily and, as she bent lower, used her momentum to swing her left leg up and around from behind her. As he recovered and attempted to grab her, she jumped, swiping that leg across his cheek with a powerful thwack of skin hitting skin. He stumbled backward for a moment, stunned, and she spun off to his side.

He had never seen anyone move like that in his life. She seemed to dance faster than his eyes could follow, using some bizarre cross between ballet and a martial art he had never seen. Her body twisted and spun away in counter to every move he’d ever learned, almost the moment he had decided to make that move. He swore he even saw her go up on her toes like a fucking ballerina for a moment before kicking him in the chest, but he was too busy contemplating how he was going to get a hold of her to stop and verify.

The moment she took him down was shocking one for Gladio, though he supposed he shouldn’t have been too surprised, given what she’d done to Cor. She caught his neck and jaw with one of her powerful thighs, and he felt her other thigh wrap itself around the back of his head and twist in an alarming way. He fell backward, completely at her mercy. When he crashed to the ground with his neck between her knees and her landing hard on her side above him, he knew that a simple jerk of her legs could snap his neck in two. Still too stunned to say anything, he hit the ground next to him twice, tapping out.

“Whoa,” he heard Prompto say to Noct in an awestruck voice. He didn’t hear Noct’s reply.

On hearing him tap out, Laura immediately let him go, spinning to her feet and bending to grab his hand and pull him up. “Molto bene! And I believe,” she said between breaths, “you owe Ignis a load of clean dishes.”

“And on that note,” Ignis called out to the four of them, “get cleaned up. Dinner will be ready in ten minutes.”

As they walked toward the haven, Laura said quietly, “Sorry about that. Being the girl, I had to prove myself to you guys, you know?”

He looked over at her in surprise. “I woulda been pissed if you’d thrown it.”

“So we’re good?” When she looked up at him, he swore she almost looked vulnerable.

He grinned at her. “Yeah, we’re good, Princess.” Her answering smile reminded him of when he’d do something to make Iris happy, so he ignored the weird feeling and patted her shoulder.

After dinner, they had been nice enough to move their chairs closer to the makeshift kitchen so Gladio could still be a part of the conversation as he washed up. Laura had placed her new camp chair next to Ignis’s, and Iggy had immediately reached out to interlace their fingers. Huh, this was the first time they’d done it before everyone went to bed—which either meant they were trying to make things public or prove they had nothing to hide. Gladio caught Noct’s eyes leaving his phone screen more than once to shoot the two an odd look.

Prompto was practically vibrating with excitement. “Seriously, that was incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“It certainly was quite the performance,” Ignis mused.

“What kinda fighting do you call that, anyway?” Prompto asked.

Laura shrugged. “I change my style to fit the opponent I’m fighting. I’ll confess to showing off just a little bit this time,” she grimaced in self-deprecation. “This was mostly a combination of ballet, gymnastics, and a mix of about twenty different martial arts I’ve picked up over the years.”

“Hmm. I did take a couple of years of gymnastics myself to improve my form, but I’d never given any thought to turning to ballet for combat. How creative,” Iggy said tilting his head.

“Oh yes,” Laura said, her eyes brightening, “I’ve noticed some of the more acrobatic moves you do, particularly with the polearm. But between the gymnastics and the double-bladed technique, our fighting styles are actually quite similar.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” he said, looking down and away. “Your style is much more elegant, I believe.”

“Nonsense,” she scoffed. “You’re just lacking my experience is all.”

“So you do have real-life battle experience?” Gladio asked. He was really curious to hear about her history after Iggy had told them she was the last of her kingdom.

Her entire face seemed to fall as her gaze turned inward. “Oh yes, quite a bit.”

Well fuck. He hadn’t meant to make her sad. But that must have meant she was about Iris’s age when she went into battle, or even younger. The thought of his sister in a kingdom-ending war made him sick.

“Why are you two holding hands like that?” Noct interrupted suddenly, thankfully changing the subject.

Prompto looked up from his phone eagerly. “It’s for that energy alignment thing, right? You must be doing better at it if Iggy can stand it for this long,” he laughed. “I barely held on for five minutes a few nights ago.”

“Indeed. I’m helping Laura with the issue of her incompatible energy signature. With some luck, her aura won’t be pushing us out of the Regalia tomorrow as we head for Galdin Quay.”

Gladio surreptitiously shot a glance to Noct, who leaned back in his chair, seemingly satisfied with the answer. “Huh, I guess I’ve barely noticed . . . whatever that was, lately. I thought it was because we weren’t cooped up in the car.”

“I hope to soon reach the point where you no longer notice it at all, even when I touch you,” she said to him.

“And your magic?” Noct asked her. “I noticed you’re not using the armiger.”

She grimaced. “My magic will never be the same here as it is back home, which is frustrating, as your access to the Crystal’s magic is so . . . limited, if you’ll forgive me. I’ll probably continue to store my weapons with my own magic; it doesn’t take much energy to pull them out. But I should start storing some other things in the armiger with yours, if only to familiarize myself with the Crystal’s magic. The King did give me a, well . . . flash run-through of how to use the powers, but that’s no replacement for practice.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how is your magic different?” Ignis asked.

“The energy comes directly from my body instead of being channeled through a crystal,” she replied. “What it can do is defined by the limits of my imagination and my body’s energy.” She moved the palm of her free hand in front of Ignis and whispered, “Ithīr, kithairon.”

With a whine, a bright silver ball of fire in the shape of a round, ruffled blossom small enough to fit in the palm of her hand leapt to life in front of Ignis. Gladio swore he could even smell a sweet floral scent wafting toward him as the edges of the petals flickered in the flames.

“My word,” Ignis breathed, “it’s beautiful.”

Gladio paused in washing up to stare openly at the unleashed magic in front of him. Only the King and a few Glaives were able to manipulate the elements raw like that, and never in a specific shape, color, or no freaking way scent—what the hell. She held the flame for a few moments before closing her fist and extinguishing it.

“It takes far more energy here to do my magic than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and since my body is attempting to create my energy using nourishment from your land, the conversion process is sloppy and inefficient. A powerful enough spell will drain me completely in such a way that I would not recover, and I could die. Clearly, I need to learn not to rely on those skills in battle; I can’t be passing out when we’re in danger. I’m just not used to operating with all these . . . hindrances,” she said with distaste. “I’m hoping the longer I’m here, the easier it’ll get to use my magic, or at least the faster I’ll recover from using complex spells, but I’m not holding out hope.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to rely on good old-fashioned teamwork then to get you through,” Gladio said as he dumped out the bucket that was serving as the sink.

She nodded, then added, “Which reminds me. Don’t use any of your potions on me should I become incapacitated. I’m not sure what such a concentration of that much foreign magic would do to my system, especially in a vulnerable state.”

“How do you suggest we care for you then?” Ignis asked.

“Just . . . let me be. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but mundane medicine is the best method, in this case.”

They had then all settled in to their nightly routines, with Noct, Prompto, and him sitting down to a game of King’s Knight after Gladio had spent some time counting out pushups. Iggy released Laura’s hand for long enough to get himself a can of Ebony, but immediately settled back down to his previous position with one of his wildlife books. Gladio considered pulling out his newest book on tea ceremonies of ancient Lucis, but decided he’d start it another night.

Before crawling into the tent for the night, Gladio cast the pair a glance. They were still there, now alone by the fire, holding hands as they took turns pointing at the book and making comments. He wondered, not for the last time, if their arrangement really was all business.

“Kinda weird, seeing Specs touching someone like that,” Noct said as Gladio settled into his usual spot. They all stared in the couple’s direction as Ignis threw back his head and let out a hearty laugh. What the fuck? When was the last time he had heard Iggy laugh like that? Had he ever? What could she have possibly said to make him make that sound? The guy was always wound so tight at the Citadel, even when it was just the four of them. The most Gladio could ever manage from him was an amused chuckle from time to time, but he could probably use one hand to count the number of times he'd succeeded in doing so.

“It’s cool they’re making friends, but I’ll be happy to see things get back to normal,” Gladio muttered back. “Still, she’s not so bad.”

Noct nodded and laid his head back. Prompto hesitated, as though he wanted to say something, but seemed to decide against it. Gladio leaned back, placing his hands behind his head, but he didn’t fall asleep until he heard Iggy settling into his sleeping bag beside Prompto nearly an hour later.

 

Chapter Text

Noct sighed and leaned his head against the window. It was good to be back in the car again after so many days of walking through the dust and the heat. Except for a flash of discomfort here and there, Laura’s presence hadn’t bothered him for a couple of days now, since the night she and Gladio had sparred, so he figured he could let Specs do the driving to Longwythe while he got some extra shut-eye.

After listening to Prompto spend the first fifteen minutes of their trip practically writing a sonnet to Cindy, Noct heard his friend say, “Hey, Laura, since we’re sitting here anyway, you wanna work on that energy thing?”

Noct chanced a look at the rearview mirror, where he noticed Iggy glance up sharply for a moment, then look back to the road. Noct looked over at Laura, interested to see if her closeness with Iggy was in the line of duty or some sort of special treatment.

When she beamed over at Prompto, Noct had to suppress a smile himself. The guy’s enthusiasm was infectious, and she clearly wasn’t immune to it. It was one of the things Noct liked about him. He didn’t care who you were—always treated everyone the same and was always happy to go along with whatever. He wasn’t all duty and stoicism like Iggy and Gladio, so it was easy for Noct to forget who he was when he hung out with Prompto.

“If it’s not too much trouble,” she said.

“Naw, no trouble at all! Won’t catch me complaining about holding a girl’s hand!” He laughed and leaned into her, wrapping his arm around hers and grabbing her hand as Noct had seen Iggy do by the campfire. He settled both their hands in his lap, and Noct had to admit that the scene looked just as intimate with Prompto. “Oh yeah! This is so much better than last time!”

Maybe that’s just how she was. Noct wondered if this was a similar scene to the one that got the Crown City so riled up. But he just couldn’t picture his father holding hands like this with a stranger in the throne room. Maybe he’d work up the courage to ask her about it someday. While his dad had always been kind and fair, he and Noct had shared a more formal relationship ever since he’d started spending more time dealing with the Empire’s crap, so he was fascinated to learn how she’d broken that barrier with him so quickly.

The drive to Longwythe seemed to take no time at all, mostly because Noct had “time traveled” as Gladio liked to call it, which was code for falling asleep in the car. As soon as they had dropped off Cindy’s goods, Noct heard the clicking of toenails on the asphalt and turned to see Umbra trotting towards him.

It had turned out to be a good thing when Luna sent the journal back with him the one time they’d met, as he was pretty sure now the Empire would be listening in on their phone conversations if they’d had any. But he couldn’t believe it would only be days before he got to talk to her in person for the first time since he was eight—and they’d be getting married. Did that make her his girlfriend now? That was a weird thought, even if he did like her—had liked her since they met. When she’d said they’d be working together to rid the world of darkness, of course he couldn’t refuse such an amazing girl, even if he really didn’t know what he was promising at the time. He’d decided then and there that no matter what, he’d never let her down.

Throughout those twelve years apart, he’d shared long letters containing pieces of himself he’d never shared with anyone, and she had done the same. They’d built each other up over the last decade or so, and their connection had grown. Noct felt comfortable talking to her; she didn’t fawn over him like the girls in the city did—didn’t treat him like a prince. Their marriage though was . . . whatever. The guys kept bringing it up and teasing him about it, and he hated that.

After finishing his message to Luna and fending off questions and comments from the group, they met up with Dave, the hunter they’d saved a few days ago, and the proprietor of the local Crow’s Nest to pick up more assignments. He was eager to get to Altissia and see Luna again, but he had to admit that he was kinda having fun on the road with his friends, away from the city and all the scheduling and responsibilities. He definitely wasn’t eager to get married and head right back into it.

Even Iggy’d seemed to finally chill out a little, or had at least gotten off Noct’s back some. He’d approved the delay, saying that things would only get more expensive in Altissia, and they needed the money for lodging in the city. He still wouldn’t get out of Noct’s way when they were doing hunts though. Seemed like he was always standing there beside him, pushing him out of the way or jumping in front of him. Didn’t Iggy trust him to handle himself after all the training they’d had? Noct had taken to warping more often just so the man couldn’t keep up with him.

Like right now. They’d walked out toward the mountain to find the dog tag for Dave, only to find where the tag was supposed to be surrounded by six sabertusks. As Noct crept silently over the cracked dirt, his back hunched over and his hands at the ready to summon his sword, he could feel Iggy right at his back, his fingers brushing against his t-shirt. What was he gonna do if those sabertusks attacked, push him to safety like some little kid? Screw this sneaking around.

“The hunt is on,” he growled as he raised his sword in the air and tossed it into the closest sabertusk’s side, warping to the creature just before the blade buried itself between its ribs. From behind him, he thought he could hear Iggy sigh.

Laura stood back on a high rock overlooking the scene, and Noct had to keep himself from rolling his eyes. Yeah, she might not have been as bad as he’d thought, but everyone in the group, even Iggy, agreed that it was kinda ridiculous that she refused to do the hunts after this long. They’d been killing animals every day for over a week now; Noct would have thought she’d have gotten used to it, but no.

Iggy summoned his polearm and was using it to flip over the body of a sabertusk Gladio had killed moments ago before landing in a crouch and slashing it across another’s neck. He called out to Noct in a clipped tone, “Watch the enemies’ movements, and don’t—”

“Yep. Right. Got it.” Seriously? He knew all this stuff already. He wished Specs would stop treating him like a little kid. It’s not like Iggy knew any more about hunting animals than he did.  

These sabertusks were faster and more vicious than the ones they’d dealt with in Hammerhead, and even Prompto was having trouble staying off to the sidelines to get a shot as the animals pounded through the combat area, lunging for them all. But it got easier once they’d all killed one each. Gladio, Iggy, and he all ganged up on the last one, dispatching it quickly.

Night was approaching by the time Gladio found the dog tag hidden among the rock formations, which was actually a good thing, since two of the bounties they had gotten for the area were for daemons. For the first time, Noct got to watch as Laura pulled her ornate falchions from her own armiger and engage three of their seven goblins in her graceful swordplay. She was strong, deadly, and swift, and he finally saw why his dad thought it would be a good idea to send her along with them besides helping Specs with the chores. There wasn’t a trace of the friendly girl he’d come to know on her face; it had hardened into the somewhat frightening visage of a seasoned warrior—deadlier Clarus or Cor.

Yet for as much as she’d contributed to the two battles, Noct had seen her move faster with Gladio. And she’d had to have moved even faster than that if she’d really defeated Cor. He got the sense she was holding herself back, but couldn’t figure out why. Still, they’d all have to up their game if they were gonna keep up with her.

It was past midnight when they’d finished with their hunts, and they were all headed back toward the rest area when the topic of where they would stay for the rest of the night came up.

“Please tell me we don’t have to make camp tonight,” Prompto complained. “I’m about dead.”

“Yeah, Specs, whaddya say we stay at the motel tonight? I could use a real shower,” Noct said as he leaned toward Iggy, rubbing his hands vigorously through his hair and releasing a cloud of dust all over the man’s dress shirt.

Iggy looked over at Gladio, who shrugged, then over at Laura.

“Whatever you guys want—makes no difference to me,” she said.

“I suppose we could stay in the motel for tonight. It is much easier to get cleaned up in civilization than out in the wild,” he said with a sigh.

“All right!” Prompto whooped, bouncing forward on the balls of his feel. “Soft beds, baby!”

They were almost back to the motel—Noct could see it just ahead past a small rise—when Iggy placed a hand on his shoulder, holding him back.

“Saphyrtails,” Iggy said in a low voice, pointing to a writhing pool of black bodies between them and the motel. “They shouldn’t be in this region. Noct, we must take extra care. They may be mad, like the dualhorn from the other day.”

As Laura made to move back from the combat area, he pulled Noct aside. “Noct, saphyrtails are a formidable enemy at the best of times, but we’ve been out all night, and there are five of them. I suggest we retreat for now.”

“Come on, Specs,” he smirked and summoned his blade. He’d had enough of the man’s interfering for one day, and this was the opportunity to up their game that he’d been waiting for. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Wrapped up in a good book, I should think,” Ignis replied, sighing and summoning his daggers.

If the four of them had been able to gang up on one at a time, they might have had a chance at defeating them. But as soon as Noct warp-struck into the armored side of the smallest creature and the other three came up behind him for their attack, the other four saphyrtails encircled them, forcing the group to turn their backs to one another and protect themselves from all sides. The clanking of steel against armored claws was deafening, making it difficult to focus and dodge the clacking pincers and the vicious stingers that dug into his skin with each strike.

Noct had tried to break through their ranks by warp striking through them, but he wasn’t strong enough to pierce through their tough armor. To make matters worse, there was no warp point in the area, and he felt wave of dizziness and fatigue roll over him as his magic drained. A giant claw stabbed him in the belly, and he froze for a moment, completely at the creature’s mercy.

“Noct!” Gladio bellowed, slashing his sword at the saphyrtail while Iggy snatched him back from the claw with a sickening squelch. He tried to stay standing, but had to drop to his knees as the others hovered over him, their movements a blur in an attempt to defend them all against the relentless onslaught of snapping claws and lunging stingers. Noct couldn’t move, couldn’t think. He needed to lie down.

“Noct!” Prompto screamed in panic, but as his eyes rolled over to Prompto hovering over his head on his hands and knees, he could see the guy wasn’t in much better shape than he was. The creatures’ attacks had been so relentless that they couldn’t even pull out potions to heal themselves, and he wasn’t even sure he could remember how to summon something right now. They could all die, right here in this moment, because he’d ignored Iggy’s advice.

“Highness,” he heard Ignis groan next to him, driving the point home. He’d apparently fallen underneath their attacks as well. The man was barely managing to hold his daggers up against the assault as he dragged his body to hover over Noct’s, determined to protect him to the death. Even Gladio was waning, crouched above them all in a protective stance with his sword above his head, his face twisted into a grimace of pain and determination.

Noct’s thoughts were beginning to drift. What had he managed to do with his life so far? Sure, he’d gone to school and learned to fight and had done everything that was asked of him without complaint. But he wondered if they’d be in this situation if he’d put as much effort in as Gladio and Ignis had their entire lives. Maybe they wouldn’t all be here dying because of a dumbass decision he’d made.

Over the sound of labored breathing and armored animal against steel, Noct thought he’d heard the whoosh-clang of a powerful warp strike and the thud of something large hitting the ground. Four more times, the pattern repeated, and with each repetition, the onslaught diminished. Thank the gods, Noct thought to himself as the others summoned hi-potions to recover. What were the odds that they would run into a random Glaive all the way out here?

“Here, Highness,” Iggy said as he cracked a hi-potion over his middle. When his vision cleared, he looked up at Iggy kneeled over him.

“Thanks, Specs.”

Then he sat up and turned to thank their rescuer, and froze at the sight before them.

He had forgotten about Laura—hadn’t even considered her a factor or an option during the fight. But there she stood, black blood dripping from her falchions and her body still glowing blue from her last warp. As soon as the glow had faded, she dismissed her blades in a flash of silver light and dropped to all fours, where she began to violently empty the contents of her stomach onto the dusty ground. Gladio was the first to reach her, dropping to his knees and holding the hair that had come loose from her clip so it didn’t trail on the ground as she heaved.

“Whoa, I didn’t know you could warp! Dude! That was awesome!” Prompto patted her hard on the back, and she began choking, drawing in deep, heaving breaths of air. Gladio glared up at him. “Err, sorry.”

Iggy put one hand on Noct’s shoulder and used the other to pull him to his feet. “All in one piece?” he asked quietly.

“Yeah.”

He gave a sharp nod in response, thankfully choosing not to lecture Noct on the matter, and approached the rest of the group just as Laura was sitting back on her knees. She was breathing slowly and deeply, but still trembling. “Are you all right?” Iggy asked her in a soft voice.

She nodded. “I’ll be fine. Quite a number of factors there to make that experience unpleasant. Just give me a moment, please.” She gestured to the circle of bodies lying feet away, her mouth twisting in a grimace, “Go ahead and do what you need to do, Gladio. Thanks for your help.”

Gladio stood and began to strip the corpses of anything valuable while Laura looked around at the rest of them. “Is everyone all right?” She looked over in his direction, where he hadn’t taken a step since Iggy had pulled him up. “Noctis, you haven’t said anything.”

“Yeah, I’m good. Thanks,” he mumbled. There was so much more he wanted to say to her, but the shock of what could have happened was still echoing through his mind.

“All right, got the goods,” Gladio said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

They all stood and began trudging toward the motel, but Laura stopped by the pile of corpses. “Wait,” she said in a strangled tone. “I need to do something first.”

“We need to get out of here,” Gladio argued. “Every daemon within a five-mile radius will have heard that commotion.”

“Then leave me behind,” she snapped at him. “But I need to do this.”

“No one’s leaving anyone behind,” Noct interrupted. “We stick together. Least we can do.” He motioned for her to continue. Yeah, he was definitely gonna to have to come up with something more profound to say to her back at the motel. He’d never seen her upset, and it was his fault.

She placed her right hand on the top carcass of the pile of hideous creatures that had just tried to kill them all and closed her eyes. Noct could see her eyes moving back and forth beneath her eyelids as she sucked in a deep slow breath. When she opened her mouth, a soft, high, voice emerged. He didn’t understand a word of her song, but he swore he could feel the regret and repentance hanging heavy in the air. A silver white light blossomed from beneath her hand, and the dirt turned to quicksand as the pile slipped beneath the ground like a ship sinking into the ocean.

Laura’s voice only faded after the last pincer had completely disappeared. She stood, pale and swaying, oblivious to the four of them gaping at her until she acknowledged them. “Let’s leave, please,” she said in a choked voice.

***

Back in the motel room, Noct sat back in an armchair, picking at the Kenny’s Original Recipe that Specs had made for them. He’d learned the recipe earlier that day and had been eager to try it out on them in celebration of being alive. But at the moment, Specs was on one of his tears, and Noct was happy for once that the man’s ire wasn’t directed at him.

“I haven’t seen you eat a complete meal in the entire time I’ve known you. You may be some sort of legendary killer, but even assassins need to eat a well-balanced meal. You are going to eat this entire plate, or so help me, I’ll make you eat at the point of a blade if I have to!” He was brandishing a plate of fish in front of Laura, who had drawn her knees up to her chin on an armchair the moment they returned and was staring at the stained carpet in silence.

At his words, Laura started as though he had slapped her. Her somber eyes turned hard and glittered with anger and hurt. “Ignis?” she said in a low, dark tone. “Back. Off. I mean it.” She stood and pushed past Iggy and his plate, striding silently out of the room and shutting the front door behind her.

In the silence she left behind, Noct hastily took another bite of fish. He didn’t want Iggy to turn on him now that she’d left. “Are my culinary skills really that lacking that she can’t bring herself to eat anything I make?” he said as he gestured at the door.

Gladio and Noct chose not to speak up, opting instead to dig into their meals to express their approval of his skills. It was Prompto who hesitantly raised his hand as though asking permission from a harsh teacher to speak.

“Uhhh, hey, man. You know your cooking’s amazing, right Iggy? But maybe she just doesn’t eat meat? I mean, you see how weird she is about animals. Plus, you mix the vegetables into everything so Noct has to eat them, but then she can’t pick around it. And you know how she is. She’s not gonna ask you to make her a special meal.”

Ignis’s gaze snapped to the front door as he inhaled through his nose. “I’m afraid I may have overstepped my bounds. I should go apologize to her.” He made for the door.

“Leave her, Specs,” Noct decided it was time to speak up. “I don’t need you pissing her off even more. I gotta talk to her about . . . something else anyway.” He scraped the rest of his fish off his plate, shoveled it into his mouth, and stood.

“Noct,” Ignis rested a hand on his arm, stalling his exit. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but please don’t make any rash decisions. She’s just saved all our lives, and I may have pushed her past the bounds of usual politeness. I plead that you place the blame solely on me.”

“Easy there, Ig,” he said, smiling encouragingly. “No rash decisions. I just need to talk to her in private.”

As he opened the door and looked around the motel courtyard, he immediately spotted her sitting on one of the porch chairs a few doors down, her knees drawn up to her chest and her forehead resting on top of them. When he sat down across from her, she looked up. She didn’t look like she’d been crying, but her eyes were bloodshot.

“I’m sorry,” she said, blinking and leaning back farther into the plastic chair, still hugging her knees. “Being called a killer like that—he couldn’t have known that it’s more than a sore spot for me. Still, that was an overreaction. I’ll apologize to him when I go back inside.”

Noct was glad that Ignis hadn’t been the one to come out here. He’d probably rather lay down and die at her feet than know his words had nearly brought a girl to tears. “Don’t worry about it,” he said gently. “You know how many times I’ve wanted to do that when he yells at me about my diet?” He was pleased to see her chuckle at this, but still, she looked so small and so tired.

“Are you gonna be okay? Don’t think we didn’t notice you used both your magic and the Crystal’s back there.”

She lifted a shoulder in a shrug and rested her chin against her knees. “I’ll probably need to sleep more than usual for a day or so. It’s not like I did anything drastic. The Crystal’s powers don’t drain me as mine do, but they still hurt.”

“Listen, I wanted to . . . you know, thank you for what you did back there. You saved our lives, and I just wanted to . . . I dunno, acknowledge the sacrifice.”

She closed her eyes and nodded. “Thank you. But I was fulfilling my promise to your father. It’s a choice I’ve freely made and stand behind.” She then raised her head, lowered her knees, and sat up straight. The regality of her posture caught Noct’s attention, reminding him of his father just before he was about to lecture him, and he tensed, waiting for her next words to come.

“I hope you’ve given the others a similar speech tonight. They were all ready to die for you back there.”

“Uh, not really, no. I keep running that moment back in my head, when I just dismissed Iggy’s advice and went for it. We could have all died if it weren’t for you.”

She sighed wearily. “Well, you’re young. Frankly, I expected you to do something like this sooner. But now that you’ve done it, make sure you’ve learned from your mistake. Remember that your decisions as a prince, and eventually king, affect the lives of others. Decide when it’s worth it if you die, and when it isn’t. Just so you know,” she added lightly, “a group of saphyrtails is not worth it.”

He smiled a little and nodded to her. “I’ll keep that in mind. You sound like you’re speaking from experience. Did you serve as an advisor or something?” It would make sense, given how much she seemed to hang out with Iggy.

She turned her head away from him, looking out toward the main street. “I was a queen, once,” she said so quietly that Noct almost hadn’t heard her, and his mind stuttered to a halt. She continued, “Had the whole ‘fate of the world is resting on your shoulders’ bit and everything, just like you. You’d think fate would learn to stop doing that to children, but no. It happens alarmingly often.”

How was it possible? Noct could have sworn that she was his age until a moment ago, when she’d called him ‘young,’ but she couldn’t possibly be more than five years older than him, at most. How old was she when she had ascended?

He had to know, “What happened?”

She let out a small, bitter chuckle. “Didn’t Ignis tell you? They all died. Every single one of them. Every person in every kingdom involved in the war died, even the children. And it was all my fault.”

Noct tried to conceal the look of horror that must have crossed his face, but he was too repulsed to give it his full attention. Iggy had told them that her people had all died in a war, but this was different. He’d never really thought about being the Chosen King, whatever that meant, least of all the consequences should he fail. Apparently, he was staring into the face of it now, and he didn’t like what he saw at all. How would he feel if every person in Insomnia and Niflheim died because of him?

“I wanted to die,” she whispered, almost as if in answer to his last thought. “I would have died in the wake of disease that took them all out, too, if it hadn’t been for a quirk of genetics. Well, that and cowardice. Turns out, I’m incapable of taking my own life.”

“I—I’m . . ..”

She cut him off. “You don’t need to say anything. I tell you this not because I want your pity or revulsion or whatever your feelings are. I only tell you because I want you to really think about your future, and the consequences should you fail. You need to decide what you’re willing to live, or die with.”  

There were a few moments of silence then, when the crickets began to chirp in a peaceful mockery of the bleak conversation that was taking place. When she spoke again, her voice was steady. “This is your journey, not mine. I’m here to help, not offer unsolicited advice. There’s just one more thing I need to say, though.

“Protect your friends with everything you have, and don’t take their sacrifices for granted. You’ll find that life is not worth living if you lose them.”

She closed her eyes and gripped the pendant around her neck. “All the quipping and adventures are great fun, but remember that those men will willingly follow you anywhere and die; you don’t even have to ask. They would have done so this very night. They’ve given up their one and only lives to be with you, and that’s a sacrifice that you should hold most precious to your heart. Tell them while you can, in case it’s ever too late.”

Chapter Text

Prompto was ready to pass out and forget everything that had happened as he slumped onto the edge of the bed he, Noct, and Laura would be sharing that night. Laura had finally returned to their room a little after four in the morning, looking exhausted and miserable. She didn’t even glance in their direction, just headed straight for the bathroom and started the shower.

Iggy looked awful as he sat down carefully on the edge of his bed, staring at the bathroom door like he wanted to throw himself to the floor and shout his plea for forgiveness through it, but he seemed to be restraining himself. Gladio must have noticed his clenched fists and stiff posture too, because he placed his heavy hand on his shoulder and said in a low voice, “Steady on there, cupcake.”

When Noct returned ten minutes later, he was as white as a sheet. He stood in the doorway, his expression blank and frozen, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. After a few moments, he stuttered, “I—You guys . . . I’m . . ..” He looked down at his feet. “Fuck it,” he muttered to his boots. “You guys know you’re the best, right?”

The three of them glanced at one another, their eyes wide. “S-sure, buddy,” Prompto finally managed. “Feeling’s mutual, you know.” Whatever they’d talked about out there must’ve been big for Noct to be like this. In all the time he’d known Noct, Prompto had never seen him emotional, and definitely not out loud in front of his friends like this.

Noct sighed, still not looking up from his boots. “Yeah. I know.”

“Hell yeah, we know,” Gladio said as he stood from the bed and pulled Noct into a headlock, rubbing his fist roughly through his spiky black hair.

“Hey,” Noct complained, pulling away and attempting to pull his hair back up straight.

“Indeed. Of course we know. But it’s good to hear once in a while,” Iggy said delicately, his eyes narrowing at Noct. “Still, that must have been quite the chat. Would it be appropriate for you to fill us in?”

***

Prompto figured the least he could do after everything they’d heard was to take the middle and let the both of them have the edges of the bed. Noct had already settled on one side of him, staring up at the ceiling with a blank look on his face and his arm across his forehead. Prompto felt bad for the guy; he always tried to help Noct forget his responsibilities and just be a normal person, but this Laura thing seemed to have really shaken him. He could see why though. Prompto himself had tried not to think too much about what Noct would have to do one day, but after this . . ..

As soon as Laura opened the bathroom door, her wet hair seeping dark splotches onto the purple fabric of her tight t-shirt and her skin pink from the hot water, Gladio and Iggy stood and approached her from either side, but Gladio reached her first and took her hand.

“Hey,” he said gently, giving her one of his rare, soft and serious smiles. “C’mere,” and pulled her tightly to his bare chest. It took her a moment to respond, but she eventually brought her hands around his back, burying her face into his skin. “I just wanna say thanks for coming to our rescue tonight.”

She chuckled a little as she pulled back a little and punched him on the shoulder. “Who’s the princess now, eh?”

“Watch it,” he growled. “I’m gonna kick your ass one of these days.”

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that, Princess,” she laughed, but even Prompto could see that it didn’t reach her eyes.

As Laura turned to head to the spot next to him, she almost ran into Ignis, who was standing close behind them, watching their exchange with a tight face. Of the three of them, Iggy had been the one to take Noct’s news hardest for some reason. He hadn’t said a word since Noct finished telling them what happened outside, and Prompto figured it was because they’d been spending so much time together and she hadn’t said anything about it to him yet.

Iggy took a step back, his back straight and his limbs rigid. He was careful not to touch her, but he inclined his head toward her, fixing her with an intense gaze that Prompto had only seen in his most extreme moments of concentration.

He sucked in a breath and opened his mouth to speak, but he closed his mouth again, pursing his lips before trying again. “I . . .. Thank you. You have my eternal gratitude for your assistance today. I must also offer my most sincere apologies for my behavior earlier; I’m afraid I am at your mercy with regards to your censure. Please, let me know should you require anything at all, Your Majesty.” He bowed deeply, as though he were being dismissed from a royal court, and turned back to his own bed.

Yikes, Prompto winced. Iggy was so different from the rest of them, even from Gladio, who also grew up as a nobleman. He’d never gone to public school, never hung around with the rest of them after class. When they went out to the arcade or somewhere to eat, Iggy would always drive and bring reading or paperwork to do. When they spent the night in playing videogames or watching movies, he was either cleaning, cooking, or sitting off to the side typing stuff on his laptop. Most of his day was spent at the Citadel in briefings or meeting with Councilmembers, so he was really, really formal, especially with royalty and dignitaries. Noct, so far, was the only royal Prompto had seen Iggy relax around, kind of. Prompto thought that since they’d met Laura first as a regular person, it wouldn’t be such a big deal that she was a queen, but it apparently was to Iggy.

As Prompto watched Laura’s expression change from neutral to pained, he realized that what Iggy had said was probably the worst thing he possibly could have. Her eyes unfocused, her nostrils flared, and the corners of her lips pulled down sharply, but she seemed to shake her head and bring her features back to a neutral expression almost immediately. Prompto thought he understood. Just like Noct, she probably wanted to be treated like a regular person, especially after all she’d been through, which is why she hadn’t told them in the first place.

“Hey,” he said with a soft smile as she laid down on her back next to him. He was kinda nervous with her being so close to him wearing nothing but those shorts and that tight t-shirt, her hair still wet and smelling strongly of some kinda floral scent, but if she didn’t mind, he guessed he shouldn’t either. She turned her head to look at him, her eyes dull and half-lidded. He couldn’t remember seeing her looking tired like this before.

“Hey.” Her voice was so soft it was almost a whisper.

As Noct turned off the light, he struggled to think of some way to thank and comfort her that wouldn’t make her feel uncomfortable in the bed with him. He thought back to the only way he had ever touched her, the way she’d given him permission to touch her. That would be good enough, right?

He reached out for her hand in the darkness and grasped her fingers, giving them an extra squeeze of reassurance. She sighed, and, to his absolute terror, he heard the shuffle of her ugly blanket in the silence as she rolled to her side and leaned toward him.

“Thank you, Prompto,” she whispered in his ear before giving him a chaste peck on the cheek. She gave his hand a squeeze in return, then let him go before rolling to her other side.

He was glad for the darkness, because he knew that his entire body had gone as red as a Lucian tomato. In the confines of his own head, he was screaming, jumping up and down. DUDE. I. WAS JUST KISSED. BY A QUEEN! It was some time before he was able to fall asleep.

***

The next morning, they took their usual places in the car and headed for Galdin Quay. Prompto spent the first five minutes or so letting the wind whip through his hair and over his face, waking him up. Almost immediately after they’d left, the scenery got greener and rockier; there was a high cliff on his side of the car where he could see patches of grass and tall, leafy trees poking out over the edge. He summoned his camera, getting it ready in case they came across any cool shots.

As he looked through the viewfinder to get a picture of an incredible view of a jagged, rocky cliff face surrounded by lush green grass before they passed it, Prompto was surprised when he felt Laura’s head slump to his shoulder. He looked down at her, but he could only see the top of her head.

“Hey,” he said as quietly as he could and still be heard over the wind. He gently moved his arm up and around her to poke Noct, but that only made her fall against his chest. Noct looked over at them with his lips quirked into amused smile. “Is she all right?” he asked, hoping Noct could see her face better than he could from this angle.

“Yeah,” Noct said. “Last night was hard on her. She said she’s gonna be like that for a day or so.”

Ahh. The magic. “Well,” he sighed, “it’s a hardship, but I’ll manage.” With that, he leaned against the door, pulling her with him so she could stretch a little and get comfortable.

He heard Noct chuckle and mutter, “Yeah . . . you poor thing.”

Prompto, for his part, was trying to stay calm enough to not fidget and wake her. He knew she wasn’t interested in him in that way. Most girls often went for the brooding prince or the flirtatious muscleman. But she’d been kind to them this whole time, even when they hadn’t been, and it made him feel bad that he’d avoided her so much that first day. She’d sought his approval for her place in the group, just like she had for the rest of them, and it made him feel warm inside that she considered him one of the team, like an equal to Gladio or Ignis.

And it was nice, having a friend that liked him enough to do this with. It wasn’t like his own parents were big cuddlers, and neither were any of his friends. Plus, it made him feel good that she seemed to need something from him, both the energy thing and this. He couldn’t imagine her sleeping on any of the others if he were the one sitting up front, except maybe Iggy.

Guiltily, his eyes flicked to the rearview mirror, and he caught Iggy’s intense gaze for just a moment before the other man looked away. He thought there might have been something going on with those two, but now he wasn’t so sure, since she seemed to be okay with being close to everyone in the group. No matter what she may have felt, he was pretty sure there was something there on Iggy’s part. He hoped Iggy didn’t think he was trying to stake a claim on her over him.

It took them practically all day to get to Galdin Quay, and Laura slept the entire way there. Prompto was getting a little stiff from holding so still and a little fidgety from missing out on so many awesome photo opportunities, but he would never breathe a word to her about it. Actually, she was usually the one pointing out the most non-obvious bits of scenery that made some of his best photos: a flower in the perfect shape of a white star, the contrast between a bright green pea plant and the surrounding brown of the desert, or the sight of Gladio doing stretches against the rising sun. He kinda wanted to wake her up now so she could see the amazing route down to the quay, with its grand view of the ocean and a huge, curling rock far out to the horizon. He’d never seen the ocean before, and it was incredible just how big and blue it was. He hoped the ferry had an open deck so he could get some good shots on the way to Altissia.

Prompto had to wake Laura as they pulled into the parking space and the rest of them got out of the car, groaning as they stretched their legs.

“Laura?” he said, gently patting at her knee. She inhaled and raised her eyes to him, and he could see a red spot on her cheek where it had been resting against his chest. “Hey, we made it.”

She moved off him, inhaling deeply again and shaking her head as if to clear it. “Have I been on you the entire time? I’m so sorry. You must be so stiff. If it happens again, just push me off, ‘kay?”

“Hey, no,” he said, reassuring her. “You’re welcome any time. Won’t catch me complaining about holding a girl either.” He grinned at her before opening the door to get out and stretch, hopping from foot to foot to get his blood moving.

“Think I lost the feeling in my ass back by Saulhend,” Gladio complained.

“Indeed,” Iggy said as Laura got out, and he turned away from the two of them, leading them all up to the boardwalk. “Let us stretch our legs and walk down to the ferry. We can look at the schedules posted; Then perhaps we can pick up a few hunts before the ship leaves.” Prompto didn’t miss the way Laura’s eyes seemed to linger on Iggy’s retreating back for a moment before she swallowed and followed after them.

As they walked up the boardwalk to the restaurant, Noct eyed the dock in the distance and asked, “Think we’ll have time to do some fishing while we’re here?”

“I very much doubt it, but we’ll see.” Iggy replied.

“I’m afraid you’re out of luck,” a man said, meeting them at the entrance to the restaurant. His strange purple hair glowed in the sun setting over Galdin, and his smile seemed oily and fake. Prompto thought there was something a little creepy about his expression as he looked at them all. He seemed to be sizing them up, and Prompto had to fight the urge to look away and shift from foot to foot as the guy’s eyes lingered on his face. He seemed to react to Laura too, taking extra time staring into her eyes like he was challenging her or something.

Prompto didn’t pay too much attention to the conversation beyond his claim that the ferries weren’t running, because he was far more concerned with Laura’s reaction. The moment the stranger had begun speaking, she’d gone rigid, her hands poised at her sides as though ready to summon her falchions as she glared the stranger down. It put Prompto on edge so much that his own fingers were twitching, ready to call on his pistols immediately should he need them. When the stranger passed between them, Laura jumped between him and Noct, pushing him behind her and glowering at the guy. What was going on? Sure, the guy was a creep, but he hadn’t made a move toward anyone. Even Noct seemed confused by her behavior.

“Actually, we’re just here for the view and the restaurant, but thanks for the info,” she said in a hard voice, and the stranger’s eyes widened a little before pulling his lips into a slow, creepy grin.

“Of course,” he said, touching the brim of his hat. “Forgive me for assuming.”

Actually, that was kind of a good point. How had he known they were there for the ferries? He’d come from inside the restaurant, so there was no way he could have heard Iggy’s comments about checking the schedule from that far away.

“Who are you?” Gladio growled at the man as he narrowed his eyes.

“A man of no consequence,” he replied. The stranger looked directly at Laura, and his smile seemed to grow a fraction. He removed his hat in a flourish at her before turning and ambling down the boardwalk in the direction they had come from.

“What was that about?” Prompto asked. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said in a low, hard voice. “That guy just really rubbed me the wrong way.”

“Yeah,” Gladio said, “he was definitely a creep.”

“His comments about the ceasefire concern me. We’ve been delayed far longer than I anticipated, and I expected the treaty to be signed by now. I do hope everything is still going smoothly in negotiations,” Iggy said with a frown.

“Let’s just look at the schedule and find out if the guy was lying or not,” Noct said.

But it turned out that the creep had been right. The ferries had been suspended because the Empire wasn’t letting boats leave Altissia, which seemed to really concern Iggy. Luckily, they had come across a reporter that had the connections to help them out, so long as they helped him out in return. They had Dino mark the map for his errand before they collected all the bounties they could handle from Coctura and headed out.

“Aww man,” Prompto complained. “A lot of these are daemons. Looks like it’s gonna be another all-nighter for us.” He hated being out at night when one of those huge iron giants could cut the ground open in front of them and stomp on them all at any moment.

“Yes, but I believe the bounties from these hunts will be enough to have earned us a little reward,” Iggy said. “We’ll catch some rest at the haven on the beach as soon as we’re finished, and depending on when Dino is able to procure tickets for our passage, we may be able to check in to the hotel. Perhaps we’ll even make a celebration of it and eat at the restaurant.”

“Woohoo! You hear that, Noct? Another night in the lap of luxury! And gourmet seafood!”

***

They’d been out hunting all night when they reached the area of the map that Dino had marked, and the sun was just about to rise. Gladio was telling Laura about the time he tried to play a prank on two Glaives in the shower when they heard an ominous whoosh sound coming from the direction they were headed in. They all immediately fell silent, summoning their weapons and peering into the dim light coming from the end of the rock tunnel they had just entered. As they crept around the curve of the stone walls, the enormous bird they’d spotted near Hammerhead while they were hunting a few days ago came into view.

“Oh. Em. Gee,” Prompto panicked. “We’re supposed to get near that thing?”

“Pipe down before you wake it up,” Gladio growled.

Laura had dismissed her blades and placed a hand over Noct’s wrist. “I beg of you,” she whispered, “please don’t kill it unless it’s a matter of life and death. It’s sleeping, and we’ve just come in here and . . ..”

Noct nodded and waved for her to be silent. He dismissed his sword and motioned for the rest of them to do the same, so Prompto reluctantly put away his pistols. He longed for the familiar comfort of the weight of them in his hands for nearly an hour as they sneaked around the bird that was big enough to be a house, looking for the stone, but Gladio finally found the damn thing. There were about twenty times when Prompto thought he was going to wet himself when he thought he saw the bird open its eyes. Of course, that didn’t stop him from summoning his camera a few times to get some shots of Noct and Gladio crouched in front of the thing as it snored wheezily.

By the time Gladio waved his hands and caught their attention to let them all know they could leave, the sun had come up properly, and the bird was beginning to stir. His heart pounding hard enough to feel the nausea begin roiling in his gut, Prompto silently scurried past the creature one last time, following behind Noct into the tunnel. Only once they’d made it back to the Regalia was he able to breathe again, even if he still felt sick.

They decided to head to the camper when they returned, just so they could get right to the business of eating and sleeping instead of setting up camp. Laura, who hadn’t spoken a word since she’d urged them to put their weapons away, flopped immediately onto one of the bunks and was out like a light.

The nausea he’d begun to feel as they escaped the enormous bird hadn’t faded; it had gotten worse during the drive back to Galdin and was now combining with his heavy head and bleary eyes, but Prompto stayed up with the others long enough to eat the eggs with toast and jam Iggy had prepared for them. There was something comforting about finishing off a night of hunting with Iggy’s cooking, and this was no exception. The eggs were so fluffy, warm, and cheesy—and they were light enough that they seemed to calm his roiling stomach. And the toast. He didn’t know what it was about Iggy’s bread, but it was different from any other bread he’d ever had in his life—sweet, malty, and earthy, almost as though it wasn’t even made with wheat from Cleigne at all. He hadn’t tried much of Iggy’s food back in Insomnia, but everything he’d had so far had been incredible. He’d been living off his own salads and meagre attempts at cooking for so long . . ..

“You really know how to make some great stuff, Iggy,” he said quietly, and the older man’s lips tugged into a slight smile as Noct and Gladio nodded in agreement.

“That’s very kind of you, Prompto, thank you.”

He noticed Iggy look to the bunks and frown when he saw that Laura didn’t seem interested in waking up long enough to eat something.

“Maybe you should take her foraging when she wakes up,” Prompto offered. Maybe if they spent a little time together, they’d be able to work out whatever was wrong between them. “She’s always nibbling on the plants she knows when we’re walking around. Maybe you could teach her about the ones in this area after we get the tickets from Dino.”

Ignis nodded at him before looking back to Laura on the bunk. “A good idea, if we find the time. With any luck, we’ll be set to leave in the morning, possibly the next day.”

 

Chapter Text

Dino had been unable to secure them tickets to Altissia until the day after tomorrow, so Ignis had insisted they check out of the camper when they’d awoken that afternoon to set up camp at the haven. Of course, it came as no surprise to him that Noct was unhappy about this news.

“Man, I was lookin’ forward to that gourmet seafood,” Noct complained, and Prompto nodded in agreement.

“Iggy’s right. We gotta save our funds for Altissia. Doubt there’s gonna be any spots to camp there, so we gotta be able to pay a hotel bill until His Highness can get hitched,” Gladio said with a smirk, ruffling Noct’s hair until he slapped his hand away.

“And it isn’t as though our celebration is cancelled,” Ignis replied, shielding his eyes from the almost too-bright sun as he led them toward the haven at the end of the beach. “We can still check in to the hotel tomorrow night before we set out the following morning. Besides, the site is stunning—right near the infinite crashing of the ocean waves. We should all sleep well tonight indeed.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Noct mumbled, dragging his feet and kicking up the sand onto the backs of Ignis’s trousers.

At the sound of disappointment in the Prince’s words, Ignis looked back and sent him a smirk from the side of his eye. “Besides, I believe, if His Highness can manage us a fresh catch, we may yet be able to come up with a dish that will compete with even the Mother of Pearl.”

“Really? So I can fish this afternoon then?” Noct said, his eyes growing suddenly wide and glittering as a slow smile crept up on his lips, and Ignis smiled warmly in return, pleased to see the rare look of elation that used to grace his face so often when they were children.

“Poor Coctura will never know what hit her,” he heard Laura mumble amusedly from behind him.

Ignis sighed as he walked up the haven ramp. He’d been glad for her silence today and yesterday, for every time she spoke, he was reminded of the sheer mortification that permeated every moment he’d spent with her. He hadn’t been able to manage a personal word to her since the night before last, knowing that he had slept, likely drooling, on the head a sovereign monarch the very first night they’d left the city.

And that was to say nothing of everything else he’d allowed her to do. Though he noticed that she never completed another chore directly for Noct after that first day, for which he was grateful, she had spent the last week and a half taking care of his own personal errands, doing prep work for their meals, and assisting with the cleanup afterward. It had been a guilty relief at the time, freeing him up to increase his studies of the area and get more sleep—even engage in better combat, but the shame of knowing that a queen had been pressing his dress shirts and trousers whenever she had found those secret spare moments to do so was too much for him to bear.

Gods, the indignity of it.

He’d taken the list out of the armiger to keep her from serving him further, but she was already familiar with his routine. So, of course it hadn’t stopped her from having a fresh cup of coffee ready for him yesterday morning before they left Longwythe, just as his silence didn’t keep her from leaving a fresh loaf of bread on the counter before collapsing on her bunk this morning and another steaming cup of coffee as he’d awoken earlier this afternoon. Since she had arisen before the rest of them this afternoon, he had a feeling he was to find more evidence of her labors as the day progressed.

She seemed to sense his need for space as they set up camp, because she helped Gladio set up the new tent instead of assisting him with the kitchen equipment as she normally did. Noct and Prompto had decided to start fishing as soon as possible in the hopes of catching enough for dinner, and Ignis, grateful for the reduced audience, allowed them to go without finishing their own tasks. At the very least, he owed it to her to take her foraging to make up for his treatment of her, as Prompto had suggested, and he wanted to ask her with as few people around as possible. She never reacted the way he expected her to, as evidenced by the light that seemed to die in her eyes every time he referred to her as “Your Majesty,” so he wasn’t completely certain whether she would be interested or insulted at his request. He’d rather not have too many witnesses.

As to that light in her eyes, he was at a loss for how to handle that as well. He could hardly cease referring to her by her title. He really only used Noct’s given name because they had been raised together as children, and even then, Ignis often used his title from the sheer force of his training.  However, Noct had never displayed pain at its use, either, which made her case an anomaly in Ignis’s eyes.

Having completed his tasks, he took his handkerchief out of his jacket pocket to wipe the sheen that had formed on his brow before turning to where Laura was setting the chairs around the fire ring. “Would you care to accompany me on a foraging trip, Your Majesty? I am most eager to find some ingredients which our armiger does not yet possess, and I thought you might still be interested in learning more about our kingdom.” He thought he could hear Gladio snort at his words, but he ignored his reaction in favor of the woman straightening to stand in front of him.

As he had predicted, a shadow of pain flickered across her eyes before they widened in surprise. “Yes, I think that’s a very good idea,” she said, though for some reason, he doubted it was the foraging that she thought would be a good idea.

For the next hour as they walked together, he was a paragon of professionalism, instructing her on the finer points of finding chocobeans, sweet peppers, and aegir roots among the grassy, breezy cliff faces. Ignis allowed her to lead them, however, in the small hopes that she would reveal one of her unimaginable wonders and include him in the discovery. She did seem to be steering them in a particular direction, past the winding road leading down to the quay and up the natural stone bridges of the cliff faces, and even through his cool demeanor, he couldn’t hold back a secret shiver of anticipation at what she might show him next. Even the walk itself was cleansing to him, as the fresh, salty air made his breath come easier and the sweet relief of some greenery after so many days of desiccated brownness seemed to brighten his vision.

But for the moment, she was upset with him. “Please, Ignis. I know you didn’t bring me out here just to teach me the names of the plants and not even let me lift a finger to help harvest anything. Let me be of some use, please.”

“I wouldn’t hear of it, Your Majesty,” he replied automatically, and he winced inwardly. He really ought to find some more graceful way to handle the situation he had found himself in with her. He’d never met a monarch that despised her title so, but then, he supposed he could understand why, with the death of her people. Perhaps he should rethink his strategy.

Chancing a glance at her, he watched as her face drained of color, and she stopped walking. “Please,” she whispered, shaking her head in small, jerky movements. “Don’t do this.”

As he stopped and turned back to her, he decided that a change of topic was the best way forward for now. “Prompto has alerted me to the possibility that I may have overlooked your dietary requirements. I must ask for your forgiveness once again for my abhorrent behavior the other night. I’m afraid I couldn’t discern from your choices thus far if you were vegetarian or vegan, so if you would be so kind as to inform me of your preferences, I shall endeavor to learn all I can to see to your needs.”

She seemed to wither before his eyes, and he wondered at why this simple question could trouble her so. “Umm . . .,” she began. She closed her eyes and hung her head, cutting off her expression from his view. “Out here in the wild, where we gather our own ingredients, I’m vegetarian,” she said tonelessly.

“Very well then,” he said in a cheerful tone in an attempt to get her to smile. “A carnivore and a vegetarian will certainly challenge my culinary skills to rise to new heights.”

When she looked up at him again, the wind beating the strands of her hair that had come loose from her chignon against her face, he could see plainly from her bleak expression that he’d failed. “You’ve been cold and formal with me ever since Longwythe. Why?”

“I am merely paying my respects to your station,” he replied, lowering his gaze in deference down to the long, stringy grass at his feet in lieu of calling her by her title.

“You forget, Ignis, I’m not queen of anything any longer.”

“Perhaps not,” he said, looking back at her once more, “but you are still royal. I have a lifetime of training regarding the treatment of royalty that, I’m afraid, is not easily cast aside.”

It pained him to say this, as she’d made him so happy these past days, traveling with her; her companionship and warmth had dispelled the loneliness he’d felt his entire life. It wasn’t as though he were truly alone; he’d had Noct and His Majesty, both of whom he loved dearly, but the added complications of their liege-vassal relationship separated him somewhat. He’d grown close to Gladio and even now Prompto, but close though they had become, these were still relationships of circumstances. Ignis also had the benefit of a blood relation in the Citadel, his Uncle Caeli, even if he couldn’t often take advantage of the familial connection to hear news of his parents. He knew very well he was blessed to have all these kind people in his life.

But he had ceded so much of himself to her in these past few days, and the idea of going back to those sleepless nights, the hours of extra chores, the evenings spent alone in the kitchen, disquieted him, even with the gift of his friends and patchwork family. He found himself yet again questioning every principle his tutors had worked so hard to teach him in order to keep her companionship.

“You don’t seem to have that issue with Noctis, and I don’t want you to be my servant,” she said as she frowned at him.

But he did have that issue with Noct. Torn as he was between raising the boy and serving him, he was always toeing the line between chastising parent and respectful servant. He knew it was his duty to take care of him and die for him should the need arise, but beyond that, he was still unclear as to his role, even after all these years. It had been ripping him in two—but he had as of yet been unable to choose which he was supposed to be based on the promise he’d given His Majesty as a boy. He’d learned as he grew older, however, to rid himself of any ambiguity in order avoid entangling himself in such a mess ever again.

“Then what do you wish from me?”

Her eyes turned hard as she suddenly reached for his hand and dragged him across the footbridge that arched over the road they’d come in on the day before.

“Come with me,” she said in a rough voice, and he followed, trying not to trip over the rocks hidden in the long grass and dumbfounded by her sudden change of the rules of engagement in this conversation, but interested to see where she would take it.

She stopped in the middle of the footbridge, but she didn’t let go of his hand. Instead, she flung her other arm out to the horizon.

“Look at that.”

Focused as he had been on his thoughts and his task, he hadn’t noticed that the sun was beginning to set, and she had just brought them into full view of the quay as the light was turning Angelgard in the distance a dusky purple and setting the choppy waters of the bay on fire. It was, of course, the moment he had been waiting for the entire afternoon, but her harsh tone contrasted too much with the breathtaking view, and he had to take a moment to decide whether to be amused, bemused, or awed. He decided on a combination of the three as he looked down at her azure eyes shining in the early evening light.

“That,” she said, her voice soft, “that is what I want from you.”

This was why he wanted to keep her so badly—despite his training, despite the fact that his worth could never rise to her higher station. She saw him not as a caricature of a man who enjoyed cooking and cleaning and working without rest, but as a curious man, interested in exploring all life had to offer—because he knew he had experienced so little of life thus far. She had proven her unique view of him on those nights by the fire after having relieved him of the lonelier aspects of his life, when she had asked him not only the standard questions for getting to know a person, but questions no one had ever asked him in his life—questions he himself didn’t always have an answer for. What did he like to do in his spare time? What would he do if he had spare time? What would he want to be if he weren’t an advisor, if he could do or be anything at all? What were some of the little things in life that he loved?

He had repaid her for her thoughtfulness by answering truthfully and thoroughly, telling her details about himself even the Prince didn’t know because he’d simply never asked: how he loved the grace, athleticism, and orchestral music of the ballet and wished he had more time to see the shows; how it would be his dream to travel the world and learn about all the cultures he had studied firsthand; his interest in fashion; his desire to learn anything and everything he could get his hands on; how he admired the quiet, restless beauty of nature—the beauty in all things, really; how he appreciated anything done with style, elegance, a flourish; even mundane things, such as a hot cup of coffee and a warm, flaky croissant on a crisp, fall morning. He’d confessed these knowing with absolute certainty that she wouldn’t laugh or tease, but join in his interest enthusiastically, and she had. And since that first night, she’d gone out of her way to show him any wondrous sight she’d found, including the view he was now taking in.

Laura pulled their entwined hands up near his face, her forearm wrapped around his, and he was instantly brought back to their first night together by the campfire, where he had held her all night as she slept on his chest. He had stayed awake for over an hour that evening, despite his exhaustion, feeling her breath hit his chest through the thin fabric of his shirt and her pulse fluttering like a bird’s wings against his wrist, just as it was now. She leaned forward on her toes and looked up at him so that their noses were nearly touching, and he sucked in a quiet breath, his mind wiped blank.

“This,” she whispered fiercely, the tea-scented air from her lungs washing over him as she squeezed his fingers tightly. “This is what I want from you.”

Ignis squeezed her hand in return, but his heart filled with apprehension. What on Eos could she possibly be implying? “You see, that’s the issue. As much as this,” he gave their hands a little shake, “intrigues me, I’m afraid I don’t know what it entails.”

Laura searched his face for a long moment, and he wondered what she was attempting to glean from so deep in his psyche. “That’s the beauty of it, Ignis. It entails whatever you want it to. I don’t want anything from you that isn’t given freely and unreservedly.”

Why, oh why did she always say such enigmatic things to him? Her statement hardly cleared up the matter of what she wanted from him, and she couldn’t possibly be saying that he had the choice to take whatever he wanted from her, as any relationship beyond friendship would be unthinkable. A servant could never be worthy of a queen; he would never be worthy of her. Yet for everything she’d done for him, he couldn’t in good conscience continue to cause her pain like this. If she wanted his friendship as much as he did, what was the harm?

“I don’t want to be a queen to you. I’m not even your queen. Why can’t I be Laura as I was before—just Laura?”

He was a practical man, if anything else, and if a queen directly requested that he call her by her given name, he could not refuse her. As for her friendship, he had time to figure it out. He wondered for a moment who he would become, how much more of his finely-honed etiquette he would cast aside in order to keep her should this trip last much longer.

“Very well, then, Laura,” he said, giving her hand a final squeeze before letting go. “We should be getting back though, before the sun goes down completely and the daemons come out.”

“Not that you and I couldn’t handle them,” she said with a smirk and mischievous sparkling eyes, and he was so delighted to have earned that look from her again that he couldn’t suppress a slight curve of his own lips in response.

“Indeed!” he replied as they began making their way back to the haven.

As they walked back together, Ignis ruminated on all he had learned of and from her so far. As kind as she’d been to them all, there was still something nagging him about her identity—still too much about her that didn’t add up in his mind. He knew in his bones that she hadn’t yet told them the full truth, and he hoped to gather enough evidence, hopefully before they left for Altissia, to force her confession. What she might have to say could very well change everything for all of them.

Chapter Text

Regis raised his eyes to the middle distance, and the sight of Lunafreya and Nyx standing protected by his final spell blurred and dripped away as ink splashed with water. He did so regret leaving them behind in a city so completely under siege, but he had little choice in the matter. The forces the Empire had gathered for their attack had been even greater than Regis had expected, and he wondered if it would have been safer for his people if he had simply surrendered as soon as Noctis was safely lost in the Lucian wilderness. But no, it had been vital that absolutely no one, save only his most trusted operative and his Shield, knew that he had already known of Niflheim’s plan.

The pain and seeping cold radiated from the points where the sword had pierced his back and chest, and he closed his eyes for what he knew was the last time in an attempt to block out the sensations. He was surprised to find that, instead of the blackness he usually saw behind his eyelids, she was standing in front of him, the blue, green, and purple aurora if the Crystal space waving lazily behind her. It was almost a peaceful sight, but this couldn’t be death yet. He could still feel his body back in the Citadel, could still smell the acrid smoke, feel the vibrations of his home as it attempted to withstand the barrage of the Empire’s might.

“You’re here. How?” She opened her mind to speak to him, but he shook his head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s time.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve been waiting, monitoring the connection with the Crystal so I would know the moment this happened. I’ll not let you go through this alone, Regis. I’m going to stay with you.”

“Will it not hurt?” he asked.

Searching her mind had hurt the both of them more than he could have ever imagined that day, even though both parties were willing participants, and the thought of having a connection like this as one of them died sent a shudder through him. But what did he know? He was no telepath. He wondered why her mind wasn’t setting him on fire this very moment. Perhaps the sword in his back was distracting him from her wrongness.

“Yes, it will hurt,” she said. “But it’s the least I can do—for all you’ve done.”

He was touched by her recognition of his efforts; she would likely be the only one in the world to ever do so, but even after having searched her mind for her motivations, he still couldn’t understand why she was doing this—why she was here when none of this had anything to do with her. But he couldn’t deny how useful her skill and her heart would be in her mission, traits that had eased his mind greatly the moment he’d seen them shining in her head. If anyone could protect his wayward boy as he grew into all he needed to become without interfering too much, it would be her. She, after all, had been through much the same ordeal.

“Are you with my son? Is he safe?” He had wanted to seek out reports on them, but there had been too much to do to save as many of his citizens as he could that he found he couldn’t check his sources at all in the last thirteen days since they’d left.

He could still hear the faraway explosions in the ears of his body, wherever it was, and he prayed to the gods that whoever was left of his people would someday understand why he’d done what he’d done.

“Yes, I’m with them, and they’re all safe. Everything is going to be all right, Regis.”

Too much of his life essence was seeping from his body, and he panicked, his mind grasping for hers, desperate to anchor himself to this world, to everything he’d ever known of existence, for just a moment longer. In response, she wrapped her mind around his like a blanket, holding him as though he were a child, and the pain and seeping cold from his mortal body washed away in the warm comfort of her consciousness. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had comforted him like this, the last time he had allowed anyone to comfort him like this. But his duty was done, and he saw no reason for the need to hold fast and steady any longer.

Their astral bodies stood mere paces apart as she continued to embrace his mind, but after a moment, he could also feel the Lucii shimmer into his perception, hovering just on the edge of his diminishing consciousness. The searing cold steel of their armored claws pulled at him, attempting to pull him away from her, but she held him fast.

“Will you just wait?” she snapped at them. “You’re about to have him for eternity. I think you can manage a couple of minutes for all he’s done for you. Don’t think I won’t fight you for those minutes, either, because I will.”

A flash of amusement struck in his mind, even over his own desolation, at the sight of her scolding an entire line of immortal kings on his behalf. This reason, right here, was why he had chosen to send her with his son. She was the only woman in existence with the power to defend him not only from the darkness he would face, but also from being taken advantage of by their own allies.

She turned back to him then, her lapis eyes wet with sorrow and pity. He began to close his eyes, shutting her pity out, but she reached for his hand, entreating him to look at her.

“I couldn’t even tell him, in the end,” he said shaking his head. “I couldn’t find the words; Astrals know I tried.”

“I promise; one of these days, he’ll understand.”

A sudden desire blossomed in his mind, that his son could understand this very moment, that all the years of hiding his own pain and suffering from the boy that he might be spared the glimpse into his own future could be explained and forgiven. He should have told him everything that day—and how much he loved him, but then how could he be expected to leave that city and do his duty? Regis was concerned for the boy’s resolve enough as it was, and he himself could barely manage the pain of the foreknowledge—had always resented the way it had turned their relationship cold. There had been days when his resolve had grown weak, and he questioned his ability to be the distant, calculating father he had become so that his son would do what needed to be done. But duty had always spurred him to do whatever was necessary, and this had been so very necessary.

“I should have told him when I had the chance. Please, as a final request, will you tell him for me? Tell him everything, including who you are. This comes not as a King’s orders, but a father’s dearest wish.”

Asking this of her was no small request, he knew. Her identity along with her foreknowledge of tonight’s events could possibly be enough to shatter his son’s fragile trust in her. But even if she was likely not to phrase it in such a manner, he wanted his son to know that he had left him with everything he could—with the gift of her protection. They were just more words he regretted not saying before they had left that day.

She nodded. “Yes, I will tell him—your feelings and my identity. I just hope they can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”

“They’re good boys; I believe they will, in time.”

“I believe Ignis already has his suspicions,” she said with a soft smile.

“I warned you about him,” he replied. He was surprised that the boy hadn’t confronted her already on the matter.

Her expression turned serious as she said, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No. The only thing I wish of you now is to continue to watch over him, protect them all,” he said as he closed his eyes. It was at this point he realized that the pain from his mortal wound hadn’t just disappeared, he could no longer feel his body at all, could no longer smell or taste the iron tang of blood, no longer hear the crashing of stone and the screams of his most devoted subjects that had remained to fight for their homes. His body had passed, and his consciousness was now drifting somewhere between the Crystal and her own mind. Had any other man in existence experienced such a phenomenon? The peace he felt made death seem like a much more bearable ordeal to manage—a comforting embrace indeed, in contrast to how long he had feared this moment.

As the nights in Lucis had grown longer and he knew his time was approaching, he would often lie awake in bed, alone for once, and allowed to be paralyzed with fear at the prospect of dying. Would it be slow and painful? Would he have enough time to settle his affairs? He wouldn’t even be offered the comfort of following his dear Aulea into the afterlife, for his essence had to be dragged into the Crystal to become a Lucii, waiting for the day that he would have to perform his final, most despicable duty.

He would beg the Astrals for forgiveness in those moments for binding the lives of three young men—children really—so very young and full of promise, to his son’s fate. He would plead to the gods for mercy on behalf of his people, knowing that no matter what plans he made, countless lives would be lost. They would never understand, his people, and the names of the good men and women who died serving him would forever be sullied for the sacrifices they had made to save the world.

Regis would be able to endure all these sins if the mission succeeded, but failure was the greatest fear that had permeated those final waking moments before sleep, ever since the Crystal had shown him the vision of Noctis setting out on his own. At the very least, that last fear had very suddenly dissipated in an armchair in his study the day he met her, easing the other doubts that plagued him, even if only marginally.

“You have my most solemn word, Regis. I will protect him with my life,” she said, but then her voice grew soft, “until the very end; I will protect all of them.” Her eyes drifted up to the Lucii hovering over them in the rippling aurora. “I cannot keep you here much longer. Come with me,” she said, holding out a hand to him. “There’s one last thing I can do for you, for the both of you.”

He didn’t truly understand what she was asking of him; he was only just barely aware of his astral body in this place. But he took her hand and closed his eyes, feeling their consciousnesses drift over the burning destruction of his most beloved city, the only home he’d ever known; across the desert; and down to the deceptively peaceful shores of Galdin. Memories of his own journey to this place thirty years ago assaulted him in that moment, but he pushed them aside as she guided him into a room of the very hotel he had once stayed in. She brought him to one of the beds, where she, Prompto, and his own dearest son lay, so innocent and so very vulnerable.

“So it worked, then? The Regalia broke down before you could make it to the ferry?” That strategy had been the keystone to his entire plan—ensuring that the car would run long enough to get them out of the city before failing them, hopefully near Hammerhead so they could connect with Cid. He’d given them no funds and no way to reach them on the other side of the Wall so that they’d be forced to eke a living lost in the Lucian wilderness away from the Empire’s gaze, and perhaps grow up a little in the process.

“Yes, your scheme worked perfectly, though I wish you had told me beforehand. I did wonder why a royal vehicle was so poorly maintained until things started panning out. Of course, Ignis almost derailed everything by bringing gil along, but Cid pulled through for you,” she said fondly as she looked over at Ignis asleep on the other bed. “Took him forever to fix that car, and he charged us a fortune.”

His gaze followed hers, and his heart clenched that he wouldn’t have the time to say goodbye to Ignis, who had who had taken care of his boy so completely and with so much love when he himself couldn’t. The boy had become a second son to him as he watched them grow up together, and it was the source of yet more regret that he’d never breathed a word to the young man about it.

“Dear Ignis, my boy . . ..”

“I’ll find a way to let him know as well,” she said softly, her eyes large and solemn. “But you must hurry. I cannot keep you together much longer.”

Regis looked back down, his eyes lingering on his son’s sleeping face for the last time—at least for a long while. “I shall be with you, always,” he whispered, brushing his fingertips against the boy’s forehead before leaning in to do the same with his lips. Astrals, he wished he’d had more time.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but it’s time. Rest now, Regis. We’ll take it from here.” As he stood to face her, she placed a gentle hand on his cheek and brought his forehead down to her lips briefly.

The pull of the Lucii became too strong in that moment, and he held his eyes steady on his son’s face as he disentangled himself from the embrace of her mind so as not to cause her more pain than he had already. Immediately, the hotel room melted around them until they were standing once again in the aurora of the Crystal space.

“Thank you,” he called out to her as he closed his eyes and mind one last time, finally allowing his ancestors to pull him forward.

 

Chapter Text

The first thing Ignis did when he opened his eyes was lift his head to glance over at the other bed. Noct was, of course, sound asleep, even if his pillow looked as though it had been trampled to death by a herd of wild dualhorns. He sympathized with Prompto, who couldn’t possibly be having an easy time of it resting next to the violent sleeper. Ignis himself had lost many an hour as a child from the Prince’s tossings and turnings.

He was surprised to find Laura still asleep on the side closest to him. In the two weeks he had known her, he had never seen her unconscious in the morning, though he had tried his best to witness the phenomenon. She had always stayed up later and begun her day earlier than even he, so this was the first time he’d had to truly study her face stripped away of its consciousness without being caught by the others. Gazing at her profile in the light of the rising sun, he thought she looked pale as death and so very still. Again, he wondered if she were concealing some illness from them all. It wouldn’t be all she was concealing.

While she had spent most of the day before with Prompto and Gladio on the beach, teaching the both of them new self-defense techniques and taking pictures of the scenery, Ignis had spent most of the day keeping Noct company as he fished. In the quiet moments when Noct was trying to hook ‘the big one,’ Ignis’s mind wandered to all that didn’t add up about Laura, and he had reached the sinister conclusion that she was hiding something from all of them—something profound.

Ignis was well aware of how much time it took up, the day to day business of being a ruling monarch in wartime. Those duties left little time for pursuing other hobbies, interests, or skills, particularly when the monarch ascends at such a tender age as she. Laura couldn’t have been a day older than twenty-five, and yet she was a master of the blade and elements—as much of a betrayal as it felt to say in his own head—even beyond the skills of those of His Majesty. And that was to say nothing of her ease in social situations; her breadmaking; or her skills in ballet, martial arts, and machinery. When had she managed to acquire such a wide variety of abilities with such adeptness in the short time she’d been alive?

Ignis understood that he didn’t know much about the world outside of Lucis, except for the diplomacy necessary to maintain relations with nearby countries. There was only so much information that could be crammed into even an eidetic memory such as his in twenty-two years, after all. But Eos was a small world. He knew the geography of the globe, at the very least, and he had never heard of the country of Miriásia. The news of a kingdom, let alone multiple kingdoms, going extinct from the scourge as she had described would have no doubt reached even the deafest of ears in the Insomnian populace. 

And then what had the young queen done after the death of her people? Made her way to the kingdom of Lucis, the land that caused her such pain, and pledged herself to the King? And His Majesty, after having witnessed her weapons prowess and her ability to sneak past his guards, decided it necessary to have her accompany his son to his wedding? This was the portion of the narrative that gave him pause. No matter what, Ignis trusted the King’s judgment without qualification, and he had clearly endorsed Laura the day she’d fought the Marshal and again the next morning when they left. Whatever the inconsistencies of her story, her confession couldn’t be completely damning. Still, it was his duty for the safety of the Prince to bring these inconsistencies into the light, despite how much she may have done for him personally.  

A sharp gasp interrupted his thoughts, and he looked over again at Laura, who seemed to have awakened as though she had just clawed herself back from death’s embrace itself. Her eyes were wide, sightless, and rolling in her head; her back arched off the bed; and her mouth open in a silent scream. It was shocking that for all the violence of her awakening, she had barely managed a sound beyond that of her initial inhalation.

“Laura, is everything all right?” he asked before swinging his feet over the side of the bed and crouching down next to where she lay panting. She seemed not to see or hear him for a moment, and he was about to ask again when she finally became aware of his presence and faced him.

Tears were swimming in her eyes as she looked up at him. “Ignis,” she breathed. “No. Absolutely nothing is all right.” He stood and backed away as she sat up on the edge of the bed. She held his gaze with her watery eyes as she searched his face for a moment. “Oh gods, how will you all ever forgive me?”

He shook his head at her. “Laura, you’re not making any sense. You’ve just had a nightmare. Why don’t you get changed, and we can go for a walk to calm down so we don’t wake the others?” Perhaps, if she calmed down enough, he could confront her about her inconsistencies before approaching the group.

To his utter confusion, she shook her head vehemently and reached carefully under Prompto’s pillow, pulling out his phone. She flipped it over and began taking the back cover off. “We have work to do. I know you’ve been suspicious of me lately, and for good reason, but I need you to trust me for just a little longer. We have to keep Noctis safe. Help me take all the batteries out of the phones, starting with Noctis’s.”

If the goal was to protect Noct, then he would of course obey without question, even if this did turn out to be a figment of her imagination. As he strode to the other side of the bed where Noct kept his phone on the bedside table, he asked softly, “If our lives are in danger, shouldn’t we wake the others?”

“Not yet. Today is going to be devastating to all of you, and this may yet be the last moment of peaceful sleep they get for some time.”

Despite the fact that she was likely reacting to a nightmare, her words sent a frisson of fear through him. He’d never known her to be wrong about anything so far, and her expression combined with her bleak tone foretold of something crushing for them all on the horizon. He hoped that whatever it was wouldn’t affect Noct as much as he feared; the young Prince had enough on his shoulders.

Once they’d finished with the phones, they took turns changing in the en suite bathroom before she led him out the door. It was only once the door had closed that he felt free to express his impatience.

“Would you care to tell me what’s going on? Why did we just do that? And where are we going now?”

Her eyes were darting around the seating area of the restaurant, looking for something. “I doubt the Empire has had the resources to commit to tracking us down just yet, given all that’s happened, but I thought it would be safer to remove the batteries, just in case.”

“Why would the Empire be tracking us? What is it that you think has happened?” he said, feeling his impatience for her grow, but he bit it back the feeling and kept his tone calm. The amount of time it was taking to sign the treaty had been concerning him greatly as of late, and he wondered if something had gone wrong. Still, he couldn’t see how she could have gotten news between going to bed last night and waking up this morning.

She seemed not to have found whatever it was she was looking for, so she headed to the chef behind the counter.

“Hey, Coctura, do you happen to have your paper this morning? You can keep your crossword page; I just need the front, please.”

Coctura’s lip was trembling as she bent below the counter and handed Laura the folded-up paper. “Here,” she said in a voice that was almost a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

Laura’s face hardened into a serious expression as she locked eyes with the chef. “Don’t breathe a word to anyone, do you hear? Let Dino know too, and anyone else who thinks they know who we are. Tell them they’ll have me to deal with if they let anything slip to anyone.”

Coctura nodded, and Laura guided him to one of the tables and sat down.

“You are beginning to try even my patience,” Ignis muttered. Queen or not, if Noct’s life were truly in danger, they would need to act now, and this lack of information was putting him on edge.

“We’re safe for the moment, but that depends on which reckless thing you all decide to do after this,” she replied. He was about to open his mouth to argue with her, but she sighed and slid the folded paper in front of him. “Ignis, words cannot express how truly sorry I am, but know that I am here for you all—whatever you need.”

He unfolded the paper, and the headline written there in bold, black ink seemed to seep directly into his mind, shrouding it in overwhelming darkness and stilling it completely.

Insomnia Falls

Desperate, he read the rest of the article as quickly as he could, allowing his eyes to pass over the facts presented on paper but not truly taking them into his heart: the treaty failed, Insomnia betrayed, the King . . . dead.

“This can’t be real,” he whispered, but as he glanced around at the other somber diners, he saw that they were all sitting in horrified silence, reading their own papers with similar headlines splashed across the pages. “This has to be some misunderstanding.”

“I’m afraid not,” she said quietly. “Are you all right?”

Was he all right? For the time being, yes, he was. He couldn’t allow himself a moment to grieve for their losses, if they were even real, because the only way of moving forward was to present this information to the others immediately. With a duty to perform, he could cast aside the grief he felt flooding his chest below the surface of his composure. His training also allowed space for his mind to work furiously and put the pieces together, coming to one, very obvious conclusion.

His gaze shot to her face, drawn, pale, and devastated, but he could not find it in his heart to feel that sorrow with her. “You knew,” he accused, narrowing his eyes at her. “You knew all along.”

As he’d spent much of the previous day poring over every interaction with her, it was only too easy to recall the instances where she’d displayed evidence of her foreknowledge: the look on her face when the girl in Hammerhead said what her father did for a living and her surety when she expressed that she was on the brink of another war. She’d known nothing of their society when she’d joined them, and yet she was so well-versed in their political entanglements. There was no other conclusion to draw.

She lowered her gaze to the table, and after a moment, she closed her eyes and nodded. Oh gods, she hadn’t been involved, had she? But no, he must keep in mind that the King ordered her to come with them. He kept silent, waiting for her explanation.

“I did. As did Regis, and perhaps one or two others. I think Cid suspected—he’s nearly as brilliant as you are, if a lot more experienced—but I’m not sure.”

Ignis thought back to the King’s behavior in the days leading up to their departure. Though His Majesty had been perfectly composed to the untrained eye, he could see that his liege was distracted. At the time, he had attributed it to the preparation needed for the treaty signing, but the way the King had chased after them when Noct left the throne room and the weight of his words as he asked the Prince if he was “ready to leave home behind . . ..”

“Did he order you to keep your silence?” It was an obvious question, but he would infer nothing from a conversation with such high stakes.

She nodded. “Yes, but no longer. He wanted me to reveal everything after this happened.” She reached her hand across the table seemingly to place over his own, but she stopped short, likely afraid of how he would react. She settled for letting her hand lie near his as she looked into his eyes. “I know you don’t owe me anything, but I beg you to keep silent about your suspicions of me, whatever they are, for just a while longer. Trust in your King’s judgment for now, and know that your silence is for Noct’s safety alone. I’m going to need the group’s trust for whatever insanity is likely to result from this news, and I need to be the one to control who knows what and when. Please, Ignis.”

Her hand did finally brush against his fingers, and he allowed the contact, though neither in support nor denial of her words. She stood and leaned across the little table, her eyes arresting his.

“I swear to you, on everything I am, on anything you wish me to, I was sent to protect you all. I mean you no harm. And when this day is over, I promise I will tell you all who, and what I am.”

He had no choice but to trust her, given her actions towards them thus far and the fact that it was his King’s wish. He pulled his hand away and spoke.

“Very well, you have my silence, for now. But know that I shall be watching you very closely today, and if any part of your story proves untrue, if you have in fact betrayed us, know that I will find some way to put a blade in you, despite your skill and supposed station. And I will take great relish in it.”

Her expression remained serious and calm as she nodded. “I understand.”

“Then let us go tell the others.”

***

Though Laura was vehemently against their return to Insomnia, Ignis could completely understand the others’ disbelief and need to see it with their own eyes. He himself had that same desire despite the inadvisability of the act. The ride was silent, except for the whine of the windshield wipers, and strained as they all sat stiffly in their seats. Ignis squinted into the haze of rain on the horizon, his senses on high alert for any blockades or ambushes as they drew closer.

“We need to stop in Hammerhead and see if we can get at least one burner phone,” she said quietly. “If the Empire has the means to track your phones, none of them will be safe to use again.”

“I don’t believe the Empire was aware of the identities of the Prince’s retinue, so our phones are likely safe. However, it would be prudent to solicit Cid’s advice on the matter,” he replied. As Cid had once been a member of His Majesty’s retinue during his own journey and had a long history with the King, unlike Laura, he would be a trustworthy source for guidance despite his own supposed foreknowledge.

“While getting Cid’s advice is a good idea, it’s actually Cindy you want to talk to about the phones,” she replied. “She’s a mechanic by day, but a hobbyist engineer by night. From the way she talks, that woman could probably cobble together a working phone with a tea kettle and some string.”

Ignis nodded, and Prompto murmured, “I didn’t know that about her.”

The silence took over again for another ten minutes before Laura spoke, “I can’t believe I haven’t thought to ask. Do the three of you have family in the Crown City?”

There was a moment of silence, likely because none of them wanted to think of their losses, but it was Gladio who spoke first. “My father is the King’s Shield. If the King is dead, then so is he. There’s my little sister, though. As soon as we get a phone, I need to find her.”

“My parents live in the Crown City, but I never really see them anymore. I don’t really have any way of knowing whether they made it until we can make some calls,” Prompto said.

Though she already knew much of his history, Ignis replied, “My own parents live on the outskirts of the city, but I haven’t seen them since I was sent away at the age of three to attend school, three years before I met Noct. My uncle worked in the Citadel, however. If the rumors are true, he is likely passed.”

How many years had he worked practically alongside his uncle and not taken more advantage of that familial connection? They’d both had their duties to perform, and even though they tried to schedule a meal together once a week to catch up, one of them would cancel more often than not. His uncle was the only source of updates on his parents as well. It seemed ridiculous now that a mere four-hour drive fighting traffic to the outskirts had kept him away since acquiring his license, but then he had to keep in mind just how all-encompassing, how very all-consuming his duties had been. Until they’d left the city, Ignis had never had what the others referred to as a “day off.” But those few letters he and his mother had shared over the years had still meant the world to him, even if it often took him an entire month to write one in the spare seconds he could find here and there. He vowed to himself that, when his duty was done, he would track them down to learn of their fate.

Laura seemed to know what he was thinking, for she replied to all of them, “I promise you, I’ll help you find them all when this is over.”

Ignis caught her gaze in the rearview mirror and nodded his thanks, though her promise would mean little to him until she had confessed. Gladio and Prompto muttered their half-hearted thanks before it grew silent again. Ignis began to grow more and more concerned for the Prince’s silence in the back seat as the miles flew beneath them.

It wasn’t until they had left Hammerhead with four of Cindy’s doctored SIM cards inserted into their phones that Noct had begun to rant, which, honestly was a relief to Ignis. After Noct had lost his nanny in the marilith attack, the boy had grown sullen and frighteningly silent, completely at odds with the bright, vivacious child Ignis had come to know him as. It had taken years for him to draw Noct out of his shell since that day, and even then, he’d only been partially successful in getting the Prince to feel anything besides depression and apathy. They would all be doomed if he retreated back into that state once again.

“You mustn’t lose faith,” Ignis said emphatically. It was impossible that Laura could know the King didn’t survive. There had to be some small chance that Noct’s father, a man who had been like a father to himself, had managed to make it out of the city alive, even if he was likely the Empire’s primary target.

“Really. Can faith stop a fleet of imperial dreadnoughts?” Noct asked, his voice rising as he gestured to the sky, where, at that moment, yet another dreadnought flew overhead.

“Just give it a rest,” Gladio muttered.

“MY OLD MAN HAD PLENTY OF FAITH,” Noct cried out in a hoarse voice.

Ignis noted Noct’s use of the past tense in his outburst, and he had to take a moment to wrestle down his own grief. If the Prince himself believed the King to be dead—but no, there was still hope. There had to be some hope.

“Don’t be naïve,” Laura said wearily.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Noct countered.

“I mean that your father knew from the moment the Empire brought the treaty forward they were going to use it as a means to infiltrate the city. It was all he could do to get you out and make plans to save as many citizens as he could.”

“What are you talking about?” he demanded. Ignis glanced in the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of their faces, but Laura must have moved, for he could only see one of Noct’s eyes, a hard expression on his face as he stared in Laura’s direction.

“Use your head. Why would Niflheim even offer a treaty when they were slowly wearing Insomnia down? They wanted the Crystal and the Ring for themselves, and what better way to gain access than by being invited directly into the city? And now they have the entire kingdom of Lucis in their grasp, not just the outlands.”

Ignis was shocked to hear her begin this now, with them so close to the city and so very close to fighting whatever they would have to fight to get in. Though he disagreed with her tactics, as well as her surprising lack of tact, he thought it best to keep his silence and listen to this situation play itself out. He himself was gaining new insights into the political situation of his own homeland, and though he’d had his suspicions about this treaty, he wondered why he hadn’t come to these conclusions himself much sooner.

“Why the hell would my father agree to that? Why would he protect me and let his entire kingdom die? What kind of coward was he?”

Ignis heard a shuffling from their direction as Gladio and Prompto yelled out, “Hey!” He slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road and turned to look at the two of them, surreptitiously summoning a dagger in case this was the moment Laura had decided to show her true colors. But as he took in the scene, he saw that she had merely taken the edges of Noct’s jacket into her fists and pulled him close to her blazing eyes.

“Don’t you ever say that about Regis,” she hissed. “Your father was the bravest man I have ever met, and if you ever grow up to become half the man he was, you will be well off indeed.” As she let Noct go, her eyes flicked to Ignis’s, and she nodded subtly at him. Noct, for his part, sat frozen in his seat, staring wide-eyed at Laura.

“It’s all right, Ignis,” she said, gesturing toward the road. He wondered if she had heard the tinkling sound of his summoning over the commotion and hoped the threat of it implied that she didn’t have his complete, unreserved trust just yet. He pressed his foot down on the gas pedal once more, and the Regalia glided smoothly down the rain-soaked road. It wouldn’t be much farther now until their fears were confirmed, but the sight of the Imperial dreadnoughts flying overhead toward the city more than suggested that the reports hadn’t been wrong.

He heard Laura take a deep breath behind him before reciting in a robotic tone, “Regis agreed to it because he had no choice. He knew he had to die, had to find an excuse to get you out of the city, had to sacrifice the lives of his citizens so that you might one day cure the Starscourge and save the remaining population.”

“And how did he know all that? How do you know all this?”

“The Crystal showed us both.”

“The Crystal only communicates with the one with the Ring. Who are you really? What are you? I’m not stupid, you know. There’s so much about you that doesn’t make sense, including whatever went on between you and my dad to make him want to send you with us so suddenly.”

Ignis felt a surge of pride for Noct’s assessment. So many people credited Ignis for being the brains of their operation that they often overlooked the quiet, brooding Prince. There was more going on beneath the surface of those tired sapphire eyes than anyone could know, and it was Ignis’s knowledge of this that made him certain that Noct would succeed in becoming the King of Light.

“Yes,” she said in a low voice, and Ignis noted that even Gladio was nearly completely turned around in the seat to look at her. “I had always planned to do so at some point. I wasn’t trying too hard to hide myself because I wanted you all to know me and trust me. But I was to keep my silence until you were safe.”

It was quiet in the car, with each occupant hanging on to see what her next words would be, but none came.

Noct finally said, “And?”

Ignis heard her scoff. “And we’re about as far from safe as we possibly could be. You’ve all decided that the best course of action is to drive into an invasion in the Crown vehicle dressed in Crownsguard fatigues. All you need is a fracking crown on your head and a royal fanfare to play your entrance. But I’ll abide by your wishes and protect you, even if I think it’s a stupid idea. Just remember what I told you that night in Longwythe. Decide if it’s worth it.”

“Oh yeah,” Noct growled, and even Ignis was surprised at the vehement violence in his tone. He wondered what they were referring to that would evoke such a response. “It’s worth it. But how do we know we can trust you in enemy-occupied territory?”

“Because despite my reservations, I am still going to stand by your side and help you fight your way into whatever mess is awaiting us. And because your father trusted me with your life.”

“Does this mean that your refusal to kill does not extend to MTs, and possibly human Imperial soldiers?” Ignis asked. He’d been trying not to think about what he may have to do in mere minutes, as it could possibly be the first time he would ever have to drive a blade into human flesh. But despite his private reservations, he had no doubts that he could do his duty in retribution for his homeland and King; he’d been allowing the ruthlessness and desire for vengeance to build within him since the moment he’d read that headline in preparation. He wasn’t certain about Laura, however, until she answered.

“Oh yes,” she said, her voice full of venom. “We certainly can’t take back the city, but we’re sure to run into a few soldiers as we get a look. I’ll be there, right beside you all.”

Ignis’s eyes met Gladio’s for a moment. The expression in his whiskey-colored gaze indicated that he was even more suspicious of Laura than Ignis was, which was to be expected, given his role in Noct’s life. He maintained his stiff, turned posture the rest of the drive, intent on leaping into the back seat should Laura prove treasonous. As Ignis approached the Imperial inspection point, crawling with MT armors and soldiers, he prayed to Shiva for the first time in years that they would be able to keep Noct safe through this.

Chapter Text

Even if he lived to be a hundred years old, Ignis would never forget the hour he stood on the edge of that cliff and watched as the only home he’d even known burned. Ash and curling black smoke veiled the once familiar skyline, and the scent of fire and death clouded his brain from even this distance. He stood helpless as fleets of Magitek engines and dreadnoughts flew overhead, and Noct finally received confirmation of their every fear from the Marshal on his mobile.

The King was dead, and judging by the complete destruction of the Wall, any family they had left had either perished or were about to. Lady Iris had very little combat training, and he knew that Prompto’s parents and his own had none to speak of, so they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves from the incoming hordes of daemons when night fell. Ignis could only hope that enough Kingsglaive and Crownsguard survived to protect the people, but with the Marshal having retreated to Hammerhead and Cindy mentioning that many of the Kingsglaive had turned, he tended to doubt it.

Prompto and Gladio paced behind where Noct, Laura, and Ignis stood, dialing and redialing the numbers of their family members. Ignis wished he could call someone, anyone, to check on them, but it turned out that his parents’ number had been disconnected, and the only man who would have the updated information was just as certainly dead as Gladio’s father. His may not have been a family of Shields, but any Scientia in service to the Crown would die for his liege just as surely as an Amicitia; there was no doubt in his mind.

“Got a hold of Iris,” Gladio said in a low voice as he approached them. “She’s with refugees bound for Lestallum.” His voice lowered so that Ignis could barely hear it over the roar of the crafts above them. “Dad didn’t make it, but I already knew that.”

“You have my deepest condolences, Gladio,” he replied, meeting the Shield’s eyes, though his words felt empty. There was nothing that could be said in times such as these.

“Prompto? Have you been able to reach anyone at all?” Laura asked.

She’d been quiet up until this point, likely knowing that her presence was a splinter in the wound of their grief. Still, if she was who she claimed to be, loyal to Lucis, then the guilt must have been tearing at her all day. Something certainly seemed to have summoned a ferocity in her while they engaged the MTs and soldiers, as Ignis had never seen her move that quickly or viciously against an enemy, even when sparring with the Marshal. She had turned gold around the edges as she flashed through the Wall’s old passageways, warp-striking and slashing at men and MTs alike with near reckless abandon. They’d barely needed to use their weapons at all as they jogged after her to the overlook. She’d proven today that, at the very least, she could be trusted with a sword near the Prince, at least in Ignis’s mind.

“No,” Prompto replied his lower lip trembling. “Guess they’re busy with other things.” He let out a half-hearted chuckle and raised his shoulder a little in a shrug. Laura’s expression collapsed to pity as she strode forward and threw her arms around his neck. Ignis certainly couldn’t blame the younger man for returning the embrace, after the events of today.

When they pulled apart, Noct said, “Sorry Prompto, but there’s no point standing around here anymore.” His frosty eyes shifted to Laura as he walked past them. “Now we deal with you.”

As they neared the Regalia, Noct pulled Ignis to the side. “We shouldn’t have this conversation in Hammerhead. The rain’s letting up, so take us to the closest haven, Specs.”

“Will we not be seeing the Marshal today?” Ignis asked. “Intrigued and eager though I am to have this conversation behind us, there’s still work to be done.”

“Probably not. I want this taken care of first,” Noct replied.

“Of course, Highness.” He would’ve liked to have at least made it to Hammerhead that evening to get away from the city, but it was safe enough for them to linger a little while longer. The only good news they had heard on that bloody overlook was that Noct was believed to be dead, so the Empire wouldn’t be searching for him in the closest haven to the city.

As the others set up camp at the wet haven, Ignis turned to his kitchen tables. He was at a loss for serving something that would comfort Noct while simultaneously feeding Laura and satisfying his own nutrition requirements. Finally, he decided that he would cede his own desires and focus on his first two goals, at least for this evening. As he began slicing up potatoes to make dish and chips for them all, he sighed to himself and made a mental note to set aside some time to work on recipes that would meet the entire group’s needs.

As they all got their plates and sat down with their meal, he watched as Laura took a bite of one of her chips. It was difficult to tell, given her distance, but he thought he heard her mutter, “God, these are gorgeous.”

Frustrated with not being certain he could have heard correctly, he couldn’t help but notice the way the chairs were arranged this evening. Instead of placing her chair next to his as she had done every evening they had camped, she had settled across from the four of them as though she were on trial. The four of them sat and waited in stony silence, watching her as she folded her legs in her chair and set the plate of chips in her lap.

After nearly two minutes of heavy and awkward stillness, she spoke, “I don’t even know where to begin. You would think I would after having this conversation so many times in my life, but I never do.”

“Why don’t you start at the beginning? Who are you, Laura? If that’s even your name . . .,” Noct retorted.

Her gaze grew flinty as she replied, “First of all, that’s going to stop right now. I’ll admit to keeping many important details from you, but I have never lied to you. Everything you have seen from me, everything I’ve told you so far, has been the absolute truth.”

Ignis allowed himself a cleansing breath. Her confession could have been far more sinister indeed, and in the moments between wrestling with his grief, he had pondered what it would mean to him if the bright, vivacious woman he’d become so close to in these last two weeks had never existed at all—had been an illusion to trick them all into trusting her.

“So . . .,” Noct pushed her to continue.

She cut him off in a voice that cut through the air like steel, “I’m not human.”

“What does that even mean?” Gladio growled in frustration.

Ignis could only sit back in his chair and stare at her, crossing his legs and resting his plate on his shin. If she wasn’t human . . . then Astral. She had to be an Astral. It made sense; the way she looked seemed otherworldly almost. She’d reminded him of Shiva that first night, with her skin glowing blue in the moonlight. He’d given up days ago attempting to remember where he recognized her from, even though it irritated a man of his impeccable memory. But as the idea struck him, he realized she looked nearly identical to the statuette he had in his apartment of Shiva, one of the few personal items he had indulged in besides a single potted plant and all the cookware and books he had received as gifts over the years.

He hadn’t understood at the time why he’d bought the thing; it was an artist’s interpretation of the goddess in one of her messenger forms, not her divine body itself. But the image of her long, black hair; glowing blue eyes; and sweet, gentle smile had spoken to some deep part of him, reminded him of the image he held in his head as a child when he’d prayed to the goddess, so he’d purchased it. Now, perhaps, he was about to learn that the artist had been more realistic in his interpretation than he’d originally believed.

“So what are you then? A messenger of the gods? An Astral?” Ignis asked, leaning forward.

“No, remember? Queen of Palomia? I mean that I’m not from this planet at all,” she replied in a gentler tone, and his mind seemed to cease functioning at her words. Yes, in his haste to explain her past, he’d completely forgotten about her royal status.

“So you’re like, an alien?” Prompto said in awe.

She winced. “That’s not the word I would prefer, but essentially, yes.” She straightened her back and lifted her head. “My full name is Laurelín Tildari Haránathat Ni’annen, last of the Lliamérian, which was the name of my species.”

“You don’t look old enough to be queen of anyone. You look like you’re about my age,” Noct said.

Laura sighed. “Looks can be deceiving. To be honest, I’ve lost track of how old I am. I’ve spent time on planets where the days last anywhere from five minutes to one hundred years. I could leave now, spend a thousand years on a planet three universes away and two thousand years in your future before returning to you tomorrow morning. I’ve lived years that have been undone so that they’re erased from history for everyone but me. If I were forced to make up an estimate, I would say that I’m somewhere in the region of 7200 years old, give or take a couple hundred years.”

“Dude . . . no way,” Prompto said under his breath.

Ignis sat back in his chair, stunned. He couldn’t even begin to fathom the span of it. How much could a single person learn in seven thousand years? And all that power—for all they’d witnessed her do, Ignis had always gotten the sense that she was holding back, and yet she confessed that the Crystal limited her abilities here. What feats was she capable of on another world? This was more than the confession of being a queen; she was essentially admitting to being a goddess, no different from an Astral, really. The idea made him feel so small and insignificant. To her, he must look like a dim, inexperienced child. My, how the tides have turned, he thought to himself mockingly.

“As I told your father when I first arrived in Lucis, I’m a traveler, just passing through, searching for the universe in which I grew up. While I can usually control where I land if I’ve been there before, I lived in that universe before I learned I had these abilities, so I can’t find it. I’ve been jumping—for thousands of years now, searching for home. There’s often trouble in the places I land, so I help when I can.”

Noct leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “What about what you said earlier? With the Crystal?”

“The moment I landed in Lucis, your Crystal reached out to me, admittedly to set me on fire at first, as it doesn’t seem to care for my energy any more than you first did. But then I saw a vision of your father being betrayed by the Empire at the signing—saw the city burning.”

“I told you,” Noct said in a clipped tone. “The Crystal doesn’t work like that. It only speaks to the king. I don’t think it would even speak to me without the Ring.”

“That’s because you’re not telepathic,” she said simply. “The Crystal is; the Ring merely assists the king with the connection.”

They’d asked for this—asked for her full confession and wanted her to hold nothing back. If she was telepathic, then every moment Ignis had spent with her as he felt and thought things he never had before had been laid bare to an audience without his permission. Even in this very moment, she could possibly be reading his thoughts, and he did his best to shut his mind off. No moment was safe any longer if she was near.

“Someone tell me this isn’t happening,” Prompto pleaded.

Gladio stood up slowly from his chair and stepped closer to her, summoning his greatsword and staring Laura down with deadly eyes. Ignis himself had nearly reached this point, but her actions towards them thus far had been too kind to not allow her the benefit of the doubt until she had finished. Still, he couldn’t shake the thought that she’d played them all for fools.

“Put the sword away, Gladio, please,” she said in a gentle tone. “I’m obviously not here to hurt any of you.”

At her words, Gladio raised his arm, positioning the sword so that the blade lay across her throat, and she stiffened, inhaling deeply, closing her eyes, and gripping the arms of her chair tightly. Without opening her eyes, she said softly, “You’ll have to strike me down unarmed, I’m afraid, because I will not raise a blade against you.”

“Please, don’t do this,” Prompto whimpered.

Whether Gladio had any intentions of striking or not, it was hardly good form to hold a sword’s edge against the throat of an unarmed woman. But just as he was about to say the Shield’s name, Gladio lowered his arm and stepped back, this time closer to Noct. He stood at the ready, his sword gripped at his side, glaring across the fire at Laura, who had opened her eyes and relaxed her posture, letting out a long, shaky breath.

Noct’s voice was surprisingly calm when he spoke, but Ignis could still hear the anger in it. “So you’ve what? Been spying on our thoughts this whole time? Manipulating us?”

Ignis had read the odd science fiction book to Noct in his youth and was aware that, at least in the realms of fiction, there were several types of telepathy. Perhaps she didn’t have access to their thoughts at every moment. A pernicious idea wormed into his imagination, and though he was loath to poison what were once the happiest nights of his life, he had to know the truth.

“Was that your true motivation for wanting to touch us? To gain access to our thoughts?”

She huffed angrily at them, but as she turned her eyes toward Ignis, they died a little the same way they had when he’d referred to her by her title. “You see? This is why I don’t tell people. I began this conversation stating that all that you have known of me has been the truth. Setting aside the fact that I am not the sort of person to do such a thing, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. The moment I touch your mind, you know. There are no sneak attacks. Of course, I could break into your mind and take what I wanted, but believe me, you would be well aware of what I was doing the entire time.”

Gladio looked over at Noct, likely to see if this were an acceptable explanation. When Noct nodded, Gladio dismissed his sword and sat back down in his camp chair, but he still sat stiffly, ready to jump to his liege’s defense at the potential threat in front of them.

“And let me remind you,” she continued, “you were the ones who offered, so the accusations of manipulation are quite unfair. I will tell you, though, that I do possess a sort of passive telepathy, which allows me to locate you if you’re nearby and tell the general state of your mood, but I swear to you, it tells me no more than I can tell myself from looking into your eyes.”

It relieved him to hear that he was able to think freely within the confines of his own head again—that she hadn’t been spying on his every thought as he grappled with his darkest weaknesses. There was still a possibility that she could be lying to them, but Ignis was beginning to doubt it. The moments in which she seemed to know so much about them weren’t so insightful that they could only be attributed to the supernatural, and with her knowledge she’d done nothing more than to give them exactly what they needed to feel good about themselves.

“After the vision, I needed to gain context for what I saw, so I did some research at the palace and the library. We saw each other there, Ignis,” she nodded at him.

“Afterward, I had to sneak into the Citadel to warn Regis, as my vision showed that several of his own had turned on him, and I didn’t want to alert the palace guards until I was in front of him. It turned out that he already knew, and had for some time, but neither of us could change his fate. We couldn’t tell a soul or make any plans that would clue the enemy in to our foreknowledge, or we would lose the chance to save anyone.”

Ignis shook his head. “There’s an issue with your story. If you met the King on the day we met in the throne room, as you’re implying, then it’s impossible for you to have gained his trust so thoroughly when he knew he was on the brink of war. You could have been an enemy spy, for all he knew.”

“Ignis,” she sighed. “Did you honestly believe a man as intelligent as Regis would just have me wave some swords around and send me on my merry way with the greatest hope for the world into enemy occupied territory? I allowed him to use the Ring and the Crystal to search my mind, to determine my loyalties, so that he would know that I would do whatever he asked. What he asked was for me protect his son and his friends.”

“See, but that doesn’t make sense either. Why would you do that?” Noct asked.

“Because your father was a good man. For all the pains he took and for how good he was to his people, he didn’t deserve his fate.”

“That’s not enough. I mean you. Why would you protect us? This isn’t your world. Hell, this isn’t your universe.”

A shadow passed over her eyes as she considered her next words, and her gaze seemed so far away. Her tone was wistful as she replied quietly, “I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.”

There were no words for several moments as the campfire continued to crackle merrily in defiance of the weight of emotions surrounding it, and it must have just grown dark enough, for in the distance, Ignis heard a daemon cut through the skin of the world and bleed into existence.

“He wasn’t alone, in the end,” she whispered, tears forming in her eyes. “That telepathic connection with the Crystal alerted me when it—when it happened. I was able to hold him as he . . . passed. I brought him to where we were in Galdin Quay, and he was able to say goodbye to you.”

Ignis recalled the moment she had awakened this morning, pale as death, gasping for air, and her eyes wet with grief. He glanced over at Noct to gauge his reaction to this news and saw that the Prince had placed his fingertips against his forehead in a peculiar manner, his eyes wide and shimmering.

“I remember. Last night, I dreamed of him. He . . . touched my face.”

She nodded at him. “He might not have said it, but he loved you dearly, Noctis. He wanted me to tell you how proud of you he was, and that he was sorry he never got the chance to tell you himself. Everything he did, including distancing himself from you, was borne as a result of his overwhelming love for you. He wanted so much to tell you everything that day we left, but he couldn’t find the words.”

He shook his head roughly as though to clear it of emotion. Noct’s voice was hard again as he said, “Are there any other secrets you’re keeping from us?”

She leaned forward and shook her head, scoffing, “Noct, I just told you that I am seven thousand years old. Of course I have secrets that would likely upset you just as much as tonight if you knew I had them. And I hate being that person, because I’ve been on the other side of this equation before, but you need to trust that I will tell you everything you need to know when you need to know it. I am sorry, but there’s just too much of me to share all of, especially in one night.”

Noct hung his head to stare at the rough stone of the haven floor. After a moment, he stood and glared at her, his jaw clenched. “Fine. I’m done. You guys coming?” he asked the three of them. Gladio and Prompto nodded, standing.

“I should like to clean up first, but I’ll be along shortly,” Ignis said.

He watched her in silence as the others settled in the tent before he stood to walk across to where she was seated. Her chair was farther from the fire than theirs were, and he shivered a little in his jacket at the sudden drop in temperature.

“Please allow me to take your plate,” he said softly.

“Please, tell me what you’re feeling right now.”

He gaped at her, unable fathom why his mortal opinion should be of any importance to her. “I’m not sure what to feel. I think I believe your story, if that’s what you’re asking.” He paused for a moment before continuing in a harsher tone. “Besides, can’t you tell for yourself?”

Laura shook her head, choosing not to rise to his bait. “I can see your mental ‘facial expressions’ now; you’re all feeling betrayed and grieving, but that’s no more information than anyone else could tell, really. Anything deeper, and I would have to be inside your mind.”

At her words, he allowed himself a moment to imagine what that would feel like, with his permission—her kindness settling in his brain and filling up that yawning hole inside him—but he had no true context for contemplating it. Perhaps one of these days, when he was less raw, he would ask her.

She looked down at the rune-marked floor, and her voice grew soft. “After everything that’s happened today, you all have to sit here and deal with my baggage. I’m so sorry.”

“Well, you certainly provided us with a distraction—Y—” When he had almost added her title automatically to the end of his sentence, he remembered that her status had been elevated far beyond that of a monarch. “Your Majesty,” he said before he let out a breath on a bitter chuckle. “That’s not even your title, is it? How does one refer to a goddess on your world?”

“Thank gods you don’t have an honorific for it,” she said in a bleak voice, still looking at the stone at his feet. “I don’t think I could bear to hear you utter it.” She looked up at him, and her eyes were large and distraught. “I’m not a goddess, Ignis. I’m just a woman, subject to the same feelings and wishes you are. I’m still the same person I was in Galdin, begging you to call me Laura.”

Placing her feet on the floor, she stood from her chair and gave him her plate. She sighed before saying, “I’ll leave you to your thoughts, for now. But I have some things to say to you, things Regis wanted me to say to you, specifically. Come and find me when you’re ready to hear them.” With that, she turned and headed toward the lower levels on the edge of the haven.

As he rushed through the dishes in an effort to carve out some time to hear the King’s final commands to him, he tried to shake off the implications of the words he heard issuing from the tent.

“If she’s not human, does that mean she can’t feel basic things like we can? Can she even feel pain, love, loss?”

“We can’t assume anything anymore.”

“What if she’s faking it? We should leave her behind while we still can.”

“What if she really is reading our minds, and she’s just lying to us about it?”

“What if she’s the one responsible for all of this?”

Ignis himself had experienced every one of these thoughts in some form, so he couldn’t fault the others for voicing them aloud. But he had already made his decisions about her, and they were missing key clues that would affect their decision considerably. They needed to keep her, not just for her wondrous revelations and all she could teach them, but also for Noct’s increased safety and the success of their mission—now more than ever. As he dried and dismissed each dish, he gazed up at the stars and organized his thoughts in preparation.

The glittering sky reminded him of that night—the first, and one of the last, nights that he had believed he had a chance with her. Now . . . well, now he may as well attempt to court Shiva herself. It didn’t matter to him that she wasn’t human, even that she had kept all of this a secret, as she was under orders from the King at the time. The issue was her godhood. He felt so very small in comparison to all she’d seen and all she could do, and no matter what he accomplished in his life, he would never be deserving of even thinking of being with her in such a manner.

When he’d finished with his work and found her, she was perched on one of the lowers levels of the haven, her feet dangling off the edge and her bare toes brushing the dirt. As he drew closer, he could hear her sweet, mellifluous voice singing softly, and he stopped for a moment as he watched a silver stream of light trickling from her hand and landing at her feet. Curious, he took a few steps closer to see what sort of magic she would be sacrificing her energy for at this time of night.

At the sound of his footsteps, her voice halted, and the glow faded as she looked up at him. Ignis moved past her and leaned over the edge to find the focus of her magic, and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the tender green tendrils of a sapling reaching up in the moonlight, stretching for her knees like a devoted pet.

A single blossom unfurled before his very eyes, white, luminous, and delicate in the bright moonlight, with what seemed to be a hundred ruffled petals arranged in a circle like the tulle skirt of a ballerina. Ever so carefully, he reached out and brushed the edges of the velvet petals with his fingertips, grateful he hadn’t put his gloves back on after doing the dishes. As the little tree shivered at his touch, that floral scent that had assaulted his senses so many times since meeting her wafted towards him.

“It’s called a kithairon,” she said when he’d turned his awed gaze toward her. “They were one of my favorite flowers where I was born. It’s for Regis.”

She had looked exhausted after her battle today, but she looked downright unhealthy as she said this to him. He chastised himself for not taking better care of her diet, but it was still unwise of her to be wasting her precious resources on something as trivial as grief; he would know from personal experience, as he’d been holding it back all day. For a seven-thousand-year-old goddess, he would have thought she would know better.

“We’re all in mourning right now, and I understand your desire to memorialize him, but I don’t think he would appreciate you wasting your precious resources on gardening for his sake.” 

Of course, she didn’t react as he’d expected, as she met his response with irritation. She slapped the stone at her side, glaring at him. “You think me some sort of supernatural assassin; star-crossed queen; or, gods forbid, a fracking goddess. But that’s not who I am, Ignis. I despise those images of myself. This,” she pointed violently at the blossom, “this is what I am. This was who my people were. I’m a poor testament to their legacy, I admit, but those two hundred years I spent singing and growing and studying were some of the best years of my life.”

He stood and watched her in silence, unable to think of anything to say to soothe her ire, but it seemed to die on its own after a moment as she looked back down at the fledgling tree, so vulnerable and alone in the dry, cracked soil. He wondered if it would even be able to flourish in this harsh environment, as lush as it looked.

“I sang a house once, did you know?” she said in a subdued voice, laced with wistfulness.

He hadn’t known, of course. And he couldn’t fathom exactly how one “sang a house,” but he imagined it had involved something similar to what she had just been doing to that tree.

“I brought a redwood seed from Earth and crossbred it with one of our Arkhein trees from Lliaméra. I scouted the spot, deep in the Palomian forest, next to a lake surrounded by kithairon trees. For two hundred years, I studied and poured myself into that house.

“Gods, you should have seen him—intricate carvings in dark wood, walls lined with shelves bursting with books, enduringly peaceful. His upper floors broke through the forest canopy and overlooked the lake. You could stand outside in the afternoons and touch the quiet in the air. In the fall, the leaves would set the forest afire with a mosaic of color that would reflect in the pool of water, coloring the light that came inside the most breathtaking gold. In the spring, the kithairon trees would bloom and turn the entire shoreline pink, white, and crimson, and the cool breeze would waft their scent right inside. Their petals would fall from the branches like rain, and I would dance in them, bathing myself in their scent. It was times like that I knew, for just a moment, that I was exactly where I belonged.”

Her description of her home sounded like paradise to Ignis, which seemed appropriate, given her status. Still, he wished with all his heart that he could have seen such a stunning sight.

She stood and turned to face him. “That, Ignis Scientia, is who I am. This,” she gestured to the little tree at her feet, “is who I am. Let me have it, if only for a moment.”

He could only nod in response, stunned as he was any time she gave them insight into her past.

She shook her head sadly. “We’ve discussed me more than enough for today. Did you come to hear Regis’s message to you?”

Ignis closed his eyes for a moment and nodded, praying that whatever his King’s final commands were, he would be able to see them out successfully. He already feared he’d failed too many times when it came to his promise that he would always watch over Noct and couldn’t bear the thought of letting him down further.

A warm hand inserted itself into his cold one, the fingers entwining with his, and he opened his eyes to see her gazing at him.

“There were many things he regretted not saying in his life before it was too late, but there were only two people in the world he wanted me to pass a message on to. Ignis, he thought you were the most intelligent, dedicated young man he’d ever met, and he wanted me to thank you personally for looking after Noct so lovingly when he couldn’t. You became more than he could have ever hoped to find in an advisor, and as he watched the two of you grow up together from afar, he came to see you as a second son. He loved you too, Ignis, very much, and he was so very proud of you.”

Though he clung to every syllable that issued from her mouth, he couldn’t continue to hold her gaze as she spoke. This wasn’t a command at all—wasn’t at all what he was expecting. He raised his eyes to the sky, hoping that gravity would keep the tears that were welling in his eyes from falling as he began to retreat from his day-long battle with his anguish.

“I can see you all smothering your grief,” he heard her say. “And while the ability is necessary because it allows you to do what needs to be done, you all need to take a moment, even if it’s only just a moment, to feel it. It’ll tear you apart in the end, if you don’t, believe me. You won’t like who you become.”

She released his hand in that moment, and he tried to grasp after it while still looking up at the peaceful sky. But then the top of her head came into his view, and he felt her arms wrap around his shoulders, her hands resting at the base of his neck and in his hair. He shivered at the sensation—and at that of her warm breath hitting the cool skin of his neck just beneath his collar—and he finally let go, bringing his arms around her body, fisting his fingers in the soft strands that hung at her back, and gripping her as tightly as he could without hurting her as he pressed his face against her sweet-smelling hair.

Oh gods, it was gone—all of it. The only home he’d ever known, most of the people he’d ever met—gone. Everything he had prepared for—the diplomacy, the briefings, the endless nights spent studying everything Noct would need as King—all his devotion focused on preparing for a future that no longer existed had been rendered meaningless. It was all washed away, leaving him with what little family he had left alone in the wilderness with nothing but their steel to protect them—and her.

And His Majesty—of course he would never presume himself a member of the royal family, but his heart ached knowing that the man had felt the same as he and that he would never again hear him refer to him as “my boy.” He’d been so kind to him his entire life, and even if his fond regards had made life in court more difficult for him, Ignis had no regrets. He loved the man as deeply as he did his son, so he would continue to protect Noct with his life as testament to his fealty.

He pulled back from her, removing his glasses so he could wipe away the two tears that had managed to escape despite his best efforts. Placing them back on his face, he raised his eyes to the sky one more time to take a deep, shuddering breath, filling his lungs to the brim with fresh night air.

“Forgive me,” he said, finally daring to look down at her, but her expression was fathomless. She placed a gentle hand over his heart before speaking.

“Don’t ever ask forgiveness for feeling, Ignis, especially with me.” She pressed down on his chest. “This, right here, is why I’m here—for all of you.”

Ignis was reminded yet again that this treatment, no matter how it made him feel, didn’t make him special. She was tending her sworn flock, and he was merely her charge—at the very, very most, a friend. And now that she had done her duty, it was time he did his. She seemed to notice his change in expression, because she stepped back from him suddenly, dropping her hand.

“Go on, then,” she said gently, nodding her head toward the tent. “You need to be there to stand beside him, even if that means denouncing me. I’ll understand.”

He nodded. “Thank you. And goodnight,” he said before bowing his head and turning away.

When he entered the tent and settled into his usual spot, he took a moment to note how much room there was in the larger space without her ensconced between him and Prompto. He knew she wouldn’t be joining them tonight, and, after the conversation the others had been having this evening, he wondered if she ever would. That, at least, was partially in his hands.

“Well, Specs,” Noct said. “I’m sure you could hear our discussion. I bet you’ve got your response already thought out. Let’s have it.”

Ignis took a deep breath. This is who he was—the logician, the strategist, the advisor. He suppressed every emotion that had built up over his time knowing Laura and spoke from his mind only.

“When one is bereft of trust in another person, one must rely on a their character alone to judge them, rather than speculation, opinion, or emotion. Stripping away every interaction we’ve had with her to the mere facts, we can see her heart all too clearly in her actions.

“She fights the darkness and defends the light, placing herself between absolute evil and the defenseless. She lends a hand to those in need, whether for mundane or extraordinary tasks, and sees the value in those individuals that others, including myself, often overlook. She respects life, perhaps a little too much in my personal opinion, but that’s irrelevant for the moment.

“She brought enormous comfort to our King in his final moments, a favor for which I will forever be most grateful. Not to mention, she could have let us all die in Longwythe. If our demise is her goal, she has done a most poor job of it.

“She has even, likely knowing full well what you all have been discussing this evening, sent me back to your side to offer my support of whatever your decision may be. 

“She does all this despite great pain and sacrifice to her person, and I cannot deny the valor of her actions. Besides,” he lifted the corner of his mouth in a small smile, “I have a feeling she would just follow behind us regardless. She made a vow to the King that she would see you through this, and I don’t imagine she would simply cast it aside just because you told her to.

“Given all this, I shall, of course, Your Highness, defer to your decision, whatever that may be.”

“Umm, wow,” Prompto whispered, and Gladio grunted, though Ignis couldn’t tell whether it was in agreement or disbelief.

It seemed an eternity before Noct finally spoke, “Well, hell, Specs. How could I do anything but keep her with us after all that?”

“My apologies, Highness. It wasn’t my intention to manipulate your decision, but I felt that someone should defend her if she couldn’t be here to speak for herself.”

Noct’s expression softened into a smile. “You’re a good friend. No matter where I am, Iggy, I hope I’ll always have you by my side.”

Ignis suspected that Noct hadn’t disclosed the full contents of his and Laura’s conversation in Longwythe, as his more expressive behavior of late couldn’t be explained by the story he’d told them. But as the shadow of that lively, loving child shone through his eyes, despite the agony of today, Ignis could only return the sentiment.

“To hell and back again, Noct, there is nowhere else I would ever be.”

Chapter Text

When Prompto opened his eyes the next morning after hearing Iggy, then Gladio get up and leave, he was almost surprised that there even was a next morning to open his eyes to. After everything that happened the day before, it sure felt like the rest of the world should have ended too, right? And then all that stuff with Laura—it was all just insane. The world had gone insane.

He hadn’t slept a minute the night before, instead letting all the crap that had happened roll over and over in his brain like clothes in a dryer. His home was gone, along with every place he used to love going: his room with its carefully collected comic books, videogames, and random half-done mechanical projects; everything he’d ever taken a photo of, as well as all his photos; the shooting range that was three blocks down from where he’d taken his Crownsguard self-defense training; the arcade where he and Noct would hang out and let the hours pass by in a blur of color and sound . . ..

It was at that point that he would realize that he’d stopped thinking about them again, and what kind of selfish bastard was he for not thinking of them first? His parents had hardly been in his life since he was adopted, and even though it wasn’t their fault, he’d spent most of his life alone until he’d finally introduced himself to Noct. Actually, being out on the road like this with the four of them had been the closest Prompto had ever come to the concept of a family, even if he did always feel like the youngest, least useful brother of the bunch. And now, with his parents probably dead, the four of them were all he had left.

Which was why he didn’t care that Laura was an alien. Sure, he’d freaked out at first like the rest of them, but as the night wore on and the topic went for another spin in his head, he realized she was no different from him, really. She was a stranger walking a strange land with no one to turn to but the four of them. She didn’t belong. She was one of “the bad guys,” even if she wasn’t. It did kinda suck that she was yet another powerful and royal friend of his, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

When the heat from the sunrise started turning the tent into a pizza oven, he rolled himself outside, leaving Noct alone. Iggy was at the camp stove as usual, looking perfectly put together as though the world hadn’t fallen apart. As he flipped a fried egg over with a little frown of concentration before reaching over to the table to take a swig of coffee, Prompto wondered how the hell the guy always did it. Insomnia had been his only home too; why wasn’t he more of a mess? It must’ve been the training. Besides being mad at Laura, Gladio had been pretty stoic about losing his home and family too.

Prompto plastered a smile on his face before skipping up behind the chef and leaning over the table.

“Morning Iggy!” he said brightly. “Whatcha got cookin’?”

“I thought croque madame would be appropriate this morning,” he said in a low voice. “And do keep your voice down, if you please. Laura is still asleep.” He nodded over to the campfire, where a lump of that hideous brown blanket lay.

Prompto raised his eyebrows in surprise. “She okay? She never seems to sleep unless she’s used magic.”

Ignis pursed his lips, but he didn’t look up from the stove. “I believe she was involved in more than one reckless enterprise yesterday. Best let her sleep until we’re ready to leave.”

When Gladio returned from his morning exercises and Noct finally crawled out of the tent with bleary, heavy eyes, they all sat down around the fire in silence and ate, awkwardly trying not to look at the unconscious pile of what looked like garula skin in front of them. It wasn’t until they’d all finished eating and were beginning to pack up that Iggy finally decided to wake her, crouching to hand her a plate of eggs and toast to eat while they finished packing the site. She sat up shakily, thanked Iggy, and ate her breakfast as they prepared to get on the road to Hammerhead.

A trip to Hammerhead didn’t end up connecting them with Cor as they’d hoped, but they did finally get a hold of Cid, who also acted like he knew the whole time that something was wrong with the treaty. When he mentioned that the King had seen this coming from a mile away, Prompto wondered if they were the only ones who felt like the ground had been yanked from underneath their feet. Seemed like everyone but the four of them knew.

But it was good to have someone else confirm Laura’s story. Prompto got the feeling that Iggy had forgiven her at least, especially after that speech last night. But Noct still seemed wary of her, and Gladio was still pissed—kept glaring at her from the side of his eye from the haven all the way to Hammerhead. Prompto wanted to show his support like Iggy had, but he didn’t want Noct, or especially Gladio, getting mad at him, so he kept quiet. Besides, it wasn’t like he was in a position to defend someone the others felt didn’t belong.

After they’d finished talking to Cid, they all got back in the Regalia to find Cor up at the Prairie Outpost. About half an hour into the drive, Laura leaned forward and placed a hand on Iggy’s elbow.

“Are you all right to drive? I do know how to drive if you’re tired.”

Prompto thought that was a little extreme. Yeah, they’d all slept like crap the night before, and he himself was about to fall asleep against the window—Noct was about halfway unconscious already; but Iggy and Gladio seemed to be holding up just fine. It just had to be all that Crownsguard training, because those two were invincible.

“I’m quite all right, thank you,” Iggy replied politely, but there was an edge to his voice that made Prompto wonder.

Laura sat back in her seat. “Stubborn jackass,” she muttered under her breath, and Prompto’s eyes widened as even Noct smirked without opening his eyes or lifting his head from the window. With the whispery roaring sound her magic made now that she’d aligned, or whatever, she summoned a can of Ebony, popped it open, and leaned forward again to hand it to him.

“At least drink this then, you frustrating creature,” she grumbled.

I’m frustrating?” Iggy replied, taking the can from her. “I’m not the one who—this is hot.”

“What?”

“This Ebony,” he paused as he took a sip. “It’s hot.”

Laura sat back in the seat again, shaking her head. “Of course it’s hot. Why would I give you a room temperature can of coffee when I know you prefer it hot?”

“Do you guys mind? Trying to sleep over here,” Noct mumbled.

After they apologized, it fell silent, and Prompto leaned his head back against the window. Laura didn’t use their armiger much, mainly for her clothes and camping supplies, so maybe she didn’t know that theirs would only summon things at room temperature, even if you’d put it in hot or cold. He bet that as soon as they got to the outpost and were allowed to talk again, she and Iggy were gonna have some long, in-depth discussion about the science behind pocket universes.

When they reached the outpost, Noct put his foot down and insisted they stay in the camper instead of the nearby haven, and Iggy seemed to relent without much of a fight. It looked like Prompto was gonna get his favorite dish tonight, because Iggy summoned a bowl, filled it with beans and water, and left it on the counter to soak while they were out looking for Cor. As they were getting ready to walk through the main street of the outpost to ask around for the Marshal’s location, Laura stopped them.

“You guys are just going to look for Cor, right? Nothing else?”

“Yeah,” Noct said, narrowing his eyes at her. “Why?”

She looked down at the dusty ground and bit her lip for a second before replying. “I’m not . . . well today,” she said as she grimaced. “I know Cor wasn’t one of the ones who turned, and if you’re just meeting him here, it should be safe enough for me to stay behind.”

“You sure it’s that? Sure there isn’t some other reason you don’t wanna see him?” Gladio growled, clenching his fists at his sides.

“Gladio,” Iggy said sharply. “Enough.”

“No, I wanna hear this too,” Noct said, but his tone wasn’t as aggressive as Gladio’s had been.

Laura pursed her lips before replying. “I have full confidence Cor will back me up just as much as Regis would have, so go ahead and ask him yourself.”

“Are you gonna be okay?” Prompto asked. He’d never known her to not come along with them, even when she had no intention of hunting the animals.

“It was that tree, wasn’t it?” Iggy asked.

Prompto didn’t know what he was talking about, but Laura seemed to because she shook her head. “It wasn’t the tree. It was a subtle spell that let me do what I needed to do yesterday at the Wall. Turns out some types of magic are worse than others to use on this world.”

Prompto thought back to when they’d fought their way through the Wall to get to the overlook. He’d thought at the time that she was moving way faster than a person should be able to, almost like she was constantly warp-striking in a blur of gold. He’d had trouble keeping track of where she was at any given moment and would have to follow the golden trails of mist just to find her. He’d thought she looked worn out when she’d finished, but then their world fell apart and he’d forgotten about it.

“I’ll be fine—just need some more sleep,” she said with a soft look at Prompto. “Just come and wake me if you’re leaving the outpost, okay?”

“Yeah,” Noct grunted and turned to leave. 

It wasn’t difficult finding Monica; it wasn’t like there were a lot of buildings to search in the area. But talking to her didn’t exactly put their minds at ease about what the city was like inside. When she said that most of the Crownsguard didn’t make it, Prompto couldn’t help but look at Gladio and Iggy. Would they have died in the invasion? As amazing as they were, probably. Even if it was selfish of him to think, he was glad that they hadn’t been in the city when it happened, or he would’ve lost them too.

When Monica told them to meet with Cor up at the Tomb of the Wise, and Noct immediately marched for the gate that led to the path that would take them there, Prompto thought it might be a good idea to say something.

“Uh, shouldn’t we go back and get Laura before we head up to the tomb?” he asked hesitantly. “She told us to wake her if we left.”

“No,” Noct said, shaking his head as he quickened his pace to a loping jog. Prompto sped up to stay alongside him. “We still got the four of us. This shouldn’t take long.”

It was a long, winding, uphill run along the dusty path. Prompto was kinda getting sick of all the dirt and red-brown dust sticking to the sweat that always seemed to settle on his skin like a gritty, unwelcomed blanket. Leide was a huge change from Insomnia, but he was ready to move on to somewhere else—if they couldn’t go back home. He wondered what they were gonna do after this.

“Can’t keep up with this guy,” Gladio muttered.

“First, the Crown City. Then Hammerhead? Then the Royal Tomb?” Prompto replied, drawing a three-pointed line in the air in front of him. How many places were they gonna have track this guy down to?

“His nickname should have been Cor the Restless,” Iggy muttered.

“Yeah, somehow not as catchy as Cor the Immortal,” Gladio said.

“And making it out of Insomnia only adds to his legend,” Prompto said in awe. If most of the Crownsguard hadn’t made it out alive, then Cor must have been an incredible warrior to manage it. He’d seen him several times around the sparring areas, but since Prompto was only there for self-defense training, he’d never gotten the chance to see him actually fight. Iggy and Gladio had sparred with him though, and they’d both said the guy was like a real-life hero. Well, Gladio had done a play-by-play of all their matches and Iggy had detailed the “tactical brilliance” of the guy, anyway.

The path had thankfully transformed from dirt to rock, but the incline got steeper as they turned off a fork in the path toward the left. High rock ledges stretched above them from either side, making Prompto feel a little claustrophobic. If something attacked them here, there wouldn’t be a lot of room, and there were only two ways to escape. His fingertips twitched a little as they jogged, but he tried to shake the feeling from his mind and concentrate.

“Well, fortune favors the bold,” Noct said with a shrug.

Iggy pulled up alongside the both of them and raised an eyebrow. “The wise make their own luck,” he said.

Noct was about to reply, probably with some kinda smartass remark, but Iggy slapped a hand to his back and pushed him to the ground right as a set of claws closed over where Noct’s head had been seconds before.

“Prompto, look out!” Iggy called up from the ground.

“I gotcha, buddy,” Prompto said as he summoned his pistols, alternating shots left and right at the bird’s white breast. Damnit, he knew as soon as they’d started running up this trench this would happen.

“They’re daggerquills,” Iggy said, standing as the rest of them summoned their weapons. “Weakest to daggers, firearms, and fire. Highness, you may want to switch your weapon.”

Ignis flung a hand over his shoulder, summoning a dagger to his fingers by the tip, and hurled it at the bird Prompto wasn’t currently shooting, his body carrying him through his forward momentum with a couple of bounces on one foot. As soon as the blade was buried to the hilt in the creature’s ribs, Iggy held out a hand, summoning his dagger back to his palm. Prompto never could figure out how Iggy always managed to summon from a distance like that. Even Gladio could only summon and dismiss if he was touching the weapon, but Iggy was always better at magic than anyone but Noct.

“Ignis!” Noct called out.

“On your mark, Noct,” Iggy replied flinging a dagger at each bird with a practiced and almost cocky air, and Prompto had to stop shooting his daggerquill for a second while Noct warp-struck them both with a thunderous whoosh-clang, burying his own daggers between their ribs. The daggerquill Prompto hadn’t been working on fell to the ground, where Gladio raised his massive sword above his head and struck with all his strength, killing it immediately.

Eager to make his own kill and prove himself, Prompto summoned a fire spell and hurled it up at his bird. The flask hit its mark and shattered against the daggerquill’s neck, frying the creature in midair. It landed at his feet with a kinda sickening, sizzling thud.

“Heh, would you look at that, Iggy? You don’t even have to cook it,” Gladio chuckled as he came up from behind Prompto, clapping him on the back.

Iggy stopped at his other side, placing a gloved finger to his lips as he tilted his head and stared down at Prompto’s kill. “Yes, well done, Prompto. A little too well done, in fact. Looks as though we won’t be able to harvest from this one. But there’s plenty of meat on the other one, so that’s quite all right.”

They harvested the vibrant blue and gold plumage, as well as the meat, from the other bird before finally cresting the hill. Prompto slowed as they passed between two enormous stone pillars, craning his neck as far as he could to see the tops.

“Whoa,” he breathed, pulling out his camera to take a shot of Noct dwarfed by the colossal masonry.

Noct shook his head. “Come on, Prom,” he said, turning and following Iggy and Gladio up the stone steps to the three-quarter-dome shaped tomb. The building was adorned with onyx ribbing that rose to the sky in three sharp points, and over the door to the tomb, a sentinel statue in long flowing robes stood watch. As Noct pushed open the ornately carved door, Prompto snapped photos of the three of them, framing the shots so that the most interesting parts of the architecture would be in the background.

Though the architecture inside was just as amazing, Prompto took only one shot of Cor standing next to the effigy of the Wise King before putting his camera away. He didn’t wanna look like he wasn’t taking this seriously in front of Cor, of all people.

“Wanna tell me what I’m here for?” Noct muttered bitterly.

Cor ignored Noct’s tone and held his hand out over the statue of the Wise King lying in front of him. “The Power of Kings—passed from the old to the new through the bonding of souls . . .. One such soul lies before you. To claim your forebears’ power is your birthright and duty as King.”

“My duty as King of what?”

Prompto was shocked by the defeat in Noct’s tone, and he noticed that even Gladio’s and Iggy’s heads snapped to the back of his head, shaken by his words. Iggy especially seemed disturbed, his eyebrows raising and his lips falling open to reveal clenched teeth as he took a step toward Noct. Prompto knew that Noct had been having a hard time since hearing about his father’s death. But he’d been distracted dealing with Laura, and now that things had mostly calmed down with her, Prompto knew his break would be coming soon. He just didn’t expect it to be in front of Cor and everyone else.

Cor was starting to get frustrated with Noct’s attitude. His voice grew deeper as he stepped toward Noct, and Prompto took a step back nervously. “How long will you remain the Protected? The King entrusted the role of Protector to you.”

Entrusted it to me?” Noct said, standing stiffly with his fists clenched. “Then why didn’t he tell me that? Why did he stand there smiling as I left?!” he roared hoarsely as he slapped a hand down on the sarcophagus, gripping the gilded edge tightly. “Why—” he took in a deep, shuddering breath, and for a moment, Prompto thought he was actually gonna cry right there in front of all of them.

Noct seemed to compose himself as he brought his other hand to the edge and looked down at the floor. Prompto, though, couldn’t stand to see this. He turned away and hung his head, fighting the burn in his eyes as he listened to his friend grieve.

“Why did he lie to me?” Noct whispered in anguish.

“That day, he didn’t want you to remember him as the King. In what time you had left, he wanted to be your father. He always had faith in you that when the time came, you would ascend for the sake of your people.”

Before Cor had finished speaking, Prompto heard it—the tiny gasps and hitching breaths of his friend’s mourning. He couldn’t help it; he had to turn around and make sure he’d heard right. He couldn’t see Noct’s expression from where he stood, but he could see the shaking. Gods, what a nightmare. How could this have happened? And now they were expected to just . . . move on and do what, exactly? Hopefully, Cor or Iggy had a plan for them.

“Guess he left me no choice,” Noct said, standing straight, his eyes shimmering, but hard. He held his hand out over the King’s statue, and the Sword of the Wise glowed with a brilliant blue light, so bright that they all had to shield their eyes for a second. It raised high into the air before plunging itself into Noct’s chest and disappearing, but a shadow of the sword seemed to circle Noct a couple of times before that too, disappeared. To Prompto, it almost looked like it hurt when the sword had pierced his friend, as Noct stood clutching a fist to his chest, his expression still hard.

“What would be the best course of action now, Marshal?” Ignis asked. “We must come up with a plan.”

“Calm and collected as ever, I see,” Cor said, shaking his head with a curl at the corner of his lips. He turned to Noct. “That’s not the only power your forbears left you. Your journey’s just begun. Another tomb is close by. I suggest you head there next,” Cor said. His eyes drifted to the three of them before he asked, “Where’s the girl?”

“We left her at the outpost. She wasn’t feeling well,” Noct said, staring down at the statue in front of him.

Cor narrowed his eyes before he spoke. “Go back and get the girl before you come back to Keycatrich. You’re going to need her help for this. Your father assigned her to protect you so I could be free to protect the people. Let her do her job.”

“Did you know that she knew too? Did everyone but us know?” Noct shot back, looking up with a snarl on his face.

“The signs were there. Those of us paying attention felt something coming. But no one knew, save the King and Clarus,” Cor said, nodding at Gladio. “From a tactical standpoint, Laura would need to know as well in order to do her duty.”

“Do you even know what she is?” Noct asked.

Cor shook his head. “She’s wrong, I know. I felt it when I fought her and told the King, but he already knew. Your father trusted her with your life. Don’t leave her behind again.”

“Right,” Noct said on a sigh before nodding and turning to leave the tomb.

Prompto wasn’t sure if he was supposed to bow or what, so he glanced over to see what Iggy and Gladio did, which was pretty much zero help. Iggy, of course, stood stiffly and bowed nearly in half before straightening and turning sharply on his heel and striding out. Gladio nodded once at the man before turning to catch up with Noct.

“Uh . . . t—thanks,” Prompto said, sort of nodding and half-bowing at the same time before jogging to catch up with the rest of the group.

They took their time getting back to the camper, engaging anything they passed so Noct could work out his frustrations—except for the coeurl, which Iggy recommended they steer far, far away from. By the time they made it back to the outpost, it was late afternoon, and Iggy was itching to get dinner started.

“After all, it takes quite a while to cook the beans down,” he said.

“Does that mean we’re gonna have the burly bean bowl? Whoo!” Prompto cheered, pumping a fist in the air. He always loved Iggy’s cooking, but the spicy stuff he made was the best.

“Ugh, why’s it gotta be beans?” Noct complained. “You know I hate beans.”

Iggy looked over at Noct, the corner of his lips quirking. “Apologies, Highness, but I cannot cater to your every whim. We have a convalescing comrade to nourish as well.”

Laura was half awake when they got back, and as soon as Iggy started working in the kitchen and Noct collapsed onto one of the bunks, she got up and headed past Prompto out the open front door, nodding to both of them. She paused for a moment at the outside tables, and, seeing Gladio seated there on his phone, she kept walking, her feet dragging in the dirt with each stride and kicking up clouds of dust. Iggy had paused in his work, holding the pot of beans and water over the glowing red burner and staring out the window.

“I’m just gonna go check on her,” Prompto said as he jumped up from the seat in front of the door. He leapt past the stairs and jogged to catch up with her, which wasn’t hard, since she was walking so slow.

“Hey!” he said with a smile and a little shove at her arm. “Where ya goin’?”

She didn’t turn to him, just kept walking past the communications building and toward the massive lookout tower.

“Thought I’d climb up there and check out the sunset,” she said quietly, pointing up to the tower platform.

“You mind if I come with?” he asked, but then he winced, rubbing at the back of his neck. Maybe she wanted to be alone, and here he was forcing his company on her.

They stepped between two rusted out, abandoned cars, and when she’d cleared them, she turned to him with a gentle smile.

“Not at all,” she said. “I’d love your company.”

“Really? You mean it?” he asked. The guys always seemed okay having him around, but no one had ever straight-up told him they’d actually enjoyed him there.

“Course, else I wouldn’t have said it,” she replied, her smile growing to a grin.

When they’d made it to the top of the tower, she plopped down on the floor, scooting so her legs dangled beneath the railing and over the side. As Prompto made to sit down next to her, she threaded her arms through the second railing and rested her chin on it as she looked over the desert to the darkening sky.

“You don’t have to avoid us, you know,” he said leaning to bump her shoulder with his.

“I thought you guys could use some space, especially Gladio,” she said with a sigh, her eyes falling closed.

“Ha ha, yeah,” he chuckled awkwardly and picked at his fingernails. “Really though, I dunno why he’s so mad at you. He’s normally a pretty accepting guy.”

The light was starting to turn the sky all kinds of colors: molten gold, dusky orange, and sylleblossom purple as the sun sank below the horizon, so he summoned his camera to try and catch some of the colors to keep with him forever. After a few shots, he turned the camera to include her face in the sunset, so maybe he could keep this moment of friendship with him forever too.

“Because it’s too much,” she finally said, opening her eyes to look at him. “The world is ripped away; there’s nothing and no one to fall back on, and I’m an unknown variable. He can’t protect Noctis from me should he need to, and he knows it.”

“He should come around soon, maybe? Cor totally backed you up at the tomb.” He winced and turned his head away, hoping she wouldn’t notice what he’d said, but he felt a hand settle on his elbow.

“It’s all right. I already knew. Woke up to find your minds too far away for me to locate, but the Regalia was still here. I just had to trust that Ignis could keep you all reined in for the afternoon.”

It didn’t really matter that she’d known already. He’d still messed up. He was always messing up. No matter how hard he tried, he could never be as good at anything as Gladio or Iggy, so how was he gonna help Noct collect all those weapons and get the Crystal back? And then what? It wasn’t gonna bring back all those people that’d been killed—by his people. Six, if anyone was the traitor among them, it was him, not her, and if they ever found out? Well, now he had firsthand knowledge what they’d do to him. Gladio would take a sword to his throat.

He hadn’t noticed that his breathing had picked up, but she had. Laura scooted closer and moved her hand so her arm was around his shoulder. He leaned into the contact, desperate for any kind of reassurance that there would at least be someone who still cared if everything got out.

“Hey,” she said softly into the top of his head. “Are you all right?”

“Not really,” he chuckled. He wasn’t gonna tell her the real reason he was upset, but he did have some things on his mind. “I feel like crap that I miss home more than anything when other people have lost so much more. But it’s like, we’re not kids anymore; there’s no safety net cause home’s gone. I just wish I could be brave like you.”

I wish I could tell you all who I really was and you all be okay with it.

He felt her body expand and slowly deflate as she sighed and squeezed him tighter into her side. “You know, it’s easy to be brave with all this experience at my fingertips. I’ve been doing this for longer than some civilizations have existed.”

As she leaned her head into the top of his, she continued. “It’s you, sitting here beside me with none of that to back you up, who are truly courageous. Just a regular guy leaving home for the first time to face the wild with nothing but his guns and his friends? I find you incredibly brave, Prompto.”

“You really believe that?” he asked, because it was too hard to believe he’d heard what he’d heard.

Her response was halfway between a laugh and a hum. “Like I told you before, I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t believe it.”

She gave him one final squeeze before she kissed the top of his head and let him go. “Come on,” she said with a bright smile. “Now that the sun’s gone down, we don’t want to make everyone worry. And we don’t want to be late; from the looks of it, Ignis is making your favorite tonight.”

“Heh, right. Thanks for listening, Laura,” he said as she pulled him to his feet.

“I’ll always be here if you need it.”

Chapter Text

Relations were still delicate between Laura and Noctis and Gladio the next day, though she hardly expected them to be otherwise, given all they’d gone through and how much she’d concealed from them. Still, she was surprised that the group seemed to have forgiven her as much as they had—a testament to their good hearts. All things considered, her confession hadn’t gone as badly as some of those she’d had to give in the past. She remembered with a shudder what they had done to her on the Galactica when she’d been forced to make similar revelations about her heritage.

It was with heavy but functional hearts that they left the camper and made for the Keycatrich Mines nearby to collect another weapon, and Laura watched as Noctis received the second blessing of the Power of Kings, this time from the Conqueror. As the axe sliced through his chest, she noted the expression that crossed Noctis’s face as he gained a Lucii’s power. It fit the expression one would wear if he knew that he was one step closer to the veil that would eventually close around him. He grasped at the spot where the weapon had disappeared, and she wondered if he knew what was happening to him. It wasn’t as though she could ask.

“Let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps,” Prompto shivered.

“Indeed,” Ignis agreed, as Gladio let out a “Hell, yeah.”

Laura nodded, though the boys likely couldn’t see her in the dim of the mineshafts. Ever since they had entered, her view of the timelines had heightened as they coalesced into a seething, writhing mass in her skull, so even opening her mouth to speak had become a rather unpleasant experience, as the vibrations from her vocal cords seemed to intensify the sensation. There was something wrong with this place, and she couldn’t do a thing about it until they were presented directly with the problem. She gritted her teeth in frustration and sighed, exacerbating the fiery headache that had resided behind her eyes since their trip to Insomnia.

“Are you all right?” Ignis asked gently.

Laura looked over at him, searching his face for the matching emotion she felt roaring in his mind. He hated being here in the dark, she could tell, but the only hint of that emotion was buried deep in his viridian eyes. The number of times she’d seen him perfectly composed, and sometimes even cocky, while the color of his mind nearly blinded her with some sort of conflicting emotion was staggering. She feared for what he might have gone through to learn this behavior, as she knew all too well what she’d had to endure to gain the ability. But whereas she’d had hundreds of years to develop her neuroses, his expertise had been gained in a scant twenty-two years.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” she said, not wanting to lie to him.

“I can feel eyes on us,” Prompto said melodramatically. “The second we turn our backs, BAM!”

“Wuss,” Gladio muttered.

“There is something ominous about the atmosphere of this place,” Ignis mused as they crept along the shafts, his eyes darting as he kept a lookout for more daemons.

Ominous was a good word for it. Things were about to get as bad as things could possibly be with another added suitcase full of bad, she knew, and as usual, she couldn’t say a thing to anyone until it happened—at the very least until she knew more about what had caused her time sense to rear up and swallow her whole. She hated holding things back, as she remembered still too clearly after all these millennia the frustration of being on the other side of that equation. A quick prick of nostalgia for her Doctor nipped at her hearts as she recalled all the times she’d berated him for never saying anything of substance.

But if it could be at all helped, she’d rather not have to reveal her time sense to the group. It was difficult enough for her to understand herself, with no training, and it might completely shatter their fragile trust in her if, in addition to being able to “read minds,” she also had to confess that she could sort of, sometimes, in the murkiest way, also see the entire nexus of causality.

They had ascended about halfway through the mineshafts by that point and were about to enter one of a series of larger rooms when they all heard a hissing whisper coming from up ahead and paused to listen.

“What was that?” Prompto shrieked.

“Quiet,” Gladio growled.

A sharp pain lanced through Laura’s temple, and the knot that was the timeline ahead of them seemed to lodge in her throat. Her hands shot to her head in an attempt to keep herself grounded, and she forced herself to remain standing, despite the strong desire to drop to her knees.

“Laura?” Ignis inquired, placing a hand at her elbow.

“Fuck,” she ground out around the pounding of her head. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” This was so much worse than a daemon. She hadn’t encountered one of these creatures for about four thousand years now, but their rarity made them no less deadly. Didn’t this world have enough to deal with without interdimensional predators threatening to rip the seams of the universe apart? There couldn’t have been a more vulnerable time for this to happen, which she supposed was kind of the point, as the creatures were drawn to grief. Actually, given that thought, she should have expected this, with the way her luck tended to run.

They would have been in less danger if she’d been given more time to explain, but there was nothing for it. Their experience in battle with her meant that the group trusted her instincts enough to ready their weapons and look to her for guidance, and she felt a swell of hope that perhaps they could learn to trust her completely again. Still, their weapons would be no good here.

“Put those away. No questions, no time,” she said in a low, clipped voice. “We need to run. If it appears, keep running. Don’t try to fight it. If you get hit, know the effects are temporary, but above all, you must prevent a paradox, no matter how much you might want to change things.”

“What’s a . . .,” Prompto began, but the whispering had grown so much closer in just the time it took for Laura to say those words.

“Run!” she whispered fiercely, grabbing Noctis’s hand and taking off toward the surface. The potential damage to the timelines would be so much worse it ended up hitting him, so she did her best to angle her body between the sinister whisper and the young prince as they ran. She prayed to whatever would listen that it would hit her. Not being native to this universe, she was in a unique position in that she doubted it would have an effect on her—probably. Well . . . maybe. If it could at all be helped, she’d rather let it get its one shot off and disappear without it hitting anyone at all.

They hurtled up the roughly-hewn stone inclines, passing through primitive doorways and corridors with reckless abandon for about ten minutes, dodging daemons and nearly making wrong turns three times as Noctis mistook the route, but Laura continued to yank him along the correct path.

“Shouldn’t we almost be there?” Gladio called out from behind Prompto.

“Nearly!” she heard Ignis reply.

But as soon as the word had passed from his lips, all the ambient light was sucked from the tunnel as the thing rippled into view, and the faint whispers grew to a gasping chorus that combined with the roaring timelines, nearly deafening her. The creature was vaguely humanoid in shape. Its mouth was open in a grotesque silent scream, but instead of an orifice, moist enflamed flesh glistened in the group’s travel lights. Sickly green irises seemed to stare through them sightlessly, the lack of pupils suggesting a lack of sentience. Its skin was shredded and grey, its figure skeletal.

Yet for all its horrifying appearance, the creature was only the size of a garden gnome. Its size belied the doom it could bring on them all, but it was also some small mercy. Should it hit one of them, the effects would only last a couple of days at most, maybe less. Could Laura trust any of them, though, with what they would have to do over the next two days, especially after all they’d just been through? She doubted fate would give her a choice in the matter.

The creature sucked in a wheezing breath, and she knew it was about to attack.

“Duck!” she cried, already pushing Noctis to the ground beneath her and landing on top of him. She felt the flutter of her hair as the yellow-white pus-colored ball of energy passed dangerously close to their backs, then an explosion of air as it hit its mark. The timelines in her head reverberated through her brain, threatening to take over her mind, making her lose her sense of self. The creature, having fulfilled its purpose with its one and only shot, disappeared from in front of them with a cracking sound like breaking wood.

“Laura,” Noctis said after a moment, “you can get up now. It’s gone. We’re okay.”

She wanted to tell him that they were most certainly not okay, but she was currently drowning in a cyclone of frothing timelines that were forcing themselves down her nose and throat, choking off her air. They and their entire world could disappear into nonexistence any second, so no. It wasn’t okay. For a fleeting moment, she wondered what would happen to her if the universe suddenly ceased to exist. Would she simply be shunted off to the nearest parallel, or would she die along with them? It didn’t matter what the universe tried to do; she’d stay with these versions of them until whatever end. She’d promised a good man.

Shaking her head in an attempt to clear it, she groaned as she sat up.

“Hey, are you okay?” Prompto asked from behind her. That was two checking in okay.

“No,” she gripped her head to stop the mineshaft from spinning around her. “Who got hit? You guys all right back there?”

“Yeah, all good here. Iggy?” Gladio said, groaning as he got to his feet.

But as soon as Gladio had answered, she knew—as his voice had eliminated all other options. Of course it would be Ignis, the one with the most potential for this experience, should they live through it, to be emotionally scarring for all parties involved. Still, all things considered, it could be worse. Of the four of them, Ignis was the one she worried least about returning to the Citadel, at least in terms of the world ending. Emotionally, however . . . she could never tell with that man.

“Ignis, gods damn it, answer me!”

She opened her mouth to protest, but the timelines gave another almighty lurch, and she felt her vision diminish into a pinprick. Wherever Ignis was, he’d just done something dangerous, already.

No!  They would all die right there if she didn’t hold on to consciousness. She bit her lip hard and breathed, hoping the pain would be enough to keep her awake. When she was finally able to open her eyes again, it was to find Prompto breaking a potion over the head of a terrified child with sandy blonde hair, large viridian eyes, and glasses. He was sprawled out in a muddy patch near the rock wall, his trousers and white linen dress shirt smeared with black muck, his glasses sitting askew on his nose, and his eyes darting wildly around at the situation he’d found himself in. As he sat up and straightened his glasses, Laura could finally access her telepathy enough to feel his mind shifting frantically, assessing his surroundings.

“That’s not going to do any good, you know,” she sighed at Prompto. She hoisted herself to her feet, steadying herself against the wall for a moment before picking her way over the loose rocks to the boy that was now pressing himself into the stone behind him. Careful to move slowly, she crouched down in front of him.

“Ignis? Hello!” she said in a bright voice, wiggling her fingers at him. The boy looked at her suspiciously, furrowing his brow and narrowing his eyes. Yeah, she should have known that even at the age of . . . eight? . . . ten? . . . a boy as intelligent as Ignis wasn’t going to fall for that. She modulated the false cheer a little. “You were . . . sort of brought here by a wild bit of magic. We’ve taken care of the problem, but we’re still in a dangerous place. Would you mind coming with us so we can get to safer ground?” She held out a hand to him and smiled warmly, hoping that her demeanor, at least, would earn enough of his trust to get them out of there.

He tilted his head at her, still squinting. “If you please, how do you know my name?” he asked in a quiet, melodious tone.

This was going to be a difficult couple of days. He was just too inquisitive, too curious, too damn observant—which were normally things she loved about him, but traits like those were rather inconvenient at a time like this.

“Well, everyone knows the Royal Family,” she said. “And you’re always around the Citadel with the Prince. You’re pretty easy to recognize. But please, won’t you come with me? We really are in danger the longer we stay in the dark like this.”

Finally, he seemed to take in his surroundings enough to agree with her statement, for he tentatively reached for her hand and grasped her fingers tightly.

“Fantastic! Let’s go,” she said, helping him up and shuffling to the entrance. She schooled her features into a smile to hide the wave of dizziness that washed over her in that moment as she looked down at him. “There are many dangers lurking about—daemons, imperial soldiers, and even wild animals. If anything should appear, you stick with me.”

“No way,” Gladio argued, turning to face them. “Iggy should stay with me. I can carry him to safety if something shows up.”

Dear Gladio. Laura knew he would never come to her, or likely anyone for support for his father’s death; the military training ran too deep with him. But he was more than the sum of his training, and this right here was proof. Each time she caught him sitting alone looking out at the landscape, reading a book, or protecting one of the boys, she caught that glimpse of the real him. He was a thoughtful, gold-hearted brother, through and through. As soon as she had seen that, she’d made it her mission to preserve that hidden nugget of warmth in his heart.

But she had to handle this now, so she glared at him. As much as she wanted to make the point that she could pick Ignis up and run with him much faster than he could, she refrained, as it was probably for the best that he kept forgetting about her inhumanity, and now wasn’t the time for posturing anyway. And if her suspicions about Ignis’s past were correct, Gladio was the last person that needed to be around the boy.

“You know very well that your place is beside your . . . commander,” she said. He furrowed his brow as he looked at her, perplexed by her phrasing, then down at Ignis. “That hasn’t changed.” She looked deep into his eyes, hoping the significance of her gaze would pass some sort of nonverbal message to him that this was beyond the break in their own personal relationship. He must have understood, because he nodded reluctantly and took his place by Noctis’s side.

As she passed the others, she murmured so that Ignis couldn’t hear, “I mean it, if you want to live through this, do not utter a single word.”

As she led them all to the surface and into the bright sunlight, the other four, including little Ignis by her side, breathed a sigh of relief, but Laura refrained, knowing that the peril still lay ahead of them. She took stock of their surroundings, including the tactical defensibility of the location, and seeing that they were relatively sheltered by the high rock walls of the trench, she turned to Ignis.

“I’m sorry, Ignis, but I am going to have to ask you to wait here for just a moment while I talk to the others about something important. We’ll be right over there,” she pointed farther down the trench. “Nothing can come in without us noticing, and the daemons won’t leave the cave with the sun still up. Just don’t go near the cave, okay?” His eyes were wide and glassy as he looked up at her and nodded.

“Hey,” she said gently, bending over so she was at the level of his eyes. “Everything’s going to be all right, sweetheart, okay?” She smiled sweetly at him, hoping to put him at ease.

He still didn’t say a word, only continued to gaze at her face as his mind prickled in thought. Sighing, she gently caressed his cheek with the back of her hand in reassurance before leaving.

As she passed Gladio, Prompto, and Noctis, she said, “Come with me.” The three of them cast a glance at Ignis before turning and following behind her.

When they had gathered around her several yards away, Noctis spoke, “You wanna tell us what’s going on?”

With the fading of the adrenaline in her system, Laura’s headache had returned in full force. “I’m sorry, I need to sit,” she said as she eased herself onto an outcropping of rock near the wall of the trench, but she realized she could no longer see Ignis from this angle. “Gladio, keep an eye on Ignis for me?”

He nodded, glancing in the boy’s direction. “And anything else that’s coming to get us. You wanna get to the point anytime soon? We gotta get out of here. Is Iggy gonna be all right?”

She nodded. “You’ve probably figured out that that creature wasn’t a daemon. It’s called a paradoxis, an interdimensional wraith that feeds on the destruction of entire universes. When that ball hit Ignis, it sent him back in time to Insomnia, I’m guessing to around the time he was eight to ten years old, and brought his younger self here. Luckily for us, it only has one shot before it disappears, otherwise we’d all be in a really bad place right now.”

“What’s the point in doing that? Why would that destroy the universe?” Noctis asked.

“It was likely drawn here after the Fall, at a vulnerable time when people of power, like you, would be more likely to want to change their past. It hopes that the swapping of people in their own timelines will cause a paradox, which will tear apart the fabric of this entire reality. Then it feeds off the energy that comes from the destruction.”

“Yeah, about that . . . what’s a paradox? I tried to ask earlier,” Prompto said.

“Say you go back in time and keep your parents from meeting, and you were never born.” They all nodded their understanding, so she continued, “But if you no longer exist, who went back to keep your parents from meeting? That’s the paradox. Adult Ignis could change his past, or we could say something to young Ignis that he could remember and bring back with him to change his past.

“Don’t say anything to him that will reveal anything about your identities, please.” She looked at each of the three of them in turn. “Try not to use names at all. If you must, agree on pseudonyms before doing so.”

They stood in shocked silence for a moment, their eyes darting to catch glances at one another, but eventually, all nodded their understanding.

“What about Iggy? How do we get our Iggy back?” Noctis asked.

“We’ve had one stroke of luck on this, at least. That was a very small paradoxis. The effect should last a couple of days at most, and then their places will switch back on their own. To minimize timeline corruption, I suggest you leave him with me at the haven near the outpost. You guys can stay in the camper in case we need you.”

Gladio said, “You all work this out, I’m gonna check on things,” and headed back in Ignis’s direction.

“Why does it have to be you?” Noctis asked. “He didn’t get to know Prompto really until he was like, seventeen.”

“Because of all of you, Ignis knows me the least and has met me the latest in his life. And of all of you, I’ll know what’s safe to say and what isn’t.”

“Why’s that?” Prompto asked, leaning over to look into her eyes as he rolled up onto the balls of his feet.

Laura took a deep breath and let it out slowly. If she could get away with not telling them, she would, but she certainly wasn’t going to lie when she was asked a direct question.

“Because I’m time sensitive.” When she saw the thousands of questions forming on Noctis’s face, she cut them off before they could escape his lips. “Look, we don’t have time for me to sit here and explain the madhouse that is my brain right now, but suffice it to say, I have a running probability in my head at all times for everything that did happen, is happening, will be happening, has to happen, and must never happen. On a cosmic scale though; I can’t tell you what you’re having for breakfast tomorrow unless your breakfast choice determines the fate of all mankind—which actually has happened, come to think of it. Anyway, it’s not as liberating an ability as you would imagine, quite the opposite.”

Though she had to admit to herself that in this world, for all her abilities, she had never felt quite this weak and helpless. She wondered, not for the first time, if she would be able to help this group reach their full potential and save the world or if she was just an extra source of complications.

It was his mind she noticed first. It went still and quiet as it only did when he was either in awe or extremely upset. As she whipped her head in Ignis’s direction, a cry rent the air, and she hurled herself toward him, vaguely noting that the other two had followed suit.

“I don’t know what happened!” Gladio said as they approached, his hands raised in a gesture of surrender. “Kid was freaking out about not being home in time to go to a meeting. I reached out to him, and this. What the hell kinda kid has meetings at his age?”

Laura’s hearts stuttered at the sight before her. She had been afraid of this, and she cursed herself for not saying something to Gladio before assigning him to watch over the boy. Ignis was cowering away from Gladio, pressing himself in the corner of two boulders, his eyes wild and his breath ragged. His face had grown chalky white, and Laura wondered if he was about to pass out. With each breath he couldn’t catch, he seemed to grow more panicked, until his eyes were bulging and his gasps were pained. He collapsed to the dirt, sitting between the two boulders, and his eyes began rolling in his head as he struggled for breath.

“What’s wrong with him? Does he have asthma or something?” Prompto asked.

“Everyone, back away,” Laura said quietly.

Gladio stepped backwards toward Prompto and Noctis, his hands still raised at his head. “I’m sorry. I swear I didn’t mean to scare him.”

She approached Ignis slowly, her hands spread wide in a gesture of benignity. “Ignis? It’s just me, dearest. You’re all right,” she murmured.

Ever so slowly, she bent to reach a hand out to his shoulder. Though his manner didn’t change, he seemed to be aware of her presence and accepted her touch, the color of his mind recognizing her as a friend and screaming for help, even through his abject terror. With his acquiescence, she fell to her knees by his side, gently maneuvering him so he sat at an angle between them, his back leaning against her chest. She ran her hands down his arms and entwined her fingers with his, making soothing sounds in his ear the entire time. Careful not to restrict his breathing, she brought their joined hands to his diaphragm.

“It’s all right,” she whispered. “I know it’s scary, but I promise you’re not dying. I’m going to talk you through this okay? Just listen to the sound of my voice. Focus on your breath. Try to match your breath with my hands, okay?”

She began to hum a soothing song from her childhood in London, a sweet, haunting melody from one of her favorite Disney princess movies, as she rocked him gently back and forth, pressing against his diaphragm slowly and rhythmically.

“Hey, I know that song! Ig . . .,” Noctis began, but Laura shot him a sharp look and tilted her head in an effort to silently tell him to shut up. If Noctis recognized the melody from Ignis, there was already contamination to the timelines, as no one in this universe should be familiar with Disney tunes. But then, she already knew Ignis was going to retain at least some memory of this experience. He’d asked her three times since that day in the throne room where he might have met her before, and apparently, he’d met her out in the middle of nowhere as a child. She checked her time sense to make sure the contamination was contained. No harm done so far—that she could tell.

After several minutes of humming and rocking as the others looked on in silence, Ignis’s gasps had slowed to long, hitching breaths, but she could still feel the fear in his mind.

“I know you’re frightened,” she said into his ear. “But look at our uniforms. Do you recognize them?”

He nodded as the hitching in his breath slowed. “C—C—Crownsguard.”

“That’s right, we’re Crownsguard, which means we’re here by order of the King. That means that you’re now here by order of the King. Your meetings, your lists, your school, they can all wait, dearest. You’re safe here with us. None of us will hurt you, and you have my word that nothing will harm you so long as I am near. Do you hear me, Ignis? I swear to protect you.”

The tiny body in her arms gave a violent shudder and let out a whoosh of breath. “Yes, My Lady,” he said in a small voice.

She gave a little chuckle, but her hearts were still breaking for him. In a voice loud enough for the others to hear, she said, “You may call me Rose, or Miss Rose, if that makes you feel more comfortable.” How long had it been since she had last gone by that name? Not since her dear James had died.

Shaking her head free of her grief, she got an idea. Remembering his words about his relationship with the sky as a child, she infused her voice with awe and whispered into his ear, “Ignis, look up, sweetheart. You’re free.”

His head pressed into her shoulder as he raised his eyes to the sky, and his mind went still, the terror turning to wonder and freezing. She wished she could see his face from this angle.

“The sky,” he whispered in amazement.

She chuckled. “Mmm hmm, and we’ll get a better view of it as we walk to safety. But we really do need to get going now. Are you able to walk?”

He nodded, so she released him before taking one of his hands to help him stand. His entire body still trembled, but his legs seemed to hold his weight. He started brushing off his linen shirt and fixing his spiked hair in a futile attempt to fix his disheveled appearance, but he stopped when Laura bent to look him in the eyes.

“Are you certain you’re all right?”

Ignis took a deep breath and nodded, his glazed green eyes overly large in his face. “Yes, Miss Rose,” he almost whispered.

“All right then,” she said with a smile. “Let’s get going.”

Chapter Text

Before they had even left the protection of the trench, Noctis’s phone rang, and Laura cast a quick look in his direction and then Ignis’s to remind him to watch what he said.

“Yeah, we can do it, but it’s gonna take a few days. Something’s come up. I can’t talk about it now. Bye.” As he hung up, Noctis nodded once at Laura, cast a wary eye at Ignis, then turned to walk ahead of them. Gladio and Prompto jogged to catch up, likely to discuss the subject of the phone call. She managed to catch the words “infiltrate a base” and groaned inwardly.

Wrapping her arm around Ignis’s and entwining their fingers as best she could now that she was a foot taller than him, she began leading him in the direction of the outpost. Between sweeps of the area searching for any hidden dangers, she would look down and notice that his sharp, evergreen eyes seemed to miss nothing. To put him more at ease, she pointed out some of the more benign bits of scenery that had nothing to do with the history of his kingdom: the way the little patches of dried grass dotted the sandy brown soil in a way that almost looked like a river, the way the high rock walls towering over them had been worn smooth by billions of years of wind and sand erosion, or how the few trees in the area had adapted to the climate by growing long and spindly branches with dry green brush. With each discovery, she could feel his mind prickle with interest and questions, but he kept silent.

After several minutes of chatter on her part and silence on his, he asked in a moment between comments, his voice soft and innocent, “May I ask how you know about my lists?”

She paused in her scan of the area before answering. Had he deliberately waited until she was distracted by a flash of movement on the ridge to ask so her answer would be more candid? If it hadn’t been a coincidence, he couldn’t fool her that easily.

Laura beamed down at him. “I have a friend like you,” she said. “He’s very important, very intelligent, and he makes a lot of lists too. I figured you were the same way.”

Ignis looked up at her, his eyes glittering, and gave her what she could only describe as a smirk-smile. And there he was. Beneath the subservience and ever-present loneliness, she’d seen glimpses of that self-assured version of him as an adult, but usually only when there was a dagger in each hand, and on very rare occasions, with Noctis. She was at a loss, however, for what triggered the transformation. For as much as she’d tried every time they were alone together to coax it out of him, she’d only managed to discover his quietly passionate side, which she treasured even more than those glimpses of self-confidence, as she’d never seen him reveal that to anyone but her.

It was his obsequiousness, however, that had been dominating their interactions since Longwythe, but now that most of her secrets were out in the open, she was hoping to lead him back to those first days when he’d believed she was just another girl. They’d made some small progress the night before last, but god, there couldn’t have been a less appropriate time as he grieved, and she’d been giving them all space since then to pull themselves together. She had no idea where the two of them stood now, however, and it looked as though she wasn’t going to find out for at least another couple of days.

“And, if you please, where are we?”

Laura hesitated. “Leide,” she replied, knowing the area would be too large for him to try and search for information when he got back to Insomnia.

“That encompasses a rather large area,” he said, suspicion tightening his features again, but he smoothed them over immediately before looking around with a practiced, casual air. “I suppose the Ostium Gorge is far enough from the Insomnian checkpoint to truly be considered Leide.”

Damn his inquisitiveness at a time like this. Laura had apparently never had the pleasure of being genuinely seen by Ignis as anything but an ally, because she couldn’t recall a time when he’d tried to manipulate her into giving information she didn’t want to. The only time he’d truly mistrusted her was the day Insomnia fell, but she’d taken control of that situation as quickly as possible—not that it had stopped him from threatening her with a dagger on more than one occasion that day. Of course, she couldn’t be completely certain that he wouldn’t be threatening her now if he had a dagger to do so.

She hated lying to him, so she settled for a twisted version of the truth. “We’re on a secret mission for the King, so only those with clearance can know where we are. I can’t confirm your assumption, sorry.”

“Oh, my apologies, Miss Rose,” he replied, his voice softer as his gaze turned to the dirt at his feet.

“It’s quite all right,” she said, squeezing his hand in reassurance.

After an hour of walking and Laura chatting to fill the silence so Ignis wouldn’t ask any more questions, their progress was interrupted when they encountered a pack of ten wild sabertusks on the hunt.

“You two stand back,” Gladio shouted back toward them as he summoned his sword. “We got this.”

“This way, dear,” Laura said, placing a hand on Ignis’s shoulder and backing him up against the side of the cliff. She could feel his mind color with fear behind her, and though she wanted to turn and soothe him, she had to keep watch in case a sabertusk broke free of the fray and came for them. The psithurism of her magic whooshed over their ears as she brought her falchions to her hands and crouched with her back to the boy, her blades held out at the ready. She’d missed that sound of the wind through the trees; the shrieking had been most unpleasant.

“Miss Rose?” she heard Ignis whisper at her back.

“It’s all right, Ignis. The boys can handle this no problem, but I need to concentrate just in case, okay? Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”

“Okay,” he whispered even more quietly.

She hoped with all her might that she wouldn’t have to kill an animal right now. The last thing she needed was to experience death in her mind, what with her time sense still rolling like an angry surf in a storm. The pain was bad enough from this distance as Gladio, Noctis, and Prompto began thinning the pack, but she had to stay close in case they needed her help. Three against ten weren’t the best of odds at their level of experience.

It was a delicate balance, allowing them room to fight so they could grow and yet knowing when to step in or stop holding back before they got themselves killed. Regis had been most clear in his instructions that she not interfere too much with their development unless their lives were threatened, but he had to know how impossible a task that was, even for her. It was already so difficult, sitting back and allowing them to injure themselves so grievously in their battles—especially Ignis, who needed to take potions so often while protecting Noctis. This potion system of theirs was bizarre, and it made the line between life and death where she needed to step in even finer.

Just please, don’t let me fail them.

She watched with pride and regret in equal measure as the three men took the pack out, quipping and casually wielding their weapons as they protected and supported each other. They had come so far in such a short time, their practical experience increasing their skill exponentially. She thought of the little boy behind her who would grow up with the potential to be more skilled than all of them, currently missing from their party. Did they know how much potential there was in all of them, really? How much the loss of their homes had affected their dynamic already? Had they realized yet that all that protection and support and friendship was really love? They would find out soon enough, she supposed, with their trials ahead.

She didn’t dismiss her weapons until after Gladio had felled the final sabertusk. Only then did she turn around to see Ignis, his back against the rock, his eyes wide and bright with awe.

“Are you all right?” she asked him gently, and he nodded.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“Oh, dear heart,” she said, bringing a hand up to smooth his hair, “all I did was stand there. It’s the boys who did all the work.” He turned and bowed his thanks to the other three as they stood watching from a distance, and she took his hand to begin walking again.

It was late afternoon by the time they arrived at the haven, and they all set about their usual routines in setting up the campsite. After a significant look at the three adult members of their group, she allowed Ignis to do as he pleased, and he seemed to want to follow each of them around, asking questions and volunteering his help. Laura, still fighting against the burning headache and nausea from the churning timelines in her mind, elected to set up Ignis’s kitchen equipment. They may not have had the chef himself to make them dinner, but she thought, perhaps, a relaxing chore like cooking might soothe her mind.

Deciding against invading Ignis’s kitchen supplies, she opted instead to access her own pocket universe for ingredients. She was rarely shocked these days when she traveled to new worlds, but when she learned that the Crystal allowed them access to dimensional technology so similar to what James had made her and she had later modified, she couldn’t help but be amazed. She’d never had a name for where she stored her things besides the Pocket, but “armiger” seemed a limiting term for all hers could hold.

She decided on ochazuke for dinner, a simple, comforting, nourishing green tea and rice dish that she’d discovered while visiting Japan about a hundred years ago. She boiled the rice, pressed and grilled the tofu, and set about chopping the vegetables.

Laura looked up when a small voice inquired in a genteel tone, “May I be of any service to you, Miss Rose?”

She’d been monitoring his conversations with the others and heard them all decline his offers to help, for which she couldn’t blame them. The boy was intimidating to be around with the restrictions she’d placed on them all, and he’d been attempting to work his own subtle brand of magic on them, clumsy though it still was at this age. But she could handle him, and he wouldn’t feel comfortable until he was doing something, so she asked, “Do you know how to cook, Ignis?”

He flushed. “No, My L . . . I mean Miss Rose. I’ve only just starting learning, but I can chop things,” he offered hopefully.

“Great!” she enthused with a smile at him, and he seemed to glow under her praise, his back straightening and his chest puffing out a little. “You can help me chop up these vegetables. Make sure you chop them up really small, because one of my friends doesn’t like vegetables.”

He nodded sagely. “His Highness doesn’t like vegetables, either. He’s the one I’m learning to cook for.” Taking the knife from her, he turned to the onion on the cutting board, exclaiming in a high, ringing voice, “Very well. Chop chop!”

Laura huffed a laugh at this, and he grinned up at her with bright, sparkling eyes. She heard a click, and she looked up to see Prompto lowering his camera.

“Oh. Em. Gee,” Prompto said as he passed in front of the table. “That—was adorable.”

“Heh, yeah, kinda,” Noctis said from behind them. He opened his mouth to say more, but seemed to think better of it, turning away to set up the camp chairs.

After a minute spent washing the mushrooms and watching Ignis handle his knife as proficiently as any chef at Arpège, Laura felt Gladio’s tentative mind approach before he leaned suddenly in their field of view. Ignis flinched like a nervous horse, but he recovered quickly, pretending nothing had happened.

Gladio glanced anxiously at the boy, then said quietly to Laura, “Can I talk to you for a sec?”

“Sure,” she said before turning to Ignis. “This shouldn’t take long. Go ahead and finish with the vegetables. But don’t worry about having to watch anything else. If anything burns, it’s my fault, okay?”

He nodded, looking down to the knife and carrot in his hands. “Yes, Miss Rose.”

When they had stepped to the edge of the haven, she could see that the expression on Gladio’s face was uneasy as he ran a hand through his hair. “What did I do? I swear I didn’t mean to scare him like that, and now he jumps every time I get near him. I’m usually really good with kids.”

Laura placed a hand on his shoulder. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I think your uh . . . size combined with the unfamiliar situation just frightened him is all,” she hedged. The adult Ignis was obviously a very reserved and private man, and if they didn’t know his secrets, nothing could be gained by her telling them what she suspected. This was already in the past, and there was nothing any of them could do to change it, if her suspicions were even true to begin with.

“Hey, Ignis,” she heard Prompto say behind her. “You all right buddy? You got blood on your shirt. Didn’t we just give you a potion? Did an old injury open up or something?”

Laura turned around to see him pointing at a stripe of blood about six inches long slashed across the mud-smeared linen covering Ignis’s back. She thought frantically to when he may have injured himself in such a manner since meeting him and came up blank.

Bloody hell, she thought, the sinking feeling in her chest combining with her nausea. Here it comes. There was still the slim chance that she’d been wrong about him, but it was beginning to look less and less likely. In fact, if this was what she thought it was, it was even worse than she’d feared.

Ignis’s eyes went wide as saucers as he turned around. “Do I? I must apologize for appearing in such a state. I must have fallen at some point and scraped myself. Might you point me in the direction of your washing equipment? I can clean it up immediately before the stain sets.” His voice was calm and his expression neutral, but she could see the tremor in his little hands betraying him as he carefully set the knife down on the cutting board next to his perfectly cubed carrots.

Laura closed her eyes for a moment, wishing with one last hope that this somehow wasn’t so, but all the signs were there and present. Even at this age, he was already learning how to physically suppress every emotion she had felt roiling in his mind—and that goddamn subservience. God, no child deserved this, but Ignis’s heart was so gentle, so sweet, so special.

She opened her eyes to see Noctis clench his jaw and take a step toward Ignis. “To hell with the damned shirt, Ignis. You’re hurt!” He summoned a potion and advanced on the boy.

“Noctis, don’t—” Laura called, but he ignored her. Ignis took a small step back and froze, his eyes slamming shut, but his chin held high and his jaw clenched, ready to face whatever he thought Noctis was going to do.

Noctis skidded to a halt at Ignis’s reaction, and all three men turned their shocked faces to Laura for guidance. Carefully approaching the kitchen area, she slowly reached behind Ignis to turn off the heat before he took another step back and got burned. Then she crouched in front of him. His face was carefully blank, his slight body still, but his mind seemed to be moving like a skittering mouse. Searching his eyes, she saw that fear made manifest in his contracted, darting pupils.

“Hey there, it’s all right,” she soothed, running her fingers up and down his forearms. “I’ve got this stuff that can take out any stain, any time,” she said, thinking of Ignis’s own homemade stain remover sadly. “But we can’t have you bleeding out here in the wild. It might attract some dangerous animals. They may not be able to get into the haven, but we certainly don’t want them surrounding us all night either.”

She summoned one of her tighter-fitting black t-shirts from their armiger. Turning around and grabbing the potion from Noctis, she hissed, “You all should leave now.”

“No way. We’re not going anywhere until I know what the hell is going on,” Noctis growled. Behind him, Prompto and Gladio nodded furiously.

“On your own heads . . .,” she said ominously. Honestly, though this would be mortifying for Ignis when he returned, if he remembered, it was probably for the best that this was happening. It was time for Ignis to learn how to share his burdens, and it was time for Noctis to grow up.

It seemed that despite Regis’s best efforts, the weight of Noctis’s destiny had affected him far more than she had understood. His mind was always clouded over by a haze of depression to the point where she could get no more information than that from him—until he’d returned from the Tomb of the Wise, his mind reeling with heartbreak, anger, and resigned resolve. Still, the lessons he needed to learn before this was over hadn’t changed, and she was going to have to kick him in the ass to get him moving, just as Cor likely had. That haze that had settled over his mind seemed to have blinded him to all but his own fate. She could see clearly how much he cared for each of his friends, fiercely so, but damnit, he never said a thing and was too wrapped up in his own admittedly prodigious problems to notice. Like father, like son, and she didn’t want him to have to experience the same regret Regis had.

She turned back around, kneeling before Ignis. “Don’t mind them,” she said. “They’re just concerned for your wellbeing; they don’t like to see people hurt. Unfortunately, they have the manners of a herd of galloping garulas.” He let out a tiny chuckle of amusement. “Can you turn around and take off your shirt for me? I can crack the potion and get it soaking. Then I have this one here for you to put on.”

He hesitated briefly, but then nodded. “Yes, Miss Rose.”

His long, nimble fingers made quick work of the row of pearlescent plastic buttons before he turned around. She noticed that he paused for a moment before shrugging the shirt from his shoulders, and she had to briefly close her eyes to contain the heartbreak she knew was coming.

As the skin of his back was revealed, she couldn’t help but exclaim softly, “Ohhh, Ignis . . ..”

He’d spoken of his younger years often with her, usually describing his duties to Noctis or the extent of his education. She could tell that he’d felt terribly alone, even with the Prince as a near constant companion when he wasn’t in school. Still, he’d never spoken about anyone in his life with the kinds of feelings that would give her a clue as to who might have done this to him—likely because it just wasn’t in him to hate. For certain, he could be driven to violence and even ruthlessness when the situation called for it—but never hatred. All that pain and misery and loneliness, and it had just made him kind.

“What the hell?” Noctis exclaimed, not bothering to lower his voice, and she saw Ignis twitch a little at his tone.

“Oh my gods,” Prompto said in a low, tremulous voice.

“Fuck,” Gladio muttered.

Ignis’s back was a crisscross of white scars, red welts that were still puffed up like biscuits in an oven, and scabbed stripes. The largest scab was seeping blood, where it looked like he had, in fact, reopened the old wound.

“Please, accept my apologies. I’m so sorry,” Ignis whispered, his voice heavy.

“It’s not your fault, sweetheart,” she said softly, wrestling down the tears threatening. If he could remain this stoic, the least she could do was stay strong enough to comfort him.

Taking a deep breath, she cracked the potion over his back, which sealed the old wound, but did nothing to heal the scabs and scars. She turned him around and handed him her t-shirt, which he took with a small bow of thanks and quickly donned. When he was finished, she opened her arms to him. Ignis furrowed his brow and tilted his head, confused for a moment, but hesitantly reached back. Careful not to touch his back, she wrapped her arms up his shoulders, placing her hands on the back of his neck and hugging him as fiercely as she dared.

Then, knowing the boys would ask him anyway and likely be none too gentle about it, she said, “May we please know how you got hurt?”

Ignis closed his eyes and nodded before hanging his head to look at the floor. “I made a mistake. Unfortunately, I make errors sometimes, and the professor must punish me—or has the other tutors punish me. But I promise I shall do my very best as long as I’m a guest here.”

Noctis inhaled sharply through his nose before croaking, “What kinda things does he punish you for?”

“Who said the professor was a he?” Laura asked coldly, pointing out Noctis’s slip in a way that Ignis wouldn’t question. Despite the emotion of this situation, he needed to remember that they were all still in very grave danger. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter right now.”

“The hell it doesn’t!” he roared. Though his voice sounded enraged, she could see the anguish plain on his face and in his mind. There were very few things that could evoke an emotional response in Noctis, she knew already, and hurting his friends was one of them. Hurting his oldest friend, the one that had raised him more than his own father, might just be enough to phase him back in time so he could personally murder Ignis’s tutors.

Ignis was frozen again, but he whispered, “Please don’t be upset. The error was mine.”

Only Ignis’s words seemed to still Noctis’s outburst, which allowed Laura to step away toward the stove.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said as she poured warm water through a strainer full of gyokuro leaves until she had a potful of electric green tea. “My friend here,” she motioned to Prompto before turning to assemble a bowl of vegetables, rice, and tofu, “is going to hang out with you while we go over there and have a chat.” She poured the tea over the bowl and turned back to place it in Ignis’s hands. “I’ve set you up with dinner, so why don’t you go sit by the campfire and eat, hey?”

“Please, don’t fight on my account,” he pleaded, looking up at her with overly large eyes.

“No, sweetheart,” she said gently. “These guys always could use a good lecture on manners.”

“But I thought he was the commander,” Ignis said, his brow crinkling in confusion.

“Ahh, I did say that, didn’t I? You have a very good memory.” Which, if she wasn’t careful, was going to get them all killed. “But he is their commander, not mine.” She cupped her hand to his cheek, running her thumb along his cheekbone to wipe away a smudge of dirt. “You sit and eat, and when I get back, we’ll see what we can do about those older injuries of yours.”

She led Gladio and Noctis away by the elbows but stopped next to Prompto before they’d stepped onto the haven ramp. His eyes were tight and sad, but he gave her a tremulous smile in greeting.

“If he finishes his bowl, get him another, even if he says he’s not hungry. He’s too damned thin. And for gods’ sakes, do not say a word to him, no matter how politely he asks for information. He’s not quite a master at manipulating people with those manners of his, but he’s getting there.”

Prompto frowned but bobbed his head in understanding. “Yeah, I gotcha.”

“I’m sure the others will catch you up after.” She let go of Gladio and placed a hand on his shoulder, looking into his eyes and hoping that she could touch that so very insecure part of him with her words. “I don’t mean to exclude you. You know I value you and your opinion just as much as the others’, right? I just need someone to keep an eye on him, and you’re the only one I can trust not to intimidate him.”

His response was a more genuine smile that made his cerulean eyes light up a little. “Thanks,” he whispered.

When they were out of earshot but still close enough to see the haven, Noctis turned on her.

You don’t seem surprised. How long have you been keeping this from us?”

“I had an idea the moment I met him, but I didn’t know for certain until I saw his back. Honestly, I’ve known you all for a little more than two weeks. What was I going to say? ‘Hey, Noctis, your friend there seems a little on the submissive and obsessive side. Is it possible he was abused as a child?’”

He paled at the frank way she’d named his condition and went still. “He never said a word,” he whispered, “I just—I don’t even know—”

“Of course he never said a word. Protecting you is who he is—that one glimmer of the real Ignis. Protecting those he loves is what makes a man of his heart summon a blade and force it into flesh. You should know yourself that the inclination doesn’t come naturally.”

“I guess,” Noctis replied. “We’ve been trained our whole lives, but it’s different out here—more real. He just did everything so perfect. Was always getting on my nerves to be perfect too.”

“He gets on your nerves cause he knows you can do better,” Gladio said, folding his arms over his chest and staring down at Noctis.

“He’s more complex than just being a stuffy perfectionist. Don’t you understand what it takes for a man to become what he is? To be considerate to the point of pain? To anticipate every need around him to the point of obsession? What did you think drove him all those times he sat up, escorting us merrily around Leide, even though he had just undergone every trial that we had? Where did he derive the energy to forage, plan, and cook all those meals even after that? To stay up after you all had gone to bed and work on laundry and finances? It certainly wasn’t inspired by the Ebony!”

Noctis looked down at his boots. “Guess I didn’t really think about it like that. Just thought he was . . . I dunno, picky.”

“A good deal of it is from his love and duty to you, but those habits don’t just form, Noctis. It’s a testament to the strength of his will that he’s as well-adjusted as he is, but those monsters undermined the foundations of his spirit, wresting away his self-worth so they could re-mold him into a servant. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true of the others as well, in some form or another,” she made a motion to Gladio.

Gladio stepped back, his hands raised. “Hey, leave me out of this, thanks. I had a good childhood.”

“Thank gods that’s so. But has Noctis ever taken a moment to wonder what it was like to be raised with the entire city believing you were nothing more than a meathead used to protect the life of your king? Forgive me, I know you value your position more highly than that, as you most certainly should, but I also know what it’s like to be judged for what you are destined to do and not who you really are.”

“Who I am doesn’t matter when I have a job to do,” Gladio said, the arms over his chest tightening.

“Yes it does matter, Gladio! Of course it matters when that which protects the King is a man and not a piece of armor. When was the last time someone asked you about your other hobbies? Those books you’re always reading? A stereotypical soldier certainly doesn’t study the tea ceremonies of ancient Lucis for combat research. It says that the man who shields the King has a mind as well. It makes you a more formidable opponent, Gladio.” 

Gladio went silent at this, staring at the dirt at his feet with his jaw clenched and his posture stiff. Noctis could only gape up at him, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. At the anguished color of his thoughts, Laura softened. He was so young, and his life was so burdened. He wasn’t supposed to have all the answers to life yet—none of them were. But unfortunately, as usual, fate was giving him little choice.

Laura continued in a gentler tone, “I told you to cherish them, Noctis, and I know you do. But you’re still not getting it. Ignis always takes care of you, and he truly does enjoy it because he loves you so. But when was the last time you took care of him? Loved him in return? You weren’t the only one dragged into this fucked up destiny of yours, and you need to stick together. Cherishing them means taking a look around once in a while, despite your own problems, and noticing.

Noctis’s expression was blank as he stared at the ground and intoned, “He always noticed everything—everything about me. Even now,” he chuckled bitterly as he closed his eyes and shook his head, “I had to field a dozen questions while we were setting up camp. Kept asking for our names and titles, how we preferred to be addressed . . ..”

“You know as well as anyone that Ignis doesn’t tolerate ambiguity. If you didn’t give him all the details, he didn’t know enough not to make a mistake, and he got punished.”

Noctis’s face paled in horror and understanding as she continued, “Yes, see what I mean? Every aspect of his identity has been influenced by this. I shudder to think how he must be cursing my name at my scant instructions back in Insomnia right now,” she said. “Talk about ambiguity.”

Gladio cleared his throat and looked up at her. “I wouldn’t worry about our Ignis. If any of us could figure out how to prevent a paradox, it would be him.”

“Well, I doubt his education exposed him to much in the way of temporal mechanics, but he is an intelligent, resourceful man.”

She grew quiet, looking back at the haven where Ignis sat in his own camp chair, his bowl of ochazuke balanced carefully in his lap as he dabbed daintily at his mouth with a handkerchief. Even grown up, deep down, he was still that little boy, with a mind sharper than any blade and a heart that loved more than all of Eos and so desperate to be loved back. He just hid it better than most.

“You love them all, Noctis,” she said in a low voice as she watched the boy. “But you need to show them now and then.”

“All right,” he said, running both his hands through the sides of his hair, “I get it. And I’m noticing now. So what do we do? We can’t just send him back.”

“But we have to,” Gladio interrupted. “If he doesn’t go back, he doesn’t grow up to come with us. Paradox. And we can’t tell him anything or prepare him or teach him to defend himself . . . shit.”

“Or the world will end,” Noctis finished.

Laura nodded. They seemed to be catching on faster than most. “Welcome to the world of being time sensitive. I ask that you please keep this moment in mind the next time you scream at me for withholding information.”

She sighed heavily, looking back toward the haven. Plans were going to have to change. She considered what she was about to do and how much energy it was going to take up. Was it even possible? Reaching out to the slumbering mind around her neck, she spoke.

Eilendil, I may need your help on this one. Can you keep watch?

Sending her memories of the last few hours, she could feel the worry and irritation in equal measure before he replied, And ensure that you do not kill yourself? You know I do not have much energy to give should you need it. Are you certain the child is worth it?

Yes, he’s worth it, she growled at him. They’re all worth it, and you know it.

Your hearts have always ruled your head.

Not always, as you well know. Still, it’s a positive trait, in my opinion. I’ve worked long and hard to get it back, so you may as well get used to it.

I have my doubts. It is going to get you killed one of these days. He huffed at her and finally said, Yes, of course I shall keep watch, but for you—not them.

Thank you, dearest. I do love you, you know.

No need to remind me. I am not a twenty-year-old child.

Satisfied she had at least his reluctant support, she considered her spell and reached out to the twisted, writhing timelines, which still felt unnatural and nearly unreadable in her head. But there, in the middle of all the chaos sat one, very simple, almost smug-looking fact: this was supposed to happen—had already happened. She couldn’t see the exact path of the lines, but there was some sort of time loop that needed to be closed, which left her path forward very, very clear. If she didn’t complete the loop, she could end the world in much the same way Ignis could—a potential paradox hidden within a potential paradox.

“I heard you mention a base on the walk home. Is that our next destination?” she asked Noctis and Gladio.

“Y—yeah,” Noctis said hesitantly, confused by the change in topic, “Cor wants us to take it out.”

“Is that something you can do without my help, once Ignis is back?”

“Yeah, Cor’s gonna meet us there. But where will you be?”

“Out of commission, most likely. Listen, I can heal his back—”

“But what does that matter if we’re just gonna send him back to Professor Libri and his other tutors?” Gladio interrupted.

“Let me finish. I can heal his back. I can also craft a spell that will protect him in a way that won’t disrupt the timelines. They can still hurt his soul, though. And by gods, if there was anything I could do about that and still leave him Ignis, I would in a heartbeat.” Her eyes drifted between Gladio’s to Noctis’s alert faces. “He’ll just have to rely on your friendship to pull him through as unscathed as possible.”

“I was there, once I got to know him,” Gladio said. He clenched his jaw and nodded emphatically to accentuate his point. “Still am.”

Noctis nodded sharply without hesitation. “Do whatever you need to do to protect him. And I promise, I’ll do the same, from now on, for all you guys.”

“I’m going to hold you to that, you know,” she warned.

“So you’re gonna heal his back and do your thing. Then what?” Gladio asked.

“I’ll be exhausted after using such a powerful spell. You’ll need to leave as soon as you’ve eaten, but I’ll need one of you to keep an eye on the haven during the day. I’m afraid I won’t be able to watch him as closely as I would like. Stay out of sight, though, especially with the camper in full view of the haven.”

“Will you be all right?” Noctis asked.

Honestly, she had no idea, but she replied without hesitation, “I’m always all right. Let’s get on with this, shall we?”

Chapter Text

By the time they had returned, Ignis had finished eating and was eyeing Prompto, who was looking distinctly nervous. “Hey! You’re back!”

“Hey!” Laura replied cheerfully to put Ignis and Prompto at ease. “Let’s eat.” As she passed by Prompto, she whispered, “Thank you.”

Prompto nodded and said, “Anything for Iggy.”

It seemed she’d had the accidental foresight to use ingredients for supper that hailed from a universe more amenable to her digestion, which was fortunate, as the spell whose logic she was currently running through with Eilendil in her head was going to drain her considerably. She would be needing as much help with recovery, small assistance though it was, as she could get.

There’s no way I can integrate the timelines to take the energy from me every time he gets hurt. It would kill me instantly. 

What if you used the boy as a source as well?

Come now. You know if it would kill me, it would certainly kill him—kill the both of us. You saw what the time magic did to me in Insomnia. What if I created a reservoir in him with Lliamérian magic?

With the energy coming from him? That would work, but for how long could you sustain the spell? You cannot protect him until he meets you. That is too long—too much.

Ignis was twenty-two years old now, and judging by his comments about learning to cook, his past counterpart was between nine and ten years old. If she played it safe and assumed he was nine, that made thirteen years to cover. Eilendil was right; she couldn’t sustain the energy for that long, not on this world, anyway. She’d known that he’d attended university at fifteen and joined the Crownsguard at sixteen; perhaps then would be safe?

I could survive seven years.

These humans will be the death of you, Laurelín.

Laura ignored his comment, already well-versed on his opinions of her more harebrained schemes. She pulled away and glanced around the campfire. Ignis sat quietly, taking in every movement of his surroundings from his chair as the rest of them ate—from the flickering flames of the campfire to the broth dripping from Prompto’s spoon to the flash of movement of a wild sabertusk in the distance.

“If you’re still hungry, Ignis, please help yourself to as much as you would like,” she said.

“No thank you, Miss Rose. The . . . gentleman, whose name I’m afraid I don’t know yet, gave me two bowls. I couldn’t eat another bite.”

“This stuff’s different,” Noctis said, stabbing at the bowl with his spoon. “A little too . . . healthy though.”

“How did you make that broth? I’ve never tasted alstrooms that strong,” Prompto said.

Gladio took another bite, swallowed, and said, “Yeah, what in the name of Bahamut’s balls is this stuff, anyway? It’s fucking awesome.”

Laura cast an amused glance at Ignis’s wide-eyed, scandalized expression before choosing her words carefully and replying, “It’s a dish called ochazuke. I dipped into my own ingredients stash to make this, so I’m afraid you won’t find anything like it around here. The broth is actually a tea called gyokuro konacha, not an alstroom, though the dish does contain a type of mushroom similar to alstrooms. Still, it’s the tea you’re tasting. Everything else should be pretty straightforward for you.”

“Well damn, girl, gonna have to have you cook more often for us, eh Iggy?” Gladio said with a smile and a wink at Ignis.

Ignis swallowed, mouthing the word “Iggy” with a questioning look. “Me, sir? Oh, I don’t know. It was the most delicious meal I’ve had in recent memory, however,” he added diplomatically to Laura.

“Thank you, dear,” she said with a smile.

When they had finished eating and the dishes had been cleaned and put away, Laura sighed deeply. They needed to get this over with. The boys had already lingered for far too long, and every moment increased the chance of a slip of the tongue. She approached Ignis, who was still sitting by the fire near the three men, and crouched down in front of him.

“Ignis? The boys are going to leave soon. Then it’s just going to be you and me until you go back. Will you let me heal your back before they go?”

He pushed the bridge of his glasses up his nose with a finger before looking down at her. “You needn’t waste more potions on my account, Miss Rose.”

“This won’t be a potion. Please?” she pleaded, hating herself for manipulating him like this, but it wasn’t as though she could ignore the potential paradox, either. “It would make me feel so much better if I knew you were completely healed.”

He hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “I shall do anything you wish if it pleases you,” he smiled at her. For what seemed the millionth time that day, she smiled back as her hearts broke. Subservient Ignis was not someone she ever wanted to see again, and she would spend the next two days chasing him off if she had to.

She straightened before sitting down in the chair next to him. “Please, come stand in front of me.”

There was a spark of apprehension in his eyes and mind again that she wished she could quash, but her own fear was welling up within her. This Ignis had not yet grown accustomed to her energy signature, and while she had adapted her touch to the people of this world, her own magic remained the exception. This might hurt him, a lot, but she had no way of knowing.

But of course, now she realized that her spell in his body for seven years was what made it so easy for him to help her acclimate when they’d first met. She’d thought at the time he was just being polite and hiding his reaction to her, as was typical for him. But no, this, and the consequences resulting from it, was part of the time loop she had to close. At least she knew that he would survive this intact, and with only a vague memory of these events.

As he stood in front of her, she took both of her hands in his. “Okay, here’s what’s going to happen. This is going to be a little different from a potion,” she said, looking up into his wide, viridian eyes. “I’m going to put my hands on your back and do a spell. It might feel tickly; it might itch. It might hurt, Ignis. I wish I could say that it wasn’t going to, but it’s different for everyone. If it does hurt, it should only be for a second, and then you’ll be as good as new. All you have to do is hold still.”

Knowing exactly what was expected of him, he nodded seriously. At her request, he turned and lifted his shirt so that his back was bared to her. The light from the campfire flickered against the marks, casting eerie moving shadows against his vulnerable back, and she clenched her jaw, closing her eyes to look away from the sight for a moment. She could hear Gladio cracking his knuckles as he clenched his fists, and she hoped his anger on Ignis’s behalf didn’t frighten the boy.

Scooting to the very edge of her chair, she summoned the magic to the palms of her hands and brought them to the skin of his lower back. She felt him inhale as she touched him, but he didn’t move otherwise. Taking a deep breath, she cast the spell of knitting, blending, healing, and renewal.

“Náranath araīm, logara oá lliana. Mumúren ath narathat, la thana.”

Moving her hand upward as she repeated the spell, she watched as the scabs and scars disappeared, leaving fresh, unmarked skin. From his stance and mind, Ignis didn’t seem to be in pain, and the draw on her energy and the burn from the Crystal was bearable. But this was the easy part.

When the last of the white scars had faded to his natural skin tone, she paused with both her hands placed vertically along his spine. Here, she switched to song, which was better for more complex, emotional spells. She sang of Ignis’s kind and gentle heart, his indomitable spirit, and his fierce and beautiful soul. Next, she sang of the darkness he would face, but also of the family he would find in the three men currently watching them—infusing a message of hope enduring. Then, she sang of her protection, vowing that she would always watch over him. Strictly speaking, these words would not affect the spell, but she hoped that by adding them, they would bring him some comfort over the coming years and preserve his mind.

Turning to the heart of the spell, she built the foundation for the reservoir, which would lie dormant in him for the next seven years—filling with his own energy as he could spare it and activating when he needed to protect and heal himself. As she sang, she held the power back in her hands, letting it build until a blinding silver light had built between her palms and the skin of Ignis’s back.

Finally, she released the magic, and a silver glow enveloped him, starting at the point of contact, before spreading over his entire body and disappearing. Laura threw her head back and sucked in a stabbing breath of air, the searing pain too much for her hide as she felt her life force transfer from her to Ignis. Beneath her hands, she could feel that Ignis had gone rigid as well, and she hoped she wasn’t hurting him too badly. God, she’d never wanted to be the one responsible for hurting him.

Her energy continued to drain to cover those seven years, and for the second time that day, she struggled to maintain her hold on consciousness as angry tongues of lava licked at her every nerve. Come on, damn it, she gritted her teeth.

Laurelín, stop this!

She wasn’t sure why he would even say such a thing. He knew as well as she that once the spell was released, the energy was committed whether it killed her or not.

It’s almost done. Don’t give me any energy unless you must. We may need it later.

His voice grew anxious. If you die here, you leave me in this world for eternity, without even eyes to see. Please, don’t leave me.

I won’t, Eilendil; I promise.

After what seemed forever but was only seven seconds, the drain slowed, then halted as her hands slipped from Ignis’s back. When he stepped away from her, she discovered that she was weaker than she’d thought, as she sagged forward, nearly tumbling out of the chair and into the fire, but Gladio was there in a flash to catch her.

“Easy there,” he said in a low, deep voice, wrapping her in his arms and lifting her. “I’ve gotcha.”

“My hero,” she said breathily.

By the light of all the stars, you are the stupidest creature I have ever encountered. I cannot condone this. Wake me when we leave this forsaken world.

I love you too, dearest.

“Ignis, are you all right?” she called softly, not able to see him past Gladio’s massive arm holding her head up.

“Yes, Miss Rose,” came his small voice from below. “I’m sorry.”

“S’alright, big guy,” Gladio called over his shoulder as he headed for the tent. “Stay out here for a minute, will ya?”

“Yes, sir.”

Gladio carried her into the tent and placed her gingerly on top of her sleeping bag, summoning her favorite blanket from the armiger and laying it over her. He settled for a moment on his knees, looking her over.

“You sure you’re gonna be okay by yourself tonight?”

“Keep your voice low so he doesn’t hear. But yeah. Ignis should sleep through the night. I should be conscious, at least, by morning,” she said as she struggled to keep her eyes open. “Don’t come back until the third morning, but stay close. I’ll send Ignis if he comes back sooner.”

“Will do. We’ll be nearby if you need us. We’ll have to keep outta sight, we’re so close. Bet we could hear you if you shouted loud enough. Just keep your cool if you see a spider or something, yeah?”

“Pfft. What would I call you for then? Bet you’d scream like a little girl, Princess,” she mumbled.

He placed a hand on her shoulder, and she forced her eyes to open enough to look up at him. “Thanks,” he said in a low, rumbling bass, “for everything you did—everything you said. You were right.”

She smiled as he shuffled to leave the tent, but he stopped when she said, “Gladio? I know I’ve only known you guys for a couple of weeks, but I just wanted you to know, I do love you all. I would have done the same for any of you.”

He swallowed, his nostrils flaring as his eyes shifted just left of her head. “I know I’ve been kind of a shit to you, but gods damn if you don’t make it hard with all your alien stuff. But thinking of all you’ve done for us . . . you’re family now. We don’t got much left.”

“Gladio . . .,” she said, touched, but unsure of what else to say to ease his pain.

“G’night, Princess,” he said, turning away from her. “See ya in a couple of days. Don’t worry ‘bout a thing with us. You just take care of Iggy so he can come back to us.”

“Night, Glad,” she sighed. 

When Ignis came in about a minute later, he immediately kneeled at her side, spreading his hands wide and hovering them above her where she lay.

“Miss Rose, please, I must beg for your forgiveness,” he breathed. “If I had known that I was going to incapacitate you . . ..”

“It’s all right, dear. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. You’re worth it.”

He shook his head. “Forgive me, but I’m just a servant. I cannot be worth—”

“Listen to me,” she interrupted. “Station doesn’t mean anything at all in this world. It’s all nonsense, dear. Your worth is measured by your heart, and you have the most incredible heart, Ignis. You’re worth more than the stars. Promise me you’ll remember that.”

He wouldn’t remember, she knew, but she had to tell him—to try—at least.

“I’ll remember; I promise. Miss Rose?” She hummed in response. “Are you an Astral?” he asked breathlessly.

She couldn’t help herself; she let out a barked “Ha!” Some things never changed.

When he blanched, she softened her voice. “Sorry,” she said, “but no. I’m nobody, really.”

His rushed outburst made it clear he’d been sitting on his observations quite long enough and wanted answers. “But your magic is nothing like that of the Crownsguard or Kingsglaive. It glows silver, while the Crystal magic is blue. I saw it shining behind me when you healed me. And the Crystal’s magic doesn’t work through song. And I didn’t recognize that language you sang. And the way you summon things is different. And I’ve never seen swords like yours before. And . . ..”

“You notice far too much for your own good,” she said on a sigh. This conversation needed to end, and soon. “I’m sorry, but I really can’t tell you.”

A frustrated expression flitted across his aristocratic features, but he remained silent. “You must be tired,” she said, closing her eyes. She certainly was. “Lie down and go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Yes, Miss Rose,” he said reluctantly before settling into his sleeping bag.

***

When Laura opened her eyes, attempting to shake her head free of the cobwebs of sleep that still threatened to hold her to her pillow, she knew it was far too early; the moon was still casting the tent in an almost ethereal blue light. Yet something had awoken her—a heavy exhale, followed by a deep, sucking inhalation.

“Ignis?” She rolled to her side and sat up, waiting for the wave of dizziness that washed over her to dissipate before she reached out to him. “Hey, I’m here,” she called softly.

A tiny body lunged for her, and she could feel his face burying in her neck and his thin arms wrapping around her shoulders. “I’m so sorry; I’m not usually like this,” he said between pants. “I don’t know what’s come over me. I can’t seem to control it.”

She held him close, running her fingers gently through his hair. When he pulled away, she could see the unshed tears shining in his eyes.

“It’s all right. A nightmare’s to be expected after all you’ve gone through today, and doubtless this is your first time sleeping outdoors. It can be disorienting after life in the city, especially all those strange sounds out there in the dark. But we’re safe here in the haven,” she said. “Here. Lie down on your stomach for me, will you? There’s something my gran used to do for me when I had bad dreams.”

It was about time someone did something kind to this child’s back.

When he laid back down, she placed her hand under his shirt and ran the very tips of her fingernails gently over his new skin, starting across the very tops of his shoulder blades and working in slow, swirling patterns down to the middle of his torso and back up again. His lungs expanded as he took a deep breath, and his body slowly collapsed under her hand as he sighed and snuggled deeper into his sleeping bag.

“This was my favorite thing in the world when I was your age. I loved how it gave me the chills,” she said softly in case he was falling asleep.

“I like it,” he whispered as though it were a dark and shameful confession. “No one has ever . . ..”

She waited for him to finish, but no more words came. “We’ll have to see what we can do about that,” she said. After a few moments of silence, she began humming absent-mindedly, already in the space between sleep and awake. Eventually, she felt his mind slow, and they both fell back to sleep until sunrise.

***

The headache and searing timelines were still sending streams of fire down every fiber of her being the next morning. She’d only just gotten used to the sensation of the absence of pain since aligning, but if these mad situations kept popping up, she supposed she’d better get accustomed to this feeling instead. Stretching out a hand, she was alarmed to find a cold sleeping bag next to her, and she bolted upright, holding her head in both hands to keep the tent from spinning. God, she felt like she’d been hit in the head with a troll’s club—again.

“Ignis?” she called out, hoping he was nearby, hoping the boys were keeping watch.

“I’ll be right in,” came his reply from not far away. Relieved at his quick response, she flopped back down onto her pillow.

When he entered the tent carrying a carafe full of sheep’s milk and a tray with two bowls full of what looked like oatmeal, he said, “Apologies, Miss Rose, but it took me longer than anticipated to lay my dress shirt near the fire without getting it soiled. I’m afraid I couldn’t locate an iron.”

He’d been busy doing more than that this morning, as his hair was wet, but styled, his trousers damp, but clean.

“You started a fire?” she asked with some alarm. Ignis might have been a genius, but he was still a child of the city. “And how did you manage to make breakfast? You don’t have access to the armiger.”

He shook his head. “The fire was already going when I woke up, and these were sitting on a chair that had been moved to right in front of the tent flap. Doubtless it was one of your company.”

“Yes,” Laura sighed, the corner of her lip twitching. “They can be very thoughtful at times.”

He placed the tray on the floor of the tent and sat down cross legged next to her. “Are you all right?” he asked earnestly, his green eyes bright and wide in the morning light streaming into the tent.

“Yes, I’ll be fine,” she said, sitting up slowly and reaching for one of the bowls. “I might need a little help getting around today though.”

His expression grew serious as he nodded sharply at her. “Leave everything to me, Miss Rose. I’ll take care of you.”

Laura shook her head. “No, Ignis. It doesn’t work like that. We take care of each other, all right?”

The smile that spread across his face was sweet and boyish, enough to crinkle his eyes at the corners. “All right.”

Once Ignis had cleared away and even washed their dishes, they spent the rest of the day in leisure together. He was a bossy little caretaker, insisting that she not lift a finger to assist him, but she indulged his miniature authoritarian streak for now, despite her distaste at being coddled—even if it was by a precocious nine-year-old.

As the sun rose higher and the heat in the tent grew to be unbearable, Laura pressed a small crack into one of Noctis’s ice spells, and they lounged in the crumpled bedding in the cool tent for most of the day. She found The Little Prince in her Pocket and figured the absurdity and the alien in the story would explain away anything off, so she read to him. Several times, she would open her eyes to discover that she had fallen asleep, and he had taken the book from her to read in a soft, dulcet voice. Both times they emerged from the tent, with her arm wrapped around Ignis’s shoulders as he supported her weight long enough to guide her to the outhouse, they found that a tray of Cup Noodles had been left by the renewed campfire. A rush of tenderness washed over Laura at the sight of Gladio’s, most likely, sincere attempts at taking care of them.

As night fell, Ignis reluctantly led her out to the fire and helped her sit down before settling into his own chair next to her.

“You should be resting,” he said with a frown of disapproval.

“I am resting!” she argued, sticking her tongue out at him. “See? Sitting down and everything!”

“It’s my fault you’re hurt,” he replied, looking down at the fire, a crease forming in the middle of his scrunched brow.

“Hey, now, none of that,” she said, leaning over to wrap her arm around his shoulders and pulling him closer to the chair arms between them. “I had us come out here so we could watch the sunset and count the stars as they come out.”

“The sunset was lovely, even through the clouds, and the mountains in the distance—stunning. I do wish I could have seen the stars though. I used to read from my alstoronomy book to Prince Noctis when we were younger, but I’ve never gotten to actually see them. I’m sure it’s quite the sight.”

“We’ll try again tomorrow, if we can,” she said.

He sat back with a sigh, crossing his legs and placing his hands on top of his knees. “This was more than enough.”

They didn’t have to say a word to each other as he did his best to support her weight to the tent and settled down in his sleeping bag on his stomach. Laura reached out immediately, spreading her fingertips wide between his shoulder blades and humming soothingly to somewhat cover up the rustling and howling of the wild animals and the creaking and shrieking of the daemons appearing nearby. She so wished she could put him to sleep telepathically so he could get an uninterrupted night’s rest, but there was no possible way to obtain his permission without explaining what she was doing. So she remained awake with him, brushing her nails over his skin and humming until she felt his mind drift off.

Laura was strong enough the next morning to walk short distances on her own, but her knees would start shaking by the time she got back from the outhouse. She couldn’t bear to spend another day cooped up in the tent, so she slathered Ignis’s face, neck, and arms in sunscreen, and they spent the day out by the campfire.

To her surprise, he requested more ochazuke when she asked him if he had any preferences for lunch, but of course he wouldn’t let her stand long enough to prepare it herself. He allowed her to start the rice and the tofu, but insisted she sit down while she directed him on the preparation for the vegetables and putting the bowls together. When it came to the tea, however, he paused.

“May I please try some of this on its own?”

“Of course,” she said, summoning a mug and getting up to pour some from the pot.

His eyes widened when he took a sip. “This is remarkable. Why does it taste so much like mushrooms if there aren’t mushrooms in it?” he asked.

She knew he was gifted child, so she decided not to talk down to him as she answered, “The leaves are grown in the shade toward the end, which reduces the rate of photosynthesis and increases theanine levels, that’s the amino acid that creates the savory flavor.”

Ignis frowned for a moment, but then he nodded once. “I see. And why does the reduction in photosynthesis increase theanine levels?”

“Sorry, I don’t know everything about everything, you know!” she laughed. “Come on. Let’s eat, and then I’ve got a very important lesson planned for today.”

Once they had finished eating, Laura summoned a blanket and laid it down at the edge of the haven, curling one edge up so that it formed a makeshift pillow on one side.

“I apologize, Miss Rose,” Ignis said, his tone calm and pleasant, but his mind coloring with unease, and she straightened and turned to see what could have upset him so suddenly. “I’m afraid I don’t have my notebook and pen with me. Do you happen to have a spare I may borrow?”

Laura shook her head and gave him a reassuring smile. “It’s not that kind of lesson, sweetheart. Not all lessons are about memorizing facts and being graded.”

Once she felt his mind relax, she allowed her expression to grow glittering and euphoric. “Now come lie down. This is supposed to be fun!”

This was her favorite part of spending time with him—at any age, it would seem—showing him the wonders of his own planet. She’d tried a few times with the others: Noctis was only mildly interested; Prompto preferred a landscape based on its photographability and the presence of wildlife; and Gladio appreciated the scenery, but preferred to be left alone with it, which she could understand. With Ignis, however, his mind would go still with wonder and amazement before looking over at her with those viridian eyes lit up with delight. It reminded her of those days, so long ago, when she was nineteen and being stolen away from Earth by the Doctor to be shown the wonders of all of time and space.

Would that she could do the same for Ignis. But without a temporally shielded vehicle, she couldn’t, so she would have to settle for showing him this, which seemed enough to him, for the time being.

“My skin feels all tingly,” he said, grinning as he laid back on the rolled-up bit of the blanket. “Feels as though my skin will go crispy like in an oven.”

“Yeah, ain’t it lovely?” she beamed at him. “Wouldn’t be able to stay like this for long, but the shade from the rock’s gonna cover us up soon. But we’re not here for the sun. Nah, we’re here for that sky,” she said pointing at the never-ending stretch of cerulean above them, sprinkled with hundreds of puffy white cumulus clouds.

As usual, his mind went still for a moment before he said, “I don’t believe I shall ever tire of that sight. It’s so different every time I look up. One could always see the daylight sky in Insomnia, of course, but not like this. It’s clear of the haze of the Wall, the pollution of the city.”

“And with the clouds, ya get to pick out the shapes. Come on, whaddya see?”

It took some time, convincing him to use his imagination, but he was eventually able to relax into the exercise and master the concept with his usual level of skill. In no time at all, he was pointing out clouds with likenesses of things from his daily life: cars whose makes and models she’d never heard of, the Citadel, a ballerina, a subway train, a steaming bowl of soup, a violin, one of Noctis’s favorite television characters.

Nervous about inadvertently saying something that would point out her foreign status in this world, she stuck with mundane objects she knew existed in his world: a toothbrush, a stack of books, a cat. Then she changed tactics.

Pointing at a thoroughly ordinary-looking cloud, she said, “I see a grand banquet table, big enough to seat fifty, with a full set of fine dishes and silver, a soup tureen, and, see that little piece in the corner there? That’s the fish course.”

The look on his face was priceless as he turned to her; he gaped for a moment before arching a single eyebrow, his mouth tightening in a frown to keep from laughing in case she was serious.

“Either that, or a dualhorn,” she said, turning back to the sky to inspect the cloud again, her expression serious. “Yep,” she nodded sharply, “a very complex dualhorn.”

It was the snort she heard first, and when she turned to look over at him, she saw the grin on his face and his body convulsing with silent laughter. When she let a smile grow wide across her lips and started to giggle, his eyes scrunched tight as his convulsions grew to full, unashamed snorts.

“This is the most absurd lesson I’ve ever had,” he gasped between breaths.

“Those are the best kind,” she replied with a tongue-touched smile.

Their cloud watching ended as it grew too overcast to pick out any shapes, and it appeared as though there would be another night without stars. As evening approached, Laura could feel the timelines beginning to unfurl again, the headache and nausea finally beginning to subside. A bolt of pride flashed through her as she thought of adult Ignis, wherever he was and whatever he was doing at that moment. It seemed that everything was going to turn out all right.

She and his miniature counterpart spent the rest of the evening making s’mores and trading cheesy jokes. As they readied for bed, she handed him the shirt he had arrived in.

“You might be going back tonight. You should wear this, just in case,” she said regretfully.

And just like that, the leisure of the last two days was washed away. Though his expression didn’t noticeably change, his eyes seemed to dull and his posture seemed to grow more rigid. It was then that she realized he hadn’t once asked her when or how he was getting back to Insomnia.

“This has been a most enchanting dream, Miss Rose; I hope to have it again sometime. But I do need to get back. His Highness needs me.”

“I know, dearest,” she said sweetly, drawing him into a fierce hug, wishing with everything she was she could be there to protect him when he returned. She would have to do some finagling before she left this universe to ensure he wouldn’t get into trouble for going missing these past two days. “I wish we could keep you here with us.”

He pulled away and seemed to be memorizing her features. “Will I ever see you again?” he asked.

She gave him a slow, beatific smile. “You will, someday. I promise.”

***

Ignis lay down in the tent with the strange woman who had been his guide to this dream world for the past two days. He was no fool; he knew she’d lied to him about being nobody. But then, what vision would freely admit to being an Astral?

He couldn’t seem to help the deep sigh that escaped him as he felt her nails whisper against the skin of his back, sending waves of tickling chills down his spine as she hummed that melancholy melody. As soon as he awoke from this illusion, he was going to research the name of it, along with every other odd aspect of this hallucination that had arisen. Ignis knew the scope of his own imagination, and while it was considerable, it was hardly this extensive or absurd.

Dream or not, he remained awake for as long as he could possibly hold his eyelids open, soaking in the goddess’s affection until he felt her hand fall limp across his shoulder blades. It was only then that he allowed himself to weep silently.

Chapter Text

If you get hit, know the effects are temporary, but above all, you must prevent a paradox, no matter how much you might want to change things.

Those words had been the refrain playing over and over in his head for the last two days, with perhaps her expletives acting as the hook.

But it was regret that acted as the verses for Ignis as he settled into the more deserted stacks of the Royal Library. He’d spent many a night here in his university years at the tender age of fifteen, dusting off faded obscure texts on the mysterious origins of the Lucian language or scrolling through microfilms of older war coverage. At the time, the quiet solitude inside his own mind had suited him, even if he’d been rather lonely, for he had owed no one anything in those hours of silence.

But now that he had come here and fully researched what a paradox was, his duty to keep the world intact bound him there, no matter how much he wanted to run to the King and tell him everything, no matter how much he wanted to fling himself into the nearest cab and visit his parents, no matter how much he wanted to summon every weapon at his disposal and protect every last man, woman, and child from what lay ahead. A dark part of him wished that he had explored the city before rushing out of the Citadel entrance and winging his way here, just so he wouldn’t have felt obligated to obey her final instructions, just so he could claim ignorance. But no, he’d already come too close to destroying the world when he’d bumped into a ten-year-old Gladio and his father quite by accident not a minute after he’d arrived.

Looking back, he knew he couldn’t have fit more into his life than he had already, but that regret burning in him made him wonder if he had always fit in the most important things, especially knowing now that much of that which he’d spent so much time on was no longer useful after the Fall. Would it have been so awful if he’d found some graceful way to let the King know of his fond regards? He could have discovered His Majesty’s reciprocated familial affection while the King was still alive. Could Noct have gone a single day without an escort to the arcade, or even gone with another escort, such as Gladio, so he could have visited his mother and father, even if the eight-hour round trip meant he would have only seen them for a couple of hours? He most certainly should have never cancelled a single meal with his Uncle Caeli.

But it hardly mattered reviewing how he could have done things differently in the past, even if his past was currently in the future. He needed to make plans for his present, which also happened to lie in the future. Ignis had spent his entire life thus far preparing for a future as Hand to the King of Light, which no one had truly understood the scope of, so he’d spread his considerable cognitive resources thin to encompass as many subjects as possible. That broad scope was the reason why he’d even begun Crownsguard training, so that he could assist Gladio in fighting whatever darkness was coming for Noct. Now that his scope was beginning to narrow, he had taken advantage of this free time in the library these past two days to research that which may prove useful in traveling to the different regions of Lucis to collect the Royal Arms, including tomb locations, foraging, tactical strategies for daemon hunting, area history, offensive and defensive magic, Niflheimian geography, and even some small amount of field medicine and recipe research for Laura. 

After hours of sitting still, he would stand and stretch his body, extending each muscle in his long and lanky frame until they burned and tingled as he reached for the ceiling. He’d thought he’d been missing the cool cleanliness and comfortable luxuries of civilization, and really, he had. But he found that sitting in chairs all day no longer suited him; he missed using his body and brain in equal measure. He missed the thrill of the hunt and tactical planning on the wild, open plains of Leide. He missed Noct, Prompto, and Gladio. He missed Laura. Astrals, he hoped they were all safe from that horrible creature after he’d been . . . transported.

He had no idea how long the “temporary” effects would last, so Ignis had convinced the café owner downstairs that he was a starving student and would trade a few hours’ food preparation work in exchange for a sandwich or two. The café owner, a grandmotherly woman with a careworn face and bright brown eyes, had pinched at his collarbone, declared him entirely too thin, and sent him on his way three hours later with six enormous sandwiches and a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies. Doing his best to brush aside the no doubt inadvertently implied insult to his physique, he’d stashed his bounty in the back of the refrigerator in the employee break room and still had enough provisions to last a while, at least.

This wasn’t a long-term solution, however, so he settled into one of his favorite sections of the library—the linguistics section—to make his plans. Not only was this area always deserted because the majority of even the most scholarly academics were unaware of the true nature of the discipline, it was also located in a corner with a window overlooking a picturesque courtyard—with trees dropping their vibrant gold and scarlet leaves onto the benches below as the sky darkened beyond the Wall. He settled into the plush black armchair that he himself had likely moved to the window as a boy. This concept gave him pause, but he knew it was safe enough to be here now, as he’d never had the time to visit on the weekdays.

He would have to leave Insomnia should this “adventure” last longer than a week. There was too much of a chance for him to run into someone, anyone, he knew from the future, as well-connected as he was. But without access to the armiger or a functioning mobile, he would need to find means for protecting himself, purchasing provisions, hitching a ride at the very least. How would he know what was safe? He thought of Laura, walking through all those periods of history. How did she always know what was safe? She must have some innate sense or an item in order to move freely about the worlds in which she traveled, else she’d cause destruction wherever she walked.

Pushing his second and third fingers up under his glasses to rub at his eye, he settled deeper into his armchair, arranging his notebook and tome on offensive field magic in his lap so it wouldn’t fall if he fell asleep. Anyone happening by, seeing him in this state, would likely think him yet another overworked intern and leave him be. He’d done all he could for today.

***

Ignis started awake, though he didn’t recall falling asleep. The lack of light combined with the warmer temperature and change in atmosphere indicated he was no longer in the library. That hadn’t been a dream, had it? Regardless of where he’d been for the past two days, he had to be somewhere now. He began to raise himself to his elbows to peer into the dim, but a hand resting on his bare shoulders beneath his shirt made him freeze.

“Shhh, Ignis,” Laura cooed beside him, “I’m here.” He felt her fingernails scratching lightly between his shoulders as she hummed a few notes of an impossible melody before drifting back to unconsciousness.

All right, so he was in the tent alone with Laura, who had apparently felt comfortable enough with him to touch his bare skin in sleep. This sudden escalation in their interactions, while probably the most comforting sensation he’d ever experienced—like crawling into bedding fresh from the dryer on a frigid winter’s evening—was bewildering. He thought it best to lie still so as not to wake her while he gathered his scattered thoughts.

If he had indeed been in Insomnia for the past two days, what had been happening here? Clearly, he had still been here in some capacity, or Laura wouldn’t be so . . . solicitous with him right now. Had his body lain here while his mind had traveled back in time? That didn’t seem likely, as he’d needed a corporeal form to affect events. The answers wouldn’t simply appear before him; he had to wake her to discover what had happened and, most importantly, where the others were. As soon as he shifted to his side to face her, her hand sliding down and around to his ribs, her eyes snapped open wide. As quick as lightning, she snatched her hand from beneath his shirt and sat up.

“You’re back,” she said. “I’m sorry; I thought I’d feel it when you returned and would have time to move away. Your younger self was having trouble sleeping.”

Her words stirred a memory deep within him, but he brushed it aside in favor of the most important information he needed. “Are the others all right? Where are they? Where are we?”

“Everyone’s fine. You were the only one hit by the paradoxis, the creature you saw. With no damage done to the timelines, we’re safe now. The others are staying at the camper just across the road, and we’re at the haven. You’re welcome to go and wake them now, but seeing as how it’s the middle of the night, I doubt even Noctis’s relief to see you again will eclipse his grouchiness at being awoken at this hour.” She gave him a tired smile.

“I don’t believe there exists anything in this world capable of such a feat,” he replied, returning her smile with a quirk of his own lips.

“How much do you remember?” she asked suddenly, the expression on her face morphing to concern.

“I’m not entirely certain. I thought I was hallucinating when I found myself standing in the middle of the grand entrance of the Citadel, bumping into a ten-year-old Gladio and his father. I had only a vague notion of what a paradox was from my paltry explorations into science fiction, so I went directly to the library and looked it up. Of course, it was difficult to find any reliable sources, time travel being a theoretical construct on our world. After that, I spent the rest of my time hiding among the stacks in the more deserted wings, making plans in case I had to settle in for a longer stay.”

“At the risk of sounding condescending,” she said, her expression growing warm, “I’m so proud of you. Not everyone handles their first time traveling experience with as much resourcefulness and level-headedness, you know.”

He let out an indelicate snort. “First time traveling experience? I should hope that this was my final time traveling experience, thank you. Standing on a blade’s edge of the world ending for two days is not something I care to repeat.”

Laura reached out a hand and settled it over his gloved one. “Are you all right? I know that can’t have been easy for you, being back there.”

He looked down at his lap, pushing down his grief and regret for a moment before nodding. But this wasn’t what he wished to discuss. “I must ask, what has transpired during my absence? There are indications that I was here in some capacity.”

“You should remember some of it, do you not? The paradoxis switched you for your younger self, and we’ve been playing host to you as a nine-year-old. I had to send the others away to prevent contamination to the timelines.”

He felt the color drain from his face and his entire body seize as his eyes drifted to a loose thread on her sleeping bag. He’d have to trim that before they packed up.

A distant memory shimmered in his mind of a blissful vision—a kind and gentle seraphim offering him respite from the Prince’s convalescence with reading and sleeping and watching the clouds and oh. He had thought her to be Shiva in his youth, sent to him as a lodestar to guide him through his difficult school years, but this entire time, she’d been real, a goddess made flesh and blood and standing right in front of him. Rose, she’d called herself. At first, he’d awoken in his favorite chair in the library with bitter tears, thinking it had all been a dream paired with some sort of bizarre somnambulance. But as he’d lain awake in his bed later, the fresh wild air beginning to clear from his lungs, he’d decided to treat the goddess much as Noct had treated Carbuncle in his own vision and hold her as a talisman against the dark. Shiva—his Rose.

“Oh, my word. That was real. All these years, and I thought you had been a dream.”

Over time, many of the details of the dream had faded so that he no longer knew what was dreamed and what was made up after the fact. As the years progressed and he grew more proficient in his duties so as not to need his Rose as often, he’d slowly let her slip from his mind, to the point where it had been years since he’d last thought of her, until recently. It was a relief to have the mystery of where he knew her from solved, at least. It had been a most irksome inconvenience, that puzzle continuing to poke at his mind like an angry, buzzing fly.

Laura tilted her head and looked at him carefully. “How much do you remember from that time?”

He shook his head, not willing to try too hard to recall the details so he wouldn’t feel obligated to discuss it with her. “Not much, flashes of your face mostly.”

She hummed in affirmation and closed her eyes, leaning back into her pillow once more. “And the song,” she whispered.

“Yes. I confess to spending a great deal of time trying to learn the name of it in my youth. I even wrote a composition of it when I could find no evidence of its existence. How did you know?”

“Noctis almost let something slip in front of you. Implied you used to sing it to him when he was young. It’s called ‘Once Upon a December,’ by the way, but you couldn’t find it because it isn’t from this world.” She yawned and said, “I’m sorry.”

Ignis squinted into the dark, attempting to see her face in greater detail. She seemed exhausted, and he wondered what she’d had to do to save the others from the paradoxis. Knowing that everything had turned out all right in the end and that everyone was safe, he could wait until later to hear more. He himself was rather fatigued after spending so much time on the brink of the world ending.

“No, I should have waited until morning to inconvenience you. Please, go back to sleep.” 

He settled down on his side, facing her, and allowed his gaze to roam over her already sleeping form—her eyelashes laid against her pale cheeks, the angle of her jaw, the curves of her silhouette in the diffused moonlight. Suppressing the desire to run his fingertips over the curve of her cheekbone, he removed his gloves and glasses, placed them above his pillow, and closed his eyes.

In between taking notes and ruminating on all he had regretted not doing in the past, a potential regret in his future kept surfacing in his mind as he sat in that library, like one of Noct’s sea bass breaching the surface of the waves just to tease him.

Laura. He was afraid he was developing feelings for her. His heart couldn’t identify them, but his head was screaming that could possibly be love, and that was terrifying. He couldn’t possibly . . . enamored, perhaps—attracted, most certainly. But he should have known, really, when his heart fluttered as though he were a character in some silly romance novel that first night she had sat in the moonlight at the haven. And there weren’t just feelings there. In the deepest recesses of his mind, he wanted her; he’d wanted her since the moment he’d contained his longing to run his hands over her skin as he’d held her hand by the fire.

Ignis had always been the sort of man who decided on what he wanted or needed, or what Noct wanted or needed, and went out to obtain it as efficiently as possible: his cooking skills; his degrees in foreign affairs, political science, and economics; his rank of Sergeant in the Crownsguard and all the accompanying skills that went with it. But this was different. This wasn’t the simple matter of crawling into the pits of hell and forcing his blades into the hearts of his foes as he’d been training for since he was sixteen. This was his heart, over which his head had always taken precedence. He didn’t know how to balance the two, wasn’t equipped for it, and when he was around her, he would find himself swept away by one or the other in any given moment. Even now, he was torn between ignoring the matter of romance as he always had or waking her and pressing his lips against that mouth of hers, Six damn the consequences. More and more, he found he wanted to be swept away for once in his life. He wanted to be the one to be carried, to be carried off. He’d let go before with her and trusted her to be there to catch him, and she’d thus far never let him down.

In a way, she was far safer than any other choice he could make. His duty to Noct wasn’t in danger, as their goals were the same in that regard. But she was still a goddess—his own personal goddess, in fact—and he was still a servant to the Crown. His own meagre title was still nothing in comparison to divinity. Was he daring enough to pursue a goddess despite being unworthy? It was better than regretting that he’d never even tried. And, if he proceeded with caution, he could strike when he was certain of her reciprocated feelings without risking their friendship.

He had been wrong in front of her. He had been weak in front of her. Now she could watch as she inspired him to be audacious. This was folly, but he couldn’t help himself. Gods damnit, he wanted to live, just this once, and see where it got him.

***

From beneath his closed eyelids, Ignis could tell that the light had only just begun to change, but he was loath to open his eyes and break the spell he was under. Astrals, he was so warm, so comfortable, with that enticing scent of pine and kithairon enveloping him and the delicious sensation of her body breathing against his. But he needed to get up and see for himself that Noct was safe, so he opened his eyes to face reality.

But she was still there when he looked down; they had migrated toward one another like lovers in the night, with her head cradled against his left arm, her hands curled up against his chest, and his right hand resting on the dip below her ribcage and around to the small of her back. Sucking in a quiet breath, he savored for a moment the heat of her body seeping through her shirt and into his palm as his face grew flush, but he had to remind himself that he couldn’t take any true meaning from this. She’d been affectionate with both Prompto and Gladio in the past; however, she never seemed to cross a certain line with either of them. Perhaps, if he subtly expressed his interest in touching her in a friendly manner when she was awake, as Prompto and Gladio had, she would be more demonstrative with him, and perhaps cross that line if she were interested. Yes, that seemed to be the most sensible way forward while he thought of a more comprehensive plan.

As carefully as he could, he disentangled himself from her, noting that her brow furrowed as they separated, but she made no other indications that she had stirred. He emerged from the tent, attempting to decide between walking across the road to the outpost immediately or having breakfast ready for them when he visited, when he spotted Gladio tiptoeing up the haven ramp with an armful of firewood.

“Gladio,” he called softly so as not to wake Laura.

Gladio started and, on seeing Ignis’s face as it should be, dropped the armful of firewood at his feet with a clatter. So much for his caution.

“Fuck. Iggy!” he called. Gladio jogged the rest of the way to where Ignis was standing and pulled him into a rough hug, resting his chin against Ignis’s shoulder and slapping his back. “It’s so good to see you man.”

“Good morning to you, too, Gladio,” he said mildly, patting Gladio’s shoulder in return and attempting to mask his surprise at the other man’s enthusiastic greeting. “Was the lack of proper nutrition these past two days really that distressing?”

Gladio pulled away and ignored his remark. “How long have you been back?”

“Only a couple of hours or so.”

Gladio seemed to search Ignis’s face for something, and the expression in his eyes reminded him of Laura always doing much the same. When he spoke, his enunciation was careful and earnest. “Are you all right? Do you remember being here with us?”

Ignis frowned. He really preferred keeping the experience of his vision of Rose to himself, much as he had these last thirteen years. “Flashes here and there, nothing more,” he replied.

Gladio hesitated, his mouth opening to speak, but he closed it again and nodded before tilting his head to scratch at his scalp. “Yeah, makes sense, I guess. You were pretty young then. And you? I mean, damn, this time thing’s confusing. Were you okay back in Insomnia?”

“Quite all right. Once I realized what had happened, it was only a matter of avoiding everyone.”

Gladio’s voice grew soft and gruff as he said, “How was it, being back home?”

Ignis let his eyes drift to the dead campfire, his expression blank. “Exactly how you would imagine, I suppose.”

“This is all some fucked up shit, you know?” Gladio said, his gaze also turning to the fire ring.

“Indeed,” he responded quietly.

They stood together in silence for several moments, shoulder to shoulder, staring at the blackened logs and piles of ash. Ignis wasn’t certain he could put a name to what he was feeling, but it felt like camaraderie, solidarity.

He heard Gladio take in a deep breath, then felt the light slap of the man’s hand against his shoulder. “Tell you what, I’ll go wake up the other two and get them back here to help take camp down. Cor’s got an assignment for us, and the sooner we get to it the better.”

Ah, yes. Nothing focused the mind better than a task on the horizon. “Very good. I’ll start breakfast and wake Laura.”

Gladio frowned as his head turned toward the tent. “Naw, let her sleep in. We’ll take the tent down last if she sleeps through the cleanup.”

Before Ignis could ask after her condition and the circumstances behind it, Gladio turned and headed down to the camper.

It took Gladio almost half an hour to return with Noct and Prompto, and Ignis hoped the delay meant they’d discussed his memory of what happened among themselves, as he wasn’t relishing the idea of them all fussing over him for the rest of the day.

“Iggy,” he heard Noct say from behind him, and Ignis turned to see Noct staring up at him, some intense, unidentifiable emotion behind his wide eyes. Noct reached a hand up to settle on his shoulder, still holding his gaze fast. “It’s really good to have you back, Specs,” he croaked.

“Yeah, we’re so glad to see ya, Iggy,” Prompto said from behind Noct, and Ignis looked over to see the younger man standing stock still for once, his hands at his sides and his expression troubled.

Ignis furrowed his brow, concerned for everyone’s reaction to his return. “It’s good to be back, Highness. Is everything all right?”

Noct took a step back and allowed his expression to grow into a cheeky grin. “Yeah. Just missed havin’ you in charge is all. Gladio’s a pain in my ass.”

“Clearly, he’s already influenced your language in a matter of days. I shudder to think what other manners he’s managed to undo in my short time away,” he replied, turning back to the stove before the eggs burned.

Fortunately, Gladio seemed to have shared what he knew because, aside from their unusual greetings, they left him to prepare breakfast, though they all seemed to hover, offering assistance or engaging him in idle chatter. He appreciated the company, as he preferred not to be alienated from the group during such times, but honestly, he wasn’t so delicate that two days away from his duties warranted such solicitude and change in their usual patterns of behavior. They needn’t have troubled themselves for his sake. Even as they all sat down to eat, the meal was spent in silence, with the others casting him furtive glances before staring back down at their breakfasts.

They had just finished eating when Laura crawled out of the tent, looking groggy. Gladio jumped out of his seat, hastening to her side to help her stand. Odd, it seemed as though he wasn’t the only one being treated delicately this morning.

“Morning, guys,” she said with a sleepy smile, rubbing at her eyes. “Are we heading out?”

“Yeah, Princess. Gotta drive down to Galdin Quay for a quick stop. Dino wants to see us for something. Then we’re coming back up here to kick some Nif ass,” Gladio said before putting his arm around her and pressing his lips to her temple. Laura responded by leaning into his side, wrapping her arms around the Shield’s body, and squeezing in a side hug.

“You think you’re feeling up to a drive?” Noct asked, standing to collect everyone’s dishes.

“Yeah, think I can manage to sit on a cushioned seat for a few hours, but only if one of you rubs my feet,” she said with a wink.

“Anything,” Prompto said, completely serious, but she shook her head and laughed.

Ignis’s eyes shifted to each member of the group in turn, lingering longest on Laura, who was still leaning under Gladio’s arm. Evidently, they had experienced something profound in his absence, and not only had Gladio and Noct seemed to have completely forgiven Laura for her secrecy, they had all bonded, deeply. He felt a slight prick of jealousy in his heart, and the corners of his mouth tugged down at the feeling. But he had established his own connection with her that he wasn’t sharing with the others, had he not? Still, he wished he could have been a part of whatever they’d experienced together, even if only for the opportunity to have grown closer to the others.

Once they had packed up the site and headed down to the Regalia, Ignis reached for the driver’s side door handle, but a hand came into view and rested on the door, stopping him.

“Hey Iggy,” Noct said. “Why don’t you sit in back today?”

“I assure you, I am sufficiently rested—”

“Yeah, but I wanna drive. You take a load off.”

Ignis narrowed his eyes at Noct. It wasn’t terribly unusual for him to want to drive for short stretches here and there, but the almost guilty expression on his face and the insistence that he rest was atypical. Had his younger self said something to the Prince to unsettle him so? He didn’t recall any such moment. In fact, he didn’t recall seeing the others at all during his vision. He decided it was best to let the matter pass, for now, as he was looking forward to an hour or so of sitting next to Laura before Noct no doubt got bored of driving and wanted to switch. He could request a fuller account from her to explain this behavior the next time they were alone.

“Of course, Highness.”

For the first ten minutes, Ignis watched the scenery fly by and kept an eye on Noct’s driving, Gladio pulled out a book, and Laura discussed new filter pre-settings with Prompto. The two grew quiet after a while, and Laura leaned her head back, crossing her arms over her middle and closing her eyes. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Prompto waving his hands wildly at him.

Ignis turned his head and cocked an eyebrow.

Hold her, Prompto mouthed, miming putting an arm around her shoulder.

He glared at Prompto. Was he seriously suggesting that he just . . . manhandle her? He shook his head furiously, but Prompto only nodded back with equal vehemence.

He let his eyes drift to Laura. She did look terribly uncomfortable. He could only imagine the stiffness in her neck when they finally arrived at Galdin Quay. This situation presented an opportunity to touch her, as he’d only just this morning proposed to himself. And Prompto’s affections hadn’t yet been met with disdain, so he should trust the younger man’s instincts.

Ignis adjusted his frame closer toward the door in preparation for what he was about to ask. Reaching over, he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Rose?” he called softly, and she snapped her head sharply up at him, too sharply to be appropriate for the situation. Perhaps she didn’t wish to be pestered.

“My apologies, I didn’t mean to startle you. I was only going to inquire, should you need the extra space, you are more than welcome to lean on me.”

What was she staring at? Was she disgusted by his offer? He couldn’t see how, as she had slept against Prompto in the past. He couldn’t fathom from her expression what she was trying to read in his. His mind flashed briefly to telepathy, but then he didn’t feel anything in his head—not that he knew what he was supposed to feel at a telepath’s touch. He wondered what her passive telepathy was perhaps picking up in his mind, besides bemusement.

Without any additional input on his behalf, joy blossomed across her face, and he felt his heart flutter in response.

“If you wouldn’t mind. I’m having trouble keeping awake.”

Suppressing the desire to allow a foolish grin to spread over his face, he ran his arm along the back of the seat and leaned as far as he could against the door.

“Not at all. Please.”

She laid herself along the side of his body, resting her head where his shoulder met his chest, and brought her other arm across his torso in an embrace, sighing peacefully. Removing his right hand from the back of the seat, he patted her shoulder gently, surreptitiously leaving it rested there when he’d finished.

“Ignis,” she sighed into his shoulder, barely loud enough for him to hear over the wind blowing over his ears, and he had to close his eyes against the swell of affection that rolled over him.

Before he could glance up at Prompto to make certain that someone besides him were there to witness this and ensure he was not hallucinating, he heard the click of that damned camera.

“Thanks, Prom,” Laura muttered, her eyes still closed. “Just what we need to see as we look back and reminisce, a picture of me drooling all over Ignis.”

“Heh heh, gotcha!” Prompto laughed. He locked eyes with Ignis for a moment, biting his lip melodramatically, bobbing his head, and giving him two thumbs up. Grateful though he was for Prompto’s encouragement that led to this situation, he couldn’t help but roll his eyes in response.

Another moment of silence passed before he heard Laura say in quiet wonder, “You called me Rose . . ..”

Had he? He didn’t recall. He’d been thinking about Rose all morning, so he supposed it was possible he’d accidently used her alternate appellation. Still, he didn’t know how to respond to that wonder in her voice.

 

Chapter Text

Gladio had long ago shifted against the door so he had a better view of Noct, who was still pissed after brooding for the last two days in the caravan, and Iggy, who seemed to be pretending that what they’d all seen hadn’t happened. He wanted to at least say something about it to his friend this morning, but if Iggy wouldn’t even acknowledge it as reality, there wasn’t much to do about it. Still, he wished Iggy had come to him all those years ago, even if they hadn’t known each other yet, even if he was only four at the time and couldn’t beat those guys to a pulp himself. He would’ve told his dad. He would’ve told the King. It would’ve stopped right then and there. Fuck, how lonely it must’ve been for the little guy, with no one to protect him, no one to turn to.

But they weren’t gonna discuss it because Iggy knew they didn’t have time for sitting down and crying, and Gladio respected the hell out of him for that, knowing that what he’d been through was so much worse than Gladio losing his parents. He’d managed to harden his heart against the pain better than even Gladio could—something his dad had been telling him to do for years, and that pretty much made Iggy his hero. No wonder that subservient, courteous exterior of his had been perfectly ice cold since he’d known him. Not that he’d been completely unfriendly. He was always babying Noct, smiling like an indulgent parent whenever he’d managed to make the kid happy. But still, he’d been pushing all that shit down and hiding it behind his schedule and his manners flawlessly since he was three years old, what the fuck.

Moving on or not, that wasn’t going to stop Gladio from tracking down every single asshole that had laid a hand on that boy, making sure they’d died in the Fall, or handling them himself if they hadn’t.

He turned the page of his book, using the motion to cover up the fact that he was trying to sneak yet another glance back at Iggy snuggled up in the back seat with Laura. Yep, the man was still blushing, and his eyes seemed to follow every shift of her hair, every breath of movement. Damn, the kid had it bad. She definitely seemed to be the crack in that frigid façade of his. Iggy’d been different since they’d left Insomnia; he’d never be mistaken for an emotional guy, but he had managed express something other than mild irritation or rigid formality a time or two since they’d left—usually only with Laura though. Gladio didn’t think he’d ever forget that laugh by the campfire.

He and Laura were in a different place now than a couple of days ago, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t concerned for his friend, especially after what’d just happened. Iggy didn’t fall easily, didn’t fall at all, and now he was smitten with someone who may or may not return his feelings. Iggy was the smartest guy Gladio knew, but puppy love could make anyone an idiot. Laura was pretty free with her affection, like Gladio himself. Did Iggy realize that her getting all cuddly with him didn’t necessarily mean attraction? But then again, a girl didn’t get up at three o’clock in the morning to sharpen a man’s blade because they were good friends, either. She’d never done that for Gladio.

He’d have to learn to trust her better. Looking back through different lenses, all the shit she’d gone through with them, especially the shit they’d put her through, made it pretty obvious she had no intention of hurting any of them. She’d made it pretty clear in the Fall and this mess with Iggy that she’d die for any of them, same as Gladio would. The words she’d said in Gladio’s defense to Noct had proven that she’d seen more of him than he’d been aware he’d shown, too. She was pretty damn perceptive, probably because of the telepathy thing. Yeah, he’d just have to trust she could handle Iggy’s heart.

Gladio went back to reading. Ever since Laura had served ochazuke the other day, he’d been looking for the tea in his book, but he couldn’t find gyokuro anywhere. He loved the pomp and tradition of a good tea ceremony, and each kingdom seemed to have vastly different rules, making it even more interesting. There was something calm and peaceful about sitting down with a good cup, watching the steam curl over the surface of the water, contemplating the flavors, and really taking the time to explore his own head in the quiet. There was something philosophical about ceremony for the sake of it, taking the extra care to do something as everyday as hot leaf water and coaxing all the different flavors out of a single leaf type with different brewing times and temperatures. The delicacy of the china and the way each person’s personality could be reflected in the intricate patterns was pretty cool too . . ..

“Prompto?” he heard Ignis ask quietly, interrupting his thoughts. “I never asked, were you all able to defeat the paradoxis all right?”

“Oh, the paradox thingy was no trouble. Disappeared as soon as it hit you. We got back to the haven no problem.”

“Then what has happened to make her like this?” Gladio looked up to see Iggy frowning down at Laura. “She looks waxen with exhaustion.”

Oh fuck, did he really not remember? Gladio’d thought he’d been vague this morning just so he wouldn’t have to talk about it. “She’ll be all right; don’t worry about it, Iggy,” Gladio said, his voice low.

Ignis’s frown deepened, his keen eyes narrowing at him. “I suspect, given that you all have been acting most strangely toward me this morning, that I should very much be worrying about it.”

“It’s no big deal,” Prompto said pleadingly. “She said it would take a few days of sleep and she’d be better.”

“As this has something to do with me, I believe I have the right to know.”

“She healed your back, Ignis,” Noct said tersely, his knuckles tightening on the steering wheel.

That cold resting expression of Iggy’s didn’t change, but Gladio watched the man grow white as a sheet as his jaw clenched hard enough to crack stone.

“So,” he said almost conversationally, as though they were discussing the fucking weather. “You all saw, then.”

“Yeah, we saw it. We saw it all,” Noct growled, glaring at the rearview mirror. “And you should’ve said something.”

“Do watch the road, Highness, you’re beginning to drift,” he said, stretching his neck to see over Noct’s shoulder.

“Fuck the godsdamn road, Ignis. You should’ve said something!”

“It wasn’t my place. A chamberlain’s duties require discipline and discretion at all times—”

“Don’t give me that crap. I’m not just your prince, and you know it. I’m your friend. I’m your brother. And you should’ve said something.”

At the word brother, Iggy’s eyes widened a fraction, the first real response he’d had since this fucked up conversation began. Did he really not know? Yeah, Noct sucked at expressing himself, but Iggy had practically raised the kid for gods’ sakes. Did he really still see himself as a servant after all these years? Even Gladio knew they both meant more to Noct than that.

“Oh, let’s not be dramatic, shall we? It wasn’t all that bad. I received an unparalleled education so that I could do my duty with grace, so I would know my place.”

“You’ve been brainwashed!” Noct said, slamming his hand against the steering wheel.

At the sound of Noct’s outburst, Laura stirred, stiffening as though she were about to awaken and adjusting her hand over Ignis’s chest, and they all went still for a few moments. But she resettled quickly, relaxing back into Iggy’s shoulder. Gladio wasn’t surprised. Iggy was right; the girl looked like a wax figurine still, even after a couple of days’ rest.

Noct hissed, “What about those first six years, Ignis? Did you forget she had to heal you in the first place? We all saw it. Your back was covered in scars.”

“Well, you’re welcome to look when we reach Galdin Quay, Highness,” he said airily, his chin raised in defiance, his expression cold and haughty. “There is not a mark on my person, so they obviously did their job more efficiently after that. Honestly, it isn’t as though they truly hurt me.”

Gladio had had enough of him defending those monsters. Did he really think it was normal to be whipped like that and not feel pain, not get injured? From the looks of things, Laura had almost died for him, and that arrogance in the face of her sacrifice was starting to piss Gladio off.

“That’s because of her, you idiot,” Gladio spoke up, nodding to Laura.

Ignis went deathly still, and for a moment, Gladio could see that terrified kid again, standing in front of that fucking stove, ready to take a blow from Noct that would never, ever come. Now that he knew what that face meant, the sight made him sick.

“What,” Iggy said in a flat, dead tone.

“When she healed you, she added something so you wouldn’t get hurt when they hit you,” Prompto said quietly.

“And where, may I ask,” he ground out, “has the energy for that been coming from these past thirteen years?”

Absolute silence reigned in the car, until they all heard a soft, “Stop it, please. All of you.”

Ignis looked down at Laura, tightening his grip so that he was clutching her tightly against his side, his face rigid.

“Please,” he said in a strangled tone, “tell me you didn’t. Tell me that every bump and injury I have received for the past thirteen years hasn’t been paid for with your life force.” His head shot up to Prompto, then Gladio, then the back of Noct’s head. “And the rest of you?” he added incredulously. “How could you have let her do this? How could you think that this is what I would want?”

They hadn’t really asked about the specifics of the spell when she’d proposed it, and honestly, it wasn’t until she had almost fallen into the campfire that any of them had really cared. They’d just wanted Iggy to be safe and whole, no matter what, and she was always invincible anyway. It’d been real fun in that caravan later that night, discussing how she was better at hiding shit than even Iggy, and she was probably in worse shape than she’d been letting on. Sure enough, as they’d all taken shifts to watch over the two of them and make them meals that first day, they’d seen her using Iggy’s little body as a fucking cane to get around.

“No,” she answered. “It wasn’t my life force that was used; it was yours. I set up a reserve for your own energy, which would lie dormant until you were hurt. It would protect you from most of the pain, heal you, then slowly build back up.”

Iggy closed his eyes. “Is it still there?”

“It dissolved on its own sometime when you were sixteen. Please don’t be angry with me. I just couldn’t send you back to them without protection. And if I hadn’t done it, you wouldn’t have been able to help me align in time to be strong enough to use the Crystal’s powers in Longwythe. I might’ve lost one of you.”

Well, damn. That was news to Gladio.

Iggy’s eyes widened at her words, and the hand that was around her shoulder tightened even more. Seemingly distracted and staring off into space, Iggy tilted his head to the side, resting his cheek against the top of Laura’s head, his jaw tense and his nostrils flared.

Even with that blank look on Iggy’s face, Gladio thought the moment was too private and looked away.

***

Seriously, Gladio didn’t see why everyone thought it was necessary that they always meet for assignments. Dino could’ve given them the location for the gemstones over the phone, but no. They had had to drive all the way to Galdin, back up to Longwythe Peak, then back down to Galdin to deliver the goods. Damned waste of time. Gladio hoped Iggy planned on sending the man copies of their gas receipts.

But it was probably best that Laura got to sleep most of the morning. She hadn’t even stirred when they parked at Galdin, and Iggy had motioned for them to go ahead while they waited in the car. Gladio felt bad for him. Not only was he probably needing to stretch his legs after sitting in that position for so long, he was probably desperate for a piss.

Laura finally woke up when they arrived at Longwythe, and after Iggy had excused himself for a couple of minutes, they all set off to search for the gemstones. Laura was a little slow on her feet, but she kept up with them all right. Picking up the gemstones went smoothly, and Gladio wondered why the hell Dino didn’t just drive his own happy ass up here and get them himself. They were just sitting there on a rock—no danger in sight. It was on the way back, however, that the percussive roaring of a Magitek engine assaulted their ears as it hovered into view over a rocky plateau and settled right over the Regalia. The payload doors in back slowly opened to reveal a squad of MTs, which leapt from the ramp created by the open door, slammed to the asphalt below, and began setting up a perimeter around the area.

“Stay here,” Iggy ordered Laura as the rest of them summoned their weapons.

“Fat chance,” she shot back. “It’s what? Twelve MTs?” She summoned her falchions and picked up her pace.

“I insist. You’re in no shape for a fight today.” Even Gladio could hear the guilt in his voice as he said it, and perhaps it was the guilt keeping him from recognizing the snake pit he’d just fallen into.

Laura narrowed her eyes at Iggy dangerously. “Excuse me? You insist? I’ll not be mollycoddled. I’ll admit to not being able to take the base with you this afternoon, but I can handle this. I think I’m old enough to handle making these decisions myself.”

“Apparently not,” Iggy argued, “as you’re always on one foolish errand or another to incapacitate yourself.”

“I’d rather be incapacitated for a day or two than see one of you lying dead any day,” she snapped.

“Guys?” Noct cut in, “Can we just get our car back?”

Iggy sighed at his words, and they both went quiet, but Laura still followed them to the Regalia. She seemed to keep up with them okay as they ran to the road, so Gladio put her out of his mind and concentrated on the fight. He felt the satisfying burn in his arms as he swung his sword down to cleave an MT’s head in two before chopping the arm off another that was headed for Noct’s back. Damn, it felt good to move again after all that camping and driving! Cutting down the Nifs was easy work; they had all taken two apiece, while Gladio and Noct each took on a third. When they’d finished, everyone, including Laura, was standing, so they headed toward the car.

“Nice work, Gladio,” Noct said, slapping at his back as they walked.

“Back atcha,” Gladio replied with a grin, hefting his sword over his shoulder. The kid had been doing a lot better since they’d gotten out here. They probably should’ve started practicing on real shit years ago.

They waited in silence for a beat to see if Iggy and Laura would pick their argument back up again now that they were out of danger, but the fight seemed to have gone out of both of them.

“What are MTs, really?” Prompto asked to fill the silence. “They give me a kind of creepy feeling. Something about the way they move.” He shuddered.

“They’re empty humanoid soldiers. Soulless. Merciless,” Iggy replied. “Robotics, essentially.”

“No, not soulless,” Laura said, turning to face them, her hand on the handle of the car door, her eyes blank and staring to the horizon. A cut on her cheek was dripping a thick, pearlescent-white fluid, like a shimmery tear, but she ignored it. Was that her blood? Was she bleeding? Gladio kept forgetting she was an alien until weird shit like this just . . . casually happened.

“Has Lucis done no research on them? Their minds are deadened, but they were alive once, I think.” She shuddered before looking up at them. “Whatever they were, they’re daemons now, shoved into that robotic body and programmed to take orders.”

“I think my dad was more concerned about holding out against Niflheim than doing much research. How can you tell they’re daemons?” Noct asked.

Gladio watched Iggy as he approached Laura carefully, removing his glove and reaching a tentative hand out to cup her cheek and brush his thumb against the cut there. He pulled his hand back and stared at his thumb curiously.

“M’fine,” she said softly. “It’s just blood. Not human, remember? It’ll be gone by tonight.” Then she looked up at Noct and said, “Their minds are identical to the daemons we fight all the time— teeming with this slimy, black, oily substance. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“What is it, you think?” Noct asked.

She shook her head as she opened the car door. “I don’t know. It feels so wrong and abhorrent that I’m afraid to look directly at it.”

They got back in the car and delivered Dino’s gems, at which point, Ignis insisted that he take over the wheel for the trip back north. “I should like to resume my regular duties, and I think we’ve had enough brushes with death today, what with his Highness’s tendency to let his mind drift while driving.”

Laura fell asleep again almost immediately, this time cuddled into Prompto’s side. It wasn’t until they were nearly to the haven just outside the base when she woke up and leaned into the space between the front seats, placing her chin on Gladio’s shoulder.

“Still working on the tea book?”

“Yeah. Tried to find your tea in here but couldn’t.”

She hummed. “The gyokuro? It might be under a different name on this planet. Lemme see?”

“Gyokuro,” Iggy said under his breath, his eyes still on the road, but a faraway expression on his face. “Tea that tastes like mushrooms.”

Laura turned her head in Iggy’s direction, her expression searching. “Yes,” she said softly, but he didn’t say anything more.

She took the book when Gladio handed it to her, sat up, turned to the section on tea types, and flipped through each page at a rapid pace. She did this for about twenty seconds, flipping through all one hundred pages of the chapter as her eyes darted rapidly from page to page. When she finished, she handed it back to him flipped to the page he’d been reading.

“Sorry, out of luck, it would seem. Doesn’t look like they’ve invented shade-grown tea here yet. I’d give you what I have, but it goes bad really quickly. Best to keep it in the null-time pocket so it doesn’t spoil. I’ll tell you what though, it’s yours. Just ask whenever you want some.”

“You sure?”

“Course I’m sure! Glad, you have no idea how much tea stuff I have. I think I have enough different types to blow your mind with a different tea every day. What do you say? New morning routine? If we’re not rushed tomorrow morning, I can even teach you a new style of brewing.”

“Hell yeah, let’s do it,” Gladio said with a smile.

“How much stuff can you keep in that armiger of yours anyway? It really isn’t anything like ours, is it?” Noct asked.

“I don’t think so, but then I don’t really know that much about how your armiger works. Mine isn’t even really called an armiger, actually. I guess I just call it ‘The Pocket,’ but it’s not a name I use often because I never really talk about it with anyone. It’s null-time, just like yours appears to be, so food doesn’t go bad. Accessible anywhere—that sort of thing. Does make things like aging teas and raising levain difficult though.”

“Seems like you can put anything in there. We can carry a lot, but space isn’t unlimited,” Noct replied.

“Ahh, yeah, mine is pretty much unlimited. I collect a lot of things during my travels, and I need the space. I later connected it to an energy source that has a tendency to get bored and create more space for fun, so it gets even bigger on a whim.”

Before Gladio could even ask what the hell that was supposed to mean, she turned back to him with a bright smile.

“You know, maybe you should start a tea farm when this is all over and invent your own shade-grown tea—you know, as a hobby. I think you could probably achieve a similar flavor with Lucian varieties. Maybe if you—” she leaned over him and flipped several pages back, “crossbred the Cibum cultivar with the Boletus, perhaps add in a bit of the Herba over the generations, I think the flavor profile would be similar.”

Huh, he’d never given any thought to actually pursuing his hobbies in addition to his duties to that extent. Being a Shield took up most of his time, but maybe if he was creative about it, he could do both. As King Regis had gotten older and his job centered more around bureaucracy and keeping the wall intact, his dad had had hobbies—like reading and even painting now and then. Maybe crafting the perfect cup of tea could be his. He could work with local farmers to see to the trees, and maybe he could have a tea shop or something someone else could run. It’d give people some jobs, and he could do something he actually chose for himself at the same time.

“Forgive me,” Iggy interrupted his daydreaming, “but did you just read that entire book?”

“Not the whole thing—a third of it.” Ignis looked at the two of them from the corner of his eye, then returned to watching the road.

Laura pointed at her head and said, “Photographic memory.”

I have a photographic memory,” he said irritably, “and I assure you I cannot do that.”

“All right, flash photographic memory then.” Iggy sputtered in response, and she laughed. “Stop trying to compete with someone not of your species. It’s not fair, Ignis.”

“Oh, snap! Are you jealous, Iggy?” Prompto teased from the back seat.

“Seriously though, Princess, is there anything you’re not amazing at? It’s getting kind of annoying.”

Her voice grew quiet as she said, “There are a lot of things I’m not good at, actually.” Damn. It seemed like every time he asked her a personal question, he made her sad. “The worst one being figuring things out in time. I’ve had seven thousand years to learn things, which makes me seem smart to you, but really, it just makes me an encyclopedia. Though my experience of learning things the hard way my entire life helps me out a lot, still doesn’t mean I’m a good strategist.” Her eyes flickered to Iggy when she said this, and Gladio saw Iggy frown at her words.

She suddenly continued in a bright tone, her accent flipping like a light switch, “But I’m bad at other stuff too. Like maths. Oh gods, was I terrible at maths in school! We ‘ad this teacher that’d give us ‘omework every day, yeah? And I’d trade with my best mate—my French for her maths. We’d copy off each other all the time. Only way I made it through school. Well, actually I didn’t. Never did get my A-levels. Left school when I was sixteen to move in with a punk rocker.”

“Am I to understand that you cheated your way through your education and then dropped out of school?” Ignis asked, appalled.

“Uh oh,” Noct said, chuckling. “I think you just broke Iggy.”

She laughed merrily and slapped his shoulder. “Yep! Keep tha’ in mind the next time you call me Your Majesty or a goddess, will ya?”

“You are a most dichotomous creature,” he replied, pursing his lips and shaking his head.

“And some of the arts I’m pretty bad at too,” she continued. “I can sing al’right, but any sor’ of instrument? Forget it. I was forced to take up the violin in secondary school, then forced to stop after a year.”

“Iggy plays the violin really well, don’t ya, Ig?” Gladio said, grinning at him.

“Well, I make do,” he prevaricated.

“Bullshit,” Gladio grunted. “Guy could have been a prodigy if it weren’t for having to take care of that useless bag of bones back there.”

“Hey! I’ve got muscle, and I’m useful enough to take you on,” Noct shot back.

“Oh yeah? Keep count of your Nifs this afternoon. We’ll see who’s more useful.”

“You’re on.”

Gladio looked over just as Laura leaned forward, her chin resting on Iggy’s shoulder. Gladio couldn’t hear the words she said, but he could hear her low, almost seductive tone as she murmured something into his ear.

Iggy hesitated before replying, “Well, I’m afraid I’m out of practice, but perhaps we can arrange to borrow a violin at some point.” She hummed in response and gave him a warm smile before turning to Gladio.

“But why am I always the one answering questions? Seems like I’m the only one we ever talk about.”

“Cause you got enough weird to fill up all of Lucis, Princess,” Gladio replied.

She punched him on the shoulder. “I wanna know what you boys are bad at. Come on! Out with it! What was your worst subject?”

“History!” Prompto and Noct called out immediately together, giving each other a fist bump behind Laura’s back. Prompto continued, “Yeah, we had history together, and it was so boring! He had that droning voice that’d put me to sleep every time! I thought I was gonna die in that room.”

“After that we had this teacher with this hideous mousy wig, and we’d try to get paper balls stuck in there when she wasn’t looking,” Noct said. “And every time a war came up, she’d glare at me like it was my fault. What about you, Gladio?”

“Dad would’ve killed me if I’d done bad in any subject. I was pretty weak in orchestra, I guess. Played viola in the same class as Iggy for a couple of years. Outside of school though? I was terrible at sewing.”

“Dude! When’d you take up sewing?” Prompto asked.

Gladio smiled to himself. “Around the time Iris turned eight and got really into fashion. Took classes with her so she’d have someone to go with and so I could spend more time with her.”

“You adore her,” Laura said with a soft smile.

“Yeah, she’s a good kid. It’s rough being so far away from her right now, but I’m glad she’s safe.”

Gladio hoped he’d hear from her soon; he hadn’t gotten a call since Insomnia. While he knew Dustin would take good care of her, he was eager to get this base taken care of so they could get to Lestallum, and he could see for himself that she was safe. Gladio was head of the Amicitia family now, so she was his responsibility, which kinda terrified him. His first duty was to Noct, no matter what, and the only blood family he had left was fifteen and on her own in a new city for the first time in her life. They were gonna have to have a few long talks when he got to Lestallum and figure out the long-term money and living situation.

It was silent for a few seconds, and Gladio realized everyone was afraid to ask Iggy what his least favorite subject was, but he volunteered the information himself for once.

“If I had to choose a least favorite subject, I would say that it’s combat training, more specifically, the footwork involved.”

“Huh, I didn’t know that about you Iggy,” Prompto said. “I always thought you were amazing on the field.”

“My physique just isn’t suited for it, I suppose—too awkward and long.”

“You’ve been talking to those gymnastics instructors, haven’t you? They tell everyone they’re too tall and long-limbed. Told me that when I was six years old, but I still took home the bronze,” Laura said, rolling her eyes. “They’re full of it, you know. It makes you doubly skilled that you’ve managed your level of proficiency at your height. And I think you look graceful when you move.”

Gladio noted the blush rising to Iggy’s cheeks as his jaw twitched in response, and he wondered if Laura was finally executing her secret plan to kill them all by getting Iggy to crash into a tree or something.

“Makes sense that you’d say that about footwork though, Ig,” Gladio said. “Your weapon of choice requires you to get in close to the enemy, so you either gotta be a beast like me and take a lotta hits or you gotta keep moving. I’ve always said you think too much on the field; it slows you down, and you don’t do enough footwork, which is why you gotta take more potions than the rest of us.”

“I beg your pardon?” he asked somewhat pointedly.

“He's got a point there, Ig. You do get injured a lot,” Noct said.

“It’s cause you’re always next to Noct, who can warp out of the way, unlike you,” Gladio said. As much as he didn’t like ragging on the guy, he was gonna get himself killed trying to protect Noct one of these days. That was Gladio’s job, not his. “You’d take less damage if you hung back like Prompto, but then you’d have to rely more on tossing your daggers around. Maybe if you used your polearm more, but then you’re not as quick with that.”

“Yeah, and you do this attack-retreat thing, where you step back and analyze. Gives the enemy time to figure you out too, ya know,” Noct said.

“If you’ve all quite finished discussing my . . . inadequacies,” Iggy said, frowning.

“Well, what do you think, Laura? You’re supposed to be the expert,” Noct asked.

Gladio saw Laura purse her lips before answering. “I’d never remark on weaknesses in a swordsman’s skill in front of other people unless they volunteered in a class or something. I will say that offense wise, you’re almost as skilled as I am with a blade, and you’re about as quick with them as any human can be.”

“By all means, continue, if I may serve as a lesson to the others,” Iggy said.

Laura hesitated. “There’s . . . room for improvement. No point saying much more, since everyone else’s fighting style is so much different than yours. If you’re amenable, I believe our fighting styles are similar enough that I could help you.”

To Gladio’s surprise, Iggy’s mood seemed to do a one-eighty, as the corner of his mouth quirked up into a slight smile. “I might be amenable, yes,” he said softly.

They arrived at Entethina Haven a few minutes later, where they hastily set up camp so Laura could get back to sleep. Again, she proved to Gladio how good she was at hiding shit, because despite the upbeat conversation in the car, she stepped inside as soon as the thing was up and was unconscious before they’d even left.

***

After finishing with the base, the ride back to the haven was silent, and Gladio thought he knew why. He’d been the first one of their group to kill an actual man during the Fall, but he was pretty sure that the others hadn’t killed anything more than an MT or two that day because of whatever freaky magic Laura was doing.

Tonight though, the base had been full of human imperial soldiers, and Noct, Iggy, and Prompto had all gotten their first taste of actual blood. Gladio knew they’d get over it pretty quick; Noct and Iggy at least had been training for years for this kinda thing, just as Gladio had been training his whole life, and Prompto was made of stronger shit than he thought he was. Still, he knew from experience that once that first rush of triumph and survival waned, the remorse would set in for a bit before they remembered that they were doing their duty and protecting the people. Suck it up and get the job done, as his dad had always told him.

Now that the blockade was destroyed, they were free to explore the open road, the lands of Lucis that none of them thought they’d get the chance to see this soon, since princes didn’t usually go on the Royal Tomb Exodus until they’d taken a spouse. Gladio was itching to leave this dusty desert and see something new, but what he really wanted was to get to Lestallum. Iris had finally gotten in touch, even if it was with Noct and not him personally, and it was a relief to know that she, Dustin, Jared, and Talcott had all made it safely. Still, he’d feel better when he saw Iris was okay in person.

They were probably gonna stay at the haven for a day or two first, though, since Laura was still asleep when they got back, and Gladio knew he was gonna have to wait a day or two while Noct and Prompto cooed over those godsdamn chocobos. It wasn’t that he disliked animals; he loved pets, but damnit, his sister was waiting.

As it was almost dawn, Prompto helped Iggy throw together a quick meal of prairie-style skewers, Gladio’s favorite, before they all helped him with cleanup.

“Now honestly, the three of you, while I appreciate your efforts, I should like to resume our normal routines starting tomorrow,” Iggy said as they headed for the tent.

“Whatever you say, Igs,” Gladio replied before Noct could argue. Gladio understood; he wouldn’t want to be treated weird just because of his past either. And it wasn’t like he didn’t accept help from Laura in the kitchen. No doubt she’d be back to helping him as soon as she was back on her feet. Still, the three of them would have to find more secret ways to make life a bit easier on the guy. They hadn’t really thought about how much Iggy did for them and when he found the time to do it before this.

They settled into the tent with Laura to get some shut-eye, and the last thing Gladio saw before closing his eyes was Iggy, adjusting Laura’s blanket so it covered her shoulder.

Chapter Text

When Prompto crawled out of the tent, the sun was already pretty high in the sky, and Noct was still sleeping, of course—the only one left in the tent. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye as he moved the tent flap aside and saw that Iggy was just sitting down to a cup of coffee in front of the fire ring.

“Morning, Ig. You didn’t just wake up, did ya?”

“No, I’ve been awake for quite some time. Laura and I just returned from foraging,” he said before taking another sip of coffee and nodding in her direction.

Prompto turned around to see Laura at the camp stove, taking the lid off a heavy-looking metal pot and checking inside. It was good to see her awake and moving around again. She’d been asleep for pretty much all of the last three days, waking up only long enough to eat the bowls of soup Iggy kept insisting she eat and then going back to sleep.

“Morning, Prompto! Sleep well?” she asked as she walked to one of Iggy’s tables she’d set up by the fire ring and pulled something out of her . . . what had she called it? Pocket? It looked like a large wooden tray made from red, glossy carved wood, with a top covered in holes. She set the tray on the table and looked up at him.

“Oh yeah! Like a rock,” he laughed, dancing from foot to foot. He was hoping, now that she was awake, they’d get to leave this morning after breakfast. There was pretty much nothing he wanted more in the world than to see the chocobos, and he was getting impatient to leave Leide behind for a while. There was just too much brown, too much death, too many bad memories. Leide would always remind him of leaving Insomnia.

As Prompto took a seat by the fire ring, Laura pulled five small green bowls from her Pocket one by one, the whispering rush sounding kinda peaceful in the quiet morning air, and set them on the tray next to Gladio’s chair. At the fifth bowl, she paused before setting it down.

“Ignis? Did you want some tea with the others? I know you tend to prefer coffee.”

“Most certainly, if you please,” he replied, nodding. “I may prefer coffee, but I could never turn down such an exceptional opportunity as to have tea from another universe.”

She nodded and placed the little bowl down on the tray before adding a matching pitcher and tiny teapot.

“So all that stuff’s for tea?” Prompto asked. “Seems like a lot.”

“Yes, I’m going to be teaching Gladio gongfu style tea brewing this morning, since I haven’t had a chance to lately. Some argue that it’s a better way to serve tea than the way it’s commonly served, but I’ll let you all decide for yourselves. Then for breakfast, I made some pumpkin bread. It’s still baking though.”

“Are you gonna take over cooking duties for Iggy now? And what’s pumpkin?”

“It’s a type of squash. I don’t know if you just haven’t encountered them or if they don’t exist on this world, but they make good bread,” she replied. “And no, I wouldn’t dream of stepping on Ignis’s toes. I can cook just fine, but I think one or two of you would die without eating meat. Think I’ll just stick to prep work for now, but maybe I’ll cook for you all again one of these days.” She turned to Iggy and gave him a warm smile.

“Sup, guys,” Gladio grunted as he flopped into his chair, covered in sweat. He sat up a little when he saw the tray next to his chair. “Tea this morning? All right!” he said with a grin.

“How was the rest of your workout, Princess?” Laura asked, poking him in the chest.

Gladio shook his head. “Shoulda sparred with you the last ten minutes and not the first. Was worn out the rest of my routine.”

“Couldn’t have done that, I’m afraid. Ignis and I went foraging, and then we came back here so I could set all this up. Maybe when my sleep schedule’s back in place.”

“How much sleep do you truly require?” Ignis asked.

Laura tilted her head, thinking. “It depends on the universe, it seems. Here, when I’m not recovering from something, an hour or two a night, but I can sleep more or less as needed to keep up appearances. You’d be surprised at the weird things I have to do to keep up with customs or blend in.”

“What’s the weirdest one you have to do here?” Prompto asked, wondering what would be so weird about the way they all lived every day.

“Temperature reactions, definitely,” she answered immediately. “I’m always having to remind myself to sweat when we’re in town so people don’t notice I’m not. It’s kind of unpleasant, and it makes me thirsty.”

“Dude,” he replied, shaking his head, “that’s gross. Err, sorry.”

“Yeah, Princess, that’s a pretty weird one,” Gladio said.

Both Gladio and Prompto stayed quiet while Laura finished setting up everything they’d need for eating breakfast, and Iggy and Laura carried on a long scientific conversation about “the processes of internal temperature control by suppressing the hypothalamus and creating a thermal exchange directly on the skin.” When the two of them got into an argument about the laws of thermodynamics, Gladio looked over at him, an eyebrow raised, and Prompto shrugged in return. They were having . . . fun? He guessed?

When Noct finally came out of the tent, Laura served them all tea and sweet, hot pumpkin bread. The little bowls she’d taken out earlier turned out to be cups with tiny fish figurines swimming at the bottom. It was actually kinda funny, watching Gladio freaking out over them, running his fingers over their long fins with a little smile on his face each time his little cup was empty. Prompto supposed it was kinda cool that they were three-dimensional and not just painted on the bottom. She showed them how to brew the tea in the tiny teapot that seemed way too small to serve them all, pouring the boiling water, letting it sit for ten seconds or so, then moving back and forth between their five cups as she served them.

“It’s quite remarkable, the flavors you’ve managed to pull from the leaf of a tree. And you’re certain there are no artificial flavors? I’m detecting spicy vanilla, honey, Hulldagh cinnamon, and sweet autumn leaves,” Iggy said before taking another sip.

“I dunno bout all that, but it’s freaking awesome, Princess. Think I like it better than the gyokuro. What is it?” Gladio asked as he drained his cup again and held it out for another refill.

“No flavors, just leaf and water, Ignis. And it’s a white tea called shou mei, pressed into cakes and aged for ten years before I put it away,” she said.

It wasn’t really Prompto’s thing, all this pomp and circumstance, but the tea was good—tasted like tea, anyway, and the bread was better—sweet and spicy and warm. Noct didn’t seem to really care one way or the other about any of it, but then he’d never been a morning person. Gladio was having a good time. He’d been in a bad mood for a couple of days now, pestering Noct to get a move on to Lestallum the second Laura was better. But they weren’t headed for Lestallum next, which was kinda Prompto’s fault. He was the one who brought up going to see the chocobos when they’d finished with the base, and now it was all Noct could think about too. He hoped Gladio wasn’t too mad at him for it.

Arriving at the ranch, though, Prompto was devastated the chocobos weren’t available, weren’t even outside for him to look at. The owner of the post, Wiz, said that chocobos wouldn’t be available until the monster that was picking off his herd, Deadeye, was hunted down, but so far, none of the hunters had been able to kill him. Noct volunteered their services, so they had to immediately head back out. Added to the fact he had to wait who knew how long before he could even get to see a chocobo, let alone pick one for himself, the cold, rainy weather was threatening to put a damper even on his sunny spirits as he trudged down the muddy path, kicking his feet at the sticks and leaves on the ground.

Eventually, he decided to quit dragging his feet and jogged to catch up with the rest of them, slowing down to a walk when he drew up between Laura and Noct.

“Hey guys! How ya liking this new scenery?”

“This rain kinda sucks,” Noct grumbled.

Laura closed her eyes and took a deep breath, smiling, her eyes bright. “I adore the forest. It’s where I feel most at home. I can almost feel the trees breathing each time the wind stirs. Listen.”

He and Noct stopped talking for a few moments, and at first, all he could hear was the sound of their feet on the muddy path and the splat of raindrops on the leaves and his clothes. He really hated getting wet, and he was freezing cold. After a few seconds, the wind whipped through the tops of the trees, making them kinda do this whispery roar that sounded almost exactly like Laura’s magic. It was kinda cool to hear the sound of so many trees doing it at once—something he’d never heard back in Insomnia, but now he was even colder than he was a second ago.

“I just wish we didn’t have to start our time here with killing something, but I suppose I should get used to it,” she said, looking down at her feet and kicking at the leaves a little as she walked.

Prompto still didn’t really understand her thing about animals. He loved animals too, a lot, felt bad for killing the peaceful ones on the rare occasions they did, but what were they supposed to do when something came running at them, or something like Deadeye was causing problems? After three weeks of being with them and hunting almost every day, they all thought she’d have joined in by now, but other than those saphyrtails, she hadn’t killed anything but daemons, MTs, and humans.

“So what would your people have done if a monster was killing your chocobos?” he asked.

Laura frowned before answering, “It’s just not something that would’ve happened. We would have protected them from being eaten with spells, perhaps have relocated the animal farther from our homes. It just depends, really. If this Deadeye were sentient enough, we would’ve established a telepathic connection and attempted to persuade him to leave.”

“So . . . basically you’re saying you’d cheat? I mean, it’s not like we can um . . . telepathically connect with Deadeye here.”

“It’s why I don’t judge you for hunting him, or any other animal. You don’t have the skills that my people had, and now even I don’t have those skills on this world. I’ve tried several times to connect with the wild animals here, and their minds are too feral, too mad for me to connect to, except for that anak you and I saw, Ignis.”

Ignis stepped lightly over a branch in the path and turned his head to look at them. “So you had determined telepathically that it was partially domesticated? That would’ve been good to know.”

“Ha! You’d only just learned I wasn’t an Insomnian noblewoman five minutes before that. Can you imagine that conversation? ‘Hey, Ignis, I can feel that girafalope over there talking in my head. Let’s go say hi!’”

Ignis looked at her from the side of his eye as he replied, “Well, you wouldn’t have had to word it quite like that.”

“Still doesn’t explain why you won’t hunt them with us,” Noct said.

“Or why you don’t seem to have an issue killing people,” Gladio added.

And that was a thought he’d been trying not to think about for three days now. Prompto’d been thinking about those soldiers since it happened, even if he kept trying not to. He couldn’t see their faces in his dreams, cause they all had helms on, but he could still see them falling under his shots when he closed his eyes. It didn’t matter what happened, he’d always hate killing people, but he’d made his choice when he decided to go with Noct on this trip. He was Lucian, no matter where he’d been born, and those people were attacking his home—attacking Noct’s subjects. They’d made their choice; he’d made his. He only hoped the others would see it that way if they ever found out about him. Guess it kinda made him a traitor to both sides now.

He wondered how Laura, with all her weird and complicated beliefs on life, couldn’t manage to kill an animal unless her friends were at death’s door, could still manage to kill a human. How she could live with it. Maybe it’d give him a clue of how he should live with it.

Laura’s face twisted into a grimace. “It’s . . . personal; well . . . no. It’s to do with my species. Ignis had no idea how right he was when he called me dichotomous. For the entire history of our racial memory, we were at peace with other non-sentients of our planet, more than peace, really. We depended on them and they on us—a symbiosis, and so it has always pained us to kill them.

“Humans, however, our people waged wars with them on and off throughout our history. As a result, there seem to be several . . . enhancements in our evolutionary history that allow us to both blend in and kill them with greater ease.”

At the word “enhancements,” Laura’s face totally changed—became snarling and dark, and Prompto figured it was one of those things in her past that often made her look that way if she got to thinking too much about it. Was that what would happen to all of them when this was all over?

Laura took a deep breath and let it out slowly on a sigh before continuing. “It’s just complicated, sorry. Sanctity of life and war were delicate subjects among my people. We seemed to navigate both with equal skill.”

“So what about Deadeye? Are you gonna try and contact him?” he asked to change the subject.

“I’ll always keep trying. I had this friend who seemed to have the power of words. He never carried a weapon, just talked himself out of wars and angry tyrants wanting to kill him and mythical beasts wanting to eat him. But gods, as much as I love him, I was so naïve back then. Even without a weapon, death followed him everywhere, as it seems to for me. Still, it doesn’t stop me from trying to reach that ideal I had of him—the man who never kills, the man who could solve any problem without a weapon.”

“Doesn’t seem possible in the real world,” Gladio grumbled.

“No, it doesn’t, does it? Even now, I’m doing the same thing he did—stepping back and letting you do the work. I told you all I wasn’t perfect, and here’s the proof, even if there are additional factors involved. You all are far braver and more dedicated to your principles than I could ever be.”

“You got principles. They’re just different than ours,” Prompto said, butting her shoulder with his.

“And this is our fight, not yours,” Gladio said.

Prompto nodded in agreement. Even with her explanation after the Fall, he still didn’t really get what she was doing here.

“I think I understand, though,” he said. “I love animals, too. I wasn’t trained with the Crownsguard like these guys, not really—just took enough to know self-defense. But the thing is? I wasn’t really built for all this combat stuff. I’d much rather have pets than kill wildlife.”

Laura’s expression softened, and he was glad to have been the one to wipe that look off her face. “Yes, I can see that you have a great capacity for love.”

“And combat wise, you’re doin’ just fine, kid,” Gladio said, reaching out to ruffle his hair, but he ducked in time to miss the Shield’s hand.

“Really? You think I’m holdin’ my own?”

“Indeed, you have,” Iggy said.

“Told ya you’ve been doin’ good, Prom,” Noct said, shaking his head in exasperation.

He’d been friends with Noct through most of high school, and he’d always known that Noct was gonna have to go off on some royal adventure one day. But Prompto had always thought he’d be left behind. After all, he was nothing special, just a regular kid from school. When Noct told him the King said it’d be okay if he came along on this trip, he couldn’t believe it. He’d worked so hard, often staying up all night practicing his self-defense moves so he could pass and get his Crownsguard fatigues. Then after sparring sessions and classes all day, he’d head to the shooting range to get some practice in before flopping into bed and starting all over again.

It was frustrating, the tiny little improvements here and there; it reminded him of those days when he was losing weight, when he‘d work so hard all week and not even lose a quarter of a pound. But he’d kept at it, despite not really liking hand-to-hand combat, and got good enough to pass and get his fatigues, and then he got to be the one to stand there in front of the King, in front of the throne, next to Noct, Gladio, and Ignis—three guys he’d never thought he’d ever even be allowed to be seen with, let alone inside the Citadel with. It had been the best day of his life, up until this moment, with them all saying he was doing good. But there was still that sour note to the compliments. He still didn’t deserve them because he was still a fake; they still didn’t know him.

“Wow, you guys. Just, thanks,” he said with a laugh and a bounce on his toes, because that was the kinda stuff that made them smile.

Of course, he proved them all wrong in the fight against Deadeye. He wasn’t the kinda fighter that got in close like the other three; he liked to hang back and take shots from farther away. It helped him see the field, made it easier to prevent friendly fire, and kept him from being torn apart by the claws and teeth that were usually longer than his legs. This time, the claws and teeth were as long as his whole body, so he was pretty glad that he wasn’t standing two feet away from the legs as big as tree trunks like Noct, Gladio, and Iggy were.

After Noct had called on him to do his First Shot, he was, as usual, going berserk on the creature, jumping in the air and warp-striking over and over with his favorite engine blade that Cid had just upgraded until he almost wore himself out. Then he’d warp to a safe point to recharge and start all over again. Noct using magic was a side of his friend that he’d never gotten to see in high school, and it was kinda weird to see him use it now after knowing him these past five years. All that time, that guy standing next to him at the arcade cheering him on or melted into the couch cushions stuffing handfuls of popcorn in his face was capable of all that power. Prompto still couldn’t believe he of all people had been given access to the Crystal’s powers, and he often forgot he could even use them until he needed to summon his weapons.

“Hell, yeah, get ya some of this!” he shouted in triumph as a really good shot landed on the beast’s neck. He shuffled off to the side in order to keep his distance as the dog from hell leapt in his direction, catapulting itself higher than twice Prompto’s height and landing feet away.

Since Iggy’d told them that Deadeye was most vulnerable to greatswords and shields, Noct mostly called on Gladio for help during this battle, but both Prompto and Iggy were doing their best to throw all the fire spells they could at the animal between using their own weapons. Now that Prompto had heard Gladio’s and Noct’s critique of Iggy’s fighting style on the field, he could kinda see it. Iggy was taking potions almost twice as much as the rest of them as he rushed between attacking the creature and protecting Noct. Prompto didn’t see how the guy could stand getting clawed like that so many times and still keep going.

Prompto had just ducked behind a barrel and was poking his head around to take aim at the devil dog’s good eye when it leapt toward him, its mouth open wide enough to swallow him whole and its teeth dripping with saliva.

Noct must not have seen him from his angle, because he tossed a fire flask straight at the barrel Prompto was crouched behind. Idiot—he shouldn’t have been in the way. The flask hit the barrel, igniting the fuel inside, and for a moment, all Prompto could think about was how he was gonna die as he choked on the cloud of gas fumes that surrounded him. He opened his eyes to find himself hunched over by the now exploded barrel, surrounded on all sides by an orange, red, and black ball of fire. He couldn’t move—couldn’t breathe, but somewhere in the distance, he could hear Noct screaming his name. This must’ve been like for Noct when he was inside the fire. He kept waiting for it to hurt, but it just kinda passed right over him.

The flames seemed to tickle at his bare arms as they dissipated, but it was the weirdest thing Prompto had ever experienced in his life so far. It was almost like being back in Galdin on the beach, with the warm breeze feathering against the hairs on his arms. Once he could see the field again, he stumbled backward and fell on his ass when he realized that Deadeye was feet in front of him, his head thrown back and his massive maw open wide in a scream. Prompto couldn’t help it. He screamed right along with it before it dropped to the ground, still and quiet.

Chapter Text

They had almost gotten back to the post, and Gladio was still ribbing him about the scream.

“Seriously, man, you sounded worse than my sister.”

“Oooh, burn!” he chuckled, trying to join in, but he wasn’t really feeling it.

Iggy raised an eyebrow and cocked his head. “Well, if you can’t stand the heat . . ..”

“I have to admit, I’d be screaming bloody murder if it had happened to me,” Laura said sympathetically.

They were walking up the driveway past where they’d parked the Regalia when Noct pulled him aside.

“You okay?” Noct asked, and Prompto wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but it almost looked like Noct was worried about him, like he was blaming himself for what happened and not Prompto for being in the way.

“Heh, heh. Yeah, man. No sweat,” Prompto said with a grin, pretending to wipe his forehead and rub his hand off on Noct’s jacket.

Noct grinned back at him, and Prompto felt he’d at least accomplished something today. “So we’re cool then?”

“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “Totally chill, dude.”

Dusk was falling, so they had just enough time to choose a chocobo to bond with before they headed for the camper for the night. But Noct had already said on the way back that they’d be hanging out here all day tomorrow and spending the night, so Prompto knew he’d have plenty of time to get in some good shots, choose a good chocobo, and hang out—maybe even get in a few games of King’s Knight before they left.

Immediately upon seeing her first chocobo being led around the front yard, Laura began to laugh hysterically.

“Oh . . . my . . . gods . . .,” she gasped between giggles. “They’re chickens. Giant, ridable chickens.”

“What’s a chicken?” Prompto asked—felt like he was always asking, but she must not have heard him, because she danced toward the chocobo and reached out to pet it while introducing herself to the handler.

They made their way around back, where Wiz kept most of the unbonded chocobos in a stable attached to the back of the building. At the sight of all the bird heads poking over the stable doors, munching on gysahl greens, or beaking at their neighbors, Prompto found he could no longer contain himself.

“CHOCOBOS!” he cried out to Noct, jumping up and down as hard as he could and flapping his arms. This was gonna be so awesome! After all the years he and Noct had spent watching Charlie the Chocobo on the weekends, playing chocobo racing games, and talking about what kind of chocobo they’d get if they could have one, he was finally getting one of his very own. He already knew he wanted a yellow one named Sunny, so now it was only a matter of choosing.

Iggy was the first to choose his chocobo; he seemed to be immediately charmed by a spunky white hen and, after taking her out of her stall and looking her over carefully as she walked, named her Calima.

“Where’d you come up with that?” Prompto asked.

“It’s ancient Solheimian for ‘milk,’” he replied simply.

Gladio was the next to find his chocobo—unsurprisingly the largest one Wiz had, an enormous blue male.

“Who else is gonna carry all this everywhere we’re goin’, eh, Kaze?” Gladio asked the bird while running his hands from his pecs to his abs.

Laura came bouncing up from behind him and grabbed Prompto’s arm, her lips pulled wide in a smile and her eyes glittering with excitement. Prompto couldn’t remember ever seeing her this . . . hyper before. It was kinda like seeing another version of himself.

“I can feel them Prompto!” she whispered excitedly, tugging at his arm and pointing to her head.

“Really? Cause they’re pets, you think?”

“I think so,” she said, nodding. “But how can I choose just one when they’re all so special?”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Prompto replied, scratching at the back of his neck.

He hadn't expected it to be so hard. Wiz had a lot of yellow chocobos, and they were all so pretty, so bright, so friendly. When he said something about it to Iggy, Iggy just frowned at him.

“Do be certain that you choose an animal capable of making the trek across all of Lucis. You must choose a bird with proper conformation: strong, straight legs; thick-skinned feet; and a lighter frame with a higher surface-area-to-body-mass ratio. I recommend you choose a bird and take it out of its stall to walk it and test its gait.”

“Uh . . . yeah. I’ll do that. Thanks, Iggy,” Prompto said before turning back to the little male he was considering.

“It’s an important decision not to be made on a whim; you can’t simply wing it,” he said with a twitch of his lips. “After all, a broken-down bird will certainly put us all in a foul mood, especially whichever unfortunate creature you choose.”

“Seriously, Iggy?” Gladio asked with a chuckle and a roll of his eyes. “What’s gotten into you today, man?” But Iggy only cocked his head, arched an eyebrow, and continued to meander up the aisle, Calima following next to him on her lead rope.

“Yeah, don’ listen ta him,” Wiz said as he pulled Prompto’s shoulder closer. “All mah birds are in fine shape. Take yeh anywhere.”

“Uh, yeah, I bet,” he said.

He kinda wished everyone would just let him choose his own chocobo and stop making him think about all the different factors he had to consider. He looked away from Wiz to see Noct coming back down the aisle.

“So, after all these years,” Prompto said, “that’s Byrrus? How’d you pick?”

Noct shrugged and said, “He was the only red one they had. He’s really nice though.”

“Yeah, the red ones’re pretty rare,” Wiz cut in.

“Hey though, that’s awesome! You wanna take ‘em for a ride tomorrow? Maybe race ‘em a bit?”

Noct grinned and said, “You’re on, but you gotta pick one first.”

Noct’s strategy for picking wasn’t gonna help him out much. At least Laura was still looking at all the birds, talking to them, stroking their cheek feathers, and smiling—taking her time. It made him feel like he wasn’t holding everyone up at least. Felt like he was always holding everyone up.

As he stood there for a second watching Laura, he felt a light nudge on the side of his head and a weight settle on his shoulder. Slowly, Prompto looked out of the corner of his eye to see that a little yellow chocobo had rested its head on his shoulder. She had to be a hen, with that sweet expression in those large black eyes.

“Sunny?” he whispered, and bird gave a little coo and ruffled her feathers. He reached up with a tentative hand and stroked the bird’s cheek, and her eyes pinned before falling closed in delight.

Prompto pulled out his camera, held it up to their faces, and smiled as wide as he could, giving a thumbs up at the camera before snapping the picture. Yeah, that was the moment right there that he’d get to keep forever—the moment he’d found his friend.

“Do ya think maybe I could have her? Please?” Prompto asked Wiz, who clipped a lead to her halter and handed it to Prompto.

“She’s all yours, then. Make sure yeh pick out yer tack when yer ready,” Wiz said with a smile, but then he turned to the back of the barn to where Laura was still looking. “Hey, no sense goin’ back there. There’s just the mad one back there. And don’ turn that light on, whatever ya do. He’s afraid a’ light.”

“I do hope you realize, now that you’ve said that, she’s more likely to do exactly the opposite,” Iggy said, and Prompto couldn’t tell if he was irritated or amused.

“Where’d the Noct and Gladio go?” Prompto asked.

“Outside,” he replied, stumbling a little as Calima nudged him hard on the shoulder. Iggy reached up to stroke her neck before continuing, “They were eager to choose their tack.”

“Oh, I kinda wanna stay here and wait for Laura to pick a chocobo,” Prompto said, patting Sunny and leading her down the aisle closer to where Laura was headed.

“Yes, as do I,” Iggy said from behind him. “I’m most interested to see how her additional abilities of perception influence her choice.”

When they’d drawn closer to Laura at the very end of the aisle, Prompto had to squint a little to see in the dim light.

When she reached the door to the very last stall, a large black head thrust out at her, nearly catching her arm with its vicious, snapping beak. As she ducked away, the chocobo let out ear-splitting screech, which set the other birds to spinning in their pens and squawking. Even Sunny tossed her head in the air, puffing up her feathers and taking a step back, and Prompto had to grip her lead more tightly and stroke her neck to get her to settle.

Prompto turned back to Laura and watched as her face grew still and calm. She held both her hands, palms out, to the bird, who cocked his head and screeched again. Prompto could just make out in the dim light that his eyes were wide with fright, rolling in his skull, and pinning like crazy.

“Really, little lady, yeh ain’t doin’ ‘im no favors. He don’t like bein’ around people,” Wiz said.

“She possesses some animal magic,” Iggy told the man. “She may be able to be of some help to the poor animal.”

“Well, so do I, but tha’ hasn’t made much difference,” Wiz replied.

Laura kept her eyes locked on the chocobo as she said in a soft, soothing voice, “Dameh, dameh. Calipha wethren. Lich thana. Me paralínn doleth, oa lathá? Nia woroth. Nia miámenn.”

With gentle hands, she stood on the tips of her toes reached up for the bird’s head. “I wouldn’t,” Prompto heard Wiz warn her one more time, but she ignored him and made contact with the bird’s cheeks.

“Sira phleneth. Hallanath, opho?” she seemed to ask as she continued to stroke the chocobo’s cheeks, and he settled down, closing his eyes. “Nia miámenn.”

“Well, I’ll be,” Wiz said. “I ain’t never seen anythin’ like it. We haven’t bin able ta get near that bird for two years now. Old Deadeye attacked ‘im. Well, we nursed ‘im back ta health, but he never recovered his mind, poor thing. We done the best we could with ‘im, but there weren’t much we could do. It’s a shame. Not a lot of black chocobos ‘round here ta begin with.”

“He’s coming with us,” she said with finality.

“Well, hell, if ya can git a saddle and bridle on ‘im, he’s all yours. Not like anyone else can ride him,” Wiz said, tossing her a lead. “Can’t make any guarantees bout yer safety though.”

“So that’s the one? Awesome!” Prompto cheered as she clipped the lead on the bird, whispering in hushed tones.

“He’s a handsome fellow. You’ll have to choose a name for him,” Ignis told her.

“His name is Saracchian,” she said.

“And from which universe does that name hail?” Ignis asked.

She gave Iggy an exasperated look before replying, “One of mine. It’s from an old legend about a kind-hearted man who went to war to save his people, came back a hero, but the cost was the loss of his innocence. He was never the same again. I think Saracchian feels something similar about his ordeal with Deadeye.”

“That sounds . . . tragic,” Ignis said.

“Life can be that way, sometimes,” she said in a faraway voice, stroking Saracchian’s beak.

She began leading the bird out into the more crowded space of the aisle when the bird startled suddenly at being close to him and Iggy, jerking his head back and puffing up again in alarm.

“Shhh,” she said, reaching up and spreading her fingers wide across the chocobo’s skull. “Caliphat Prompto. Caliphat Ignis. Lichen thiánnen.” Then she turned to the two of them. “If you wouldn’t mind reaching out slowly and petting him, please.”

“So is that your native language?” Prompto asked as he and Iggy reached out to run their fingers over Saracchian’s sleek black neck. The bird seemed to tremble for a moment, but then settled.

“It depends on what you mean by native. It’s the language of my people, of Palomia, but I didn’t learn it until I was over a hundred years old. This is actually my first language.”

“Why is it that your first language is ours if you’re not native our universe, let alone our country?” Ignis asked.

“Ha! Have I got some news for you! You’re not speaking ‘your’ language. You’re speaking mine. I haven’t figured out yet how or why, but the entire concept of the Lucian language is a façade. Are all the languages on Eos like that?”

“I’m aware of the nature of Lucian, having spent some time attempting to solve the mystery myself, but I unfortunately never made any headway in it,” he replied, turning to the entrance of the stables and walking slowly with Calima. “I speak Tenebraen, Accordion, Galahdian, Niflian, and ancient Solheimian nearly fluently, even though the influence of Lucis is such that Lucian is spoken primarily in all those areas, but all is as it should be with those languages. All have descended from ancient Solheimian. Lucian remains the exception.”

“What are you guys talking about?” Prompto asked, following behind them.

Iggy stopped and turned to him. “There is overwhelming evidence that Lucian was derived from several languages that have never been discovered in any archaeological finds—kingdoms and civilizations that either never existed or simply vanished into thin air. There is even evidence of the passage of time, our language possessing both ancient words and newer words from child languages, and yet, the evidence of these cultures still eludes us. The linguistics community has been unable to identify a parent language for Lucian at all.”

“That’s because it’s not Lucian,” Laura said as they stepped out into the dusky light. She had to stop for a moment with Saracchian, as he had immediately frozen on finding himself outside. “Shhh, nia miámenn, Saracchian,” she said, burying her fingertips under the chocobo’s chest feathers and rubbing on either side of his breastbone.

She turned to the both of them and said, “You’re both speaking English. It’s my language from my planet, Earth. It belongs on Earth, and its parent language, one of the Germanic languages, along with all the loanwords from Latin, French, Norse, and everything else, are all from civilizations that come from my world. You lot seem to be particularly obsessed with Latin though—seem to name everything in Latin.”

“There is evidence that there was once meaning to the names of our streets and family names, and even that we use names from several languages that do not exist at all in Lucian, yet the meanings of those names are lost.” He shook his head. “So, after all these years, the mystery of the Lucian language is solved,” Iggy said in wonder, his eyes wide. “It’s a pity we can never publish a paper on the subject; we’d be laughed out of any conference, certainly. But there is still yet a mystery to solve: how did your language come to be the primary source of communication for our kingdom?”

“I don’t know,” she said. When Iggy inclined his head at her, his gaze darkening, she continued, “Really, it’s nothing to do with me, that I know of. I certainly didn’t come here and plant the seed for your entire civilization, and I have no plans of doing so.” Her gaze turned inward for a moment as she stared off into space. “No, I don’t think I have anything to do that, thank gods.”

Prompto never really knew what to say to add to the conversation when they got to talking like this. He’d always done pretty decent in school, but both of them operated a level he couldn’t even touch. So he listened, not really understanding the consequences of what they were discussing, but tucking away the information as best he could in case it was important later. But then he had a thought.

“Um . . . didn’t you tell us you were from another planet? Started with an M?”

It seemed that Saracchian had calmed down enough for them to start walking again, so Laura pulled on his lead and began walking them all to the tack room on other side of the building, opposite to the stable doors.

“Yes, I was born in one universe on Miriásia, sort of adopted in another universe by humans on Earth. It’s a long story,” she said.

“Hey, you were adopted? Me too!” he reached out to give her a fist bump. She must know exactly what it felt like then, never quite fitting in, if she’d been raised by parents that weren’t even from the same planet! And didn’t she say that humans were once enemies to her people? Yeah, she probably got that whole traitor thing totally.

“Actually, it kind of sucks sometimes,” he said in a quieter voice, “being adopted.”

“Yes, I agree. I don’t know what it was like for you, but for me? Two universes, two planets, two species, two names, two languages, two cultures, two physical forms . . .. It can take its toll trying to figure out who you are while trying to fit in with wherever you are at the time. No matter where you are, you never quite fit in.”

Ignis opened his mouth to say something, but Prompto had to cut in. She and Iggy had had enough fun today, talking about thermodynamics and linguistics, but this was his area of expertise. Finally!

“I know exactly how you feel! I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere cause of that, ya know?”

“Yes, I know the feeling well. But you have a happy ending, yeah? You found your place with them,” she said, gesturing to Ignis, who had joined Gladio and Noct in the open tack room doorway with their new chocobos.

“Yeah,” he sighed, “I guess I did. Just . . . sometimes, I don’t even know about that. They’re all so amazing at everything. I’m just . . . normal. Nothin’ special about me. Soon as they figure that out, I’m toast.”

He wasn’t trying to fish for compliments, but if she had ever felt like an outsider because of being adopted, maybe she would understand this feeling that seemed to follow him everywhere.

“You’re wrong about that, you know.”

“I dunno,” he said, trying to brush it off, covering up his embarrassment by reaching for Sunny’s wing and giving it a pat.

“We aren’t just a military unit. We’re all friends, which means we need more than weapons to get by. You support them in fights; you lift them up when they’re down. Your innocence and enthusiasm remind them what they’re fighting for.”

She put her hand on his shoulder then and turned so she was standing right in front of him, making sure his eyes were looking directly into hers.

“And recent events should teach you that not everything is as it appears. We’re all hiding something, Prompto. We’re all not as perfect as we appear to be.”

Prompto looked over at Ignis, who was holding up a black leather bridle with intricately-carved silver accents to Calima’s head, his lips moving a little as he spoke unheard words to the hen with a soft smile. But Ignis’s secrets were different; he was never in danger of being kicked out of the group, of being killed. Still, she had a point.

“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “Guess you’re right.”

Chapter Text

“Would you mind if I joined you?” Ignis asked as he approached the camper, and Noct and Prompto looked up at him.

“Uh . . . that’s okay, Specs. We’re just playing a game; don’t feel like you need to be here for this. Um . . . why don’t you find something else to do?” Noct replied, leaning forward in the plastic chair and setting his forearms on the table with his phone in his hands.

Ignis couldn’t help but release the smallest huff of a sigh. He thought he understood what Noct was doing, allowing him to spend their rare free time as he wished instead of indulging the Prince in joining in his hobbies, but it was unnecessary. It was true that playing videogames wasn’t a natural inclination of his, but Ignis enjoyed the sight of Noct enjoying himself, and the games themselves were mildly diverting in short bursts. They stirred his competitive side and allowed him to spend leisure time with the Prince where he could be “the fun one,” a very rare occasion indeed.

Still, he’d leave them be if Noct would rather spend time with Prompto. Prompto always seemed to be better at gauging and influencing Noct’s mood than Ignis, and he was always appreciative of how much happier, and more cooperative, the Prince was after spending so much free time with the younger man. Perhaps things would normalize between them if he left Noct alone with Prompto for a while.

“Of course, Highness,” he said with a slight bow, and he thought he saw Noct wince before he turned away and headed back toward the main building of the post. It seemed as though Laura’s attitude regarding royal status had rubbed off on the Prince somewhat, and Ignis wasn’t quite certain how he felt about that.

Though the others had mostly gone back to behaving as they always had, Noct was still treating him as though he didn’t quite know who Ignis was anymore, as though he were made of spun glass. He would wait patiently to see if this attitude changed, but if it went on for much longer, Ignis would have to say something about it to him directly. He was uncertain, however, if even a chat would normalize things between them. After Noct had referred to him as a brother the other day, he wasn’t completely certain what normal even was anymore, as Ignis had always believed himself to be more of a source of irritating fondness and friendship in the Prince’s life. But then, Laura had pointed out to him that that was the very definition of brotherhood.

Leisure time. It was a foreign concept to him. Typically, back in Insomnia, the rare unscheduled moment, which usually didn’t last longer than a quarter of an hour, was filled with feeding himself, finishing up reports on debriefings, cleaning either his or Noct’s apartments, returning e-mail correspondence with what seemed to be half of Eos, or examining the latest news from the Empire or the outlands. Out here, hardly any of his moments were scheduled; it was a foreign feeling to be led through the day by the sun and not his watch, but that hardly made him any less busy, even with Laura’s near constant assistance. But checking over his lists, he found they’d already completed that which needed to be done today, including scrubbing that filthy camper to within an inch of its life. It meant that this leisure time was truly that—for leisure.   

There were a thousand hobbies and interests he’d allowed to lapse as he grew older and busier that he could perhaps begin to explore again this afternoon, but he found he didn’t want that. Wishing not to be alone, he decided he would search out Gladio or Laura instead. Should he perhaps change, though, in case it was Laura that he found first?

Ignis glanced down at himself. They had all gotten silly chocobo-themed t-shirts at Wiz’s shop and changed into them to take photos with the chocobos out front before adding their own birds to the portraits. For nearly an hour, the five of them acted like children as they struck goofy poses and made faces at the camera. It was odd, how such a frivolous moment made Ignis feel connected to his four friends, almost like a family, but as he’d put an arm around Gladio and another around Noct, made two peace signs, and smiled, he could come up with no other word for it.

He shouldn’t attempt to delude himself; he had no intention of looking for Gladio, as much as he enjoyed the contemplative Shield’s company.

Deciding not to change, since Laura had still been wearing her t-shirt when she’d wandered off with Saracchian, he strode in the direction he’d last seen her, heading behind the main building toward the hill that overlooked verdant fields and the Disc of Cauthess in the distance. As he stood at the top of the steep incline, it only took a moment to find her resting against Saracchian’s side out on the fields below, much as they had once done against that anak in the Weaverwilds. Saracchian’s head was even resting in her lap in much the same manner as she gently ran her fingers through his crest. Ignis thought of calling for Calima, but the last time he’d seen her, he’d left her with some greens to charge up for a race later this afternoon, so he picked his own way down the incline to approach Laura, hoping she was up to some company.

He and Laura had spent an hour the previous morning discussing the full events of the paradoxis before they’d foraged. He had, of course, been entirely furious with her for her sacrifice—more furious than he could ever remember being with anyone. This entire situation had been the first time he’d been able to look past her divinity and see that it was possible to lose her, that she was, in fact, fallible—almost absurdly so. But she’d had the same obligation to keep the world together as he, which he could hardly fault her for, even if she would have taken the same actions regardless. She had only just seemed to have gained her full measure of strength from her exertions in the last day, much to his shame, and this morning was the first morning he’d caught her awake before the dawn.

But even despite his fury with her, he’d been in an almost giddy mood since she’d awoken yesterday morning. He found that his excuses to touch her as they foraged were met with happy acceptance and reciprocation, and the lively discussions they had engaged in were stimulating and fascinating with her unique point of view. He’d made a new friend in his beautiful and sweet Calima, and now he was going to have the opportunity to spend a free afternoon alone with Laura.

It took him longer than he’d thought it would to reach her, as she was farther away than she’d appeared when he’d stood on the overlook. Duscae was, as he expected, stunning, and this view she had chosen to spend her leisure time in was no exception. As he wove through a small copse of spindly trees, whose leaves were dancing merrily in the breeze, he cast his eyes to the towering evergreens above him, humbled by the sight of something alive being so much larger than he was. As he cleared the copse, the landscape opened up before him, offering a sweeping view of the fields of lush grass and gravel, patches of low underbrush, and slanted walls of grey and rust-veined rock. In the distance, he could just make out the shape of the massive stone arches and frozen wave of the mythril wing of the Disc. The sight was so breathtaking that he wondered if she expected him to come and find her in this place.

As he drew closer, he froze, hearing once again her ethereal, lilting voice drifting on the wind of the open field. That song—that melody that haunted his dreams for so many years. She was singing that song to Saracchian, but she wasn’t humming it as she had with him as a child. He hadn’t even known that the song had had lyrics. When her voice ceased, the song having reached its conclusion, she looked up at him, her loose hair blowing every which way in the wind as though it were a living creature.

“Some of those words are surprisingly apropos. Did you choose that particular melody for me deliberately?”

Her lip curled as she responded mysteriously, “Everything I say and do is on purpose, until it isn’t.”

Saracchian flinched in her lap as he drew close enough to look down at her, the feathers on his head standing on end, but Laura lowered her gaze and shushed the bird.

“Dameh,” she whispered, placing her hand flat on the top of his head, and he slowly settled back down, closing his eyes.

“You never sang the words to me; I would have remembered them,” he said more quietly so as not to frighten Saracchian again.

Laura looked up at him again. “And that right there would have been a problem. In an entire book, it’s easy to pass off odd words if the story is fantastical enough. In a song, however . . . I couldn’t explain to you what horses and bears were, as they’re animals that apparently don’t exist on this planet.”

“I see,” he said as he looked down at the grass at his feet in front of her, considering his next move. It wasn’t as though he could play nonchalant and pretend he’d just happened by; he’d had to walk for nearly twenty minutes to reach her. “Would you mind if I joined you?”

That smile of hers widened into a grin, and he felt his body grow warm at the sight. “I’d love that,” she said.

To his surprise, as soon as he settled down across from her, his legs outstretched in front of him, she lifted Saraccian’s head with a touch to his beak and leaned forward, reaching for Ignis’s boots.

“What on Eos do you think you’re doing?” he asked with half-alarm, half-interest, though he didn’t pull back from her. Ignis had a feeling he was about to embark on one of her mad adventures, and though he felt the dread he always did in the beginning of these experiences, he found he couldn’t wait to get to the wondrous part.

“Exactly what it looks like I’m doing,” she said, reaching up underneath the leg of his trousers and fumbling at the laces of his left boot. “Honestly, what sort of a man sits in a field with grass as lush as this with his boots on? And the sky is grey today, increases the contrast and makes it look an even brighter green—sets your eyes aglow, too.”

Before he could even begin to contemplate her words, she had untied the laces, slipped his boot off, and dismissed it to the armiger.

“Seriously? Sock garters? Blimey, what a classy gentleman, you are,” she said with a seductive hum as she once again reached up the leg of his trousers, her fingers brushing against his shins. But he found he couldn’t reply to her, as something in his chest had lodged in his throat at the feeling of her fingers in a place he was almost certain no one had ever touched him before in his life. Then again, that could probably be said for almost his entire body.

“I suppose I’m along for this ride whether I like it or not,” he finally managed as she reached for his right boot, but her hands stilled immediately at his words.

“I’m sorry. Do you not want this? I know I can seem demanding at times; I don’t mean to be, honestly. I just tend to get carried away, but I don’t ever want you to think you don’t have a choice. You always have a choice with me, Ignis. Just tell me to get the hell away from you if that’s what you want.”

“No! Forgive me. I was just being . . . sarcastic. It comes and goes,” he replied with a wry smile. Apprehensive though he was for her plans, he was most eager to see them play out. Perhaps those inconsistencies were showing up in his mind enough for her to pick up on? He did his best to smother the apprehension.

She remained still for a moment, her head tilting as she searched his face. Finally, she seemed to find whatever she was looking for, because she removed his other boot and sock without another word. When she’d finished, she ran her fingertips over the tops of his bare feet, stroking from his ankle to the tips of his toes. Ignis found he had to lean back on his elbows and close his eyes against the sensation because it was far more intimate than he had expected it to feel. Surely she wasn’t this tactile with the others?

“You have long toes,” she said introspectively, running a finger up the second toe of his left foot, circling the pad of her fingertip around the two or three hairs on his knuckle before continuing up to his toenail.

Ah, this old complaint. He’d heard similar comments his entire life, even from Noct and Gladio. He was long, lean, freckled, and pale—he knew it—and it seemed everyone in his life was eager to take the time to remind him that he was whichever adjective they themselves weren’t. Even these weeks spent in the sun, with his incessant application of sunscreen after that first day of pushing the car, hadn’t changed the color of his complexion. A fellow Crownsguard had once made the mistake of commenting on his “freakishly long toes” in the changing room, but had never again said another word after Ignis had thoroughly trounced the man in sparring two days later, within the bounds of proper sparring etiquette, of course. He knew that the source of the teasing from Gladio and Noct came from a place of affection, but it still made him uncomfortable enough to keep well-covered in public unless he had to. He hadn’t expected Laura to make such a comment on his physique, however, as everything she’d said in the past had been flatteringly positive.

“Well, all of me is long,” he said somewhat irritably, “stands to reason my toes would be as well. Is that a problem?”

Her sapphire eyes snapped to his as she wrapped a hand around his right foot and squeezed. “Not at all,” she said without hesitation. “I think your toes are lovely.”

“My toes—” he began incredulously, unable to believe those words had left her lips.

“Are lovely, yes,” she said with a smile, and at her words, she wrapped both her hands around his right foot, squeezing and digging her thumbs deep into the flesh of his arch. “And your skin is so soft,” she said in a voice to match her words. “They even smell nice; you must have one hell of a shoe powder.”

“A m—mix of several brands,” he stammered as she ran both her thumbs down the line of his arch again.

By the gods, why did every touch from her transcend everything he’d ever experienced in his existence? As her thumb pressed into the area just below the ball of his foot, he collapsed completely in the grass, and a sound that he swore had never before escaped his throat clawed its way up through his lungs and past his lips, though its volume likely wasn’t as resounding as it was in his own ears. He immediately raised his head to discern her reaction, which seemed to be that of profound elation.

“Apologies,” he mumbled, still appalled by his lack of control. “That was inappropriate.”

“Nonsense,” she said, switching to his other foot. “There’s nothing at all inappropriate about expressing appreciation and pleasure.” Her voice grew soft as she continued. “Just lie back and enjoy it. Stop thinking about how you should be thinking or feeling and just feel.”

It was exactly the right thing to say, because as he laid his head back down in the springy grass and raised his eyes the underside of the massive Duscaean Pine swaying above his head, his mind wanted to wander to every thought he should be having about this situation: how mortified he would feel should one of the others happen to stumble upon them in this moment; how a queen and goddess was currently rubbing his feet as he lay lounging on the ground; how he, the servant, should be the one doing this to her.

But this was part of the letting go, wasn’t it? He fisted his fingers in the strands of grass and allowed himself to be swept away by the breeze on his face; the cushion of grass at his back; the feel of her soft, warm hands on his skin; and the tide of pleasure that seemed to crash against the soles of his feet and roll up his legs. He hadn’t realized how sore they’d been from all the walking they’d been doing these past three weeks until she’d begun working out the muscles there.

After several minutes spent together in silence, he felt her hands leave him, and he opened his eyes when he noted from behind his eyelids that something was blocking his face from the light of the overcast sky. Gods, her face was right there, hovering over him, glowing with euphoria, and her hair was hanging down to brush against his jaw and shoulders in the breeze—in a way that felt almost intimate.

“Breathe, Ignis,” she said in a low voice.

He obeyed without question, inhaling a deep breath through his nose, and that scent of hers threatened to drown him.

“No,” she said with a chuckle, shaking her head, but her eyes were still sparkling. “You’re doing it wrong.”

“Really? I must beg to differ, as I’ve managed to survive all these years breathing in much the same manner. Still, I suppose I’m open to advice if you have any,” he said with a smirk, and her soft lips pulled even wider.

“Do you remember last time, when I had you smell the life?” she asked, and he nodded. “This time I want you to taste it. Let the air in through your mouth, roll it over your tongue, taste the life in the air.”

Her voice was so luminous that he wondered if she was capable of casting a spell on him in Lucian rather than Lliamérian, because he immediately complied without a thought, inhaling deeply until he thought his lungs would burst from expanding so far. At first, as the cool, wet air rushed over his tongue and palate, all he could taste was her intoxicating scent, which was life enough, he supposed, but he doubted that was what she was aiming for. He took another breath and realized what she meant. If he was truly paying attention, he could taste the mineral scent of rock on his tongue; the sweet, juicy flavor of fresh grass; damp soil; and even the wild, gamey aroma of chocobo on the air.

“Yes, that’s it,” she whispered, closing her eyes and settling down in the crook of his shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around her, inordinately pleased that she’d settled so close to him like this of her own accord.

“I can’t imagine living your life like this,” he said to the top of her head. “It seems as though you strive to make every moment wondrous.”

She hummed in response before replying, “As a very, very wise man once told me, ‘Seize the time. Live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.’ Of course, he thought I was his mortal daughter at the time . . . long story. The point is, even if I have infinite moments ahead of me, none will ever be exactly like this one, so I do my best to make it special—for you and for me, but especially for you.”

He still couldn’t fathom why she had chosen here with him to spend her most precious time. She could be anywhere right now—in all of time in space, in all the multiverse, and she was lying barefoot in the grass in his arms wearing a ridiculous chocobo t-shirt and staring up at what was likely, to her, a thoroughly ordinary sky. Her grasp of life must be so very different from his, with all she was capable of perceiving, if this was the moment she was choosing to live right now.

“What must it feel like,” he asked, half expecting not to receive an answer, “to see time the way you do? To see the world as you do, with past, present, and future all one in the same? To know the entire multiverse?”

She propped herself up on an elbow, leaning over him again and searching his eyes, and her expression morphed into an odd combination of wistful amusement, with her eyes desperately melancholy, but her lips quirked up a little at the corner.

“It’s like when you're a kid,” she began, “the first time they tell you the world is turning, and you just can't quite believe it because everything looks like it's standing still.” She placed a hand over his heart, closing her eyes, tilting her head, and lowering her voice. “I can feel it—” she breathed, and the rate of her words picked up in speed and intensity as she continued, almost as though she were afraid, “the turn of the planet. The ground beneath our backs is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it.”

Her eyes opened wide in that moment, boring into his with golden wonder and power and foreboding that almost made him breathless as she moved her hand from his heart to his shoulder, gripping tightly. These moments, right here, were what made him feel small before her, were what reminded him of her divinity, as no mortal being could emulate that terrifying look in her eyes—a tone that was matched in her voice as she spoke her next words.

“Ignis, we're falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go . . .,” she trailed off, letting go of his shoulder and drifting her hand back down to his heart. But she never finished her sentence, leaving him to wonder what would happen if they let go, as that was exactly what he’d been doing these past few days.

He never got the chance to ask her, for she pulled away from him so suddenly that he wondered for a moment if she had simply vanished into thin air—or perhaps that she had simply never existed in the first place. But as he looked over to see her standing above him with that bright smile of hers, she bent down and took his hand, pulling him up until he was standing.

“Come,” she said, her expression so very alive once more. “Allons-y!” she added with a laugh. She didn’t let go of his hand; rather, she pulled him along through the grass toward some unknown destination as she said, “Let me show you.”

Ignis felt a stirring of alarm at her words, but he reminded himself to relax—to let go—and settle into the feeling of the grass beneath his bare feet for the first time in his life. There was grass, of course, in Insomnia, but he’d never had the desire nor opportunity to traipse around outside undressed like a heathen. Now that he’d been convinced to do so, he was surprised to find he wasn’t as disgusted by the sensation of the damp greenery between his toes as he thought he would be; it was the finest plush carpet, with long, delicate fibers tickling at the soles of his feet. The soft soil beneath the carpet gave a little under his weight with each step, and each stride seemed to pull away cleanly, leaving his soles unmuddied. Still, it certainly wasn’t going to be a custom he’d make a habit of.

They stopped in a thoroughly ordinary spot, seemingly identical to the one they had just vacated, at least to Ignis, but Laura looked closely at the ground around them before taking his other hand and smiling up at him.

“Spin with me,” she said before she stepped to the side, leading him in a circle.

Ignis frowned, but complied nevertheless. “Why are we doing this?”

She picked up speed as she replied with a laugh, “You wanted to know what it felt like. I’m showing you. Faster!”

Wondering what other daft commands of hers he would end up following on this deranged experience of theirs, he obeyed, leaning back so the weight of his balance was now dependent on hers and shuffling his feet to the side, picking up speed until he couldn’t possibly move them any faster. The world around them became a blur of green and grey, grass and rock and cloudy sky, until the only thing that was in focus was her joyous, laughing face and her blue-black hair whipping to the side like a banner caught in the wind.

Yes, he knew this feeling well. This was exactly what it felt like falling for her.

“You’re absolutely mad!” he cried out before throwing his face to the sky and pouring all his disbelief and wonder into an eruption of laughter.

“Do you trust me, Ignis?” she asked as they continued to whirl in circles. “This won’t be the same unless you do exactly as I ask.”

“I’m all in,” he replied immediately with a grin, though he was beginning to grow dizzy. The apprehension had long since dissipated, leaving nothing but that euphoria in his heart that always seemed to show on her face in moments like these.

“I’m going to count to three, then you’re going to close your eyes and let go. There’s nothing behind us; I made certain of it. But it won’t work unless you close your eyes.”

Of course she would ask of him the one thing he hated doing most in the world, relinquishing what little control he had over his own life, closing his eyes in the face of uncertainty, and facing peril in the dark. Nothing good ever came of it. However, he supposed that that was what was always asked of mortals seeking favors from the gods—a sacrifice of the highest order. But she was not one of the Six, balanced with cruelty and mercy in equal measure. She was giving him the choice. And she was Rose—his Rose.

“All right,” he said, his voice and will made firm.

“One. Two . . .three!”

Ignis cast aside his every instinct, slammed his eyes shut, and let go of her hands at the same moment she did. His body flew backwards through the air as time seemed to slow, and suddenly, the ground felt much farther away than he’d originally thought. For how much longer would he float like this? But then he realized . . . he was falling through space. He had let go, ceded control, and was now falling through space, with no idea when he would land, where he would land, or what it would feel like when he did. The disorientation was overwhelming, as his head was still spinning; he’d wanted to be swept away, and she’d done exactly as he’d wished. It was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

Yes, exactly like falling for her.

The moment was over far too soon as he landed, completely unharmed, on the plush grass beneath him, but he kept his eyes closed as his world continued to whirl. He felt her presence settle next to him as he breathed, and as his heartbeat began to return to normal and the rush in his ears settled, he could hear her heavy breath next to him. Ever so slowly, he opened his eyes to see her gazing at him, her own eyes alight.

“That? That’s what it feels like to be you?” he asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “In every moment.”

Ignis shook his head. “I don’t understand how you could bear it, feeling that all the time.”

“There was . . . an adjustment period, for certain, but now you know why I’m so mad,” she replied with a grin. Her expression suddenly transformed to concentration when she breathed in deeply. “Wait. Do you smell that?” she asked, looking out onto the horizon.

Having some trouble keeping up with this mercurial whimsy and still recovering from his most recent experience, he sat up and sniffed at the air, discerning nothing that would change her mood so quickly.

“No, what is it?”

He was startled by her sudden burst of laughter. “My gods, but I love this planet! Two adventures in one; the timing couldn’t be more perfect,” she hooted before turning to Saracchian, who was still lying several meters away, staring at the two of them. “You may as well go, dear, so you don’t get caught in it as well,” she said, and to Ignis’s surprise, the bird stood and trotted toward the ranch.

Then she turned to him. “Is there anything you don’t want getting wet?”

“Here,” he said without hesitation, reaching into his pocket and handing her his mobile. “This won’t go into our armiger.” Though he was hardly any more excited to get wet than he usually was, he’d already decided that if he could keep feeling like this, he’d follow her anywhere.

“I’ll never understand the logic of that thing,” she said, shaking her head. “Ridiculous.” She took it from him and dismissed it to her Pocket before scooting into his side closely enough that their bodies touched from shoulder to hip to knee.

The dizziness he’d only just recovered from began to make itself known, though to a lesser degree, and the tempo of his heart increased once again as he contemplated what he was about to do. He’d felt this way a time or two before, when he’d had a glass of champagne at a function and had forgotten to eat something beforehand, but he’d been able to control himself at the time, as he hadn’t also been overwhelmed with wave after wave of giddiness. Now, he could only hope she wouldn’t notice the slight tremor in his hand. He lifted it slowly, convincing himself that it would be all right, that he had done this before in the past, but somehow it felt different. Settling his arm around her shoulders and wrapping his fingers around the curve of her bicep, he let out a silent, perhaps slightly shaky breath.

To his disappointment, she didn’t look up at him, but she did lean into his shoulder and bring a hand around his back to squeeze him, which was more than reward enough. For certain, this was no more than she’d done with Gladio the other day, simply in a sitting position, but she was doing it with him.

“Look out to the horizon now. It may be too soon for your eyes, but it’s starting.”

Ignis swung his gaze in the direction she’d indicated, squinting out to the horizon. At first, he couldn’t discern anything but a distant haze, somewhat obstructing his view of the mythril wing of the Disc of Cauthess. Instead of turning to ask her what he was supposed to be looking for, he waited patiently, breathing in the fresh air mixed with her scent, reveling in the warmth of her body against his, and simply enjoying the concept of being alive in this moment. He could hear the gentle slaps of water falling from the sky onto the dead leaves and bright green grass as it began to sprinkle.

After a minute or two, he saw it—a massive, sweeping wall of slate blue against the landscape. The drops falling from the sky and landing on his shoulders with heavy slaps increased in frequency as the wall drew closer—until it broke over the both of them, swallowing them whole and roaring in his ears like a waterfall. Every inch of his body was instantly soaked as the sky continued to pelt him with tens of thousands of cold percussive whacks. Though he despised the sensation of wet clothing much as he always had when they had to be out in the rain like this, he found that the tenderness of this moment was enough to warm him from within, wrapped around Laura as he was.

The assault only lasted a minute or two before the rain settled into a thoroughly ordinary afternoon shower.

“Do you smell it now?” she asked.

For what felt like the millionth time in the past hour, he inhaled deeply, this time through his nose, and he detected a new scent—sweet, pungent, wet, and soil, a fresh zing in his nostrils. He’d smelled something similar in the air after it had rained in Insomnia all his life, but it had never been this strong, this clean.

“Yes, what is that?” he asked.

“That’s ozone. That’s the smell of soil after the rain—the intoxicating scent of petrichor,” she replied. “Now tilt your head back and open your mouth,” she said softly as she finally looked up at him.

He did as she asked, tilting his head back and collecting a small mouthful and swallowing. The water was almost sharp, its flavor, and it tasted exactly like the scent of the trees and the rocks and the air he was currently breathing.

He felt her lean up, stretching her body so that her lips were nearly at his ear. “You’re drinking the clouds, Ignis. You’re tasting the sky,” she murmured, and the vibrations from her words tickled at the hairs in his ear, making him shiver.

Oh Astrals, if this was what she considered friendship, he didn’t think he was capable of surviving what she considered romance. As he looked down into her eyes, he wanted nothing more in that moment than to taste her as he’d just tasted the sky, but he hadn’t yet tested his hypothesis to his satisfaction. Now was not the time to be impetuous and cast everything aside on a reckless whim.

He decided his next move would be now, and it would be no more than what he’d done in the past combined with what he’d seen Gladio do. Still, his heart felt as though it was going to race out of his chest and sprint across the open field as he reached his left hand around and slowly, carefully brushed the backs of his knuckles against her cheek. She closed her eyes and inhaled at his touch, but the pleasant smile on her face remained. So far, so good.

Gazing down at her with so much tenderness that it was a wonder his body could contain it, and allowing his voice to go deep and husky, he said, “Words cannot fully express the gratitude and joy I’m experiencing for you sharing this with me.”

He brought the hand that was around her shoulders to the soaked hair plastered to the side of her head, gently tugging her to him, but doing so slowly enough that she had time to pull away should she wish it. As he brought her wet, cool forehead to his lips—the first time in his life he’d ever brought his lips to another person’s skin—he almost felt nauseated at how quickly his heart was beating in his chest, how violently the blood seemed to be rushing to his brain. He wanted to hyperventilate, but he forced his breath to hold steady as he pulled away and opened his eyes to hers.

Dazzling. They dazzled him—along with that smile that always seemed to grace her expression when she was looking at him. Surely, that couldn’t be a coincidence?

His breath began to fail him, however, as he felt her hand brush from his back to the other side of his head, pulling his face down toward hers just as slowly and gently as he had.

“It’s better with two, Ignis, always,” she whispered before touching her lips to his cheek.

As they sat together in that little patch of grass, soaking wet and a little chilled, Ignis was certain that he wanted to keep feeling this feeling for the rest of his life. Though it still terrified him so much that it hurt, he couldn’t help but think that if this feeling in his head and heart wasn’t love, he didn’t know what was.

Chapter Text

As soon as they left the chocobo post the next day, Ignis turned to Gladio in the passenger seat. “Of course I would understand if you have objections, Gladio, but would you mind terribly if we made a quick stop to see the Disc of Cauthess on our way to Lestallum? After all,” he said, reaching forward to wipe a speck of dust off the dashboard, “I’ve always wanted to see the meteor of legend.”

Gladio sighed, rubbing his face with his hand, and said, “Yeah, go ahead. I kinda figured this would happen anyway.”

Ignis frowned at Gladio’s tone. Knowing that the man had waited ten days since the Fall to see his sister, he should have brought up the idea for this silly little adventure of his for another day—should have realized that even a couple of hours’ delay would be more than an inconvenience. But frugality—saving time and petrol had been the first things on his mind when he’d spoken to Noct before they’d left. All this time spent out in the wild was clearly making him careless. He opened his mouth to take back the suggestion, but Gladio cut him off before he could speak.

“Naw, don’t do that. I can see it on your face, Iggy. You never ask to go anywhere. Iris can wait another couple of hours—as long as we get there today. Just talked to her this morning to tell her we’d be showin’ up, and she’s fine.”

“Are you certain you wouldn’t mind the delay?” he asked.

“It’s good, man. Not like I haven’t wanted to see the meteor too, you know. Who could turn down the opportunity to see a god in the flesh? I mean, besides the one we got in the back seat,” he replied with a grin and a thumb over his shoulder.

“Oh gods, not you too,” he heard Laura moan from behind him.

“Think he was talking about me, Laura,” Noct said, and Prompto nearly choked from giggling so hard.

“Heh, yeah, all hail the God of Sleepiness,” Gladio chuckled.

Once Prompto had recovered his breath, he said, “Well what’re we supposed to think? You’re immortal. You got all this power. You’re pretty much like the Six but with . . . I dunno, time and space or something.”

“Yeah, I get it. And you’re not the first. Just don’t start worshipping me, for frack’s sake. I’d hate to have to kick your asses after all we’ve been through. Plus, the statues people make when you’re a goddess are terribly unflattering. There was only one that I liked.”

“Don’t think you’re in any danger there,” Noct said. “I mean, you’ve seen how they treat me, right?”

“Yeah, well, we might start worshipping you if you’d learn to cut your own meat,” Gladio said.

“I’ve got a sword in the armiger that says I can cut my own meat just fine, thanks,” Noct said, leaning forward to punch Gladio on the shoulder.

Ignis cut into the conversation before it drifted too far from Laura’s last statement, as it so often seemed to before he could get a question in. “So you truly are worshipped as a goddess in some places?”

At his words, the cabin of the car grew silent—eerily silent, as they’d kept the top up today due to the inclement weather. He could practically feel the hesitation radiating from Laura and looked up into the rearview mirror to see it for himself. He couldn’t find her face, however, because she had just leaned forward between the seats.

“Yeah,” she said quietly, “but certainly without my permission. I told you; I don’t want that.”

Ignis glanced over, noting her troubled expression, and smiled to reassure her. “I was merely curious as to what appellations they may have given you.”

She took a few seconds to respond, likely to determine whether the “color of his mind,” as she called it, would indicate that he was about to pull the car over and genuflect at her feet. He would, of course, if she asked, even if her status had merely been that of mortal Queen, but then, the same could also be said of Noct. But as she’d stated only a second ago and several times before, any sort of worship or obedience from him was most certainly not what she wanted, and so he would do his best to be himself around her, despite the fact that every aspect of his upbringing screamed against the practice.

Of course, “himself” seemed to possess an appalling lack of manners as of late, including this intense curiosity that drove him to ask such impertinent questions about her history. He’d been allowing his curiosity, irritation, and amusement with her to reflect in his behavior, a practice which oddly seemed to delight her, and that release seemed to have affected his interactions with the others, as though he could no longer hold back the dam of the shockingly uncouth personality that was apparently lying in wait beneath his finely-honed gentility. He didn’t think the others had noticed yet, except perhaps Gladio, but he needed to be more careful in the future and keep that ill-bred savage well-chained until he was alone with her.

“Well, there’s a statue of me in the British Museum as the Goddess Fortuna, but I’m not certain that counts, as a friend made that to complete a time loop.” Ignis glanced at her again from the side of his eye and saw that wistful smile cross her face, as it so often did. “Still, I was ‘is Goddess Fortuna,” she said softly, “. . . tha’ or just ‘is lucky pants.”

“What,” he said flatly, shaking his head, somewhat bewildered at the sudden turn the conversation had taken toward undergarments.

She sighed and said, “I suppose information you’re looking for is the Goddess of Time, Bad Wolf, Avatar of Time, Mother Wolf, Sun Goddess, Golden Mother, Goddess of Life, the Rising Sun, Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn . . . a thousand names, all the same basic concept—the sun, which brings life and time. The wolf stuff’s just . . . incidental.”

“Well, you’re in luck, Princess,” Gladio said with a smirk. “We don’t got one of those here, so the position’s open if ya want it.”

“I’m not so sure about that . . . hang on, did you say in the flesh? You mean your gods actually walk around on the planet with you?”

“Uh, yeah. Sometimes,” Prompto said. “Like, Titan’s standing under that meteor in the Disc of Cauthess right now. Caught it falling outta the sky and saved the world!” He made a descending whistling and crashing sound to emphasize his point.

“Typically, however, the gods speak to us through divine messengers, which take on the appearance of humans or animals and walk the world doing their sacred duty,” Ignis said.

“That actually explains a lot about your attitude towards me, and why you were all less than horrified at my confession. This is a thing on your world. Still . . ..” Ignis heard the odd tone in her voice and noted her look of disapproval before turning his gaze back to the road.

“Hey Ignis, can you pull over for a sec?” Noct asked.

“Certainly,” Ignis replied without question, waiting until he found a safe spot before pulling the Regalia off to the shoulder.

“Something wrong?” Gladio asked.

“I think someone needed help back there. Let’s go check it out.”

“Noct to the rescue!” Prompto said as he jumped out of the car, stretching his legs and drumming his hands against the roof.

“Take care not to dent the Regalia, if you please,” Ignis said quietly. He and Laura had only just cleaned the car inside and out the day before, and already there were fingerprints on the door handles and the roof above the doors.

The mint green Gaia they’d passed had crashed just off the road, clearly haven been driven there at a high speed before the driver’s forward momentum had been halted by one of the towering Duscaean Pines growing nearby. The crash couldn’t have occurred too long ago, as the back tires of the vehicle were still spinning and squealing, kicking up muck in the muddy ditches they had dug. As they approached the driver’s side window, Ignis saw a man from over the tops of Prompto’s, Noct’s, and Laura’s heads—mid-forties, balding, but with dark brown patches of hair on the sides. He was unconscious, his head lolled to the side against the window, a black bruise almost pulsating under the skin of his temple.

“We gotta help him!” Prompto cried out. “Get a potion.”

Noct summoned a potion and made to fling the door open, but Laura slapped a hand hard against the window.

“No!”

“We gotta help this guy before he dies!” Noct said, his voice rising in anxiety.

“Look at him, Noctis.”

“Yeah, he looks like he’s got a pretty bad concussion, which is why we gotta help him now before a potion won’t cure him,” Gladio said.

“A potion isn’t going to cure him.” She stared down at the unconscious man, her hand still spread across the window. “How did this happen? I didn’t know it was even possible. I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”

Ignis moved in closer to determine what could have caused such a reaction, how she could possibly know that whatever was ailing the man couldn’t be cured with anything they had in their armiger, particularly since she was so unfamiliar with their healing magic.

“Pardon me,” he said to Prompto so he could more closely inspect the man. It was only then that he saw the distinct pattern of veining across the bruise on his temple, which wasn’t a bruise at all. That black patch was literally pulsating with a seething, vicious beat. He’d seen photos and read descriptions of such symptoms in newspaper coverage several times—when Lady Lunafreya was performing her duties as Oracle.

“That’s Starscourge. Only the Oracle can heal him of that. He’ll soon disappear. Look. Already his hand seems to be turning to vapor,” he said, pointing to the man’s hand, which was releasing a gaseous purple substance into the air.

That’s Starscourge?” Laura asked sharply, turning to him with burning, almost angry eyes.

He nodded. “We may be the first to actually witness a man disappear from the disease.”

“No, we won’t,” she said harshly. “Fuck!”

“I’ve learned from experience that it’s a very bad thing indeed when you use that word,” he said, recalling that the last time she had said it, the consequences of the situation had reached nearly thirteen years back into his life.

“You don’t need to be a telepath to make the connection. Why has no one figured this out yet? Look at him! Where have you seen that black substance before?”

Ignis turned back to the man, inspecting first his temple, then his hand. There was something eerily familiar about the black and purple vapor, the way it seemed to float on the air and melt into the floorboards, the way it seemed to stain all it touched with ink as dark as the pits of hell he’d seen it in before. If he concentrated, he could almost feel the evil pouring from it, like a living entity unto itself.

“Every time a daemon appears or dies,” he replied. He did his best to keep the horror from the tone of his voice as he said, “Are you implying that people aren’t disappearing, they’re turning into daemons?”

“Shit. This is why we’ve seen so many abandoned cars on the side of the road,” Gladio realized. “It must happen fast once the symptoms start.”

“There’s no doubt that’s what’s happening; I can feel his mind transforming. And there’s nothing we can do for him. We can’t even open the door. I don’t know how Starscourge spreads, and I’m guessing you don’t either, or people wouldn’t be catching it.”

Ignis shook his head. “It wasn’t my area of expertise, but I’ve studied every report and paper written on the matter as extensively as possible; what research has been done on the scourge has yielded no actionable results. You’re right. He could be contagious in this halfway state, and we wouldn’t know until it was too late.”

The consequences of these conclusions were too horrible to imagine. All this time, they’d been killing former innocent subjects of the Crown? They’d had little choice, but what did that mean for the future population of Lucis, of Eos? If MTs were daemons, did that mean they were killing off formerly innocent humans from the Empire?

If the daemonization of the people and Starscourge were, in fact, one in the same, then another piece of the puzzle of Noct’s destiny had just been put in its place.

“So what do we do about this guy?” Noct asked.

“I think our way forward is pretty clear,” Laura said, her voice bleak as her fingers found their way to the pendant around her neck almost absent-mindedly. She regarded at each of them in turn. “Given the choice between being killed or becoming a daemon, which would you choose?”

“I’d rather die,” Gladio said without hesitation, and Noct and Prompto nodded in agreement.

Ignis stared into her anguished eyes and nodded sharply. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind which fate he would rather suffer. But how could they kill the man without opening the door? Perhaps her magic could pass through glass without breaking it.

Laura straightened her back and lifted her chin before turning to Noct. “Your Majesty,” she said, and Noct’s eyes shot open wide at her address. Ignis cast a glance at Gladio and Prompto, and he knew that his own face mirrored a similar expression of shock. “I formally request permission to euthanize one of your subjects, who has committed no crime, from the outside of this vehicle in order to safeguard the health of the King, His Sword-Sworn, and additional subjects of Lucis.”

At the formality of her address, Ignis saw Noct’s face grow hard and serious. It was a rare expression for the Prince, no . . ., the King, but it was moments like these that reminded Ignis that this young man would one day become a most capable king, that he was King Regis’s very competent son, destined for greatness.

“Will it put you at risk?” Noct asked.

“No. This requires no energy, and it will be as quick and painless as possible for him,” she replied.

But Ignis knew her too well. Before Noct could respond, he cut in, “And what about you? Will this be just as quick and painless for you?”

“Gods, you’re a pain in the ass,” she muttered on a sigh with almost a smile on her lips. “Physically, no, it won’t hurt me at all.”

And that was all she had to say, because Ignis knew from what she’d left out that it would hurt her emotionally. But then, they all did things every day that hurt them emotionally, almost without a thought these days, and this was something he couldn’t protect her from. He looked to Noct, who was watching him as though he knew exactly what had just happened and was waiting for his own opinion on the matter. Ignis nodded, and Noct shifted his gaze to Laura.

“You have my permission. Do it,” Noct commanded.

Laura nodded and turned back to the car, raising her glassy eyes to the sky before allowing them to fall closed, her jaw clenched tight. Whatever this was, it was clearly too agonizing for her to hide as she always did, and Ignis wondered at the full scope of what she’d just offered to do.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Ignis felt something glance against his wrist, and he looked down to see that she had reached out to grasp at the cuff of his jacket with two fingers, almost as though she hoped he wouldn’t notice. He twisted his hand so he could entwine his fingers with hers, hoping the others wouldn’t see this public display, but not truly caring if they did. He knew he’d done the right thing when he felt her fingers squeeze his tightly.

Her eyelids fluttered as she took in a small, shuddering breath, and Ignis’s gaze was directed to the man’s body when it went suddenly stiff, his eyes opening wide to show inky black sclera and viciously purple irises. His foot must have slipped off the gas pedal, because the whine of the motor and the grinding of the back tires ceased as he relaxed and his eyes fell closed. Slowly, the purple and black swirls on his skin stopped pulsing and faded away as the miasma melted into the floorboards at his feet.

There were no words. There was no silver light. She had killed a man with merely a thought.

It was almost laughable now, thinking that he could have protected Noct with a mere dagger the day Insomnia fell and he had been uncertain of her loyalties. She could have killed them all that day without summoning a blade or even uttering a sound.

Laura opened her eyes and stared at Noct with a vacant expression. “We need to get out of here,” she said coldly.

Ignis gave her hand a final squeeze of support before letting go and turning toward the car.

“Thank you,” she whispered from beside him.

He glanced briefly in her direction before nodding. “You shouldn’t bear the burden alone. As you’ve been told before, this isn’t your war.”

“I don’t get it,” Prompto said as they all slid into their seats. “If it’s that easy to kill someone, why bother with the swords? Why not just kill everybody that way?”

Ignis closed his eyes for a moment before turning to see her reaction. The man’s innocence was charming most of the time, but in this case, he couldn’t have possibly said anything worse. Sure enough, the look on Laura’s face was restrained, likely for the sake of Prompto’s feelings, but he could see the agony in her eyes and the rigidity of her bearing.

“Because telepathic warfare in a world of apaths is an abomination,” she said in a dead voice. “Because I’m not a god.”

With those final, heavy words, the rest of the ride to Cauthess was spent in contemplative silence.

***

A heavy breeze floated in through the open window in the living room of their suite at the Leville, fluttering the white billowing curtains against the enormous couch that dominated the room. In the courtyard below the open windows and balcony, a group of musicians had begun to play an upbeat rhythm—completely at odds with the atmosphere in the room, and Ignis could hear a large group forming what would likely end up a block party by the end of the night.

He settled back in one of the black wingback armchairs across from the couch, crossing his legs and leaning on one of the wings with an outstretched elbow. Gladio stepped over the back of the other chair and fell into it, slouching as he rubbed at his stomach. While Prompto and Noct settled into their own couch cushions, Ignis watched Laura without trying to make it seem too obvious he was doing so.

She’d been almost completely silent since their encounter with the infected man, which was to be expected, but the elation that graced her expression every time they arrived somewhere new was absent, which had nagged at his thoughts all afternoon. He’d missed the way that luminescent smile would light up her face before she would disappear, only to return, tugging his hand to pull him off on some grand adventure she’d discovered. He vowed he’d find some way to return that light to her eyes tonight, even if only for a moment.

Not even the trip to the Disc had lightened the mood, as they had encountered an Imperial blockade at the site, a most troubling finding indeed. The Empire seemed to be setting up these blockades and bases at major sites around Lucis and waiting for . . . something; he knew not what. Ignis pulled out his list and made a note to contact the Marshal in the morning to inform him of this news. If the Marshal’s main task was to determine what the Empire was up to, perhaps he would be able to offer more insight.

“At least Luna’s okay,” Prompto said.

Noct fixated the floor. “Yeah,” he said in a small, choked voice.

Lady Iris had just left the suite to change for dinner, but she had been the one to greet them at the base of the stairs when they’d arrived at the Leville, lead them up to their suite, and apprise them of Insomnia’s status after the attack. Even if her vague descriptions left something to be desired in Ignis’s mind, he couldn’t help the surge of hope that bubbled in his chest when she’d mentioned that many of the outlying neighborhoods had made it through in one piece. He’d tried phoning his uncle twice in the last week, to no avail, so it seemed he would have to track down his parents manually when this was over. Still, at least there was a strong likelihood that they had survived the Fall.

She’d also informed them that Lady Lunafreya was not only alive, but had recently been in town. Though Ignis was sorely disappointed that Noct had missed the opportunity to connect with his bride, he was pleased to see that the Prince had been relieved of at least one source of grief. Lady Lunafreya, from what he’d seen and heard from media coverage, as well as the few glimpses into the diary Noct had allowed him, was an enormously kind, compassionate, and gentle woman, but Ignis knew from experience that public service roles such as hers demanded a will of steel. He was relieved to know that, not only for the sake of the future of their world but also for the sake goodness itself, such a woman had been spared in the Fall.

Noct sighed. “I just wanna relax tonight. Do something stupid and pointless. Feel like it’s been one thing after another lately.”

“Yeah,” Prompto agreed. “Let’s do something fun tonight!”

When Noct looked over at Ignis, he replied, “As you wish, Highness.”

Honestly, they should be checking in with anyone who would have hunts or errands available this evening, but he could hardly deny the Prince the desire to seek out more leisure time, as they’d all been through entirely too much in recent weeks. Their financial situation was stable due to their eagerness to assist whenever they arrived at a new settlement and Ignis’s insistence that they either camp at a haven, or, as a last resort, stay in a camper. But their stay here in Lestallum for the next several days would put a sizeable dent in that solvency. Tonight was likely a wash, as they would no doubt be eating out, but he resolved to ensure that they do so as little as possible for the rest of their time here.

Gladio stood from his chair. “D’you mind if we split up tonight? I wanna take Iris out to dinner alone and talk about some stuff.”

“It should be safe enough as long as we all stay well within the city limits,” Ignis replied, casting a stern glance at Noct, who raised his hands.

“Hey, I’ve had enough trouble. I’ll behave, I swear.”

“See that you do. I’m gonna go pick up Iris. See you guys later.” Gladio gave a small, two-fingered salute before heading out the door.

“Hey, Noct! Wanna go check out the arcade we saw? Sure it’s nothing like the one back home, but it’s been forever since we got some real game on!”

“Hell yeah!” Noct replied, jumping off the couch and heading toward the door, Prompto following right behind.

Ignis didn’t really consider a night at the arcade the best way to unwind. He had spent many an evening at Noct’s preferred arcade back in Insomnia and merely tolerated the flashing lights and loud noises for the Prince’s sake. Still, if that was what Noct wanted to do this evening . . .. He made to stand and follow them, but Noct turned around.

“No way. I know you hate the arcade, Specs. You and Laura can go find a bookstore and fight about . . . I dunno, metaphysics—or whatever you guys do for fun.” He leaned in close to Ignis’s ear and said more quietly, “Just get that look off her face.”

For once, it seemed that his and Noct’s goals were one in the same, and though he would normally protest the Prince’s offer of yet more leisure time, he had just been given a direct order to accomplish the very objective he had in mind this evening.

“I’m only too happy to oblige, Highness,” he said with a nod.

Noct grinned and slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Yeah, you poor thing.” Then, in a louder voice, he said, “See you guys later,” before turning toward the door with Prompto, throwing a casual wave over his shoulder.

As soon as the door had closed, he turned to study Laura, who had shifted to the side and was staring out the window behind her. “I hope you didn’t think that I meant you were obligated to spend the evening with me. I’m not exactly known for being the life of the party,” he said with a self-deprecating smile. Command or no, he’d give her the choice to spend time with him, just as she’d always done for him. If she refused, he could still do his duty by finding some other way to get that look off her face—perhaps by cooking supper for her.

“But, if you’re interested,” he continued, “we could perhaps find something to do.”

She turned her gaze away from the window and gave him a slow, close-lipped smile, and for a moment, it almost seemed to reach her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know very well I’d love to spend the evening with you. Did you have anything particular in mind?”

“I imagine dinner should be involved, at some point, and I did find one place in my research with a good reputation that sells vegetarian fare. Or I could cook for us, if you would prefer a greater variety of options.”

“You’ll most certainly do no such thing,” she replied immediately, heat leaking into her expression. “Your cooking is wonderful, but you need a night off too. We’re going to eat out just like everyone else, and then . . .,” she glanced out the window briefly, taking a deep breath before turning back to him, and her entire face had, for some astrals-unknown reason, transformed into a wide, bright smile. Apparently, his mission was already complete this evening, and he hadn’t even done a thing. “. . . then you’re going to let me help you with combat.”

He had expected her to say something mad, as usual. Perhaps, ‘and then we’re going to dance with the talking trees in the main square’ or ‘and then we’re going to fling ourselves off the Overlook to be caught by a magical, flying spiracorn and taken on a tour of Eos,’ but he supposed this was close enough, as it was just as expected in its unexpectedness, if a bit mundane—though he doubted it would end up being so by the end of the evening. Heavens, how she always managed to tie his mind in knots.

“Are you certain that’s what you want to do this evening?”

“If it’s all right with you,” she said quietly.

To be honest, it wasn’t what he would have planned for himself had he found the time for a relaxing evening, but he would do anything if it brought that smile back to her face. And it wasn’t as though he wouldn’t end up having some sort of life changing experience before the evening was out, he was certain.

“Yes, of course it’s all right,” he replied.

“Give me a moment to get changed, and we can go,” she said, standing and heading to the door that led to the kitchenette and the bedroom.

He inspected her Glaive uniform. “What you’re wearing now is perfectly acceptable for dinner in a small city such as this, and is of course, suitable for sparring.”

When she stopped and turned to him, he had to snap his mouth shut at the expression on her face, as her lowered head and raised eyes full of fire could only be described as predatory. And he knew. Indeed, somehow, without even leaving their room, it appeared as though she already had come up with some secret plan for him. She must have been lying to flatter him the other day in the Regalia, when she’d said she wasn’t a strategist, as this was beyond any skill of stratagem he’d ever possessed. He, after all, had done research beforehand on the city and hadn’t had a plan beyond their meal and perhaps a few shops they both might’ve found intriguing.

“Not for what I have in mind.” She started to turn back to open the door, but stopped, looking him up and down. He wanted to fidget under her scrutiny, but held himself in check, thrusting his chin level, displaying a strong posture, and holding his gaze neutral.

“Lose the jacket and gloves,” she said with a crooked smirk and a wicked expression. “It’s hot.”

Leaving him to ponder the possibility of the double meaning of her words, she turned and went through the door. He supposed it was rather warm out that evening. It had finally stopped raining, so the air was thick with humidity—almost to the point where he felt as though he were walking through the steam room at the Crownsguard training center in the Citadel. Though he would likely still be sweltering in this heat, he decided to follow her advice and remove his jacket and gloves, rolling up his sleeves while he thought about whether he would attempt another step with her this evening.

His audacity with her so far had paid off, or so he’d thought, but when he considered that any additional moves forward on his part would leave him adrift in uncharted territory, he realized that he hadn’t yet been truly audacious at all. And with that thought, all the careful cultivation of education his tutors had instilled in him came crashing back into his mind with a clamorous cacophony—what was he doing? How dare he even consider pursuing her? All his triumphs thus far, if he were honest with himself, had been no more than what the others had so casually done with her, and they’d been just as happily accepted. So what made him think that he was so special as to dare to ask for more?

And it wasn’t just the unworthiness that nagged at him. Ignis knew that he wasn’t completely unfortunate looking, but he was too thin, pale, and bookish. He lacked the dramatic dark coloring of Lucian nobility that made being pale a desirable trait—coloring that Laura herself had despite not even being of this world. His entire life, he had tried his best to compensate for his appearance by ensuring he was always as well put together as possible, but there was only so much good style could compensate for. It seemed all of Insomnia thought him unattractive, even if not hopelessly so, as evidenced by the fact that many of the Crownsguard and even his own closest friends had seen fit to make light of his inadequacies.

If he pretended for a moment that this was heading in the direction his darkest dreams were hoping for, where would it lead? Did he really expect her to bed him? A vision shimmered in his mind of her beneath him, skin bared, head thrown back, and mouth open in a gasp as he moved over her, but gods no, he had to shove that image away before he could even fully grasp its contents. That would involve exposing far too much of himself both physically and otherwise, not that he wouldn’t be willing to, because gods damnit he loved her, but she surely wouldn’t want him for all he was and wasn’t.

And yet . . . that light in her eyes, the warmth in her gaze when she looked at him, how it always seemed to be him and not one of the others she would sweep off on a grand adventure . . ..

Let go. Just let go.

It seemed his head was wrestling his heart tonight, and since his mind was still tied in knots, he didn’t know which would wind up winning the contest. 

When she reappeared a few minutes later, he didn’t even attempt to conceal the shock that settled over his features, allowing his eyes to widen and his mouth to drop open—just a little. That oh-so-familiar feeling of dread laced with anticipation coiled in his belly at her unexpected wardrobe change and what it might mean for him.

Gathering his wits, he cleared his throat before saying in a lofty tone, “I seemed to have neglected some important detail in this plan of yours. I thought we were eating and then sparring.”

She had let her hair down so that it hung down to her elbows in ebony waves, and the tips brushed against her arms as she lowered her head a little to give him that mysterious smile of hers from underneath her lashes. Her top, if it could be given so generous a name, was a vibrant scarlet that fell off her shoulders, leaving her arms and delicate collarbones bare, and ended just below her bosom. The matching skirt that sat tantalizingly low on her hips seemed to flutter and sigh down to her feet as the breeze from the window tugged at it, and as she stepped toward him, it floated on the air in such a way that she appeared to be hovering over the wood floor rather than standing like a mere mortal.

What made Ignis feel the need to swallow however, was the expanse of bare skin that lay between the two garments—royally alabaster and luminous and so very femininely curved—a masterpiece sculpture made flesh. The part of his mind that was placing wagers on his heart to win out was glad for the eschewance of his gloves this evening, because it would be a sin committed against the gods not to run his hands over such a divine piece of art.

“Yep, that’s the plan. Let’s go,” she said, breaking the spell she’d cast on him and taking his limp, bloodless hand in hers to lead him out the door.

Surgate's Beanmine overlooked the main square of Lestallum, which was infuriatingly crooked, but bustling with activity—with men pushing clattering, rickety carts back and forth over the uneven cobblestones and calling out their wares; women getting off from their shifts at the power plant and unzipping their suits to reveal garments that, frankly, made Laura’s seem modest; and that seemingly ever-present soundtrack of cheerful guitars and brass instruments. As they paid for their meal and sat down at a red-checked table with their food, Ignis sat back for a moment, enjoying the more familiar feeling of being in a city, even if it was nowhere close to the size of even a district in Insomnia.

He utilized the moment of comfortable silence between them to calm his mind by taking several bites of his bird-broth rice with curry—analyzing the exotic spices they used in this region and comparing the flavor profile against the repertoire of his recipes for new combinations of flavors.

“That’s it!” he ejected suddenly before he could stop himself.

“What’s it?” Laura asked.

He felt his cheeks warm a little as he answered more quietly, “Apologies, I’ve just come up with a new recipe.”

As he summoned his notebook and pulled out his fountain pen to take notes, he heard her say, “Oh yeah? From your meal, or something else? Tell me about it.”

When he had finished writing, he blinked up at her in surprise. The others usually humored his habit of creating recipes in the strangest of circumstances, offering to do him the favor of tasting his new creations, but no one had ever asked for more information.

“I was thinking the Leiden pepper in this would pair well with daggerquill breast and Saxham rice.”

“I could see that working well,” she said with a nod. “Like a spicy chicken sort of dish. I bet Prom will love it. He goes nuts for all the spicy things you make. Good idea.”

“Indeed,” he said, looking back down at his notebook. They would have to pick up more rice soon.

When he looked up at Laura again, he decided it was time to have the conversation he’d been dreading for days now. He knew his combat skills were somewhat lacking; he was hardly the best fighter in the Crownsguard before the Fall, and he was well aware that he tended to get injured more than anyone else in their group, even more than Prompto. This discussion needed to be had, and it was going to be unpleasant no matter how it went, so he decided to get it out of the way early in the evening, when there was still time before they had to go back to the Leville to turn circumstances around afterward.

“So. We’re alone now. Would you care to inform me exactly what is lacking in my combat technique that I need assistance with?”

She grimaced into her soup for a moment before answering. “Offense wise, there isn’t much for me to teach you. You’re deadly and swift with your weapons, and you know it. It’s actually quite beautiful to watch—” she began, but he cut her off.

“There’s no need to stroke my ego, I assure you. I can handle the truth without the cushion of flattery.” Surely someone who abhorred coddling as much as she would understand his annoyance at her indirect response.

He seemed to have sparked her irritation with his words, because that fire in her eyes kindled as she glared at him.

“Let’s get one thing straight right now. I don’t do false praise. It undermines the veracity of my word in the future and wastes both our time. But if you’d rather me cut to the chase, fine. For the most part, Noctis and Gladio were correct. Your mind is stunning, Ignis, it really is, but you let it rule you far too much in situations where it slows you down. And there are senses you’re not using to their full potential, including a sense that’s common among my people but exceedingly scarce among humans, especially when paired with a mind like yours. If you let me, I can teach you to fight as I do, nearly.”

Her words were certainly enough to distract him from the disappointment that Noct and Gladio had, in fact, been completely correct. Had she worded her speech to distract him deliberately? He decided the conversation would likely go more pleasantly if he took her bait.

“And what senses are those?”

“Well, the five senses you know you have are unbalanced. Should you decide to go this route, we would work to correct that. But the sense I don’t see you using at all is your literal sixth sense. You have Intuition, Ignis, the kind they write with a capital letter. And it’s what would allow me to teach you how to fight like my people did—again, only if you wish.”

He replied incredulously, “How could I possibly turn down such an offer, knowing what likely lies in store for us?”

“I’m not going to lie; it will probably be the most difficult thing you’ve ever learned. What I’ll be asking of you goes against how human minds are programmed to think their entire lives, and you seem especially entrenched in it. The technique may take you a while to even begin grasping properly. I need you to not get frustrated or self-conscious and keep up with it. Are you in?”

While he appreciated her giving him the choice to decline, in his mind, there was no choice to be made. “Well, you’ve certainly thrown down quite the gauntlet. Your challenge is accepted,” he replied with a slight bow of his head.

The tip of her tongue poked out to touch the top row of her teeth, one of his favorite smiles of hers, though it still seemed an odd expression on her face.

“Very well then, we’ll start after we’re finished eating.”

Ignis let his gaze wander over her bare collarbones, and, ever so briefly to the swell of her breasts pressed up close to her body by her undergarments.

“You truly plan on engaging in mock battle . . . wearing that?” he asked, raising a single eyebrow.

Again, her gaze turned wicked as she replied, “I didn’t say it wouldn’t all be fun. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough.”

Trying not to imagine how she planned on combining combat, one of her wondrous adventures, and that outfit, he decided to relax into her plans now that the unpleasant conversation was behind them. It hadn’t gone as badly as he’d expected, and he’d come out of it relatively unscathed with what sounded like a momentous goal and an impossibly valuable reward ahead. He didn’t know what she’d meant by “Intuition,” but he knew he would most certainly be well familiar with the concept by the time she’d finished with him.  

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” she asked, noting how his gaze wandered around the busy square as he thought, “Being around all these people. They seem so happy going about their lives.”

“Indeed, even if the cacophony takes some getting used to again after the weeks of silence, but it makes me worry for what will happen to centers of population like this when matters escalate.”

She hummed in response before replying, “That’s how I saw the world when I first discovered my time sense. Don’t do that. You’ll see nothing but darkness.” She surveyed the people surrounding them—shopping and laughing and eating as though they hadn’t a care in the world, as though their capital city hadn’t just fallen ten days previous, and as though they weren’t currently under the rule of an empire that hadn’t yet made its intentions clear for its new populace.

“I see this place as a beacon,” she continued, “a bastion of light stemming the tide of darkness that looms beyond its borders. The audacity it takes to be this full of hope in darkness so utterly complete? Humans, for all their faults and short lifespans, live life so fully, squeezing it all in with passion and love, rage and pain. It’s beautiful.” She shook her head. “You people will never stop inspiring me.”

Ignis was never certain how to respond to her when she commented on his species like this, accentuating the vast differences between them. But it was her differences that intrigued him, her differences that had made him want to take a step out closer to the ledge he was still considering leaping from, had already partially leapt from. He couldn’t believe he’d neglected to ask her these questions the other day, but she’d swept him off his feet so swiftly and so completely that he’d forgotten.

“May I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“You said two things to Prompto the other day that intrigued me. Two physical forms?”

“Three, actually,” she responded with a nod, “though I can no longer take my first form. As I said, my people evolved to blend in with humans, so on the rare occasion that we had offspring, they had a human adolescent form to protect them. You should have seen mine,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “I was dirty blonde and brown-eyed and completely unrecognizable from what I look like now.”

“I see, and I assume this is the human form of your two remaining,” he said with a gesture to her.

Laura looked down and began playing with her soup, swirling the tip of the spoon and watching the different ingredients rise to the top before falling again.

“Sort of. When I was twenty-six, I . . . molted, if you will, into my adult form, though that word hardly describes the trauma of the experience. I had spent all that time believing I was human and had no idea what was happening to me.”

He tried to imagine that happening to him—with no warning, having something as foundational as his species being ripped away from him. “You must have been so frightened.”

“Yes. And underneath was my Lliamérian form. My mum was human, but her memories had been altered so that she believed she and my dad were my biological parents.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “You would’ve figured it out immediately, I’m sure. Both of them had blue eyes.”

“It’s not completely impossible, but certainly unlikely,” he replied with a frown. “At least one of them would’ve had to have brown eyes in order for you to have them, or at least a weak form of the allele that produces brown eyes.”

“See what I mean?” she chuckled. “Not even my fiancé made the connection, and he was very well-versed in genetics and alien lifeforms; he himself was only half-human. But he’d never encountered my species—didn’t have a clue what I was, and we were stuck on a xenophobic planet where aliens were just fiction to the general populace. We went into hiding for over twenty years; it took us that long to understand enough about my physiology to learn I could even take a human form.”

His thoughts stuttered for a moment at her mention of being affianced. “What happened to your fiancé, if you don’t mind my asking? Are you still betrothed?”

Though he asked the question as casually as he possibly could manage, she narrowed her eyes a little at him before speaking as though she knew exactly what he wanted to know.

“Doctor James Noble, or just the Doctor, which was his real name. We married, spent almost a hundred years together, but he was mortal. Lliamérians aren’t. He’s been dead for thousands of years now, for me,” she said quietly.

“Forgive me. I shouldn’t have asked,” he responded in an equally low voice, ashamed that he had injured her in his selfish quest for information on her availability. It seemed as though that brute chained beneath his manners was making an appearance tonight as well.

He tried to imagine what life would be like in her situation, an immortal surrounded by mortals, with no peer to turn to. This picture of her existence sounded so desperately lonely—a feeling he was well-familiar with, and he wondered if she had recognized it in him immediately because of her own familiarity with it.

She shook her head and reached out to put her hand over his, and he turned his palm up to grasp her fingers without a thought. “I may not be forthcoming with every detail of my life, but you should always feel free to ask me what’s on your mind. I promise to tell you if I can.”

She may come to regret making him that offer one day, as he never seemed to tire of asking her questions. “Earlier, you said, ‘sort of.’ Is this not your human form?”

It seemed that it took no time at all for her to regret her offer, because she almost seemed uncomfortable when she studied her lap and answered, “As I said, sort of. The appearance is human so I can blend in with you all, but my internal physiology is Lliamérian because it’s sturdier, along with a couple of other species . . . as always, long story. Just had to be careful about not bleeding in front of you guys or keep you from noticing both my hearts beating until you knew what I was. But in my true form? You would still recognize me if you saw me, I think. I hope.”

When her eyes met his again, Ignis was able to identify the emotion immediately, even if he couldn’t fathom the reason for it, because it was a feeling he was well familiar with in all his interactions with her: vulnerability. There was something about this that made her feel self-conscious. Was she perhaps worried he wouldn’t accept her for what she was? The next question drifting from his brain to his mouth might reassure her.

“Would that be something I could see someday?”

The brief smile she gave him before she answered indicated that he’d been correct—for once. “I won’t say never, but I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would be feasible. It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to transform. I can’t just jump back and forth.”

He was disappointed for a moment before he thought of the other subject he wanted to ask her about. “Rose,” he said in a low voice, and as he expected, her eyes widened a fraction. “You also mentioned you had two names. Your second name was Rose, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Rose Tyler. It was all I could think of when I gave it to you that day. I haven’t used it in lifetimes.”

“Does it cause you pain for me to use it?”

“No. It was a good name, a good life. I like to hear you say it,” she said, smiling coyly.

“I enjoy saying it. Rose . . .,” he said, attempting to add a seductive tone to his voice, but Astrals only knew if he was successful.

At the sound of her name from his lips, her eyes fell closed, and she inhaled deep and slow with the most peaceful expression on her face. She almost seemed to shiver, and he wondered at his ability to affect her so. Was there even the slightest possibility that she felt the same as he did for her? It seemed impossible.

The moment she opened her eyes to him again, however, Ignis knew from her expression that it was time. She jumped up from her chair, though he noted that she took the time to tuck it in before shuffling to where he sat, and grabbed his hand, pulling him to his feet.

“Come on!” she exclaimed, using her foot to push his own chair into place before stepping in close and looking up at him, her eyes sparkling and her smile full of laughter. “Ignis,” she whispered, the sound betraying that she was about to explode with merriment. “Run!”

With that final vague command, she whirled, her hair and skirt kicking up in her momentum, and took off. Bewildered as always, he chased after her. They ran through the streets of Lestallum, with her ducking behind corners, catching his eyes, and laughing. But she was nearly a half a foot smaller and so much faster than he, so he was forced to squeeze his way through the crowds, brushing up against sweaty inhabitants with an “I beg your pardon,” hurtling over fallen stacks of crates, or leaping over ill-placed metal drums. She seemed to be searching for something as she raced through the marketplace, dancing her way like a flickering flame through a throng of youths clearly on the lookout for a good time, but he was too busy attempting to catch up to her to garner any clues as to what she may be hunting for.

Now where had she gone off to? He spun in a circle at an intersection in the market, searching. Honestly, if she weren’t finally enjoying herself so, he might have been irritated. His sharp eyes caught a flash of scarlet fabric slinking fluidly among the grey-blue buildings, drifting around a corner, and he followed it to a narrow alley with a long set of stairs leading toward the power plant.    

“What on Eos do you think you’re doing, you madwoman?!” he demanded when he finally caught up with her. She wasn’t even looking in his direction as he said it, instead choosing to brush her hand on a nearby wall and crane her neck so she could see around the corner into a walkway that led to the power plant courtyard, which was packed with dancing couples.

At his admittedly appalling outburst, to his surprise, she turned to him, placing both her hands on his chest and walking him up against the wall.

“Lesson one,” she said. “If you find yourself on an adventure, and it isn’t life threatening, stop thinking. You might find you enjoy it.”

Yes, little did she know he was already beginning to learn that lesson, and look where it had gotten him—alone in a deserted dark alleyway with a beautiful woman pressing him against a wall, and by the gods he wanted to spin her around and be the one to push her somewhere for once.

He wanted to hear more about what she had to say about the matter, though. Perhaps she’d make a case for his heart to win over his head tonight, as it already sounded as though she was, so he feigned ignorance.

“What on Eos are you on about?”

She took her hands off him and took a small step back, her eyes sparkling. “Do you hear the music, Ignis?”

Of course he could hear the music, but she was likely wanting him to hear the life next, so he listened more closely. It would seem that another block party had begun in the courtyard in front of the power plant, with guitars providing a percussive beat, heavy and relentless as the heat of the night air, below a violin that seemed to sing its heart into the night. The revelers in the courtyard were stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and beating tambourines in time to the music. It echoed off the high walls of the deserted alley and over the stone steps, and if he wasn’t careful, he could see the possibility of the music infecting his blood—or perhaps it was just her making his heart beat too quickly again.

He attempted to swallow that familiar feeling of dread and anticipation as he answered, “Yes,” but his voice had no strength behind it.

Laura leaned into him again and said in a low, sultry voice, dripping with heat near his ear, “Dance with me.”

Chapter Text

Those hypnotic viridian eyes widened as he shook his head. “I can’t.”

“Oh. You don’t know how to dance?” she asked. That was surprising. She would have thought a royal chamberlain would know only too well how to dance. Still, with the way he moved in battle, the way he moved in general, she could probably work with that.

But he seemed offended by the very notion of her sincere question as he straightened to his fullest height and looked down his glasses at her. “I am the Prince’s Chamberlain, Hand of the future King. I was required to attend more social functions than any other person in the kingdom, thank you. Of course I know how to dance.”

“So what’s the issue then?” she replied with a smirk and a hint of a challenge in her expression. “We’re around the corner; no one is watching. And I promise, this very much pertains to my interest in keeping you alive in battle.” She ran her fingertips down his forearms and grasped at his hands, and he hesitated a moment before nodding.

“All right then,” he said, but his mind had started out with that confliction that always confused the hell out of her, as though he both disliked and anticipated what was happening to him, before settling into anticipation. It gave her pause. She wasn’t the only dichotomous creature of the two of them, and it was still difficult for her to tell when he was just going along with her and when he truly wanted to experience something outside his comfort zone. The anticipation, wonder, and attraction always won out, however, which was the only reason why she was still even attempting to move forward with this seduction.

It might not have been on top of a spaceship in 1941, but Jack Harkness still would’ve been proud—probably jealous as hell, too.

“Close your eyes,” she said after waiting a moment for his mind to settle. When he had done so, she placed his hands on her waist so that his thumbs rested over her hipbones and his long fingers were laid across the top of her skirt. She had to pause again for a moment, inhaling at the feeling of his large, warm hands on her hips and his thumbprints pressing firmly into her skin. His spicy, smoky scent washed over her, and the masculinity of it made her feel like a teenager again, weak-kneed and breathless.

His thumbs twitched at the feel of her skin under them, rubbing across her hipbones, and he froze, his lips parting to inhale along with her. But in that moment, she saw the tension tighten his expression as well as the visage of his mind.

This was why she hadn’t been more aggressive in her pursuit of him, right here. She knew he was attracted to her almost as much as she was to him, but their relationship was in very real danger of becoming a romantic version of what he and Noctis had if she wasn’t very, very careful from the beginning—a twisted combination of lover and servant-slash-acolyte. God, she didn’t want anything like that from him. He would probably always see her as a goddess because of the way mortals tended to see the world, but if it was all possible, she’d much rather him see her as a woman who happened to be immortal. At the very least, she wanted to make it absolutely clear that she was not to be obeyed or worshipped in any fashion other than the way two lovers were supposed to worship each other, as equals.

Honestly, Ignis didn’t need to be worshipping anyone at all. If anything, the entire planet should be falling at his feet to recognize such a beautiful soul. She certainly would, if she knew he wouldn’t be horrified by the gesture. Perhaps she could convince him to at least allow her to spoil him rotten.

It was an angry, cruel multiverse out there, she knew from experience, and his tender heart, so eager to serve and be loved, could be manipulated by a vicious aristocrat as well as a benevolent lover if he chose not to also apply that mithril will and formidable intelligence of his. But Ignis was a grown man, with his own agency that commanded respect for his ability to make his own decisions. She didn’t want to insult his intelligence and do him the disservice of treating him as a child.

As with all things, it was a delicate balance. She’d flirt with him as hard as she could to let him know that she wanted him, but the ultimate choice needed to be completely his. All she needed from him was one sign that he wanted this too—something more than just agreeing to her persuasion.

But in this moment, with that tension on his face, as much as she wanted to do this with him, for him, there were more legitimate ways to accomplish this first lesson, and she had to offer him an out.

“Hey,” she said gently. “Look at me.”

His brow furrowed as he opened his eyes and glared at her. That irritation was encouraging, at least, and she had to suppress the desire to smile, lest he think she was patronizing him.

“Well, which is it? I cannot simultaneously close my eyes and look at you.”

“Do you not want to do this? Because we can go—no hard feelings whatsoever, I promise. I’ll start teaching you tomorrow, and tonight we can take a walk, get dessert, read a book, or pick a fight with a man named Moose if that’s what you want.”

Too late, she realized he probably wouldn’t understand the full meaning behind her lame attempt at humor if he didn’t know what a moose was, but he let out a helpless, undignified giggle regardless. She removed his left hand from her hip and twisted her arm around his, entwining their hands—a reminder. The choice was always his.

“Remember? Freely and unreservedly.”

He blinked, his green gaze locking with hers in understanding. “I would,” he stuttered, squeezing her hand. “Yes, I would dance with you. It’s just that,” his eyes darted to the couples around the corner locked in various positions of embrace before his face grew flush and he looked down between them, “I’ve not danced with a woman like that before.”

His double entendre didn’t surprise her in the least. Of course he’d been too busy to have a social life while playing manservant, strategist, and chamberlain for the chosen King. Even out here, away from all the paperwork that went with a bureaucracy, and even with her help, he always found ways to keep himself busy late into the night. Ignis hardly seemed the sort to go for casual encounters, and what steady lover would be able to handle the fact that the Prince would always come first? Who did that leave him with?

She chose her next words carefully so that they would still fit in the context of his double entendre. Placing his hand back on her hip and leaning into him again, she said gently, “That’s all right, you know, and it’s understandable. Your entire life has been so much about duty that you haven’t gotten a chance to live it. But living and doing one’s duty don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And anyway, I don’t agree to spend time with a man because of his dancing ability. A man can always learn to dance if he wants. I agreed to spend time with you because I enjoy your company.”

As his eyes shot to hers, his expression darkening and his mind prickling frantically at some undiscernible thought, she decided that she’d been too forward, so she stepped it back a little.

“Besides,” she continued more brightly, “the entire point of this outing was to teach you to dance my way. I bet you have plenty of experience leading a waltz, and I bet you’re amazing at it, but you also need balance—to learn to follow, respond with instinct, exercise that Intuition of yours.”

He cleared his throat before responding, “I could always hold my own in a waltz, but my body isn’t really built for dancing. It’s too awkward.”

She scoffed at him, wondering who on Eos would ever be stupid enough to tell a man like Ignis that he was awkward. She was certainly going to do her damnedest to ensure that he knew she thought otherwise.

“Rubbish. Your body is beautiful and built well for dancing. Not sure where you even got that from.”

Those emerald eyes of his grew wide at her words as the blush deepened across his pale cheeks, all the way up to his ears, and down his neck. He swallowed, and she watched as his Adam’s apple bobbed with the movement. For Laura, it was like one of those moments sitting in a quiet, crowded library, suddenly looking up, and wondering just what would happen if she jumped on the table and screamed aloud that she preferred Verne over Melville any day before doing a tap dance number. What would anyone do about it? What would he do if she leaned up on her toes and licked that elegant throat of his?

No. Focus.

“Here,” she said as conjured a flask and, unscrewing the cap, handed to him. “Take a sip of this, if you want, but just a sip. The point is to get you to relax a little, not impede your judgment. You’re going to need coordination for this next part, and I’m not going to take it easy on you just because I like you.”

Removing only one hand from her waist, he took the flask from her, swirled it around, buried his nose deep into the mouth, and inhaled. Only after he had pulled away and contemplated the scent did he take a measured sip.

“This is exceptional,” he said, tilting the flask to examine the liquid through the unbreakable Thelassian crystal. “The nose is woody, with dried redberry, leather, and Rydiellen oak, but the palate is surprisingly sweet with a lingering finish. Shame about the color though. What sort of a whiskey is this?”

“It is green,” she said with a smirk but a brief wave of mourning, as always. “Sorry. It’s Aldebaran whiskey. So, an advanced drinker, are we?”

Ignis was clearly a brave man, tilting his head, exposing that inhumanly appealing neck and jawline of his, and quirking his lips into a crooked smile—especially when her lips were so close to him.

“I am a man of many hidden talents.”

There you are, you cocky bastard, she thought to herself, still unsure of how she’d managed to unearth him. I’ve been looking for you.

“Mmm, I’m well aware of that already, but let’s see what other talents of yours we can reveal,” she replied, taking the flask from him, taking a sip of her own, replacing the cap, and dismissing it. His hand returned immediately to where she’d placed it on her hip of its own accord, and her own cheeks flushed at the thought of what that might mean.

“By all means, please, lead on,” he said.

“This first part’s easy. All you have to do is stand there. Close your eyes again.” When he did, she placed just enough space between them so that she could move. Taking tiny steps, she began to sway her hips to the pulsing beat of the music.

“Feel me move beneath your hands,” she said, and the flush on his skin grew an even deeper scarlet as her own hearts quickened. God, even she wasn’t immune to the sensuality of her own words. “My muscles indicate which way I’m going to move a split second before they do. Do you feel it?”

He swallowed and nodded.

“And it’s not just touch that gives you information. Listen to the shift of my clothes, the sound of my feet on the stone; even the way the sound echoes off the walls gives you information about your surroundings. My scent strengthens when I am closer to you, weakens when I pull away. Your palate may even be sensitive enough to taste me on the air as you breathe in. Are you getting all this?”

Of course, there were about a thousand other sources he would have to learn to detect in order to perfect this technique, a million other sources of sensory input she herself was currently taking in and decidedly not analyzing, but they had to start somewhere.

He took a deep breath in through his nose and nodded. “I believe so.”

“Now, try to keep all that in mind as you get off that wall and step with me. But keep your eyes closed.”

“I’ll need to see where I’m going,” he protested.

“No you won’t. I’m leading, remember? I won’t let you run into anything. Trust me.”

“I do,” he said so immediately and so quietly that she wondered if she was meant to even hear it. But she did, and oh, Ignis—the tidal wave of aching affection and tenderness and even fear at those words that washed over her was almost too much to take. She had to close her eyes for a brief moment to collect herself before she could move on.

She began leading him slowly around the alley, undulating to the heavy beat and exaggerating her movements so that he could feel her intentions beneath his palms. Even with the obstacle of having his eyes closed, his posture was pulled as perfectly and elegantly straight and strong as any professional ballroom dancer—towering over her as she guided them across the landing between the stairs in time to the percussive rhythm set by the guitars.

It was slow going, but she was eventually able to pick up the pace as he grew accustomed to the messages her hips were sending his hands. He was doing well for this being his first time, and she told him so. Still, she had stepped on his feet several times when he didn’t react in time, or his movements would stutter as he made to move in the opposite direction she had stepped. His mind showed his frustration with his imperfection at the task and his directive to keep his eyes closed, despite her praise, but he didn’t say a word besides “apologies” as they moved together.

“All right,” she said after it had been a while since he’d made a mistake and the musicians had restarted the song. What was it about the musicians here only playing one song for hours on end, anyway? “It’s about to get more difficult. Open your eyes.”

The black of his pupils had overtaken the viridian while his eyes had been closed, and she had to hold back her inhalation when his long lashes raised slowly to reveal them. They stood there for a moment, staring at each other as she searched his face for some clue as to what he could be thinking, but all she could feel was that tingling breathlessness whenever she was close to him.

“Now, use what you’ve learned in conjunction with your vision, but don’t rely on it solely. Take in all that information, turn your mind off, and watch me with your entire body, not just your eyes. Move opposite me. Use your instincts to determine whether you should lead or follow. Feel.” 

He had been mostly silent up until this point, so it was no surprise when he merely nodded at her new instruction.

Though she despised the concept of bullfights, there was something so very apropos about the music she’d managed to find tonight and the dance she’d decided to pair with it. The pasodoble was give and take, dominance and submission, attack and retreat, and more than heavily-implied sex as the dancers challenged each other in a flurry of movement too fast to be unchoreographed or spontaneously performed—at least for humans. But they were going to do it anyway, and perhaps he’d discover that more aggressive side of himself as he was forced to use the technique she was trying to teach him. If this dance existed on this world, which, given the music and the attempts of the couples she could see in the courtyard, it did, then Ignis likely knew everything about it, even if he didn’t know how to dance it himself. And though she was dressed as the cape, she could only hope he realized that she was bull tonight—or whatever the Eosian equivalent, and he was the one with the power to slay her.

Come and get me.

She began to move again—starting slow as she turned their steps into something more of a dance than a walk to the music. Their bodies nearly touched when she advanced three steps toward him, but he retreated before they made contact. She took a hopping step and whirled to his left before taking two steps backward. He was there to catch her at the end of her maneuver. His fingertips caught the tops of her ribs and grazed lightly down her sides before settling back on her hips, making her shiver. The heat radiated off his body as she leaned heavily back in his arms, and he took her cue to bend and dip her low over his knee, his fingers spreading wide across her bare back to brace her as her skirt melted onto the stone below. Spin. Step forward. Retreat. Dip and be flung out into a whirl. They picked up the pace as they became more familiar with each other.

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” she said breathlessly, and he tugged her hand to spin her away from him, his eyes catching the voluminous scarlet fabric of her skirt as it draped over and between his long legs like a lover before kicking up like a wave of water with his maneuver. She had to smile at his gaze, as she’d known the moment she’d put it on that he’d appreciate the aesthetics of its movement and its contrast with the blue-grey stone. She herself had always had a flair for the dramatic.

“I take direction well,” he finally said with a small smile, stalking toward her like a coeurl, “but it may very well be a combination of inebriation and an excellent instructor.”

“Oh, don’t even try to blame this on either of those things,” she said with a snort, gesturing toward the specimen of agility and elegance currently advancing on her as she stepped back, flinging her skirt into the air so that it fell around her like a halo. “You can’t fool me into thinking this isn’t all you.”

“Perhaps,” he said with a quirk of his lips as he hauled her into contact position and led her in whirling, hopping circles at a dizzying pace, their feet stepping between and around each other as she used the very technique she was trying to teach him in order to follow his quick, graceful movements. They weren’t working on her skill tonight, but as his assertiveness was certainly something she wanted to see more of, she didn’t mind letting him lead a bit. His eyes widened a fraction at how effortlessly she’d managed to handle his challenge, and she pulled away to retreat, forcing him to once again follow.

She could tell his every emotion just by watching the way he moved—without even the aid of his mind or expression. When he felt confident of his estimation of her movements, he mirrored her nimbly and fluidly, but when he was unsure, his motion stuttered and stumbled. They would hardly be entered for a dance competition anytime soon, but she was still impressed at how quickly he’d grasped the basics of her instruction. Of course, what she was attempting to teach him tonight was only the very tip of an unimaginably enormous iceberg. It had taken her months of frustrating meditation to learn this before she could even begin to apply it to any part of her life, but Ignis’s raw intelligence was so much greater than hers, and he didn’t have to learn the telepathic side of it. He would no doubt pick it up more quickly.

He grabbed her hand and tugged her back against his body, and she spun into him, pressing a gentle hand against his jaw and staring into his smoldering eyes.

“You’re still thinking too much though. You judge your every wrong movement. Let go and feel. Stop trying to sense me with just your eyes and use your entire body to see. Smell, sight, taste, hearing, touch—they’re all the same, Ignis. Your entire body should become a single sensory organ—aware of all, judging nothing, pulling in all the information at once with equal importance.”

He brought his hand up to her shoulder in a caress as she said this, and as she slowly pulled her hand away from his face, he let his palm drag languidly across her skin, down her arm and to her hand. Weaving his fingers through hers, he almost seemed to glower down at her as he raised her hand above her head and jerked her into another twirl. 

The song was reaching its end again, its volume increasing like a cresting wave, so Laura put her hands to Ignis’s chest to walk him back to the wall. But he surprised her—snatching her wrists, spreading them wide above her head, and lunging forward in between them. He spun the two of them around and advanced on her so it was her back against the wall when the song ended, her hands pinned at eye level, his chest brushing hers with each panting breath they took together.

He stared down at her, his gaze dark, and she couldn’t breathe. Her hearts were racing out of control, her body tingling at every point his skin was touching hers.

“Ignis,” she whispered, wondering how much longer she could take this, how much longer until the spell was broken and he would step away.

It was more difficult than people thought for someone like her to find love. Man, woman, or other. Human, Lliamérian, or other—there were deeper levels of attraction for a telepath than for apaths. And then there was the fact that her first real romantic experience had been with James, who had set the bar impossibly high for any who came after him.

But it wasn’t just her standards that were responsible for her absurdly low level of experience for her age. Surprisingly few beings were willing to even attempt a relationship with an ancient telepathic alien who had, on more than one occasion, committed genocide. Even among her own fully telepathic and immortal people, she’d been considered a hybrid freak, an abomination of the blood.

But Ignis. She’d felt a shadow of that attraction the moment they met, and as she’d gotten to know him better, that attraction had grown to a roaring flame she couldn’t ignore. She could feel the compatibility in her mind that she hadn’t felt since James; they could even bond and make each other so very happy. But it wasn’t until he’d gotten to know her true nature and still sought her out that she’d truly begun to hope. He’d seen pretty much all of the worst of her, the most shocking, and he was still standing here with his body engulfing her hers. He’d even held her hand and stood right beside her as she snuffed out an innocent man’s life with nothing but her mind, a scene that had brought back far too many memories, which she needed to stop thinking about before she woke Eilendil up with that cold, Lliamérian disconnect threatening in her head from just this afternoon’s memory alone.

Tonight wasn’t about the past; tonight was about the future, and what was hopefully going to be her future had her pressed up against a wall, looking for all the worlds like he wanted to kiss her.

God, he was so beautiful like this, his eyes reflecting his name, his face flushed, his honey-brown hair falling into his eyes, and the curry and whiskey on his breath mixing with the smoky sage of his aftershave—assaulting her senses. She could feel that stunning mind of his racing as it always was, changing colors and pricking at her brain in such a way that he might consider intimate, had he been aware of the sensation. She only wished she knew what he was thinking, because all she could think was how very much she loved him already.

He wasn’t pulling away, and she wondered if it was finally, finally, time. As much as she would love to reverse their positions and kiss him for all he was worth, she could not, would not abuse her position of power over him.

I know it isn’t fair, love, but the first move has to be yours, she thought to herself, to him.

It was almost as though he’d heard her and immediately moved to comply, his mouth swooping down on hers and meeting her lips with a soft chastity that dazzled her with its tenderness. She waited patiently for him to decide what to do while he held his lips closed and still—waited for him to move them, waited for him to step away, whatever he wanted.

She felt his mind flood with shame and humiliation as he stepped back and let her go, and she realized she’d made the wrong decision. He’d needed her to be more forceful—to reassure him.

Ignis had already begun speaking on a rushed exhale the moment he’d parted from her, “Rose . . . Laura. I must beg your forgiveness. It won’t happen again. Please, Laura, I’m so s—”

He made to step farther from her but froze immediately when she reached out for his face to halt his progress. He braced himself as though he were expecting her to slap him, and her hearts faltered.

“Gods, never, Ignis,” she breathed, slowing her hand to show him her intentions clearly. “I would never hit you.”

As her hand made gentle contact with his cheek and jaw, she stepped forward, standing on the tips of her toes, and slowly stretched her neck so her mouth brushed against his. She parted her lips a little as they touched so she could caress his bottom lip between hers tenderly, and he responded immediately, mimicking her actions so that he had her top lip between his. They both pulled back at the same time only to meet again, sweetly, gently, over and over and over, increasing in pressure and intensity until he turned his head to the side and gasped.

“Rose.”

She wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. 

“I just want you to know,” she murmured against his sharp jawline as she feathered her mouth along his stubble and left hot, panting kisses up towards his sideburns.

“Yes?” he asked breathlessly, and she could feel his entire body trembling beneath her own shaking hands.

“You are most welcome to do that to me any time you like,” she replied, scraping her teeth gently along the bulge of his jawbone beneath his ear.

Oh.” He shuddered. “Is that so?” he recovered in a more melodious tone. “Would you mind terribly if I . . . tried that again right n—”

“Oh gods, please,” she groaned into his ear, interrupting him.

The man who turned his head and devoured her mouth wasn’t the same one she’d just kissed. This man was Ignis Scientia, a man who may or may not have kissed a woman before, but knew what the fuck he was doing regardless—at least had thoroughly done his homework. He pushed her back against the wall, cradling her head as he parted her lips with his curry and whiskey-laced tongue, seeking out hers with dexterity and passion to perform a dance of his own.

She grasped desperately at his head with both hands, pulling him closer, Ignis, please, come closer, and he must have felt the same because he used the length of his entire body to press her up against the stone as his mouth continued to move over hers. The jubilation and triumph thundering through him seemed to roll up her fingers and into her brain, and oh bloody hell she wanted to reach out, fall into that dazzling mind, and lose herself in his joy—to dive into him and be held inside that gentle, kind, brave, fierce, curious, and so very selfless heart of his. Little did this universe know she was holding all the best of humanity distilled into this one, unassuming mortal being between her hands, so very close to her own mind. 

No, she thought as she snatched her hands away, running them down his neck and over his broad, strong shoulders. She’d pushed this relationship as far as she could—much, much farther than she’d expected she could. It had been an absolute miracle that he’d accepted as much of her as he had, but telepathy was taking it a step too far. She remembered the night she’d confessed, the seething hurt and anger tossed like daggers at her hearts as he’d accused her of touching him to read his mind. No, she would have to be satisfied with what he would give her—a physical and emotional relationship only. With a man like Ignis, it was more than enough.

He groaned into her mouth, moving his hands to stroke from her ribs to her hips—up and down and again—sending chills up and down the length of her body. As she nibbled at his tongue in response, she had to fight the desire to jump up and wrap her legs around him to do something about the aching rush of warmth shooting through her center. Still, he pressed more insistently against her, and she could feel his length pressing into her belly, which wasn’t exactly helping the case for convincing herself not to not jump him immediately.

At feeling this as well, he gasped, tearing their mouths apart and settling his hands on her hips to steady her, to steady himself. He pressed his forehead to hers, panting heavily.

“I think,” he began, his breath washing over her face in waves, “I enjoy not thinking . . . sometimes.” He chuckled, and she smiled back up at him, reaching up to give him an encouraging peck. “But we should probably get back.”

“Yeah, probably,” she said, allowing the disappointment to lace her tone.

He hummed in amusement before reaching down to kiss her one more time, slow, sweet, and lingering, smiling against her lips. As he pulled away, he wrapped his arm around hers and entwined their fingers.

“This will not be the last time we do this,” he promised.

“Good,” she nodded with a grin. Then she added, “Meet me in the lobby tomorrow morning, the time we usually forage, and wear some actual sparring clothes. It’s time we apply what you’ve learned to combat now.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” he replied with smile so wide that his glittering eyes almost crinkled completely closed.

Together, adrenaline fading but hearts so very full of affection, they walked hand in hand through the streets of Lestallum toward the Leville.

Chapter Text

“That last game was totally rigged. I swear, I got a clean headshot on that guy before he killed me,” Prompto whined as he fell back on the couch.

“Uh huh, you keep tryin’ to tell yourself that. You know it’s a computer, right? Not like it decides to hate you or anything,” Noct said as he sat in the chair across from him.

“If it’d been real life, that guy woulda been sooooo dead!” Prompto said, sitting up suddenly and pointing finger guns at him, and Noct chuckled, shaking his head.

This was what he loved about hanging out with Prompto. There was never any pressure to do or be anything. It was just fun. There was no doubt in his mind that if the four of them had all been regular guys together in high school, Prompto would’ve been the only one to come out of it his friend. It made him respect him even more for volunteering to be in this hellhole. Of course, it also highlighted how shitty it was that the other two were bound to him through all this.

“Whaddya think’s going on out there?” Prompto asked, jerking his head toward the front door, where they could hear two people giggling like idiots in the hall outside.

“Drunks,” Noct said, ejecting a puff of a laugh through his nose. “That’s the problem being so close to the stairs.”

They sat and listened as the giggling and snorting got louder and louder until they heard the key in the lock, and when the door flung open and banged against the wall, Iggy and Laura stumbled through, nearly falling on their faces.

Noct looked over at Prompto with eyes as wide as they would go, and Prompto, who’d already summoned his camera and was clicking away, grimaced with his eyebrows raised.

Laura was dressed in some kinda sexy flamenco dancer costume like it was Daemon’s Night or something, her hair loose and wild, spilling down her back. And Specs was just a mess. He looked like he’d been out hunting all day in the Leiden heat—his hair drooping from its usual plume to fall in his eyes and his coeurl-print shirt sticking to his skin.

“Uhhh, what the hell have you guys been up to?” Prompto asked.

They sobered and straightened immediately at Prompto’s words, exchanging a look before turning to Noct and Prompto.

Specs might have looked a mess, but he grew formally straight and smoothed his expression completely before replying, “My most sincere apologies for the interruption. We had some dinner, and then we finally got around to practicing my footwork. If you’ll pardon me, I should like to get cleaned up—that is, unless I can be of any service to you this evening, Highness?”

Noct grimaced a little at the address. Back in Insomnia, he’d never given it much thought, what Iggy’s life was like moment to moment when he wasn’t around. It was just so easy to unwind after a day of classes and training and a thousand subtle reminders all day about how the future of the world was on his shoulders. It was so easy to just sit back and be taken care of, not have to think about anything. Iggy had always just been so steady—annoying, but steady. But now that Noct was out here with just the four of them, he couldn’t help but see what he hadn’t back home. What did the guy do for fun when Noct wasn’t around? What was his personal life like? Did he even have one? He’d followed Noct around almost his whole life, so Noct had just assumed that nitpicking was just what he enjoyed—always cooking, cleaning, doing work, nagging Noct to work, mothering him.

And then there was that nightmare he’d gone through as a kid—because of him. Noct still couldn’t believe it was real, that he’d never breathed a word about it all those years—still wouldn’t. It kinda made him feel betrayed. But it also made him take an even harder look at the guy who’d been his friend for as long as he could remember, and he didn’t like what he saw. It was like he’d been raised to be Noct’s friend, like he’d been beaten and forced into it, and Noct had just gone along with it, never questioning that his childhood friend was also his servant.

How many times had Iggy stood there beside him, giving him advice or cleaning up after him when he was bone dead tired from doing other things? How many times had Noct casually made a suggestion and Iggy had bent over backward to make it happen because he saw it as an order from his liege? Noct bet it was even more than he thought, cause he was starting to notice the permanent circles under Iggy’s eyes were disappearing, the sighs were coming less often, and even the number of cans of Ebony had reduced—even though the guy was still obviously an addict.

Now that he’d seen it—that servitude and sacrifice, he couldn’t unsee it. But he didn’t want a servant in Iggy. He wanted the friend—the big brother—he’d thought he had. Noct had been trying lately to push him off on Laura because it looked like it made him happy; he’d never seen Specs smile so much—let alone whatever the hell that snorting giggling mess just was—except for that one time he accidentally got high off espresso. But even though hanging out with Prompto was awesome, Noct found he missed the irritating prick—a lot. Maybe he should just try to spend some time with him—see if he couldn’t find his friend again.

“No, Specs, it’s cool. Go ahead and do your thing,” he said, plastering a smile on his face and waving him off to the door that led to the kitchen and bedroom. But after he’d done it, he realized it looked too much like a dismissal. Damnit. How did things get to be so awkward? To make matters worse, Iggy bowed his head before striding through the door.

Laura stood there for a moment, watching him leave before sitting down on the couch next to Prompto, summoning a clip to pull her hair into a twist.

“I can’t believe how hot it is here when it was so nice back at Wiz’s. It’s not like the two regions are that far apart from each other . . .. What are you two staring at?”

Noct looked at Prompto, then back at Laura. “You were sparring . . . wearing that?” he asked, gesturing at her costume.

If it wasn’t so obviously a Daemon’s Night costume, he would’ve sworn that Laura and Iggy had just been out on a date—even if it was June and nowhere near Daemon’s Night. But then, Specs would never wear Crownsguard fatigues out on a date. Or would he? The idea of ‘Specs’ and ‘date’ in the same sentence was just . . . weird. And Laura, she was an alien. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but she wasn’t just an alien, she was kind of a weird one too. He just didn’t see them together, even if they were good friends.

Laura looked down at herself, then back up at the two of them. “Oh, well. . ., it’s hot out. And some of us do try to make some effort to blend in with the local culture, you know,” she said with a teasing smile as she gestured to their Crownsguard fatigues.

“Riiiight,” Prompto said, narrowing his eyes at her and tilting his head. 

It did kind of make sense to Noct, more sense than Iggy going out on a date, anyway. He and Prompto had seen how the women dressed here on their way to and from the arcade, and Laura was actually wearing a lot more clothes than them. But she’d have to do better than a costume if she was gonna blend in.

The door to the suite opened, and Gladio walked in. “Sup,” he greeted with a thrust of his chin. “Iggy back too?”

“Yeah,” Noct said before anyone else could reply. “How’d it go with Iris?”

He’d been trying to do that lately with all of them, showing them all that he actually did give a shit about them as people, ever since the thing with Iggy. Noct and Gladio had always had a more professional, ass-kicking type relationship than Noct and Iggy, but he still considered them really close friends. It just wasn’t until Laura had pointed it out that day in Keycatrich that he realized he didn’t know jack about Gladio either. It wasn’t that he didn’t care—he really did. It was just . . . he was always so tired after the sparring and the lecturing that the idea of trying to hold a conversation and pry into someone else’s life sounded even more miserable than it usually did. He didn’t like asking people questions because the answers usually made him uncomfortable, and then he wouldn’t know what to say or do to continue the conversation. It was usually easier just to stay quiet.

Gladio drooped down on the couch next to Laura, using the back of his arm to wipe the sheen of sweat off his forehead. “It was good as it coulda been I guess. Dad definitely knew ahead of time. Set up all this stuff with Jared: helluva lotta gil to take care of Iris, information on tombs and stuff, even a way for us to get to Altissia. I gotta get with Iggy and make sure he knows so he can fit it into his grand plan. Still gotta figure out what to do with Iris long-term though while we’re off gallivanting.”

“I’m just glad she’s safe,” Laura said to him. “I’m sure everything else will sort itself in time.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” He looked over at her. “Hey, Princess . . . you look good,” he said with a flirtatious grin.

“Thanks, Glad,” she replied with a bright smile, leaning into his side, and he put his arm around her shoulders.

“Yeah, apparently she and Iggy were out ‘sparring,’” Noct said.

“Huh. ‘Sparring . . .,’” he mused, looking down at her from the side of his eye and smirking. “And did Iggy learn a lot?”

“I’d say enough for one night, yes,” she said, staring up at him with some kinda significant look.

Noct would never admit it to anyone else, but he just didn’t get the dance that happened between two people when they were flirting. Laura and Gladio seemed to do it a lot though, and he wondered if there was something going on there just as much as with her and Iggy. The flirting thing kinda made him feel awkward, and he was glad she’d never tried that with him.

“Okay, you guys’re just being weird,” Prompto said, seeming to agree with Noct’s thoughts. “Now that everyone’s back, I’m gonna hit the gysahl greens.” He pointed toward the bedroom.

“Yeah, we should all clear out so Laura can have her bedroom,” Gladio said, standing and herding Noct and Prompto through the door, past the kitchen, and into the bedroom.

Noct sat down on his side of the bed that he and Iggy would be sharing and waited for him to come out of the shower, which was never longer than six minutes. For a guy who was so into being clean and styled, he could never be accused of being selfish about bathroom time. Sure enough, it was only about a minute before the door opened, and he emerged from the bathroom wearing his usual blue and grey pinstriped pajama pants and grey t-shirt.

Iggy didn’t seem to be paying attention to any of them—or notice that they were all sitting on the edge of their beds staring in silence. After pulling back the covers, he settled primly onto the edge of his side of the bed, taking off his glasses and humming the chocobo tune cheerfully to himself in the smallest, faintest voice as he rocked his head back and forth a little. Was he actually gonna go to bed at the same time as them for once too?

Iggy looked up, his eyes locking on Prompto, who sat closest to him on the other bed. Prompto was stock still, staring with his mouth open.

“Are you all right, Prompto?” he asked.

“Were you . . . humming?” Prompto asked incredulously.

“Hmm, I suppose I was,” he mused.

“Who are you, and what did you do with Iggy?!” he asked accusingly, but Ignis laughed in response.

They must’ve had a few shots of espresso after dinner. It was the only explanation for why Specs could be like this. They’d have to warn Laura next time to keep him away from the stuff at night though, as the guy was probably gonna be up tossing and turning, giggling and humming all night.

“My lips are sealed,” Iggy replied mysteriously before turning to Noct, looking back and forth between the two of them. “And you, Noct? Did you two enjoy your evening at the arcade?”

“Yeah, actually. The place was cramped and old, but they actually had some good games, even some computers for online gaming and stuff. Prom and I spent most of our time on Assassin’s Creed though. Actually, the guy there said there was gonna be an Assassin’s Festival here in a month. Sounds like it’s gonna be sooooooo awesome. Can we go, Iggy? Please? PLEASE?”

Iggy gave him a crooked smile, “Besides the fact that we’re on the run from the Empire, there’s an Imperial bounty on your head, and we have no idea where we’re going to be in a month, I don’t see why we couldn’t.”

“All right!” Prompto shouted, jumping off the bed and punching a fist in the air. “Did ya hear that Noct? Maybe we can even dress up . . . as ASSASSINS.”

“Hell yeah!”

“Now, now, kindly keep your voices down. Too many nights spent in a haven, and you’ve forgotten we’re in a hotel room with other people nearby.”

“You should talk,” Noct said as he narrowed his eyes at him. “Or are you tryin’ to say that wasn’t you giggling up the hallway earlier?”

“Giggling up the hallway?” Gladio asked, lying down on his back with his hands under his head.

“Did you get into the espresso again, Iggy?” Prompto asked.

“You know you can’t drink that stuff like coffee,” Noct reminded him. They’d all taken him out to a coffee shop for his twenty-first birthday after he’d adamantly refused to be responsible for taking the Crown Prince to a bar. Eight shots of espresso later, and the guy might as well have been wasted. Gladio’d had to drive them all home while Iggy rolled around giggling in the back seat like a cat doped up on catnip.

“I’m certain I have no idea what you’re talking about. But you haven’t told me about the rest of your evening.”

Noct might not have noticed the first time Iggy manipulated them into forgetting about him, but he noticed this time. The guy didn’t want to be in the spotlight, clearly, so he pretended to fall for it, going through a play by play of all the games he and Prompto played that evening, with Prompto jumping in from time to time to make corrections or add to his story. As he spoke, Iggy nodded along enthusiastically, asking for more information or his opinions on the games he’d never heard Noct mention before. Noct tried to single out a change in their interaction, but besides his eyes being bright as he smiled up at the ceiling and the fact that he didn’t once ask how much money they’d spent, Noct could spot no difference.

***

He’d had a pretty shitty night. It wasn’t often that he had nightmares that he remembered, but when he did, they were usually related to that damn prophecy. Last night was different though. Gladio and Iggy had come to him and told him there wasn’t a king anymore, so they saw no reason to continue this trip with him. The worst part was, when he woke up, he realized it was true. There was absolutely nothing stopping them from leaving right now to go out and find their own lives. Sure, he’d still have Prompto, and Laura was definitely powerful enough to get him through this, but it wouldn’t be the same with Laura. He considered her a friend, but not like Gladio and Iggy. What was keeping them there with him now? It must’ve been the end of the world, because he couldn’t see a single reason why they’d continue to stand behind him. It wasn’t like he was a king like his dad had been.

He rubbed at his swollen eyes and shuffled into the kitchen, where Iggy was alone at the counter, making coffee.

“Morning, Highness!” he sang.

“Ugh, morning,” he replied. “That’s enough coffee for you, I think, especially after last night. Find another beverage that doesn’t make you so . . . wired, will you?”

“Well, I very much doubt I ever will, but I’ll allow the idea to percolate and see if I come up with any alternatives,” he replied, turning to him with a grin.

“See what I mean? Too much caffeine, Specs.”

“It’s a stimulating debate, to be certain, but do try to tamp your emotions regarding my coffee habit. I don’t foresee it disappearing any time soon.”

“Iggy?”

“Yes, Noct?”

“Shut up.”

“Of course.”

For a second, Noct thought he’d gone and done it again, but Iggy kept talking.

“Laura made tea for Gladio this morning—Laoshan Black, she called it. It has the most delightful flavors of cocoa and bread. She left some leaf behind in case you wanted any. Would you care for some?”

“I don’t have to do all the ceremony crap, do I?”

“Language, Highness. And no. She’s anticipated your distaste for ceremony and left you a regular mug.”

“Then, yeah. Thanks a lot, Specs,” he said sincerely.

Iggy turned around and gave him a significant look. “It truly is my pleasure, Noct,” he said before turning back to make the tea.

“So did the others already leave? How the hell is everyone so awake?”

“Well, one has time to wake up if one has been up for hours already. There is no better way of getting up in the morning than greeting the dawn,” he replied cheerfully. “Laura just left to use Lady Iris’s en suite so as not to disturb your rest. Gladio and Prompto are out with young Talcott, touring the city. I would have gone with them, but I had already departed for the morning. And Lady Iris is helping Jared in the lobby with a project, but she requested to see you as soon as you were available.”

As Iggy finished pouring the boiling water into the mug and set the leaves to steep, a tremor passed through the floors of the hotel, making the dishes in the cabinet rattle and the floor at their feet vibrate.

“My word,” Iggy said. “I’d heard there was an increase in seismic activity in this region as of late, but it’s my first time feeling it. It’s unsettling, don’t you think?”

But Noct couldn’t respond. At the very moment the tremors had started, fiery metal pokers seemed to stab through his temples and deep into his brain. He leaned forward on the table, pressing his head with both his hands in an attempt to keep his skull from splitting open as his lungs tried to pull in air.

“Noct! Are you all right?” he heard Iggy ask as he felt gentle hands pressing against his shoulders, his arms, and the top of his head.

But just like that, the pain ceased, leaving only a dull headache behind. Nothing a little caffeine couldn’t cure.

“Yeah, just . . . got a headache there for a sec,” he said, waving the reluctant advisor off him. “Really, I’m fine. Thanks though.”

As Specs turned back to get his tea, Noct thought about just how much Iggy had always taken care of him. He definitely didn’t want Iggy as a servant, but it was nice to feel cared for in a way his dad couldn’t. He really did think of Specs as a smarter, really annoying older brother. He’d been right about everything so many times over the years that Noct trusted Iggy implicitly, even over his own judgment.

Iggy set the tea down in front of him and took his own seat on the other side of the table.

“All right, care to finally tell me what’s set those thoughts of yours brewing?” Iggy asked.

“I dunno,” Noct replied, blowing a little on his tea to cool it down.

Iggy’s face turned serious at his reply. Most people thought that expression meant he was pissed, but Noct knew better. This was advisor Iggy on a mission. Noct knew Specs would never push him for more than he was willing to spill, but Iggy would do this thing where he’d sit there for as long as it took for Noct to start talking. And since he analyzed the hell out of anything Noct said, it usually took Noct longer to gather his thoughts just so he’d say the right thing.

When he’d almost finished his tea, he looked up to see Iggy still sitting there calmly, patiently—waiting.

Noct sighed. “I knew my dad wasn’t gonna be there forever, but I thought he’d be there for part of it at least. I need more time, Iggy. I’m not ready. I just feel . . . I dunno. Lost.”

Iggy looked down at the table for a moment, pressing his lips tightly together before replying. “I’ll admit this particular piece of advice doesn’t originate from me, but someone gave it to me when I was feeling similarly, and I found it rather helpful. Sometimes, lost is where you need to be. Just because you don’t know your direction doesn’t mean you don’t have one.”

“When were you ever feeling lost?” Noct asked incredulously, then winced to himself. It was still easy to forget that not everything in Iggy’s life had been perfect with him back and acting completely normal.

“I am not immune to the shortcomings of being human, you know,” he said with a sympathetic smile. “Fortunately, I was wise enough to seek advice as you’re doing now.”

He sighed and took another sip of his coffee before adjusting his perfectly straight glasses on his nose. “Your powers are growing exponentially. Do you remember how much trouble you had with the blade warp in training?”

“Heh. Yeah, never could seem to get it down just right.”

“Now look at you. Your performance was masterful in the fight against Deadeye. You mastered Laura’s elemental spell technique nearly instantly, enabling you to save the life of a dear friend and comrade.”

He leaned in a little, inclining his head to catch Noct’s eyes. “And I can’t tell you how shockingly pleasant it is to go through a battle and not be electrocuted.”

Noct couldn’t help it. He chuckled and slapped at Iggy’s hand on the table.

“Shut up.”

Iggy grew quiet and sincere as he continued. “Take your time, Noct. We have a goal we’re accomplishing for now, and there’s time to figure out the rest. I’m quite proud of your achievements since we left, and I have complete faith that you’ll make a most excellent king. In the meantime, know that we are all here for you, and always will be—whatever you need.”

Of course it was just what he’d needed to hear. He didn’t realize how much it would mean to him, Iggy being proud.

“Thanks, Specs.”

“It has always been and will always be my pleasure, Highness.”

“Hey, Iggy?” Noct said in a small voice. He really didn’t wanna drag this out, but he had to say something. He owed it to him, for all Iggy’d done for him.

“Yes?”

“I’m . . . sorry. For . . . you know—not noticing.”

This time, Iggy’s face turned cold, his teeth clenched with a click, and he looked down at the table as though it had done something to personally offend him. When he spoke, he only relaxed his jaw just enough to get the words out.

“I do hope you don’t blame yourself, Noct. You were, after all, only a child. There is nothing to apologize for, I assure you. I beg of you, please put that unpleasantness out of your mind, and let us not mention these things again.”

Noct raised his mug to swallow the very last dregs of his tea before standing. He knew Iggy well enough to know that the conversation was over, and though Noct was glad that Iggy didn’t blame him for anything, it didn’t keep him from feeling more than a little responsible. But Noct couldn’t take any more awkwardness than they’d experienced already anyway; it was time for him to escape.

“All right. I’m gonna go see Iris, I guess.”

His voice was almost completely cheerful again as he replied, “Very well. Perhaps we can all meet here afterward and take a more thorough tour of the market. I’ve not yet had the pleasure.”

“Yeah, sure,” Noct said with a smile. “See ya later.”

As soon as he’d shut the door to their suite, he nearly ran into Laura coming up the stairs and passing by their room.

“Good morning, Noctis. Sleep well?”

“Yeah, all right,” he lied. “Did you see Iris down there just now?”

“Yes, I had to get the key from her, but then I got sidetracked helping Marcus look for his watch.”

“Who?”

“Guy at the front desk,” she said with a wave of her hand.

“Oh. Anyway, I should go see what Iris wants.”

She snorted. “Yeah, I think I can guess what Iris wants. Have fun.”

***

“Come, Noct. Look!” Iggy said excitedly, pointing to a bunch of bright yellow fruits hanging on a hook outside a stall. “They smell sweet. Could they possibly be the missing ingredient in your pastry?”

“I dunno, maybe,” Noct said, blowing his bangs out of his eyes with a deep sigh.

“We should certainly pick some up to try, along with any other local fruits they may have. Oh! And this stall has the cheapest rice in the market. I did make a note last night to pick more up.”

“Um . . . didn’t we already pass by this stall?” Prompto asked, a hint of a whine in his voice.

“Yeah, twice,” Noct replied under his breath.

Shopping with Specs in a new place with so many stalls turned out to be a nightmare, and Noct himself had already walked through it once with Iris earlier this morning. Iggy had to look at every single item every single stall sold, make a note of the price, then sweep through again to actually buy either the best or the cheapest ingredients—usually at six or seven different stalls. And every time he came across a new ingredient, he had to have a long discussion with the stall owner about its uses and cooking instructions. It seemed like every five minutes, he was taking that notebook of his out and jotting down recipes. They’d been there four hours with no end in sight. Noct was all for making an effort to do some of Iggy’s things, but this was getting to be too much.

“Ugh, and he mentioned going clothes shopping with Iris later. They both have this . . . fashion thing, I guess. Let’s try to find some way to duck out before then,” Noct said from behind his hand.

“Hey,” Gladio grunted. “That man sits next to you for hours on end and stares at the water while you fish. Think you can handle a market. And if he asks us to go clothes shopping, you bet we’re gonna go. Same thing goes if my sister asks, too. Got it?”

“They have the most vibrant Leiden peppers here!” Iggy called back to them, holding a pepper aloft with a wide smile.

They all turned to look at him, then back at each other, and Gladio sighed. “At least he’s happy. Try to find some way to make sure he doesn’t ask though, yeah?”

Noct nodded. It was harder than he’d thought, doing boring things for hours on end, and he’d really been trying today for Iggy’s sake. It was paying off, it seemed, cause Iggy was in a really good mood, and it didn’t seem to have anything to do with Laura, as she hadn’t been around all day.

“Hey, Specs,” Noct said, sidling up to him. “Where’s Laura today?”

At first, Iggy didn’t seem to hear him. He had a faint smile on his face, a faraway look in his eyes, and a blush on his cheeks as he ran a gloved finger along one of the scarlet pepper’s ridges.

Eventually, he answered, “Oh, she’s likely out wrapping the entire town around her finger, as she’s wont to do everywhere we go, it would seem.”

“You okay there, Iggy?” Prompto asked. “Your face’s all red.”

“Hmm? Oh, yes. It’s just getting quite warm out. I was just thinking about using this in a new recipe, actually. I’ve decided to call it peppery daggerquill rice.”

“Spicy rice? Awesome!” Prompto said, dancing back and forth on his toes.

“Yes, I thought you might like it,” he said. “After this, there’s an apothecary nearby I’d like to visit, if everyone else is amenable. They’re supposed to have all manner of poisons indigenous to the area.”

“You betcha, Iggy,” Gladio said, and even Noct was impressed at how enthused Gladio had managed to sound.

If there was anything worse than food shopping with Iggy, it was poison shopping. Noct had gone with him once before they left Insomnia, and he swore he’d never do it again. There wasn’t anything else to look at, so Noct had been stuck staring at jars of gigantoad hearts or whatever for hours on end while Iggy grilled the owner about every possible chemical interaction for every poison or venom he bought.

But Specs wasn’t falling for Gladio’s enthusiastic approval. His eyes narrowed at the three of them before looking down at his watch and gasping.

“My apologies, all of you. I’m afraid I’ve lost track of the hour. Imagine, you all traipsing after me as I monopolize the day. We could go back to the arcade if you like. Or I did some research, and there’s a bookstore of the sort you would prefer, Gladio. It’s right next door to a gadget shop and across the street from a hunting store that sells fishing equipment.”

“Or, we could say ‘hi’ to Laura,” Prompto said, pointing down the aisle.

“Hey, Princess!” Gladio called out, and Noct turned to see her wave from several stalls down.

As they approached, they saw she was holding out some kinda alien looking object—golden brown with lighter gold shell patterns, and the craziest, spikiest green top. It looked . . .  kinda dangerous as she handed it off to the stall keeper in exchange for what looked like a bag of fine Cleigne wheat.

“An’ if ya just cut the top off and plan’ it, it’ll grow a whole new one. Should grow good in this area, yeah? I’ll write ya the recipe for tha’ upside down cake an’ drop it off la’er,” she said with a bright smile. “An’ tell Jacob I taped ‘is daughter’s recital. His phone’s on the table in back.”

It was only after the stall keeper thanked her that she turned to them. “Hey, guys!”

“Hey, Laura!” Prompto said, bouncing up to her and putting his arm around her shoulder. “Whatcha up to now?”

“Well, think I jus’ introduced the pineapple to your planet. You’re welcome!”

“Do you mean to say you’re trading from your private stores to purchase ingredients? You realize that I set aside a small allowance for each of us to make personal purchases,” Iggy said with a frown.

“Yeah, and when have you ever bought anything personal?” Gladio asked.

“I just did! I’ve never seen zu tender before, and I used my personal funds so I could experiment with it.”

“Yeah, and then who’s gonna eat it?”

“Well,” Iggy said, looking down at his shirt and picking off an invisible piece of lint, “I was hoping maybe you all wouldn’t mind trying it . . ..”

“Uh huh, my point exactly. That’s not personal, Iggy. Use group funds for that shit.”

“Yeah, it kinda gets awkward wiv group funds ‘n all. Oh, speakin’ of, picked up a buncha errands ‘n stuff for us. Been ‘round town all mornin’ talkin’ t’ everyone,” she said, surreptitiously summoning a list while her hand was obscured in her shopping bag and handing it to Iggy.

“There may be some duplicates. We’ve spoken to all the market stall owners,” Iggy said, looking the list over. “Still, there are several here we don’t have.”

Noct was watching the two of them interact very closely, and besides that weird accent thing Laura did sometimes, everything looked perfectly normal between the two of them. Actually, they looked even less cozy than usual, standing farther apart and acting all business.

He was about to ask Laura what her plans were for the rest of the day when the ground shook and another set of pokers lodged in his head. Damn it, that was the third time this morning.

“This is not normal,” Gladio growled.

“Another headache?” Iggy asked, concerned.

“I’m fine, you guys, really,” Noct said.

“That’s three times this morning. And three tremors. That can’t be a coincidence, man,” Prompto said.

“It’s not,” Laura said in a hard voice, and Noct looked up to see her glaring at him. “Are you all right? Really, don’t try to be tough.”

“Uh . . .,” he said as he checked how his head felt. “Yeah, I think so. The pain goes away as soon as the tremors stop, but it leaves behind a headache. Why?”

“It’s telepathy. Every time the ground shakes, a telepathic howl goes out. I thought they’ve been trying to contact me, but I haven’t been able to establish a connection. Can’t even tell a direction it’s coming from. Guess it’s you they’re calling, but they sure aren’t being careful about it.”

“Who’d be trying to call Noct telepathically?” Prompto asked. “I mean, phone’s the easiest way.”

“Perhaps the caller simply lacks Noct’s mobile number,” Iggy said with a smirk before turning serious and looking to Laura. “Could the caller hurt him?”

“I’m not getting a feeling of malevolence, but yes, they could if they aren’t careful. I could put a temporary block on your head to protect you, but then they wouldn’t be able to reach you, either.”

“No, then. Let’s leave it open for now. Find out what they want,” Noct said. He didn’t know of any telepathic people on Eos besides Laura and the Crystal, but if they were trying so hard to get a hold of him that they were making the ground shake, it must’ve been really important.

“Can I get your permission to do it if it looks like they made contact but are hurting you? I’d like to be prepared, and touching your mind without permission is a dilemma I’d rather not have to deal with.”

“You wouldn’t . . . look at anything else, right?” It wasn’t like there were secrets or anything in his head, but the idea of Laura just walking around in his memories was kinda creepy.

She shook her head. “No, I swear. I don’t even really need to go into your mind to do it—just . . . more like your brain.”

Noct looked over at Iggy. He always knew when a person was trustworthy or not. They all trusted Laura with their lives, but Noct wasn’t sure he was ready to trust her with his head. They all had seen what she’d done to that man, and what if she slipped and killed him instead of protecting him? But Iggy’s expression turned serious before he nodded.

“All right then, yeah,” Noct said with a sigh.

“Then I should probably stay close until this gets solved . . . damnit. I promised Geri I’d pick up her kids to give her the afternoon off while I did the grocery shopping for Mr. Kirkland. He hasn’t been able to leave the house in weeks, and none of his neighbors has been able to do it lately.”

“Haven’t we only been here like, less than a day?” Prompto asked under his breath.

“Um, I could do that with you, I guess,” Noct said, rubbing at the back of his neck. He’d much rather wrangle a bunch of kids for another turn around this market than go to the apothecary . . . and definitely more than going shopping with Iris. “But we gotta be back early—before Talcott’s bedtime. Guess he’s got a tip for us about a Royal Arm behind a waterfall or something.”

“Yeah, so you and Prompto can go with Laura. Iggy and I are gonna check out some poisons. Meet you guys back at the Leville for dinner?” Gladio asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Noct replied, turning to go with Laura, but Iggy stopped him with a quick pat on the shoulder.

“You have my sincere thanks for today, Noct,” he said with a nod. “Do be careful, and allow Laura to put the block on if the pain becomes too much.”

“You really trust her . . .,” Noct said in wonder. There were just so few people in the world that Iggy had ever trusted, and even fewer with Noct’s life.

“I do.”

Chapter Text

After several days of hunting and running the errands for the townspeople that most of the hunters considered beneath them, Noct decided to check out Talcott’s tip about the sword behind the waterfall, which paid off. His chest was still burning from receiving the Power of Kings from the Wanderer as the five of them stood outside in the late afternoon sunlight, and four of them were still shifting from foot to foot to shake the chill of the icy cave from their skin and bones.

“Thanks, Laura,” Prompto said as he handed her jacket back to her and hopped up and down a little, still shivering. “Thought I was gonna turn into an ice cube back there!”

“If you’re going to be a human running around ice caves, you should probably invest in a jacket, Prom,” she said with an amused smile. “You are the most naked of all of us, running around in those cutoff sleeves.”

Then she turned to Gladio. “Well, I suppose Gladio’s wearing less,” she said, gesturing to his six-pack. “But I would’ve paid good money to watch Gladio try and fit in my jacket.”

“Really?” Gladio asked, tilting his head in thought. “How much we talkin’?”

Noct tried to picture Gladio stuffing his huge biceps into the sleeve of Laura’s Glaive jacket and was beginning to snicker a little when the ground shook beneath his feet—again—and the pain, this time so much worse than the other fifty times or so it’d happened in the last few days, was enough to send him to his knees.

“Argh!” he cried out, clutching at his temples.

Noct was dimly aware of the others’ concerned responses—the murmurs rising in pitch and volume the longer he went without responding, but it was as though he was no longer connected to his own body to answer them; they sounded so far away. He’d been brought to this place instead, where jolting, painful images were being violently hurled at his mind’s eye—burning, shoving, pressing, suffocating—like having fire shoved right in his face when he had nowhere to back away to except further into himself. He tried to gasp in a breath, but the images were coming so fast and pushing him back further and further that he couldn’t recover from the pain. A fiery eye surrounded by stone skin. A view of the Disc of Cauthess—a view closer, closer, closer. The meteor on fire, and the fire was burning his mind from the inside out.

Back in his body, a million miles away, something cool was touching his face—maybe. It felt like fingers sliding to his cheeks, temples, and behind his ears, and the second they moved into position, something immense and gold and bright and terrifying slammed into the images with incredible force, shoving them back and giving him room to breathe. The fire seemed to try to fight back, slamming back into the gold, but the wall of gold held, glowing brighter and sparkling at a faster rate as it reared back and bashed itself against the fire again.

Eos? the fire screamed into his mind, and Noct thought it sounded fearful and furious at the same time. The fire must’ve realized that there was something in his head not from Eos.

Noct heard Laura’s voice respond, too close to his thoughts to be hearing it from his ears. Her tone was just as livid, but he noted with gratitude that it was quieter, gentler.

No. What have you done?

But the fire didn’t answer back, only slammed back against the golden wall.

Noct had never really considered himself fragile. Even as a kid when he’d been injured, he managed to pick himself up and get back to his life as soon as he’d fully healed, despite being physically limited and emotionally compromised by the experience. But standing here in this unfamiliar realm where there was no such thing as a sword to summon or magic to use, he was helpless and powerless as he watched two limitless entities clash so close to everything that made him who he was, shaking him to his very foundations, and it made him feel so small, so . . . mortal.

Try to hold still, Noctis. This will just take a second.

A blanket seemed to settle lightly over his mind, and his awareness of the burning images disappeared completely, the pain disappearing as it washed away in the soothing drops of water falling on his mind like rain.

So, that was what it felt like to be touched by a telepath. All things said and done, he’d rather not do it again if he didn’t have to. Truthfully, he found Laura’s presence just as unsettling as the fire. When he had finally recovered his breath enough to open his eyes, even if he was still dizzy, Noct looked up to find Laura removing her hands from his face and the concerned expressions of the others hovering over him.

“I think we get the message. The Archaean would like a word with you, it would seem.  Can’t say that I really approve of his methods of communication though,” she said with a scowl. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, thanks,” he muttered as he pushed himself to his feet, making the others take a step back.

“So that was Titan giving you headaches the whole time? Why would he do that?” Prompto asked.

“Let’s go pay him a visit and ask him,” Gladio growled as they began heading up the narrow path between the river and the cliff.

“It may have been unintentional,” Iggy replied. “After all, the very reason that messengers exist is because it is believed the gods cannot communicate directly with mortals.”

“Well then he should’ve hired Hermes or sent an email, because crashing through the natural defenses of a human mind like that is dangerous. There’s no excuse for that,” Laura said. “He’s lucky I’m limited on this world and he’s so far away. That man needs a proper lesson in telepathic etiquette.”

Gladio smirked at her. “Don’t hold back, Laura. Tell us how you really feel.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “Some of us have worked hard for centuries trying to build proper relations of trust with apaths, following very strict rules of conduct. All it takes is for one person to rip it all down and give the rest of us a bad reputation.”

“So the Six are telepathic too?” Prompto asked.

“Looks that way,” Noct said, shaking his head to make sure everything was still . . . there.

“That must’ve been what Regis meant about potential issues with allies,” Laura mused. “The gods and the old kings both seem . . . less than friendly. But there’s something more. Something they’re hiding.”

“Heads up, guys. We got shieldshears up ahead,” Gladio interrupted, pushing forward to meet the raised claws that were headed for them.

As Laura stepped back, Noct thought he heard her murmur to Ignis, “Dance with them,” but he was too busy summoning his sword and catching up with Gladio to turn back to look. He was done trying to figure those two out anyway. They’d barely spoken to each other since the night they’d burst through the door giggling, but they didn’t seem like they were fighting, either, as it seemed like the both of them were always in a good mood these days.

As he reached the combat area, he could hear Iggy calling out from behind, “Polearms and firearms, everyone. Highness, might I suggest the ice spears we picked up the other day?”

“Whatever you say, Ig,” Noct replied, changing out his weapon as the advisor pulled up beside him. “Are we ganging up or dividing and conquering?”

“I see no reason we couldn’t each pinch one for ourselves,” he said with a sniff before planting the tip of his spear in the ground and pole vaulting to land on the back of the nearest shieldshear.

Noct rolled his eyes and looked to Prompto. “Prompto, go ahead and do your thing then,” he waved over at the man, who already had his mythril pistol out and had chosen his own shieldshear to work on.

“Aww yeah, already on it, baby!” he said with a laugh as he got off his First Shot.

Noct took the shieldshear that Gladio hadn’t and warp-struck right into the thing’s face, burying his spear into what he thought was the eye, but it was hard to tell. The crab’s claws were massive, about the size of four of Noct, and much, much heavier. It was still difficult, even after all these weeks of hunting, to gather enough strength to get his blade through the tough, thick armor of the beast, but he found if he kept warp-striking, it wasn’t completely impossible. The problem was those godsdamn claws as the crab leapt into the air and somehow managed to raise their weight above its head. As it landed, the shieldshear would slam both claws down on Noct, hard, and no amount of parrying or defense could protect him from the blow.

After his second potion, Gladio called out, “Hey! Try phasing next time it does that.”

He’d forgotten about that—warp-striking being really the only power of the Crystal that he used beyond making spells and supplementing potions. Laura had been right, the Crystal’s powers were limited without the Ring, so beyond warp-striking, he preferred to rely on his steel in battle. Plus, if that thing planned on killing him like it had slowly sucked the life out of his dad, he wasn’t keen on turning to it unless necessary, so he tended to forget about the things he could use it for. Looked like he needed it now, though.

The next time his crustacean leapt at him, he started the warp-strike process and watched the world go translucent in a haze of sparkles, but instead of using it to travel anywhere, he stood as the claws passed through him. The shimmering blue of the Crystal’s magic floated around him like fireflies, and he took the moment of safety to draw in a slow, deep breath.

“Excellent, Noct!” he heard Iggy say.

The moment the claws had cleared his body, he phased back into solid matter again and buried the tip of his spear into a bloody hole he’d broke open earlier on a previous strike. The shieldshear twitched as he twisted the blade into what was probably its brain, and it collapsed to the ground with a violent shudder.

Noct staggered back to where Prompto already lay on the ground and collapsed next to him, panting.

“I could fall asleep right here,” Prompto said dreamily.

“Yeahhh,” Noct replied.

“I’ve come up with a new recipe!” Iggy exclaimed as he and Gladio gathered the meat from the corpses.

“Seriously, man? We almost just died,” Prompto said, only barely managing to lift his head from the ground to glare at him. “I needed four potions for that one crab.”

“Heh, we could taste test for ya when we get back to the hotel, Igs,” Gladio said with a smirk as Iggy pulled out his notebook.

A shadow passed over Noct’s closed eyes, and he opened them to reveal Laura standing bent over him with an amused smile.

“You all right down there?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said with a yawn. “Just tired.”

“The sooner you get up from the dirt, the sooner we can get back to the hotel, where you can get a decent night’s rest,” Iggy said.

Noct and Prompto reluctantly staggered to their feet, and the five of them continued down the narrow path that would eventually lead them to the road above their heads where the car was parked.

“Why do these old tombs have to be in the middle of nowhere?” Prompto complained.

“Cause we ain’t headin’ out to the local Pump N’ Munch for chips and beer. It’s not supposed to be convenient,” Gladio said. “They’re supposed to prove the Prince is ready to be King.”

“Indeed,” Iggy agreed.

They walked for a minute or so in silence, listening to the rushing roar of the river next to them and the sound of the wind through the trees. Noct was just taking in a deep breath of fresh air when heavy drops began falling from the sky, landing on his t-shirt with stinging splats and soaking him almost immediately. That was weird; it wasn’t even cloudy out a second ago.

“Great, now it’s raining. Is the rain supposed to prepare me to ascend too?” He held his hand out to catch the drops and watched as they seemed to bead up before sliding off his skin. As he rubbed the greenish-looking water between his fingers, he realized that it felt too oily to be water.

Prompto dropped to the ground next to him just as his brain registered the chilling burn all over the upper half of his body.

“This isn’t rain,” Noct managed before dropping to his knees, the burning on his skin and a new wave of dizziness and nausea, so soon after his telepathic attack and battle with the shieldshears, becoming too much for him to take.

“It appears to be some kind of toxin,” Ignis gasped, his hands on his knees.

Noct laid down on the ground, summoning an antidote and breaking it over himself. The ground beneath his feet stopped spinning immediately, and he looked over to see Laura lying next to Prompto, her hands shaking as she broke an antidote over his gasping chest.

“What about you?” Noct asked when Prompto had recovered and she didn’t summon another antidote.

“I can’t,” she replied, her face pale and a little green. “It’ll take care of itself in time. You’d better go handle that though before it decides to do it again.”

As Iggy and Gladio pulled him to his feet, he looked in the direction she’d nodded.

“Oh man, it’s a SNAKE!” Prompto screamed, pointing. “A really, really, ridiculously huge SNAKE!”

No two ways about it, they were screwed. The snake was about fifty feet long and blocked the only path back to the road. It wasn’t like they could turn back and go another way, as the other end of the valley was just the sheer cliff face, the waterfall, and the ice cave. They were already exhausted from fighting in the tomb and the shieldshears, and this was a foe beyond them all, even at the best of times.

“I suppose we have no choice,” Iggy said with a sigh. “We can hardly wait for it to leave; it’s defending its nest and will stay to the death now that it’s seen us.”

“What’re we looking at, Iggy?” Gladio asked.

“A midgardsormr—swords, daggers, and ice. I believe we’ve already been subjected to its most effective ability.”

“Welp, no use standing around talking about it. Let’s get started,” Gladio replied, jogging out to meet the hulking coil of muscle, scales, and fangs. He leapt at the creature, summoning a greatsword just before he landed, and sliced the blade as hard as he could into the snake’s side. The midgardsormr threw its head back, hissing in pain.

“Whatcha got for me, Specs?” Noct called out to him as they ran after Gladio.

“Follow me,” he said with a sly grin, summoning his daggers and falling into a cartwheeling tumble toward the base of the writhing coil. Following suit, Noct gathered his legs beneath him for a leap, somersaulting in the air to drive his sword down right next to Iggy’s.

While Gladio spun in front of him to dodge an ice flask tossed by Prompto, Noct warped to a rest point to charge up before executing a series of warp-strikes to the snake’s head as its heavy body slithered surprisingly swiftly over the sandy soil. When Noct landed back on top of the rock, he had to summon another antidote and a hi-potion as the midgardsormr threw back its head again and spit a shower of venom over the combat area. He spared Laura a brief glance to see her standing, at least, leaning against the cliff face out of range from the poison rain, but still pale-green and trembling.

Since she looked like she was gonna be okay, Noct turned his mind away from her and examined the field, trying to figure out the best step to take. While Iggy was the strategist of the group, it was still Noct’s job to know what everyone’s abilities were and to call on them at appropriate times during the battle.

“Don’t you go quittin’ on me,” Gladio said to Iggy, placing a hand on his shoulder. Noct summoned an antidote and a hi-potion for Specs, tossing them so they broke over his back.

“How unbecoming,” Iggy complained.

“You think you got enough to do that new Overwhelm thing you do, Ig?” Noct asked.

Iggy drew to his full height, renewed by the potions, and his eyes blazed with determination. “Give it all we got!”

“Uh huh!” Noct cheered, and while the others all ganged up near the snake’s whipping tail, Noct did his best to keep the striking head and dripping fangs from attacking his team with another flurry of warp-strikes. But it reared up and dove, driving itself into the ground in response to their concentrated attack.

“Where the fuck did it go?” Gladio roared.

“I don’t know, but let us retreat while we still can,” Iggy replied.

“Right,” Noct agreed, waving toward Laura and heading toward the path to safety, but he had only taken three steps when the midgardsormr burst through the ground in front of them in a cloud of dust and a thunderous tremor. The group had to shimmy several paces back as the body of the massive snake flew high in the air and flopped to the ground with a crash that made Noct’s teeth vibrate in his head.

While Prompto hung back and took any clear shot he could with his pistols and ice spells, Gladio set to attempting to chop the writhing body in half with his sword again.

“We can turn the tide yet!” Iggy called out, and Noct sure hoped so, cause he was tired before this whole thing began, and he was about ready to lie down and take a nap, snake or no snake.

“Gladio, look out!” Prompto yelled, and Noct looked over to see the midgardsormr’s tail slam into Gladio, throwing him out of the combat area near where Laura stood bent over, panting with her hands on her knees.

“I got him,” she wheezed, summoning a hi-potion.

Noct nodded and was about to turn back to what he was doing when something slammed into him from the side with a “Highness.”

Noct didn’t have time to do a thing as he fell to the ground, looking up in the direction Iggy had come from so he could watch as the corner of the snake’s jaw closed around Iggy’s shoulder. One of its fangs, nearly as long as Iggy’s torso, drove deep into his chest, and Noct knew from the amount of blood pouring from the wound already that it had pierced his heart.

“IGNIS!”

Noct had just enough time to see Iggy’s eyes widen and his face go pale as the midgardsormr flung its head back and tossed his friend’s body like a rag across the field.

The world seemed to move in slow motion as he saw Laura collapse near where Ignis had landed, dragging the upper half of his limp body into her lap. Iggy’s face was still and completely drained of color, his lips pale-blue and his eyes closed. Time seemed to slow even further, and Noct’s world suddenly became crystal clear and in focus. He could see even from that distance that Ignis wasn’t moving; there was no longer blood pumping from the bloodied and torn hole in his friend’s chest. He couldn’t see Laura’s face, but as she bent over Iggy’s body, rocking back and forth in anguish with her arms around him, he didn’t need to see her expression to know.

Ignis, his oldest friend, the man who’d been there for him through everything, was dead.

And now that he was gone, it only took a nanosecond to realize how lost Noct really was, how much he needed Iggy’s advice, friendship, and approval. Fuck, he didn’t even know where they were supposed to go after this, let alone everything else that needed to be done to get the Crystal back.

All those years. All that history together. Iggy knew more about him than anyone alive, and now that he was gone, now that he’d actually gone and given his life for Noct’s, Noct saw it all so clearly. Twenty-two years on this world, and all of it had been spent in service, living for someone else, living for him. There was no amount of torture a man could go through to inspire that kind of devotion. When Ignis had told him the other day that he’d always be there, Noct had still kinda believed it was because of duty, but this was too much to sacrifice on his behalf. This was love—pure and simple. Iggy had loved him as a brother, just as Noct loved him. But Iggy had gone and broken his promise; he’d gone and left him.

Laura had been right all along, and now he had no idea what to do. He’d already lost his dad and his home; he couldn’t take losing Iggy too.

How many more of his loved ones would suffer and die protecting him from his inevitable fate? There was still Gladio, Prompto, and even Luna. He’d already experienced many of the same feelings when he’d thought Luna had died in the Fall, imagining how much she had sacrificed of her life to be his Oracle, how she would no longer be there to help him through this when they’d promised that they’d be in it together. What had she even been doing in Insomnia during the Fall when they were supposed to be meeting in Altissia? What was she even doing now, and why hadn’t she waited for him in Lestallum? What did her sacrifices mean about her?

“Laura, above you!” Gladio’s voice broke over the sound of his own thoughts, and he stood frozen in shock as he watched Gladio hurl himself to where Iggy and Laura were. Gladio must’ve come back to Noct’s side after Laura had fixed him up, but Noct knew Gladio wouldn’t make it back to her in time.

The midgardsormr rounded on Laura and Iggy and struck, its enormous fangs bared and dripping with poison. Noct’s feet were still frozen to the ground as he watched Laura look up, tears streaming down her cheeks but a calm expression on her deathly pale face. She held out a palm as though to caress the serpent’s nose. When it made contact with her hand, a bright blue light shot from her hand, and a web of blue hexagonal magic burst over her and Iggy’s body like a net. The shield seemed to shimmer with spiraling scrollwork of sparkling blue frost, and as the midgardsormr came into full contact, an icy blast exploded outward, forcing Noct, Gladio, and Prompto to cover their eyes as it passed over them—unfelt, it seemed.

Something seemed to break in Noct’s head, and time seemed to reassert itself. But it was too quiet. There was only the sound of the wind blowing through the trees and rushing water over stones. When Noct was able to look up again, hoping against all hopes that what had just happened hadn’t actually happened, the crystalized corpse of the snake lay coiled around his dead brother, and his friend was lying awkwardly on her knees, limp on top of him.

“Hey! Wake up!” Noct heard Gladio roaring from what felt like far away.

Something grabbed at his jacket and shook him hard, and he looked up to see Gladio in his face, his caramel-colored eyes blazing with fear, determination, and aggression.

“Iggy needs you. We don’t got time for you to freeze up right now!”

“IGGY’S DEAD!” Noct screamed at him, finally returning to reality enough to shove Gladio off him.

“Pull yourself together, damnit! You need to give him the phoenix down before he’s dead for good.”

Fuck. He had forgotten. How could he have forgotten? In his defense, the Crownsguard he’d trained with had never needed to use it and therefore rarely mentioned it; it was most often used by the Glaives in more serious combat situations when his dad could spare the energy. But he’d received instruction from his dad on how to make them all those years ago. He should’ve remembered that, as his dad was so rarely responsible for teaching him lessons. Even Iggy had given him several lessons on them when he was helping Noct with elemental theory.

With shaking hands, he summoned his sword and warped to where the pair lay. He couldn’t think of Laura right now; there was nothing he could do for her whether she was dead or unconscious, so he did his best to push her dead weight from her protective position over Iggy’s chest to reveal the familiar, yet lifeless, features of one of his closest friends. His glasses were askew, and that light that made Iggy who he was, even in sleep, was gone. Damnit, even knowing he wouldn’t be dead in a minute, this was hard. He summoned the phoenix down, imbued it with his own magic, and pressed it to Ignis’s chest, willing it, praying to every one of the Six and anyone else that would listen, for it to work.

As he cracked the potion, Prompto fell to his knees by Laura, attempting to pull her folded legs straight, but he couldn’t seem to pick her up enough to free her legs from underneath her.

“Check her pulse,” Gladio instructed from behind him, but Noct wasn’t paying attention.

The moment the flask had broken, bright orange flames erupted over Ignis’s body, licking at his clothes, and he drew in a sharp, deep breath, his green eyes filling with phoenix fire and opening wide with terror and wonder.

“Ro—Highness?” he gasped.

“Ignis! Oh, thank gods, you’re okay!” Noct cried, flinging himself onto Iggy’s chest and squeezing him as hard as he could. Noct felt Iggy draw his arms around his back, patting gently in return.

“Yes, I’m quite all right. Thank you, Noct.”

“Don’t ever do that to me again!” Noct scolded, pulling back to glare at him.

“I shall make my most sincere attempt, Highness. It certainly isn’t an experience I care to repeat if I can help it,” Iggy said, sitting up slowly, clutching at his head with a weird look on his face.

“Whoa there. You sure you’re okay to get up?” Gladio asked, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Your head shouldn’t be hurting at all.”

“My head is just fine. Thank you, Gladio. I’m . . . well . . . invigorated, I should say,” he said, shaking his head with wide, fiery eyes. When he noticed his glasses were nearly vertical on his face, he pulled them off and placed them back precisely where they should’ve been, bracing them on each side with both hands and giving them a little wiggle before he was fully satisfied.

“Yeah, I don’t envy you, man. End of the battle like this? You’re in for a rough night, if the stories are true,” Gladio replied.

“Mmm,” Iggy hummed, pink staining his cheeks. “Better than the alternative.”

Noct was about to ask what they were talking about when Prompto spoke.

“I’m really glad you’re okay, Iggy. The fire thing looks badass,” Prompto said in a small voice before looking at Gladio. “She’s got a pulse, but it’s like, really, really fast, and it feels like a weird rhythm.” He tapped out four beats quickly on her wrist, rested a beat, and tapped out another four.

“What’s happened to Laura?” Ignis said sharply, twisting his back around to look at the pale green figure contorted on the ground behind him.

“Oh, you know,” Prompto said with an uncomfortable laugh, “one of us gets hurt and she has to go and practically kill herself to save us. Been using her magic again.”

Iggy scrambled to his knees next to her and slid his hand under her back, lifting her just enough to pull her feet out from underneath her body and straightening her legs.

“Actually, she hasn’t,” Gladio said, leaning down to place two fingers on her neck while Iggy held her wrist. “It was advanced shit, but that was all Glaive magic.”

“She’s a mage?” Iggy asked, looking up at him. “Doesn’t surprise me in the least, I suppose, with her own native magical talent. I hadn’t given it much thought after the warping in Longwythe.”

“The King wouldn’t have given her a mage uniform just to make her look hot, even if she does,” Gladio replied with a lascivious grin.

“Time and a place, Gladio,” Iggy sighed. “She’s not even conscious to appreciate your odd brand of lewd humor.”

“You’re right. I’ll save it for later,” he said before growing serious. “I dunno what’s wrong with her though. The venom shouldn’t be making her tachycardic and arrhythmic like this.”

“Two hearts,” Iggy replied. “Her pulse feels slightly elevated, likely on account of the venom, but it’s normal otherwise.”

“She gonna be okay, guys?” Noct asked, only a little surprised Iggy knew what Laura’s pulse was supposed to feel like. He’d probably asked for all her vitals the first day she said they couldn’t use potions on her.

“I’m afraid I don’t know. If what Gladio says is true, and she used Glaive magic rather than her own, then there’s no reason I’m aware of for her to have fallen unconscious, unless the venom is at fault. The Crystal’s magic pains her but doesn’t drain her energy.”

“Uh, she made it sound like her body would take care of the venom,” Noct said.

“Then we’ll just have to wait, unfortunately,” Iggy said.

“We need to get her back to the hotel so she can rest,” Gladio said, pulling her into his arms and standing. “Let’s get going.”

 

Chapter Text

Ignis was no stranger to the concept of death, even for a man of his age living a seemingly sheltered life in the Citadel. He had in fact been trained to expect it longer than anyone knew. One of his first and most recurring lessons from the age of three onward was to learn to step between the Prince and any possible oncoming danger without thought or hesitation. Though Ignis believed the practices his tutors utilized to instill such an instinct to be abhorrent, he could hardly say they were ineffective.

As such, it began around the age of four that Ignis would lie awake in bed at night, wondering what it would be like if an attempt on the Prince’s life were made, successfully taking out Ignis’s own. He imagined all the ways it could happen: spells cast, shots fired, swords drawn, knives thrown . . . a thousand different ways and how he could act to save the Prince’s life each night, growing in complexity as he grew older and after he’d met the surprisingly charming boy. Beyond the pride at having fulfilled his duty to the death, he wondered what he would feel as he died. No doubt he would be alone in the dark, cold, in immense pain, and terrified beyond any ability to reason, which honestly wasn’t that much of an escalation beyond many of the sensations of his childhood.

He hadn’t been too far off the mark, at first. Logically, he realized that the near instantaneous loss of so much blood at once was making him feel chilled, and the three-foot-long fang that had pierced his chest before his body was flung halfway across a field to flop on the unforgiving ground was likely responsible for the unimaginable pain radiating through his entire being. To his shame, the terror began to set in as his mind began to slow. He wasn’t ready to go yet; there was still so much of life he wanted to explore. Desperate, he reached out with whatever was left of him. He didn’t know what it was he reached out with because his limbs were no longer obeying his command; they were being dragged across the ground by warm hands. Still, he reached out with something, and to his immense surprise, he made contact with something that grasped him and held him tight.

“Ignis,” he heard a sob in his ears.

Rose. Of course she would be with him in death—who else? He felt her agony at his loss and echoed it back to her, regretful he couldn’t stay, couldn’t finish that beautiful potential they had started together. But the moment he’d thought it, her anguish disappeared.

Don’t worry about that, love, she said, and though he was glad to hear her call him that at least once before he died, he wished it didn’t have to be now, like this.

The moment he heard her voice, the pain, the cold, the terror disappeared completely to be replaced by warmth, light, and love—oh Astrals, the love. It was no wonder she’d been called the Goddess of the Dawn, for dawn was breaking over his mindscape—eternal, gentle, warm golden light—the most incredibly beautiful sunrise he’d ever seen blossoming over his horizon like the kithairon she loved so much and filling him to the brim, spilling over so that he was overflowing with that sparkling emotion. The darkness and loneliness that had plagued him his entire life dispelled instantly as though it had never existed, replaced by that love—adoration bordering on idolization—so intense and tangible that it manifested to become visible. Oh gods, how could one even see a feeling? But it was there, and he could see it, and he wanted to bury himself in it forever and never let go.

But he was being pulled away; he didn’t have a choice. He could tell she was holding him there as long as she could, but even his goddess couldn’t reverse death. His body had been dead for either seconds or an eternity, but either way, there was nothing for his essence to return to, nowhere for him to go but the beyond.

Ro-, he began, but something cracked hard against him, somewhere, and he felt his body once again roaring, blazing to life. He raced from whatever realm he was currently in, desperate to return to his body before whatever he was now was dragged off into death. He wished he could have stayed, said more before he rushed off, but at least there would still be time to say more in the future.

And Ignis opened his eyes.

***

Gladio had laid Laura’s lifeless body across the back seat, her feet resting in Prompto’s lap and her head resting in Ignis’s. He stared blankly at her pale and still face as Noct got in the driver’s seat and started the Regalia. Had it only been this morning that they had watched the sun rise over the Disc of Cauthess after their lesson? She had been so full of life in that moment that she was bursting with it, so he had leaned in to taste it for himself.

Ignis had spent the last five days making up for lost time by kissing her as often as he could—whenever they were alone. He would never tire of kissing her—running his sensitive lips and taste buds over and in her mouth and across the soft skin of her neck, jaw, cheeks, forehead—even her hands and arms—whatever he could reach. It felt so right, so natural, expressing his affection for her this way, even if it did still seem a miracle that he was allowed to do so whenever he wished. She seemed to feel the same—as she would graze her lips and tongue over him in much the same manner, making him shiver in anticipation for where they could possibly be headed.

Of course, what he hadn’t realized at the time was that where they were headed looked too much like death. It didn’t help that in addition to her slightly green but deathly pale skin, her suit was awash with so much blood that it looked as though she’d sustained a mortal injury. As the blood was red, and therefore all his own, his logical mind knew better, but he couldn’t help but envision this as her corpse lying in his lap.

“Should we take the chance of giving her an antidote?” Prompto asked. “She still looks green.”

“No. She knew of their existence yet didn’t take one herself. Likely she thought it too dangerous for her physiology. All we can do is wait, I’m afraid,” he replied, not bothering to even glance in the younger man’s direction.

Ignis was pleased with himself for managing to hold his composure in that moment—indeed in every moment since he’d awoken—despite the magic of the phoenix down coursing through his veins. He could still see the flames surging on the corners of his vision—could feel the urge to move and strike and live, but this sitting and doing nothing was in total contradiction to the call in his blood. He didn’t want to think about what was in store for him this evening. Stories from the Glaives usually involved finding relief in a battle or a bed, and he currently had neither. Even if he had the audacity to ask Rose to take that next step with him, which he believed he did, he could hardly ask her after she’d been through all this today.

“Ignis,” came a sigh from his lap, and he looked down to see Laura’s eyes crack open.

Placing a hand to the side of her neck, he murmured, “I’m here.”

“You’re all right,” she whispered.

“Yes, I’m all right. Is there anything we need to do for you, medically?”

She shook her head weakly.

“He’s gonna be okay, Laura. We were able to get him a phoenix down in time. You just rest, hear?” Gladio said, turning in the front seat to look at her.

“Fucking potions, thank gods,” she muttered, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry, Ignis.”

“What on Eos could you possibly have to be sorry about?” he asked.

“I failed you. I always fail. Miriásia, Eilendil, you.”

He didn’t know who or what Eilendil was, likely one of the people or civilizations that had died on her during one of her misadventures. How many had she had to hold as they died in her lifetime?

“You didn’t fail me,” he said harshly. “I’m still here.” And that statement was probably truer than she realized. Had she not held onto his essence for so long after his body had died, there might not have been anything left of him to reanimate.

But she hadn’t heard him, as she’d gone limp in his lap again.

“If anyone failed him today, it was me, Laura,” Gladio said, and Ignis looked up at him in surprise to see him rubbing a hand over his face.

“And what are you on about?” he asked incredulously.

“You had to do my job cause I wasn’t there to do it myself,” Gladio said in a low voice.

“It was my fault,” Prompto interrupted. “If I’d been more specific when I warned Gladio, this whole thing wouldn’t’ve happened.”

Ignis opened his mouth to argue with the both of them, but snapped it shut when Noct’s voice cut through the tense atmosphere of the car. “All of you shut up. No one failed anyone because no one is dead. Do you hear me? NO ONE is dead.”

“Yes, Highness,” Ignis replied with more than a little reluctance.

After several beats of silence, Gladio turned his head to the back seat to look at Laura. “She okay?” he asked.

“She’s fallen unconscious again.”

Though Gladio put some light, cheery orchestral music on in a futile attempt to cover the macabre atmosphere, one of the suites by Mitsuda, the silence was heavy with the scent of blood and the turbulent emotions rushing through the cabin of the car all the way back to Lestallum.

The green tinge to Laura’s skin had disappeared by the time they pulled into the parking spot that evening, but she still didn’t stir when Ignis maneuvered her out of the back seat of the Regalia and into his arms.

“Here, I can take her,” Gladio said, holding his arms out.

“No, I’ve got her. Thank you, Gladio,” Ignis replied. “If you wouldn’t mind clearing a path for us?”

There was a moment of awkwardness when they arrived back at their suite in the Leville. Prompto volunteered to put the sheets on Laura’s couch, but Ignis didn’t feel comfortable enough to undress her, no matter how badly she needed cleaning up. And when he searched his own feelings on the matter, he was surprised to find he didn’t wish any of the others undressing her either. He was about to grit his teeth and summon the colder field medic side of himself when Gladio helpfully offered to fetch Lady Iris while Ignis removed her jacket and boots in the en suite.

It was only after he had tucked her into the couch with her favorite appalling blanket that Ignis allowed himself a few minutes to clean up himself. While the rest of his clothes were salvageable, his torn and blood-soaked shirt he threw into a plastic bag to bury in the bin after his shower. Fortunately, they all had several changes of their Crownsguard uniforms to replace when they grew too damaged from their many trials for him to repair.

Before he stepped under the scalding hot spray, he took a brief moment to gaze at his bare chest in the mirror and run his fingers over the spot his mortal wound no longer existed. Sighing, he decided there was no use dwelling on the matter. Stepping under the shower head, however, was an exercise in self-control, as he swore he felt every drop of water from the showerhead pelt his skin and roll down to his feet, as though he were being licked by billions of disembodied tongues. Shuddering at the horror of the image, he decided to wash quickly and forego the rest of his ritual until the morning, by which point the potion responsible for such thoughts would have worn off.

He checked on Laura one more time, finally alone in the room so he could press his lips briefly to her forehead, cheeks, and chin.

“Come back to me,” he whispered into her ear. “We have much to discuss, you and I.”

Settling into the sheets next to Noct, ignoring the pointed look from Gladio, and turning off the light, Ignis wasn’t even sure why he was going through with this charade. He couldn’t see how he was going to sleep tonight with the fire still dancing in his eyes, but it was the evening—what else could he do? The sheets beneath and over him scraped against his sensitive skin, sending tingles through his body where they touched. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he wished he could do something—go for a run, spar with a man twice his size and strength, go out on a hunt and stab something.

Ignis only flinched a little when he felt something touch his arm. It took him a moment to identify the two hands and what he thought to be a face as Noct, curling into his arm as he hadn’t done since they were children.

“I’m really glad you’re okay, Specs,” Noct said so quietly that even Ignis’s currently oversensitive hearing could barely pick it up. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

He couldn’t find the words in his head to identify what he was feeling, let alone the proper words to express those feelings, so he simply suffused the emotion into his voice as he placed a hand over one of Noct’s and answered, “Thank you, Noct.”

Those tutors of his should have realized—the training was unnecessary. Despite not being ready to die, he would have done it anyway, for several reasons, but most of all because he loved his brother dearly. He just wasn’t certain as to why he was still surprised to find the feeling was mutual when Noct had been trying to tell him since he’d returned from the past.

Between all the recent, life-shattering events with both Noct and Laura, he was beginning to wonder if his tutors hadn’t been wrong about everything.

“Night, Specs.”

“Sleep well, Highness.”

Ignis may have dozed for some time, because he opened his eyes to find Noct on the other side of the bed, one hand on his chest and the other flung out over the side. His pillow was misshapen and somehow missing its case. Ignis rolled his eyes. It was no wonder the boy couldn’t wake up in the morning if he was doing battle every night in his sleep. It could be worse, he supposed. At least the Prince wasn’t suffering from nightmares as he had several nights ago.

Ignis closed his eyes, attempting to stem the tide of fire that seemed to roll from his toes all the way to the top of his head. Though the sensation wasn’t as unsettling as it had been when he’d lain down, he still wanted to move, to fight, to bite, to . . . something. Swinging his feet over the side of the bed, grabbing his glasses from the bedside table, and standing, he carefully made his way in the dark to the door that led to the kitchen. If he couldn’t sleep, perhaps scrubbing the kitchen to within an inch of its life would be suitable for working the energy off.

But he stopped in the doorway when he saw Laura already there, dragging a mass of dough roughly in circles and dumping it into the last empty banneton of several on the counter. He quietly shut the door behind him and approached her.

“Are you all right?” she asked in a trembling voice, not looking up at him as she transferred the bannetons to the refrigerator.

“Yes,” he replied, somewhat puzzled by her cool greeting. He himself wanted to run to her, scoop her in his arms, and never let her go. But he rallied his composure enough to instead ask, “Are you all right?”

She shut the refrigerator door roughly, and he jumped back at the sound reverberating in his ears.

“No,” she said sharply. “I’m not all right. I keep forgetting this is a new world for me. I can almost convince myself I’m on Earth, until suddenly we’re whistling for giant chickens to appear from nowhere and riding off into the sunrise.”

Laura finally turned to him, and he could see that her eyes were overly large and bright with unshed tears.

“I think I know all the rules until you’re dead on the ground. Where I’m from, there’s no coming back from that.” She finally stepped toward him and curled her hands against his chest, burying her face in his neck, and he drew his arms around her back, weaving his fingers in her hair and holding her as close as he could manage without squeezing her.

“I thought I’d lost you,” she said in a hopeless voice.

This, right here, was the test, whether the two of them would make it or not. He hated to say these words, hated the thought of hurting her further after what they’d both been through today, hated the possibility that these words and her reaction to them could end everything they’d built over the last few days. But they were the truth, and they needed to be said.

“I won’t apologize for what I did.”

She jerked her head back and stared up at him, her eyes wide. Words to explain, to soften the somewhat terse delivery of his sentiments were on the tip of his tongue, but he needn’t have bothered because her reaction couldn’t have reassured him more.

“I would never ask you to. I can only hope that you would extend me the same courtesy when it’s my turn to do the same.”

And he could see by the look in her eyes that she meant it. He had died doing his duty and would gladly and unwaveringly do it again, and she wouldn’t try to stop him no matter how much they loved each other. He nodded, grateful that they were both on the same page regarding Noct’s safety.

They loved each other.

He rested his chin on top of her head, drawing her back into his body again as he stroked her back beneath the curtain of her hair. The warmth of her body sent quiet tremors of longing through his as he rocked her back and forth soothingly, closing his eyes and letting that love wash over him.

After she sighed and pressed her lips to his heart, he said in a low voice, “I felt you when I . . . when I died—in my mind.”

She went stiff in his arms. “No. I would never enter your mind without permission. You were the one in mine.”

He pulled back to look at her in shock. “How is that possible? I’m no telepath.”

She sighed and stepped back until she could sit down in the dining chair behind her, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, staring at the floor. “There are only two times when an apath can reach out beyond its own mind: when they share a permanent telepathic bond with someone and when they’re near death. You’re one of the few to actually make contact with anything because you happened to be near me when you died. I let you in and held you.” She shuddered, closing her eyes.

Ignis thought back to how very close, how very intimate it had felt being with her in that moment, and though she’d made the experience as pleasant as any mortal could hope for it to be, she still must have felt his every thought, his every fear, his mortal terror as death clutched at his identity.

“But, to be connected so thoroughly to something as it’s dying, wouldn’t that feel like dying yourself?”

He already knew the answer, having watched her wake up the morning His Majesty had died, but the look on her face in confirmation still devastated him.

“Yes,” she murmured to the floor. “It was the same with you as it was with Regis, as it is with every non-daemonized creature we kill, including the animals. The feeling is less intense if I back away from the battle, but I’m never fully spared its wrath. I can choose to disconnect with humans if I wish, but then I lose the ability to do what I did for you.”

He should have made the connection before. Holding him as he’d passed was why she’d gone unconscious, not the venom—and then combined with the pain of the death of the midgardsormr at her own hand must have been overwhelming. The state from which she’d awakened after holding His Majesty should have been enough evidence to have made it immediately apparent. And how many animals had they killed in her presence? Even after her somewhat vague explanation back at Wiz’s, the four of them still thought it was somewhat ridiculous that she wouldn’t join them in hunting. No longer.

“All this time, I thought you were just being,” he shook his head, “I don’t know, stubborn. Forgive me.”

She waved away the apology. “It’s not as though my logic is sound on the matter—avoidance of pain with a dash of principle. It’s just the best I can live with.”

Kneeling down in front of her, he stared up into her eyes, allowing everything he’d been sensing since he’d discovered her in here to wash over him—the scent of her in the air, the contours of her form, the whisper of her hair brushing against her arms and back. Dare he ask her what he’d been thinking all night? Feeling her warmth and light in his mind had been intoxicating, healing, life-changing, and he wanted nothing more in his life than to experience it again. He’d been working up the courage to ask her for days now to connect with him as she’d once implied she could, but he hadn’t yet managed to force the words to leave his throat.

“What is that potion doing to you?” she asked suddenly, placing a hand on his cheek and gazing into his fire-filled eyes in concern, no doubt taking in his flushed skin, breathlessness, and whatever oddity that was now the color of his mind.

“All my senses are on such high alert that it’s nearly overwhelming,” he closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’ll be all right. Already the effects have begun to wane.”

Sitting in that library back in Insomnia, Ignis had decided that he only had one life to live, and he was going to live it—a decision that had brought him to this point in the first place. Though that decision hardly erased all the fears and doubts that plagued him even in this very moment, it was a philosophy to which he would hold true. He wanted her in his life, he decided, forever. He knew where it would immediately lead if she granted him his wish to connect with her, and he found that he wanted that as well—wanted to worship her, not as an acolyte to a goddess, but a man to a woman, even if he was still more than terrified at the prospect of doing so.

He would never get what he wanted if he didn’t ask for it.

“Rose?”

She had moved the hand that was on his cheek around to the back of his neck and was idly toying at the tips of his hair, sending tiny warm bolts of lightning down his spine. But she was still searching his face with that troubled look in her eyes.

“Yes?” she said.

“I should,” he swallowed, chiding himself for how uncertain he sounded. “If you are amenable, of course, I should very much like you to connect with my mind.”

The hand on the back of his neck stilled, and he wondered if he’d inadvertently crossed some cultural line he didn’t understand. But her gaze seemed to soften, her mouth fell open a little, and he noted that her respiration had picked up at his words.

“What did you just say?”

“Please.”

“Ignis, please understand. Nothing would bring me greater joy. But I need to know: how much of this is you asking, and how much of this is the potion?”

“I’ll admit to being more on-edge tonight, but allow me to reassure you that my judgment remains unaffected. The idea has intrigued me since I learned it was possible, even if I wasn’t in a position that night to ask for it.”

“And you’re aware of what will likely happen if I establish a connection with the both of us . . . feeling like this?”

His only surprise at her words was the implication that she was feeling similarly, so he leaned up, parting her lips with his tongue and pressing her head between his mouth and his hand, which was twisting in the hair at the base of her neck. When she moaned into his mouth and trailed her fingernails over his shoulders and up the sides of his neck to settle her hands over his jaw, he pulled back a little to gaze into her dilated eyes.

“Yes.”

When she still hesitated, he thought at first that it was because she was working on some polite way to turn him down—to say that kissing him was enough for her, thank you. But he shoved his fears aside and attempted to view the situation from her point of view—a new lover, possibly compromised by an unfamiliar potion, uncharacteristically asking to be taken to bed in a most intimate and alien fashion. He had to admit it didn’t look good, but he knew his own mind.

“Rose, trust me,” he said.

“I do,” she responded without hesitation.

“Then know that I want this—have wanted this.”

She searched his face for a long moment. “All right,” she said after a deep breath. “Is there anything you wanted to know before I begin?”

He nodded. “I have only two questions. Will the connection be permanent, and what level of access will we have to each other? I assume it’s deeper than the connection you made with Noct earlier.”

“You’re right,” she said. “This type of connection is far more intimate, but it wouldn’t be permanent. That’s a deeper connection called bonding. Tonight, I would have access to your surface thoughts and physical sensations. You would have access to mine, but to a lesser extent.”

When he furrowed his brow at her, a thousand other questions about the telepathic process springing to his mind, she seemed to become distressed and hastened to explain herself.

“Please understand, it’s not because I’m holding back or hiding anything from you. It’s just that your mind has less experience with the process. No sentient being thinks in a string of words like speech unless it’s purposeful; thoughts are a combination of words, feelings, images—even sounds and smells. Your mind will have trouble translating the onslaught of information, just as you do in our sparring sessions, so it will filter out what it doesn’t understand. I’ll try my best tonight to slow down and send you what I can, and if you decide you want to . . . do this again, you would improve just as you are in combat.”

He certainly hoped this process wouldn’t be as frustrating as their sparring sessions had been these past few days. It had turned out that the concept of all-awareness she’d first proposed back in that alleyway was far more complex than he’d first believed; she expected him to be aware of literally everything happening in the vicinity of their battles and yet put forth no effort to analyze a single piece of information, including the movements of his opponent, which was absurd in his mind. And that was to say nothing of his Intuition lesson in the Greyshire Glacial Grotto earlier that afternoon. Reaching out with his “heart” to “taste the magic on the air” in order to detect daemons and allies alike seemed like an exercise in futility, even if it did distract him from the hours spent in the dark. He was beginning to wonder if the woman had a severe case of synesthesia and was simply unaware.

Still, he’d taken to meditating when he found a free moment or two these past few days to practice his awareness and sensitivity, and though he himself saw no improvements in the number of times he’d been knocked to the dirt, she claimed that he was, in fact, getting better. Perhaps his practice these past few days would improve his performance tonight.

“Then, yes. You have my permission to enter my mind, Rose. Most freely and unreservedly, please,” he said, hoping the reference would be enough to reassure her of his sincerity. He closed his eyes, his entire body palpitating with anticipation and arousal.

Ever so slowly, he felt her thumbs brush against his cheekbones. Her fingers slid against his scalp under his hair, two at his temples and two behind his ears.

“You held your hands the same way for Noct. Is there something significant about those points of the skull?” he asked, his eyes still closed.

“Gods, that mind, asking questions at a time like this,” she chuckled. “The Doctor was the one to teach me telepathy. He was half Time Lord, a race of touch telepaths that needed this close contact with the brain in order to make the connection. I don’t, but I find it makes for a good physical cue when connecting with apaths.”

“I see,” he said, attempting to suppress his opinion of what sort of species would have the pomposity to call themselves Time Lords. “Apologies, please continue.”

There was a rustle of sound and the feel of soft lips on his forehead. “Don’t ever apologize for asking questions. I do so love that inquisitive mind of yours. All right. Here I go.”

The sensation began as a slight prickling, a gentle flutter against his brain as a warm breeze through his hair. Unsure of how to respond, he embraced the feeling, hoping it was the equivalent of welcoming her in. The sensation increased until he felt his head grow heavy with the presence of someone else in his mind. Having been alone in his head his entire existence, it was a strange thrill to feel someone else in there with him—someone kind, someone that loved him. That golden light and love of hers shined through every corner, and he couldn’t help but whimper a little at the infusion of warmth that spread through his entire body like a comforting bath, soothing the tension caused by the potion and relaxing his muscles.

But that warmth seemed to settle deep in his belly, and Astrals, how he wanted her. He could feel her arousal in his mind as well, a column of heat at her core that seemed to increase his own ardor, resulting in a feedback loop of aching want.

“Ohhhh, Ignis,” she breathed, and he opened his eyes to see her pupils expand so that the lapis was nearly obscured. “Your mind is so beautiful.”

He didn’t know how to respond to such a compliment, so he merely stared up at her as they breathed open-mouthed together, feeling that delicious ache and sending it back to each other, watching it grow, wondering who would be the first to break. She began stroking from his temples down to the sides of his face, tracing the curve of his jaw and back up again, and he gasped at tingling trails of electricity her touch left in its wake.

They both broke at the sound of his inhalation.

In a single movement, he stood and swooped her off the chair while she wrapped her legs around his waist. Hooking his foot around the chair leg, he slid it out of the way so he could press her up against the kitchen wall.

Their mouths met savagely. She continued to create those decadent trails of sensation down his face as he nipped at her lips, twisted his tongue with hers, and attempted to meld their mouths together until they’d truly become one. The sensation of her mind in his wasn’t as foreign as he thought it would be, as she was just as desperate to consume him as he was her.

He leaned her against the wall so he could free his hands to touch her, first gripping her wrists at his head and running his palms down her arms, then moving to her neck, across her shoulders, and down to her waist. Not having been given explicit permission for free access to her body, he kept his hands on the less provocative regions, but the spear of arousal that shot first through her and then through him told him that his objective had been achieved nevertheless.

With a gasp, she ripped her mouth from his and threw her head back against the wall. “Oh gods, Ignis, anywhere. You can touch me anywhere you like.”

While her vehement declaration was most excellent news indeed, he found he couldn’t act on it, for she had immediately swooped down to latch her hot, breathy mouth on the pulse point of his neck, making him shudder in delight. Oh gods, how on Eos could he be so fortunate? When she used the wall as leverage to wriggle against his already throbbing length, his eyes shot open as he allowed a moan to escape from the depths of his lungs and up through his throat.

“Rose.”

On instinct, he thrust against her, relishing in the feeling of her warmth against where he was craving it most. He’d never allowed himself to become this swept away before, had never completely let go of his calculating, logical mind and let his heart rule his body like this.

If this were his reward for doing so, he’d do it every day.

A sudden hammering coming from the door behind him made him step back and drop her. His instincts still on high alert from the potion, he summoned his daggers to his hands, prepared to defend her by any means necessary.

Easy, Laura said, placing a hand on his arm and stilling him.

“Hey!” Gladio yelled from behind the door. “Hot as this sounds, you mind fucking in the other room? You’re scaring the kids!”

There were no words to describe the completeness of his mortification. Dismissing his daggers, he stood there, staring at the door with his mouth open, wondering how he could possibly even begin to form a response. Fortunately, Laura stepped forward and saved him—in a manner of speaking.

“Glad you enjoyed the show, babe. Sorry guys!”

It was only her words that allowed him to unstick his feet from the floor and move.

“Come with me,” she said, taking his hand and leading him through the other door to the moonlit living room.

Chapter Text

As Laura shut the door behind her, she placed a hand on it. “Cánarath,” she whispered, and it flashed silver. “A small price to pay for privacy. They can leave out the door in their room if they need to.”

She turned to him, searching his face and pressing a hand against his cheek, just as she knew he loved.

“Are you all right?” she asked quietly. “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. We could cuddle on the couch until we fall asleep—or do more, or less . . . whatever you want. It’s not too late to find that man named Moose, you know.” The smile that spread over her lips was slow and warm at her reference.

One of these days, they wouldn’t be on the cusp of a major milestone in their relationship, and he could ask her what her obsession was with this man named Moose.

“Yes, I still want this. Please, Rose.”

“I’m glad to see that fire dying in your eyes,” she said, looking up at him. “I prefer your lovely green, and it’s reassuring to know that it’s you here with me.” She placed both her hands at the base of his t-shirt. “May I?”

Ignis closed his eyes. He knew this was going to be part of it, baring himself to her. He couldn’t recall her once ever being less than complimentary regarding his physique, but this was another matter entirely. He nodded, eager to get this over with and hopefully see that it wasn’t as awful as he was imagining it to be. At least his access to her mind would tell him the full truth.

Yes, it will.

He kept his eyes closed as he felt his shirt being gently pulled up and over his head, her fingers brushing against his face a little as she stretched the collar over his glasses. After she had presumably laid his shirt somewhere, he began receiving her impressions. There were no words like “awkward,” “scrawny,” or “spotted;” they’d been replaced with “lithe,” “sophisticated,” and “exquisite”—the perfect balance of agile leanness and muscle. Even standing still, he was the flawless image of elegance and grace. How odd, those descriptions were what he had always thought of her.

She showed him how his fringe fell delicately into his eyes, the way his glasses accentuated the shape and intensity of his intelligent viridian gaze, and the beauty of the contrast between his thick dark lashes and the flush of his high cheekbones with his lovely pale and lightly freckled skin. Her attention focused on the bow of his perfect lips; his apparently inhumanly attractive neck and sharp jawline; his well-defined chest; his beautiful hands with their long, tapered fingers; his strong arms; the subtle contours of his abdominals and how they tapered to his narrow hips; and finally, his long, lean legs.

Seraphic, the word echoed in his mind.

“By the gods, Rose. You’re going to give me a big head,” he groaned, opening his eyes and drawing her to his chest.

“Good. Someone needs to,” she said, pulling back to smile at him and take his hand to lead him to the couch. “But it’s not just your body that I find stunning—your mind and heart are resplendent as well.”

She sat him down on the couch and straddled his lap, wrapping her hot wet mouth around his collarbone, and he lost the ability to breathe or think for a moment, panting helplessly as he stared up at the ceiling in a daze.

And your skin is a map of the stars, she said, her tongue drifting to the hollow of his throat. I always did enjoy exploring the stars.

Underneath her words, he could hear her wondering what moron would dare even bring his complexion to his attention. He didn’t even have that many freckles—no more than a handful or two. Did Prompto get teased for his vastly more freckled appearance?

“Likely not,” he gasped in response as her lips found a particularly chilling spot in the crook of his neck. “Lucian nobility is held to a different standard.”

She pulled back to glare at him. “Well any standard that makes you feel this way about yourself is stupid.”

“I daresay it’s somewhat easier for you, with your royal appearance yet not being of this world.”

“Exactly. I wasn’t raised with such ridiculous notions, and therefore you shouldn’t take them into consideration when guessing what I will and won’t find attractive.”

How had they managed to get into a discussion about Lucian beauty standards when she was sitting astride his arousal at that very moment?

“That mind of yours,” she chuckled, rocking against him and grazing her fingernails over his nipples, “added to my own makes a dangerous combination for getting distracted.”

He moved his hands to cover her hips, gripping tightly and grinding her down on him before stretching up to capture her mouth and releasing his groan of pleasure where it couldn’t be as easily heard.

He didn’t want to wait any longer; the time had come for him to perform. And though he wished for nothing more in the world to push inside her and watch her face as she came undone underneath him, he couldn’t help but feel the apprehension building in him. Would he last long enough, virgin as he was, to please her? Would he even know enough to do so?

He often used to pick up the magazines that Gladio had left lying around Noct’s apartment when he’d come over to visit, the ones with pictures of half-naked women on the cover and titles that claimed, “We Know 69 Ways to Drive Girls Wild in Bed.” Ignis would furtively flip through them as he cleaned, convincing himself that the information may indeed be useful if he ever found the time to meet someone willing to put up with him. What he’d learned in theory he’d never had the chance to use in practice, however. His only other source of information was his biology texts, and that was hardly encouraging.

Any moment now, she was going to see him for the fumbling, awkward youth he really was and pull away from him. Even if she was a woman, she was still quite literally a goddess, imbued with just as much power as the Six and condensed into this immortal-yet-mortal body resting between his palms and beneath his lips. The knowledge she must’ve had of carnal pleasures alone must have rivaled all that he knew about anything, everything. She could have had her choice of any lover in all of existence and had probably taken more than he could count, all most certainly far more capable of pleasuring her than he ever could.

She pulled away from him in that moment, glaring at him.

“Ignis Scientia. Does that constant stream of self-judgmental nonsense in your head never cease?”

Damn, he thought to himself, or obviously, not to himself. The physical sensations assaulting his body had made him forget that she was there with him in his thoughts.

Her expression softened. “First of all, I am not a goddess, as I keep trying to tell you. Though I must say I’m relieved to see that awe of worship reduced to that of a lover and not a god,” she said before leaning down to capture his lips briefly.

“Secondly, I have not had more lovers than you can count. If you really must know, you’re the sixth. The sixth, Ignis. I hardly sleep my way around the universes.”

“I didn’t mean to imply—” he began.

“It’s more difficult for someone like me than most people think,” she interrupted him. “But if you’re willing, I’m choosing you, Ignis. I choose you for your mind . . ..” At this, she caressed his temple, and he felt the warmth of their connection within him swell. She let her fingertips drift down his cheek and neck, coming to rest on his chest. “. . . and your heart. These things are rarer than the most precious gems and cannot be taught. But I think you’re going to learn that . . . what did you call them? ‘Carnal pleasures?’ Those can be taught. And oh, my dearest, how much pleasure we’re both going get from teaching you.

“And as far as your concerns regarding stamina, I believe I have a suggestion, if you’re willing?”

“I’m certain I will be. What is your suggestion?”

That wicked fire of hers burned in her eyes, making Ignis’s breath catch in his lungs. Surely she couldn’t have concocted some mad adventure involving their two bodies alone, could she have?

Laura leaned in close to his ear, every heavy, hot breath spilling from her lungs caressing the over-sensitized shell.

“Right now,” she said, nipping his ear lobe, “I’m going to get off this couch, kneel between your legs, and suck your cock until you spill your seed down my throat. I’m going to swallow it all and enjoy the ever-living fuck out of myself in the process. And you, for once in your gods damned life, are going to sit back, relax, and enjoy it too. Sound good?”

Though he tried to hold it back, a breathy whimper escaped through his nose. She may as well have slapped him with the absolute filth coming from her mouth, but a dark thrill shot through his bones at her words nevertheless. The idea of her kneeling before him in such a manner was a perverse reversal of their roles that simultaneously horrified and aroused him. Would he ever have a single, simple feeling about her? But gods damnit, he’d traveled this far along the path with her; he might as well see where it led, and he couldn’t deny that her plan would be effective. He’d be less sensitive, less desperate the second time around.

He nodded. “Yes, Rose. Please.” It sounded too much like begging to his own ears, but at least he’d gotten his point across.

At his assent, she moved off him to kneel on the floor at his feet, her hand stroking reverently against his aching erection through his pajamas and sending tight, aching bolts licking over his entire body. He found he had to lean his head back against the couch and close his eyes to collect himself as his breath continued to come in short, wet pants. Was this truly happening to him? Or had he died after all?

She unbuttoned his pajamas and maneuvered him from his underclothes alarmingly quickly, and he opened his eyes to take in that sight—to record every nuance of the expression on her face; the feel of her mind in his; the sensation of her hot soft hand holding the base of him as she looked back up at him with her heavy-lidded and oh so heartbreakingly beautiful sapphire eyes glowing in the moonlight, just as they had that first night at the haven.

“Do you—” He swallowed. “Do you find me . . . adequate?” he asked in a choked whisper.

Without breaking eye contact, she leaned down and gently licked the bead of moisture that had seeped and gathered at the tip of him. He thought for a moment that he was going to lose consciousness from the pleasure of it all—not only from the feeling of her mouth on him for the first time, but from the feeling of her in his mind enjoying his essence.

Oh, my word,” he breathed.

“More than adequate,” she said, nuzzling at his testicles before running her nose up the length of him. He shuddered, attempting to keep from gasping at the feel of her every breath against him.

When she reached his head, she closed her lips around him and descended, slowly, wetly, oh gods, so hot and so much pressure and he wanted to thrust himself deeper, but he forced himself to hold still, redirecting the desire into his fingers where he could grip the cushions of the couch. Would this glorious heaven be what it felt like to enter her the first time? As he disappeared between her stretched lips, he allowed himself a brief, incredulous moment to acknowledge the absurdity of this queen and goddess kneeling at his feet, servicing him. It almost felt surreal—like an out of body experience. Her mouth seemed to collapse on him in that moment, her tongue curling up to caress the underside of his head, and a tingling fire raced through his veins.

“Bloody hell, Rose,” he moaned through gritted teeth before sucking in a deep, whistling breath, and she moaned in response, sending the vibration to the very core of his being.

But it wasn’t just the sensation of her mouth on him he felt. With their connection, he could feel himself inside her mouth—the contour, the taste, the scent, the warmth of him. He could feel her sex swelling and growing slick with each pass of her tongue over his velvety skin. He could feel her hearts racing in her chest, her breathlessness, the ache in her womb. She wanted to fuck him, desperately. She was enjoying this, and this connection allowed him to know it for certain.

And here he thought he was the only creature to feel true pleasure in serving those he loved. In that very moment, he himself was overcome with the desire to do something, anything for her, so he brought his fingers to her head, running her long blue-black hair through his hands from root to tip, spreading it so it hung in a dark pool over his lap as she moved on him.

You are so very sweet, she said, pushing him to the very back of her throat, and he had to remove a hand from her head for a moment to bite the back of it. Even muffled, however, his cry was overly emphatic for this time of night.

As he had known, he didn’t last long. A few more bobs of her head and swirls of her tongue sent too much of that delicious tingling heat racing up his spine. Blocking pain from his mind was almost second nature to Ignis; he’d been doing it almost his entire life. Blocking the sensation of pleasure, of touch, of warmth and love, however—he found he was unequipped and lacking the true will to do so. Of course he’d achieved climax before in his own ordinary attempts at self-pleasure, but this was the difference between a breath of wind as compared to a roaring thunderstorm. That achingly warm, buzzing pleasure was building at the base of his testicles, tightening everything until almost the point of pain as he attempted to hold out just a little longer, but he couldn’t.

No one’s asking you to, Ignis. Let go, she whispered into his mind like a siren.

Thank gods she’d given him permission to ejaculate into her mouth because he had no idea what he would’ve done without it at this point. Even with her explicit endorsement of the idea, it still felt wrong, beyond obscene. He brought his hands from the tips of her hair to the sides of her head and threaded his fingers through her roots in a caress, desperate to say something, anything to soothe his own sensibilities.

“Forgive me,” he pleaded, and cried out, cresting a wave of bliss so intense that he felt as though it would break him. Each subsequent wave was easier to bear, but no less pleasurable, as she swallowed around each pulse as though she were attempting to milk his soul from him. When he’d finished and could no longer move, for his bones had seemingly been left elsewhere, she gave him a final lick before tucking him back in and settling back into his lap once more, pecking gently at his neck, jaw, cheeks, nose, ears—anywhere she could reach.

“I suppose,” he said through his recovering breath, “thank you would be inappropriate in this case.”

“Yep,” she said, popping the p in a puff of air against his neck.

So instead, he sent her everything he was feeling: gratitude, wonder, joy, comfort, awe, incredulity, love . . . it was too many thoughts and feelings to express in words, but at least she would hear them all.

“I will take that, though. Have I told you yet how much I cherish that mind and heart of yours? I still can’t believe you’re allowing me to connect with you like this.”

“Why doesn’t it hurt, as it does when the Archaean contacts Noct?”

“Because Titan’s an ass. He’s bursting through Noctis’s natural barriers without permission and shouting with all his strength into his mind. Contact with humans requires subtlety.” She kissed him sweetly on the lips. “Gentleness.” She scraped her teeth along his jaw in his favorite spot beneath his ear. “Respect.” She licked at knot in his throat, and he tipped his head back and closed his eyes, basking in her attention as his fingers tightened around her hips.

“Mmm. You have no idea how much joy it brings me to see you enjoying yourself,” she said, peppering kisses along the other side of his jaw. “You’re just soaking it up,” she smiled into his neck and inhaled his scent, “now that I’ve got you going.”

But he did know how much joy she felt, for it was ringing in his mind like clarion bells. He wanted to know that same joy; wanted to feel the masculine pride of knowing that he was the one who had made her come undone; wanted to explore her body, cataloging every inch of her skin until he knew how to play her every note. But how should he begin?

“We could even the score a bit,” she said as she sat back and moved his hands from her hips to the hem of her t-shirt.

“Yes,” he replied on an exhale, gently pulling the hem up and over her head to reveal her body to him.

It was, as he had expected, divine—that lustrous ivory seeming to reflect a light of its own, playing on her flawless skin as though she were a statue by the finest sculptor in all of Eos sitting in an ethereal moonlit garden—a perfect balance of femininity and athleticism. Except she wasn’t in a garden, she was sitting in his lap, and he was allowed to touch her wherever he liked.

He sucked in a sharp breath as he slowly brought his hands to her breasts, cupping them, feeling the weight of them in his palms. They were perfectly proportioned to her frame, heavy enough to make her divinely feminine but not so large as to impede agility. Running his palms over her pink areolae and brushing his thumbs across her peaked nipples, he felt her zing of pleasure shoot through his mind as she moaned.

“Oh, Ignis. Now who’s giving who a big head?”

“But Rose,” he whispered reverently, skimming his hands down her taut torso to the flare of her hips and back up, “you’re even more beautiful than I imagined.” She shivered and bit her lip in response, sending him another wave of arousal and adoration.

“I can see how this connection could be very useful,” he said, repeating his action, pleased when it produced the same result.

Ready to become more of a controlling force in this dynamic, he placed a hand on her shoulder, tipping her carefully to the cushions at his side before moving to hover over her. He lowered himself for a moment, shifting his body back and forth on his toes and hands, reveling in the feel of so much of her skin against his. The sensation of that velvety vibration combined with the susurrus of the friction they created nearly overwhelmed him, as he wasn’t accustomed to being touched at all, let alone feeling so much warm, soft skin everywhere at once, and as he continued to rub his body against hers, he found the feeling alarmingly addictive.

Ignis ran his nose along her throat, inhaling her sweet, pine and kithairon essence before lowering his head to suck the tip of a breast in his mouth, laving the nipple with his tongue. When he ever so gently grazed his teeth over her, she moaned his name into his shoulder. He looked up to see her almost inebriated expression.

“Yes,” he rumbled in her ear, pressing his groin, which had already begun to stir, against her sex, “please, I want to hear you.”

“Ignis,” she whimpered between heavy breaths.

Sitting back on his feet, he placed his hands at the elastic of her shorts and paused. “May I taste you, Rose?”

She exhaled forcefully, and he could feel a wave of naked, incoherent lust wash over him at the phrasing of his question alone.

“I suppose I’ll take that as a yes,” he said with a sly grin, inordinately pleased with himself to have brought her to this point without even touching her yet. As she raised her hips, he dragged both her shorts and her underwear down her shapely legs, folding them over once and placing them on the floor next to the couch. When he looked back to see her finally bared to him, he couldn’t help but sit still for a moment, drinking in the sight.

“Staggeringly beautiful,” he murmured, reaching out with a finger to part her lips and stroke her hot, wet sex.

Though the couch was generous in dimension, it was hardly long enough for them to lie end to end, so he moved to the floor to kneel, coaxing her to a more suitable angle. Drawing his nose close, he inhaled deeply, taking note of that ever-present pine floral scent combined with a sweet musk that made him ache to be inside her. Pressing two fingers against her to part her lips once more, he began by familiarizing himself with her terrain, stroking her from the outside in with small, exploratory circles, taking note of every movement or spot that made her body or mind gasp in pleasure.

He watched her face in rapture as he inserted a finger inside her for the first time, mimicking the action that he himself would soon be making, and Laura threw her head back, her eyes wide and sightless as she gasped for breath.

“Fuck me, Ignis,” she groaned.

“Yes, all in good time,” he replied with a smirk.

Cocky bastard, she sent with a mental smile.

Every glide of his exploring fingers in her wet, swollen warmth increased her ache, the longing for him to be inside her, and that delicious feedback loop had begun to build his own fire once again. But he hadn’t tasted her yet. As much as he wanted to bring her to climax with his mouth, he knew he couldn’t, at least not tonight, because he wanted to know for certain that she would come on him first when they were finally joined.

Still, he could probably chance a taste or two. He lowered his nose to her sex, nuzzling at the glistening folds, and stretched his tongue out to flick at her clitoris lightly. He lapped at every part of her that he could reach, swirling his tongue through every crevice and sucking gently on every protrusion. Gods, the flavor of her—salty, sweet, musky—unique to anything he’d ever tasted.

When she moaned, he raised his eyes as best he could to see her whipping her head back and forth, sending those tendrils of pulsing need down their connection.

That’s it, Rose, he said, encouraging her to let go herself for once.

“So help me gods, if you say that you’ve come up with a new recipe, I have to say I cannot be responsible for my actions,” she warned, but he could feel the affection and amusement at her words.

That casual humor, even chatting in the middle of sex wasn’t what he was expecting, what he had envisioned for a seduction scene, but he found he enjoyed it. It seemed to take the pressure off of being suave, sensual, performing completely perfectly in every moment, so he responded in kind, chuckling and pulling back to kiss at the seam of her thigh.

“Well, now that you mention it, the flavors would pair nicely with some . . . cockatrice, perhaps?”

“Ha! You did not just say that. I refuse to believe it,” she said with a laugh and another wave of affection. “Come on, stand up for me, please?”

So he stood before her as she sat up. Arresting his eyes with hers, she slowly reached for his pajamas and boxer-briefs, pulling them away and down his legs. He stood before her for a moment, looking down, completely naked and achingly erect once more.

Her eyes traveled slowly from his bare toes all the way up to his face, her mind cataloging once again everything about him that she found beautiful, and he couldn’t bring himself to even want to be bashful at her gaze as a result of her thoughts.

“I hope,” she said as she placed her hands over his hips and feathered her fingernails down to his thighs, “if I say it often enough, you’ll know it in your heart.” She bent her head to suck lightly on each of his hipbones and place a gentle kiss on the tip of his erection. “You are so very lovely.” He twitched involuntarily at the feel of her mouth on him again.

He had endured the embarrassment of preparing for this moment the other day at the chemist’s, when he’d purchased a package of condoms and raced back to the hotel to hide them in his belongings, that damned blush enflaming his face the entire way back. Of course, he’d come out here in his pajamas, hardly prepared for this sort of liaison, and he thought he might rather die than return to that bedroom to fetch them.

Reading his thoughts, she said to him, “We don’t need them unless you would insist on it—species barrier between us eliminates the requirement for things like that.”

“That’s rather fortunate,” he said with a nod, trusting her implicitly. He wished he’d know that sooner. He could have spared himself the experience at the chemist’s.

“Keep them anyway,” she said with a tongue-touched smile. “We can stick them in the Pocket. Might be good to use them when we don’t want to make a mess, yeah? Come here.” She laid back down on the couch and beckoned him to lie over her.

“Is this good? Is this what you want?” she asked when he’d settled. “Not too late to find yourself a nice, normal girl to do this with, you know,” she said with a soft smile and a touch to his cheek, and for the first time since he’d met her, he could feel for certain that tentative wave of vulnerability coming off her.

Feeling a bit incredulous being the one to reassure her for once, he replied, “’Normal’ is simply a word ordinary people use to make them feel better about themselves.” He leaned down to press his lips briefly to hers, savoring once again the overwhelming sensation of full-body contact with her skin. “You, Rose, are extraordinary, a trait I must admit I was holding out for.”

“I hope you know, you’re incredible,” she said in awe.

“Come now,” he scoffed. “I’m nothing special.”

She went still and serious, the smile fading from her face, and he froze along with her, not receiving any hints from her mind what she could be feeling.

“Ignis, you are the one of the finest examples of humanity I’ve ever seen, and that’s the truth.”

His mind stilled at her words; he couldn’t think of a single thing to say in response—until he remembered.

“Rose,” he whispered. “I love you so.”

And there it was. His one simple feeling.

The smile that spread over her face slow and bright like the dawn. “I love you, Ignis.”

“Will you do me the honor of holding me inside you?”

“Please,” she breathed.

She reached down to spread herself as he braced himself, lined up, and finally eased inside her.

Hot. She was so hot and wet and swollen and heavenly exquisite. Suddenly, the focus of his entire being was somewhere other than his mind, and he finally understood what all the fuss was about. He could feel her stretching to accommodate him as he pushed into what felt like molten, silky honey, and the further in he went, the more resistance he met. Oh gods, she felt so tight around him. He couldn’t feel any pain from her through their connection, but he faltered in his achingly slow advance, gritting his teeth against the desire to jam himself all the way in and take her. That damned potion, of which he hadn’t felt the influence since they’d connected, made itself known at the onslaught of sensation, and he found himself wanting to pin her against the couch and drive into her, bite her, dominate her as though he were some sort of barbarian.

“You could, you know, if you wanted that,” she said gently, placing a hand on his jaw and searching his eyes. “Not so much the biting, please, but the rest of it. I want this to be everything you’ve always wanted.”

“No,” he said, finally gaining enough control over himself to continue his slow and gentle advance once again. “It may be what part of me wants, but also not.”

I’d rather see you come under me, he said in his mind, unable to say the words aloud.

He shuddered when he was finally, finally seated fully inside her, twitching as she clenched around him. Was that something unique to her species, or could humans do that too? Everything else about her this evening had seemed human to him, as far as he could tell. She didn’t answer aloud, but he heard her nonetheless.

“Forgive me,” he said quietly, struggling to maintain a hold of himself. “I need a moment.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Come here. Please?”

He lowered himself to his elbows over her, but she wrapped her hands around his shoulders, pulled him toward her gently, and said, “All the way.”

It felt wrong, putting his full weight on her, but as soon as he took his hands away from the couch, she let out a deep, contented sigh. They lay together in silence for several moments, breathing together, before she brought her hands to his shoulders and began running them up and down his body slowly, reverently—through his hair, across his shoulders, down his spine, a squeeze to his backside before running them back up again.

Had he been alone in his own head, he would have felt patronized, an inconvenience at this gentle coddling. But she was there with him, feeling safe, contented, loved, loving—receiving pleasure from his pleasure. She could lie like this forever because she adored him so. It allowed him to luxuriate in the feel of her hands on him, that pleasant sensation of skin against skin that he didn’t believe he would ever grow used to or tire of. But like this? As she held him inside her body, in her arms, and in her mind, they couldn’t possibly get any closer than this. Never in his life had he felt so completely and unreservedly loved. This moment right here was why he’d come back from the dead.

It was a moment humbling in its tenderness.

After a couple of minutes, he finally felt calm enough to pull back and press his lips to hers, twining their tongues together for a moment before releasing her mouth and gazing into her eyes.

Thank you, he said before withdrawing and thrusting slowly back into her.

“Oh,” she breathed, bringing her hands to his temples, intensifying the warmth of their connection. “Ignis, gods.”

He continued a slow, reverent pace, grateful that she wasn’t pushing him to move faster, as that luscious, burning pleasure threatened to take over him with every stroke. Each time he withdrew, he savored the way her sex seemed to cling to him, as though her body were enticing him to stay. He changed the angle of his thrusts, experimenting with his fingers against her clitoris until he felt her zing of pleasure through his mind. She was beginning to quake beneath him, gripping him more and more tightly with each roll of his hips, chanting his name over and over like a prayer.

And there it was—his vision made manifest: her head thrown back, her eyes closed, her mouth open as he moved in her. For the love of the Astrals, he’d seen her toy with Cor the Immortal before taking him down and holding a blade to his throat, and here she was moaning his name for all the world like he was the one who was a god. He and he alone had brought her to this writhing mess of hot, breathy moans and tight, tingling pleasure echoing back in his own mind. It made him feel drunk with power.

“Please, Rose,” he growled through gritted teeth, holding back the tide from that exquisite loop of shivery heat coiling once again in his belly, “I want to watch it happen. Please, come for me.”

At his plea, her eyes slammed open and she obediently cried out on a gasp, arching into him, “Ignis!”

She had just begun to flutter around him when he could hold back the dam no longer. Sealing his mouth to hers so she could swallow his cry, he buried himself as deep as he could go before emptying inside her, those fiery waves of heat and love and pleasure carrying him off once again until they were both utterly spent. He leaned over her for minute, pressing his forehead to hers to savor the sensation of their shared afterglow before finally, regretfully, pulling out and rolling to her side as she scooted closer to the back of the couch to make room for him.

Behind his closed eyelids, he detected the flash of her magic with its accompanying whoosh of breathy wind before he felt something warm and wet being pressed against his softening member. Raising his head to look down, he saw that she’d summoned a wipe to clean him.

“Figured you’d have trouble sleeping like that,” she said shyly before dismissing the wipe and conjuring another.

“Please,” he said, wishing to care for her as much as she had him. “Allow me?”

When they were both taken care of, she reached up and pulled her blanket down from the back of the couch. Despite the blanket’s hideousness, it was rather soft and not too warm for the heat of the city. She chuckled a little at his inner commentary and pressed her lips to his forehead as he pulled her into the crook of his arm.

“Wow,” she said, looking up at him. “You look so different with your hair all the way down and mussed like that. How have you managed to hide that from me for so long?”

He raised his hand to brush her hair away from her temple. “I’m sure I look a fright.”

“You’re stunning, I told you,” she responded immediately. She reached up to run her fingers through his hair, scratching at his scalp, and he closed his eyes and hummed in pleasure, wondering how it was possible for him to even enjoy something so thoroughly so soon after what he’d just experienced.

There was one more thing he needed to know before this night was over. Perhaps it had been cruel of him, selfish of him to wait until they’d been together to ask this question, but after everything he’d experienced that day, he’d decided that he wanted her regardless of how she would answer. He wanted to ask aloud instead of having her hear it in his thoughts, so he kept the question veiled even to himself as he got her attention.

“Rose?”

“Hmm?”

“What will you do when this is over? You said you were a traveler, passing through. Will you leave? Go back to finding your home?”

She sighed into his neck before replying, “Let me start by saying this won’t be a bad conversation for you, but I need to pull away from your mind, love. It wouldn’t be fair of me to hear your thoughts while we have it, okay?”

“All right,” he said, understanding, but reluctant to let her go.

He could feel her retreating slowly, allowing him time to adjust, until he was suddenly alone in his head once again, the light and love fading from his mind like an afterimage. The loss of her mind in his was as though he had been given a taste of the world in three dimensions and was now being sent back to his two-dimensional world, and he found the sensation lonely and distasteful.

“I have an infinite number lifetimes at my disposal,” she began. “I could spend one with you, if you want. But it’s your decision to make, and yours alone. You could choose to leave me at any time, of course, as with any other relationship, but I would never forgive myself if you waited too late in your life to find someone who would give you everything you wanted.” She reached up to stroke his cheek as he squeezed her more tightly to his side in an effort to gain back some of that lost intimacy he was already missing.

“I need you to take the time to really think about the consequences of a long-term relationship with me. Loving me is like loving a wraith; you can never have a full life.”

He furrowed his brow in confusion and looked down at her, wondering how on Eos she could possibly come to that conclusion when she’d already filled his life so completely.

“I have no family here,” she explained, “No one to spend time with during holiday picnics or invite to special events. I can never give you a family, either—can never bear your children. Though I can alter my appearance to give the illusion of aging along with you, we won’t truly grow old together. If there is any kind of afterlife here, I won’t be able to join you.

“Also, I am bound by the laws of time, space, and dimensions. Some of your decisions are capable of creating new dimensions—lives you might have dreamed of living, paths never taken. I am forbidden from making any decision that creates a new dimension wherever I walk, as I cannot create alternate versions of myself. I may have to allow you to die in order to preserve those laws for the sake of the fabric of this universe. I’ve also committed many terrible crimes in my long life that may horrify you to learn of.”

He opened his mouth to argue with at least some of her points, but she interrupted him.

“Don’t say anything now. Just think about it. Please?”

He swallowed his arguments reluctantly and nodded, deciding it would be best to give her points more thought before he came back to her with his opinions. “The other five, did you make them the same offer?”

She shook her head. “Two of them. James, the Doctor, was with me when I discovered my immortality, so I suppose he was the first I made the offer to, and the only one I ever bonded with. It broke his heart and mine when he left me after all those years together, but for me, his love will always be worth the pain of his loss. Fond memories for me are rare, and he gave me a hundred years’ worth.

“The other was . . . well, he was an android, believe it or not.”

Ignis searched his mental database for any reference to such a word, but he could find none. He was unaccustomed to being the one in a conversation having to ask for the definition of a word, and those first few days after she’d confessed and was allowed to speak more freely were an exercise in frustration—until she’d pointed out that she didn’t know what existed and what didn’t on Eos, and it was unfair to expect him to know words and concepts from different worlds. Once she’d made that point, he’d found it only too easy to admit his ignorance when she said something unrecognizable.

“I’m afraid that’s one of your words I’m unfamiliar with.”

“A robot, then? I think I’ve heard you use the word ‘robotics’ before.”

An image swam unbidden into his mind—an MT with its hand outstretched and neck twitching unnaturally. Logically, he would assume that her choice in lover would be more benign, but he couldn’t shake the image of her lying with . . .

“Magitek?” he asked, attempting as best he could to mask the distaste in his voice.

“Oh gods, no, nothing like that,” she reassured him. “He was mechanical, his brain programmed by a brilliant cyberneticist, but he was sophisticated enough to appear somewhat human and possess his own thoughts. He claimed to be incapable of any sort of emotion, but I think he was wrong about that; it was just to a much lesser degree. Data saw the world with wonder and curiosity, fascinated with everything that came naturally to humans but not to him: art, music, literature, emotion, even comedy . . . gods he was a terrible comedian.”

She said all this with that wistful smile on her face that she would sometimes get, and he realized that she must have always been rehashing fond memories when she made it. He relaxed somewhat at her description of the . . . man. Personality-wise, the android didn’t sound that different from himself.

“It sounds as though I could relate to him.”

She hummed. “You know, you probably could. You both have that same thirst for knowledge and desire to please. You both play the violin, too.”

“What happened with him?” his brain seemed to ask before he could censor himself. Of course he knew the answer, but that disrespectful lout beneath his courtesy had once again made an appearance, it seemed.

She turned her head to stare up at the ceiling, confirming his supposition. “Before he could give me an answer, he died. He was so young—was supposed to be immortal himself, in a way, and he died saving his captain—another exemplary contribution to humanity.”

“There’s no finer way to die, if you ask me, than in service to one’s liege when he is worthy of the honor,” he said significantly. They had already covered the basics of this conversation back in the kitchen, but if she had clearly spelled out her shortcomings, he thought it only fair that he do the same.

“I’m not exactly a complete person either. I too have no family at the moment, besides what you see, and I am bound to Noct first and foremost. My love and duty to him must always come before my love for you.”

She turned her head back to him and leaned forward to gently kiss his cheek. “I know that. It’s part of what I love about all of you—your devotion to each other, and it’s neither my desire nor intention to come between any of you.”

“I do have one question about the decision I have to make.”

“I would hope that you eventually have more than one,” she said with a soft smile, “but of course, ask anything you wish.”

“Would we form a telepathic bond if we were to stay together?”

It felt wrong, selfish, asking after more when she’d already given him so much, but the return of his loneliness after having spent the evening in her light had thrown into sharp relief the desire to keep her there inside him forever.

She hesitated before answering, “If you wished it, I would be more than willing. It wouldn’t be like it is now. We’d both have our own privacy, but a part of me would be with you, and you with me, at all times. It could never be undone. You’d have to be sure in your decision for the rest of your life.”

He wanted to answer her immediately, ‘Yes, bond with me this very moment and never leave my side again,’ but even he knew that it would be a most rash and unwise decision. He would wait until the heat of this moment had cooled somewhat, reflect on each of her points thoroughly, and confirm his decision then.

“Then I shall consider all you have said very carefully.”

“Take all the time you need, please,” she pleaded. “This is important. Don’t rush because you think I’m waiting on your answer. Even if it’s eighty years from now, I’ll wait for you until you tell me to go.”

He nodded again, touched by her devotion, but he knew even in that moment that it wouldn’t take him anywhere near that long. “I shall.”

“Good,” she said. “Now. Don’t think I haven’t noticed your mind prickling in thought for an hour or even longer every night before you go to sleep. I’m so glad to be able to finally ask you, would you allow me to put you to sleep immediately so you can get your rest?”

He blinked. Ignis wasn’t accustomed to getting as much sleep as his body needed, and as his hours had increased these past weeks, he found that his mind wouldn’t allow him more than four hours or so each night. He would often lie awake, unable to shut his mind off for an hour or longer before finally drifting off, and the harder he tried, the longer he would stay awake. The exercise was doubly frustrating, not only because he wasn’t getting the sleep he desired, he was also wasting his own time. Of course, he considered sleep itself a waste of time, but he couldn’t deny that his body needed it, even more so out here in the wild where he got so much exercise. But with the acceptance of her offer, it would be only too easy to convince himself it was for the sake of his duty to Noct.

“That would be most agreeable, thank you.”

As she brought her hand to the side of his head, he asked, “Would it be possible for you to also stay with me tonight?”

“You mean—in here?” she asked hesitantly, touching his temple, and he nodded.

“You . . . really want that?”

“If it pleases you and isn’t too much of a bother.”

“Gods, no, love. I’d love that,” she said, reaching up to kiss his cheek, and he turned his head to capture her lips.

“Then I’ll see you in a moment,” he said with a soft smile.

As he closed his eyes, he felt the dawn break over his mind once more and drifted into his dreams, cradled in their mutual bliss.

 

Chapter Text

Gladio, Prompto, and Noct were all awake, showered, and dressed, sitting on the edge of the bed and staring at each other in silence. After several more moments, Gladio sighed.

“I’ll do it,” he said, standing and heading to the door that led to the kitchen.

“Wow, really going for that voyeurism award, hey big guy?” Prompto said with a chuckle.

“Hey, gotta live vicariously somehow,” Gladio said, waggling his eyebrows. “And since you guys aren’t gettin’ any . . ..”

Noct stared at the floor as he left, wondering if Gladio was gonna come back with a dagger sticking out of his arm, but everything stayed quiet.

“Door’s locked,” Gladio said when he returned. “Which is pretty impressive, considering there ain’t a lock on that door. My guess is they’re both conked out still.”

“He’s okay, right?” Noct asked. “There’s no way that potion could like, go wrong or anything?”

“Heh, believe me, Iggy’s feelin’ just fine. Let’s do some of the local stuff on the list and pick up some chow. We’ll come back and see if they’re up for lunch.”

They spent the morning out and about in Lestallum, and even though Iggy and Laura weren’t with them, they still never left Noct’s thoughts as they ran the errands that would keep them in the city—from the list Iggy and Laura had put together. The good thing about the two of them not being around, however, was that there wasn’t a vegetable in sight for breakfast. Noct and Prompto got as many meat skewers as they could carry while Gladio flirted with the Cup Noodle guy to see if he could wrangle a “bulk” discount by flexing his muscles some.

Noct didn’t know if he just really wanted some Cup Noodles or if Gladio actually swung both ways, but he sure as hell wasn’t gonna ask. He was all for getting to know more about his friends, but there was such a thing as boundaries. Course, he was gonna have to decide really, really soon where those boundaries were when he got back to the hotel, and he still hadn’t worked out his own feelings about it.

Gladio had hung out with the Glaives a lot back in Insomnia, so he was the only one who knew about “phoenix down fever,” except probably Iggy. It wasn’t like his dad or Iggy would’ve covered it in their lessons with him. When Gladio’d told them about it after shooing Iggy and Laura from the kitchen, it made sense. Noct had never heard Iggy raise his voice for anything except in battle. Even when he spoke sharply—fuck, even when he died, he’d always kept his volume low. So a potion was the only explanation for him making noises like that. At first, Noct hadn’t even recognized it as his voice; he’d sounded . . . animalistic almost.

He shuddered.

It was almost lunchtime when they reached the door to their suite—the door to the living room— and hesitated. Noct looked at Gladio and Prompto.

“You think they’re awake by now?”

“Probably,” Prompto said. “They both get up really early. I’m kinda shocked they were still asleep this morning, even with,” he waved a vague hand in the air, “everything.”

“I’m not,” Gladio snorted. “Still. Better knock first. I think Iggy would die of embarrassment if we saw anything ‘improper.’”

Noct rapped his knuckles on the door, feeling weird that this was even necessary. This was Ignis for gods’ sakes; the guy was always decent—until last night.

He heard Iggy’s soft, accented, “It’s open,” which was also really out of character for him. Even if the door were open, the Specs from Insomnia would have greeted them at the door, ushered them inside, insisted they take off their shoes, and brought them a tray of snacks. Noct was more than fine with the change. Not only could he could open his own door, but maybe it meant Iggy was finally relaxing a bit—letting go of the uptight, obsessive guy he used to be. Didn’t mean it wasn’t kinda shocking to see it happen though.

The room was, of course, immaculate, containing no evidence of anything out of the perfectly ordinary having happened. Iggy was sitting in an armchair, his legs crossed and a book in his lap. His expression seemed calm and composed as his eyes danced over the page, except for the blush staining his cheeks.

Ever since they were kids, that blush of his always had gotten the both of them into trouble. Any lie Noct would try to tell, and all the adults would have to do was look at Iggy, so Noct had taken to not telling him about his plans to do stuff, like sneak out of the Citadel at night, until it was actually happening. He’d gotten better at controlling it over the years, and fuck—he just realized why, but the personal stuff still seemed to bring it out in him.

“Heyyyy Iggy,” Gladio crowed, slapping him on the shoulder. “Sleep well?”

“Yes, in fact, I did,” he said smoothly, using a single finger to push his glasses carefully up his nose. “It seems there is nothing better for a good night’s sleep than a near-death experience.” He turned a page.

Noct sighed, unsurprised at his reaction. Iggy always pretended things hadn’t happened when he didn’t wanna talk about them. But since this wasn’t a traumatic experience—Noct didn’t think—he was delusional if he really thought the other two weren’t gonna force it out of him, or at least tease the crap out of him. Iggy was always gentle about it when the guys teased Noct about Luna, so Noct planned to go easy on him, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a little ribbing coming his way.

“Your book’s upside down,” Noct said in a low voice as they all took their seats. Iggy nodded in thanks and surreptitiously flipped it over. He must’ve just sat down, which meant that Laura was probably nearby.

“Where’s Laura?” he asked.

“She’s in the kitchen making tea and fresh bread for us to use for sandwiches.”

“So . . . how was it?” Prompto cut to the chase.

“Yeah, gotta know how that potion worked out for yah,” Gladio said with a grin.

Iggy looked up from his book with a well-practiced, indifferent expression. “I beg your pardon?”

Gladio leaned over from the other armchair and gave him a little push on the shoulder. “If ya need any pointers for next time, just ask,” he said with a wink. “Gotta million of ‘em.”

“Dude! You slept with like, a real-life goddess. That’s like saying you got to sleep with Shiva herself! You gotta tell us something!” Prompto whined.

“I agree. Not every day a guy lands a girl like that,” Gladio said.

“Sorry, Specs. You’re nuts if you think we’re not gonna talk about this. That kinda stuff only happens on TV,” Noct said more quietly.

Iggy, for his part, still had that aloof expression on his face that reminded Noct of their days back at the Citadel, but his nostrils were flaring a little and that blush was starting to deepen. His continued silence definitely wasn’t stopping Prompto and Gladio from their enthusiastic commentary, though.

“Oh yeah, and she’s an alien too, right? Does she even have . . . you know, lady parts?” Prompto asked with a grimace, making some kinda gesture in the air that Noct didn’t even want to know what it was supposed to refer to.

Gladio didn’t even give Iggy a chance to respond, not that he was going to do anything but lift his chin a little higher—and maybe clench his jaw a little. “Well, she musta had some kinda lady parts as much as she was calling out his name last night. Shut the windows next time, Iggy.”

“Ha ha! Name ‘Ignis’ is probably gonna be the most famed in Lestallum among the lay-deez now,” Prompto said, bobbing his head.

“Better start usin’ an alias while you’re here, otherwise you’re gonna be beatin’ ‘em back with a stick,” Gladio smirked.

“Did she do anything alien? Ooh, does she have tentacles?” Prompto asked, and at these words, Ignis finally lost his composure enough to choke on his own breath, pulling out a handkerchief to cough delicately into it. Noct sincerely hoped that his reaction didn’t mean Prompto had hit too close to home, but again, no way in hell was he gonna ask.

There was a moment of silence before Gladio spoke, shaking his head, “What the fuck, man.”

“What? It’s possible!”

“Prom, you’re twisted,” Noct laughed. “No more ‘manga’ for you.”

That poise Specs was so famous for was beginning to slip as he started shaking his head back and forth in tiny jerks.

“I . . . I refuse to dignify any of . . . this with any sort of response,” he stammered.

Noct had decided that was enough. He was starting to get the sense that Iggy was more sensitive about stuff than he let on, and he’d already been through enough in recent weeks, particularly yesterday.

“Just . . . tell us you’re happy,” Noct said. “Tell us anything.”

Iggy closed his eyes for a second and sighed. Looking down at his hands folded over his book, he said quietly, “I am happy. It was . . . a good thing that happened.”

His response was more of a relief to Noct than he expected it would be. Whether or not they continued with their little fling, he would’ve hated to think that Specs had lost his virginity against his will cause he was doped up on a potion and ended up regretting it.

“Wow,” Prompto sighed dramatically. “It’s just so . . . romantic. The Queen and the Chamberlain—if we’re real-life RPG characters, that’s a fanfiction waiting to happen, complete with a sex pollen subplot!”

“All right, you guys,” Noct said when Iggy’s face had almost turned purple, “head into the kitchen and torture Laura for a sec. You’d better hope she hasn’t heard you and isn’t planning your murder in there. I gotta talk to Iggy,” Noct said.

Ignis’s eyes followed the other two as they stood and walked to the kitchen door, Prompto looking a little pale.

When it had shut behind them, he looked back at Noct. “Highness?”

Iggy was probably the second of his friends to lose his virginity, at least Noct thought. He was pretty sure Gladio wasn’t a virgin, with the way he acted around people, but they hadn’t been close enough when it had probably happened. Noct had fooled around a little once in Twelfth Year, but after she’d gone around school the next day talking about how she’d bagged the Prince and Iggy’d had to do whatever he did to put a lid on her, he’d decided there was no way he was gonna go through that again. It just wasn’t worth the hassle. Plus, there was still the possibility of him and Luna. She’d never do that to him.

And Prompto—he was pretty sure Prompto just didn’t have the confidence to go out and find someone. Noct could see him pining after Cindy for the rest of his life if something didn’t change. He’d tried to push Prompto to say something that day they’d managed to get a photo op with her, but he never did, and maybe never would.

He’d always thought Specs would be the last of them to pair off, if at all, with his stuffy, overbearing perfectionism and oppressive work schedule. For all the time Noct and Iggy had spent together in their lives, Noct couldn’t even tell if he’d been into guys or girls or no one at all. Noct only knew he was a virgin because Noct had directly asked him after the whole Twelfth Year incident, and he’d reluctantly stammered that he was. But now that he’d done it, whether it was a one-night stand or not, Noct didn’t know what to think about part of Iggy belonging to someone else—whether that was Laura or anyone else he hooked up with in the future.

But there was still something nagging at him about all this. He’d known Iggy for sixteen years and had never seen him show even a hint of interest in anyone. Not that Noct had always been the most observant spectator in Iggy’s life, but even if he had somehow missed out on a dating Specs in the last couple of years, it didn’t explain how a month after meeting her, he was having sex with an alien in the kitchen.

“Listen, I’m not gonna rag on ya. I just wanna make sure you’re okay, Specs. This is all so sudden and so unlike you.”

Iggy still didn’t meet his eyes as he spoke, which didn’t concern Noct, as it seemed he never could look anyone in the eyes when someone forced personal stuff out of him. Much as he hated to get up in Iggy’s business when he was such a private guy, he’d learned his lesson about not asking questions, about not noticing, and it was his responsibility to look after his friends as much as they looked after him. He’d made a promise to the very woman he was asking about, after all.

“I assure you that nothing sinister is happening here. I am fully cognizant of my actions, as well as how they may seem out of my ordinary custom. And I must offer my most sincere apologies that our behavior may have disturbed the group’s rest.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he said, waving away the apology. “Just . . . be careful, ‘kay? If you guys start fighting or get distracted or something out here, it could get you killed . . . again.”

“I understand, Highness. If you so command, I’ll end things with her immediately,” he said, looking up and meeting Noct’s eyes.

If there were ‘things’ to end, then it sounded like he was planning on continuing whatever this was, but he couldn’t be too serious about the relationship if he was offering to let her go so easily. Still, Noct thought he’d finally found his boundary to set.

“Let’s make one thing clear, Ig. You’re always gonna do your job well. So your love life? Not really my business if you don’t wanna share. You do what you want—with Laura, with anyone—and don’t think you have to ask my permission, okay?"

“Thank you, Highness,” he said in a low voice, looking back down at his lap.

“Hey, also . . . I never thanked you—you know, for what you did yesterday,” Noct said.

Iggy’s brow furrowed as his gaze shot back to his face. “Nor should you. We all do what must be done in these dark times. And—” he hesitated, swallowing. “I had other reasons.”

“I know,” Noct replied immediately, and he did know. But that didn’t mean they were both gonna start crying, pull each other into a hug, and talk about their feelings. “Doesn’t mean I can’t tell you I appreciate it.”

He would always hate that his friends would have to make these sacrifices for him, but that damn prophecy made it so he would have to be the one to make it to the end, not necessarily them. He didn’t like not having control over the situation, didn’t like that the only family he had left in the world were responsible for jumping between him and death until the prophecy was fulfilled. There was one thing he could control, however, in order to make sure they were all alive when this was over. Himself.

“Hey Specs? You think you could refresh me on some of my old lessons?”

Iggy’s eyes widened a fraction. “Well, perhaps I did die after all,” he said, and the corner of his lips raised in a small smile. “Out of morbid curiosity, where is this sudden desire for additional schooling coming from?”

Noct smiled a little in return. He loved playing this game with Specs—when he was awake enough to do it. They’d started it as kids and never really seemed to stop. Of course, Iggy always was better at it than he was. “Come on, I’m dead serious. I keep forgetting stuff I can do, like the phasing and the phoenix downs and stuff.”

“I’m dying to see how you would react to my proposal that we begin lessons just after dawn, after Laura and I forage and spar in the mornings.”

“No way,” Noct said, too horrified to even think of a pun. “It doesn’t even have to be every day. Just . . . when we get the chance.”

Iggy smirked at him. “In over your head with me, I see. Very well, you never were a mourning person anyway. We’ll fit them in as the schedule allows, shall we?”

“Thanks, Ig.”

“My pleasure as always, Highness.”

They joined everyone in the kitchen afterwards, but the space was too crowded to eat with the five of them, so they all moved back into the living room after Iggy had assembled four multi-meat sandwiches. Laura stayed behind for a minute to finish the Bi Luo Chun black tea she was making and put some nasty looking green goo on her bread, which she called ‘avocado.’

When they’d finished eating, they all stood to bring their dishes into the kitchen. It was hard work, subtly taking over little parts of chores without Iggy noticing. They’d all started with something small, like taking their own plates to the washing area or combining one load of laundry a week between the three of them so there was that much less to do. Gladio and Noct had had to stage an entire conversation about Noct’s newfound interest in blade sharpening techniques. From the looks Laura gave them, she knew exactly what they were all doing but approved. And Iggy was still allowing her to openly help him out with stuff. Even though they hadn’t freed up much of his time yet, they’d all caught him doing stuff over the last few days they’d never seen him do before, like meditating of all things. 

“We need to get going soon. We gotta take care of this Titan thing today—at least get there,” Gladio said before draining his teacup and placing it next to the sink. “Damn good stuff, like liquid sweet potatoes. You sure you don’t want to open a tea shop with me when this is over, Princess?”

She smiled as she took her place next to Iggy in front of the sink and said, “You think that’s good, I’ve got some stuff that’s like candied yams, I swear. I haven’t decided what I’m doing after all this yet, but that’s a possibility.”

Noct, Gladio, and Prompto all turned to look at the back of Iggy’s head to see his reaction, but he seemed completely unfazed by her implication that she might leave when this was all over. He just kept washing the dishes—definitely a casual relationship then—weird. He didn’t figure Specs for the casual fuck buddies thing, but the way they stood next to each other as they worked, Noct couldn’t see even a subtle, Ignis-level hint that they were into each other. It was like—they seemed to have been more touchy-feely before they got together. Noct didn’t think he’d ever understand it, so he decided to stop trying.

“Hey, why don’t we go check out the Disc through those viewer things on the Outlook?” Prompto suggested from his seat at the kitchen table as he bounced his leg up and down.

“It’s no substitution for the real thing, but it’s a start,” Iggy said.

After Iggy and Laura had finished the dishes, they all made their way to the Outlook, and Noct was finally starting to feel good with everyone alive, happy, and together. It was Iggy who said something that first broke the mood.

“What’s wrong?” Noct heard him ask in that clipped tone that let Noct know something was definitely wrong without the other person even having to answer.

Noct looked up to see Laura move away from Iggy and closer to him, her gait suddenly ambling and playful.

“You’ll find out in a second,” she muttered in a serious tone, completely in opposition with the way she was walking. “Seems there’s no stopping this meeting whatever we do, so we might as well let it happen.”

Noct was surprised to find the creepy stranger waiting for them when they reached the viewfinders, but not that Laura knew he’d been waiting there. He remembered that she’d been really weird and overprotective the last time they’d met in Galdin. It’d stood out so well in his memory because Laura was always really, super friendly with most strangers. But they knew so much more about Laura now, and he wondered if there was something about the weirdo’s mind that she hadn’t been able to tell them last time.

“What a coincidence!” the stranger said with a merry wave, and Noct thought he recognized that fake cheer from when Laura was trying to get little Iggy to trust her back in Keycatrich. Of course, they all knew and trusted Laura now, but this guy was a different story. Is that what he thought of them? Little kids he could make trust him?

“I’m not so sure it is,” Gladio said, narrowing his eyes.

“Aren’t nursery rhymes curious things?” the stranger asked, ignoring Gladio’s remark and giving them all an oily smile before looking out to the Disc. “Like this one: ‘From the deep, the Archaean calls, yet on deaf ears the gods’ tongue falls, the King made to kneel, in pain, he crawls.’”

He turned from the Disc as he recited his little poem, casually sashaying up to Gladio, then Iggy, then Prompto and rolling his head in their faces to inspect them closely. As he got to the part about the King crawling, he stopped in front of Noct, his burgundy hair shining oddly in the afternoon light and his tawny eyes glittering with some kinda personal message Noct couldn’t understand.

“I’m actually doin’ just fine; thanks for the concern,” Noct said, glaring back at him.

If Noct hadn’t had so much experience reading Iggy’s subtle facial expressions, he might have missed the way the man’s eyes widened a fraction.

“Is that so?” he said, turning his head to Laura, who was standing casually a little to his right and slightly in front of him. “It must be divine intervention then, what a chilling thrill for you.”

It seemed they weren’t the only ones that thought Laura was a god. Noct wondered how he’d figured it out in seconds when they’d been with her for two weeks without knowing.

“Still,” he said suddenly after a long pause, whipping his head back to Noct. “You should heed the call. Visit the Archaean and hear his plea.”

He ambled out to the edge of the Outlook before doing a dramatic turn back to them.

“I can take you,” he offered.

Noct gathered the group around them to discuss what they were gonna do, but he noticed Laura hadn’t stood with them. He looked over in her direction.

“That’s a really tempting offer,” Laura drawled, placing her hands behind her back and nonchalantly strolling to the edge of the Outlook really close to the man, looking out over the wall. “And would you taking us there have any benefit over say . . .” she whipped her head at the stranger, “a map? Cause, gotta tell ya, we already got one-a thossssse.” She held out the last word for what was probably the most awkward three seconds in existence before opening her mouth wide, then clicking her teeth shut violently before giving him an almost feral grin.

What kind of game was she playing? Was she mocking the creep? If she was trying to win some kinda weirdo contest between the two of them, she was succeeding. The creep looked her up and down before smiling widely.

“I may not look like much, but I do have some influence to get you inside,” the man said, fluttering a hand over his heart as though she’d hurt his feelings.

“That certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence, as the area has been blockaded by the Empire,” Iggy muttered, his eyes narrowing.

“Well, what say you boys?” the stranger asked, apparently not interested in Laura’s opinion.

“So—we in?” Gladio asked, his arms crossed over his chest.

“I don’t know,” Noct said doubtfully.

“So . . . we could take a ride,” Prompto said.

“But watch our backs,” Gladio finished.

“Fair enough,” Iggy agreed.

The four of them looked to Laura, who glared up at the stranger before grinning like a nutcase.

“Whaaat?” she asked mockingly. “Following a creepy stranger who happens to be in the right place at the right time everywhere we go and seems to be inordinately interested in the travel plans he somehow already knows about, thinks you’re the King, and wants to take you across Eos to go and visit a god that’s been attacking you, who happens to be located on a new Imperial base? Definitely not a trap of any sort! Let’s do it!” She said all this really, really fast in a sing-song voice, tilting her head back and forth. She must’ve had some kind of alien lung capacity, because even really fast, Noct couldn’t see how she’d managed to get it all out in one breath.

“I do so admire your sense of adventure, my dear,” the stranger oozed, leaning down to stroke the back of his finger against her cheek, but he had to pull away quickly as Laura leaned out to bite him, her teeth snapping around empty air. Prompto pretended to choke to cover up his giggle, and even Noct had to look down at the ground to hide his smile, even if he didn’t know what she was up to.

“Oh, you have no idea,” she said almost seductively, leaning toward the stranger with a grin.

The stranger raised his eyebrows delicately at her before turning toward the parking lot, saying. “I’m not one to stand on ceremony, but such an occasion calls for an introduction. Please, call me ‘Ardyn.’”

He led them back to where his car was parked, which happened to be a couple of spaces down from the Regalia. After insisting that Noct drive for some reason, which Noct was fine with, they all got into the car.

As soon as everyone had shut the door, Laura said in a low, serious voice, “Leave the top up.”

“You want to tell us what the hell that was all about?” Noct asked.

“Not until we’ve gotten underway.”

After Ardyn had stopped him in the middle of the road just outside of town to give him a list of driving rules, they were finally able to get up to full speed.

Gladio spoke first, “Way too convenient to be a coincidence, him being in Galdin and Lestallum; my reckon he’s following us around.”

“But to what end? That question bothers me deeply, as does his origin,” Ignis replied.

“Hard for me to picture that guy in the Empire,” Prompto said, scratching the back of his neck.

“But it’s even harder to imagine him as a Lucian,” Gladio shot back.

 Noct saw Gladio turn to the back seat, probably to look at Laura.

“Your turn Princess, you wanna tell us what the nutjob act was back there?”

Noct heard Laura huff a sigh. “Let’s start with who he is, and I’ll circle around to that. I don’t know. I don’t know who he is or where he comes from, but he’s dangerous.”

“How do you mean? How do you know?” Noct asked, looking in the rearview mirror.

“He’s immortal. We immortals tend to recognize each other on sight. Something about the look behind the eyes, something indefinable about the aura.”

“So . . . does that mean he knows you’re immortal too then?” Prompto asked.

“Yeah, pretty much. His interest in you is piqued even more because I’m with you guys, though it doesn’t really matter because he already seems to know everything about you all. I’m the only one he seemed to find surprising.”

“Though I’m inclined to agree with you about his being potentially dangerous, his immortality doesn’t necessarily implicate him as such. How do we know he isn’t an Messenger of one of the Six?” Iggy asked. “Particularly considering that the Archaean is already involved.”

“Because his mind is filthy with Starscourge,” she replied. “It has been since the day we met him, and he hasn’t succumbed. I can’t even get a mental expression off him beyond that.”

“And what does that mean for us?” Iggy asked.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know. It’s possible he was infected but is immune for some reason related to his immortality? There are too many questions.”

“Can you tell if he’s telepathic?” Gladio asked.

“He isn’t. I would’ve known immediately.”

“And your strategy behind acting like a madwoman?” Iggy asked. “I must say even I couldn’t discern what you hoped to gain from your tactics. He seems even more interested in you now.”

“I have news for you, Ignis, he was going to be interested no matter what I said or did. But the strategy is called a persona, and you can bet his is as fake as mine—so about seventy percent fake then. People like us have to develop them over the years, for many reasons.”

“So how fake are the ones we see of you every day?” Noct asked, probably a little too pointedly. As much as he did really consider her a friend, he’d seen her put on and take off too many masks in the month they’d known her, since the first day when she’d started doing the accent switching thing with all the people in Hammerhead. And now that she and Iggy were doing whatever, he wasn’t sure which girl was the one Iggy’d taken an interest in—and whether or not she was even real.

Laura’s voice grew cold when she answered, “That’s a far more complex question than you even know, but the short answer is just as fake or real as all of yours are. Or are you telling me you don’t try to channel your father when you’re afraid, when you feel like everyone’s looking to you and you don’t know what to do?”

“Laura,” Noct heard Iggy chastise in a soft voice.

“No, she’s right, Specs,” Noct said.

And she was right. The guys had been looking to him more and more to make decisions, and the truth was he often didn’t know better than any of them. Even Laura didn’t just take him by the hand and drag him off places; she expected him to take charge, and it was often scary as hell because he didn’t want to be the one responsible when shit went wrong. So here lately, he’d been thinking of his dad when stuff like this came up. What would he have done? Which member of the retinue would he have asked for advice? How would he have acted?

He hadn’t thought about it in that way, but his dad was his persona. Since Laura was much, much older than all of them and had been through a lot more, she’d probably had to collect dozens over her lifetime.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, glancing up in the rearview mirror at her.

Her tone was softer when she answered, “I told you the night of the Fall, everything you’ve seen from me has been the truth; I wanted you all to know me. But for this guy? I’m willing to play the mad psychopath for a day.”

“Hate to break it to ya, Princess, but that’s a part you play every day,” Gladio said, smirking toward the back seat.

“A badge I’ll wear proudly. Thanks, babe,” she said, reaching forward to punch him on the shoulder. “Anyway, I believe that so long as our goals remain the same, he’ll continue to help us. The moment our objectives diverge, who knows?”

“And since we don’t know what his goals are, we’ve no way of knowing when he will transform from friend to foe,” Ignis replied.

“Exactly.”

They thought they were stopping for gas when Ardyn pulled over at the next Coernix station—long before they were due to arrive at Cauthess—but he had other ideas.

“What say we call it a day here?” he asked when they got out.

What say we continue on to Cauthess?” Gladio argued, glaring at him.

But he insisted that he wouldn’t take them any further and that they were all to stay together that night in the caravan. 

“Camping . . . with Ardyn . . . great!” Prompto said sarcastically.

“I don’t like this,” Laura said through gritted teeth as Ardyn strutted to the station to pay for the camper.

“I’ve met some weirdos . . .,” Gladio began, but didn’t finish.

Iggy’s lips tightened before answering, “Yes, and I do hope this is the last time we meet this one.”

“Whoa, little harsh there don’t ya think? Guy really knew his stuff about nursery rhymes, and he is helping us out,” Prompto said, raising a finger.

“As much as I love your trusting nature, Prompto, you need to learn that villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well-camouflaged,” Laura said, glaring through the glass front of the shop.

Prompto looked over at her, frowning. “You get that from a book or somethin’?”

“Yeah,” she said with a faraway look, “something like that.”

Prompto ruffled the back of his hair a little and grimaced at the pavement. “Yyyyeah, but see? If we went by that advice, you might not be here with us.”

“True, but that’s when you need to apply a fine-honed sense of intuition,” she said, glancing at Iggy quickly, then back to Ardyn, who was approaching them again. Seemed the free conversation part of the night was over.

The evening they spent was the very picture of awkwardness, with Ardyn asking them seemingly casual questions and each of them taking turns deflecting him. Perhaps it was because of his newly minted relationship with Laura, but Noct thought that Specs seemed especially suspicious of the man, choosing to lean against the side of the camper and glare with his arms crossed over his chest rather than join them all at the table. Laura, too, seemed on edge at Ardyn’s inability to sit down, so she sat poised and silent next to Prompto all evening.

It wasn’t like Noct trusted the guy or anything; he’d been on high alert ever since he appeared on the Outlook. But it seemed like maybe Iggy and Laura were overreacting just a little. Of course Noct didn’t trust Prompto’s instincts; best friends though they were, he was a little too trusting, even if Ardyn did seem to make him a little uncomfortable when he leaned in like he was gonna touch his face as he had with Laura. But Gladio. He trusted Gladio’s opinion, and while Gladio sure as hell didn’t trust the guy, he was comfortable enough to sit down on the other side of the table, relax with his elbows on his knees, and chat comfortably about unimportant stuff.

Ardyn was creepy, sure, and maybe he was immortal. But Laura was her own brand of creepy and also happened to be immortal. What if the Starscourge thing wasn’t his fault, just like the wrongness thing hadn’t been Laura’s? If they were the kinda guys to make snap judgments about people, Laura would’ve ended up beheaded their first day out of the city, and definitely the night Insomnia fell—assuming she would’ve let them, that is.

Then again, Specs was hardly ever wrong about anything, and the same could be said for Laura. He just didn’t know anymore. He decided it would be best just to stay on guard and let things play out.

It was weird choosing bunks that night. Noct took his usual top bunk, but Ardyn swooped in and took the lower bunk on the other side, the one that Gladio usually preferred because it gave him the best tactical position for defending him if the need ever arose. At the change in habit, everyone tried their best not to look at Laura for advice, but it was obvious even to Noct that everyone was waiting for her to choose next. She shrugged, placed a foot on the corner of Ardyn’s mattress, and leapt lightly to the bunk above.

"Might as well be the one to volunteer, since I don't think any of these guys wanna sleep with you!” she said with a merry laugh.

While Iggy and Prompto took the beds on the back wall of the camper and Gladio took the bunk beneath his, he could see Laura moving her hands, miming a message to them all: You sleep; I’ll keep watch.

“More’s the pity,” Ardyn sighed, folding his fingers over his middle. “Still, I imagine a night spent with you will be a divine experience as well.”

It took everything Noct had in him not to look to Iggy to see his reaction to the creep’s words, but then he remembered Specs was a master of keeping a straight face anyway when the stakes were this high. He kept his eyes trained on Laura and Ardyn as they continued to trade their strange dialogue.  

“It would be a miscalculation on your part to make any assumptions,” she said significantly, kneeling up on the bed and reaching over to the wall to switch the light off.  

“Oh, but I’ve been around the block, my dear—as have you, I believe. Rumor last had you in Tenebrae—in a different form, of course.”

“Dude,” Prompto interrupted whatever little game the two of them were playing, and Noct was surprised to hear how upset he sounded. “Did you just call her a slut?”

“I?” Ardyn said in surprise. “A gentleman would never say such a thing of a lady. I have a, shall we say, everlasting respect for the fairer sex. I am certain your dear friend is as pure as the driven snow.”

No one replied to his final statement, and even though Noct desperately wanted to beat his pillow into a more comfortable shape, he refrained, as the oppressive silence would make any sound seem like a gunshot in the little tin can house.

“Really, my dear,” Ardyn purred after about ten minutes of the silence, and Noct flinched a little at the sudden sound. “Are you going to stay up all night just to watch me? I hardly warrant the attention, I assure you.”

“I’m a soldier—a bodyguard. It’s what I do,” she replied in a hard voice, and Noct wondered why she’d decided to change her persona so suddenly. To anyone who didn’t already know her, it sounded like she had multiple personalities.

“Let’s not outright lie to one another, shall we?” Ardyn oozed, but there was an edge to his voice that made Noct wonder what nerve Laura had just hit. “You are no more a soldier than I am a man of no consequence.”

“Now we’re gettin’ somewhere. You wanna tell us who you are then?” Gladio asked.

“Will our delectable little retainer be telling me who she is? I’m positively shivering to know, and I believe it’s more than fair. After all, my identity would probably be more of a surprise to you all than hers would be to me.”

She snorted. “I doubt that.” In the dark, Noct could just barely make out that she had hung her head over the side of the bed, her long hair hanging down almost all the way to where Ardyn lay. He could even hear the crazy grin in her voice as she said, “But if it’s my name you want, I’m Laura! Hello!”

“Very well then,” Ardyn said with a long-suffering sigh. “If you won’t tell me, then at least leave me some semblance of dramatics, I beg of you.”

“I can do that!” she said, whipping her hair back up to sit back up cross-legged on the bed. “Mind you, I knew a Chief Dramatist once, and let me just say, things didn’t work out so well for him. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. Anyway! Good evening to you.”

“Good night, my dear,” he said with another fake sigh. “Mine shan’t be as long as yours.”

Chapter Text

Nothing good ever happened after getting a Royal Arm, it seemed, and even though they weren’t expecting to find the Tomb of the Mystic at Titan’s feet, Gladio couldn’t help but think that their luck hadn’t changed much when the floor dropped out from underneath Noct, sending him tumbling to gods knew where. He didn’t even have to think as he leapt off the edge right along with him.

Gladio’s combat training was a carefully constructed combination of instruction from the Crownsguard, Kingsglaive, his dad, Cor, and even more casual sources, like the best dojo in the city and the street fighters on the south side. He’d known ever since he was old enough to walk that he was gonna protect the future King someday, so he’d made it his mission to become the biggest badass motherfucker Insomnia had ever seen, even if that wasn’t really who he was and even if he had to seek out the most dubious sources to do so.

But even acting the tough guy, he still got to use that charm that came so naturally now and then; sweet talking those southies into letting him fight with them had been no easy feat, after all. It was why he’d understood Laura’s persona explanation so well the day before, even if her particular flavor of nutjob acting was beyond any level he’d ever been taught. He himself had been playing the dumb, relaxed jock last night as that creep sauntered around them all. His other persona that he’d pull out often was his dad.

That instinct that made him jump without question was all his dad, too. He couldn’t count the number of lectures he’d gotten, sitting in that velvet-cushioned chair in front of his old man’s intimidatingly enormous desk in his study—the duties of a Shield, the sacrifice, the balance between brother and protector. It was a balance that, even as a kid, Gladio understood well, ever since Iris had been born and they’d both lost their mom. But it wasn’t from the lectures, or even Iris, that Gladio had learned what it meant to be a Shield; it was his dad’s example. Now that Clarus Amicitia was gone, and now that Gladio knew that he’d known it was coming, he saw it all too clearly—those late nights, all that preparation to make sure his kids were safe and ready for what was coming, the sacrifice of his life for a man he loved and respected.

“Noct! I gotcha!” he yelled as he felt the weight of the Prince’s momentum threatening to pull even his arm out of its socket. “Come on. Pull yourself up.”

As he pulled Noct to his feet, Gladio heard a scraping sound coming from behind him and whirled, summoning his sword to defend Noct from this new threat, but it was only Laura sliding lightly down the steep incline and stepping off at the bottom like she’d just taken the escalator at the mall. He dismissed his sword and grinned at her. Fucking showoff.

“You boys okay?” she asked.

“We’re good,” Noct muttered.

“All right. I told Prompto and Ignis to find a safer way down while we take this path,” she said, pointing in the only direction they could take.

“Let’s do it,” Noct said, taking a step toward the path, but he froze.

Gladio felt it too.

The rumble started off so low in pitch that Gladio could barely detect it, a resounding bass that he could feel more in his teeth than hear in his ears. But that subtlety didn’t last long as it grew to crashing, deafening, bone-shatteringly thunderous. He watched in awe as the great god Titan raised the famed meteor, which probably had the same surface area as all of Insomnia, over his shoulders and stood to—well, not quite his full height. His eyes glowed with divine fire, his skin was shot through with what looked like stone that had formed the roots of the world, and his mouth was pulled into a snarl as he spoke in a voice that was an earthquake made into sound.

ʃo fʊðə βænəʃuv.

“Godsdamn. This is the Archaean?” Noct asked in awe. “He’s trying to tell us something, but what?”

“Let the trial begin,” Laura said, and Gladio looked over at her to see her glaring up at the god, her own eyes filled with a less literal fire.

“You speak the divine language?” Noct asked.

“Well enough,” she said pointing to her head. “I got five billion languages up in here. ‘The divine language’ is close enough to the roots of a handful of them for me to get the gist.”

He knew she didn’t approve of the gods for whatever reason, but Gladio couldn’t help but be in awe of the big guy’s absolute power. It was the obvious kind of power, a show of strength that was easy to see, not like Laura’s hidden subtlety. Gladio didn’t consider himself particularly religious, but he’d been raised with it as a part of everyday life. He’d been taught to respect the gods since he was a kid sitting on his mother’s knee and listening to her tell stories from the Cosmogony.

But Laura’s blatant dislike was a little surprising for Gladio. When everyone grew up with deities walking among them, plainly visible as their gargantuan astral bodies performed acts beyond any human capability, it was pretty unheard of to meet anyone who didn’t believe in the gods or had anything but awe for them. Gladio could maybe understand Laura not believing in them if she wasn’t from this world—until she was faced with the sight like the one they were all staring at now. Even Gladio felt small and humbled standing below the Archaean, an unfamiliar feeling for him. He wondered why she didn’t.

“You gonna tell us what that look’s for Princess?” he asked.

Her expression relaxed to neutral before she turned to him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s not my place to judge your religion. I’ll try harder to keep my opinions to myself.”

While he respected her for that, he’d rather have her opinion. It wasn’t like he was gonna keel over and faint if she said something against the Six; she already had about the telepathy thing. If he was gonna do his job and protect Noct, he needed to know everything they all thought and believed about all the crazy shit going on around them, even if it was sacrilegious.

“Nuh uh. We been through too much to start pullin’ that shit. Tell us.”

Laura looked first to Noct, who nodded, then to Gladio. “Can you imagine if I’d just showed up out of the blue and made you guys or Regis go through a trial? What kind of person would you think I was?”

“We woulda told you to take a hike,” Noct said with a chuckle.

“Exactly. Let’s just say I don’t think much of immortal beings who walk the planet, claim themselves gods demanding worship, and force mortals to jump through hoops for who knows what reason.”

“So if he’s not a god, he’s . . ..” Gladio coaxed.

“Just another species of being. Just like I am. In my view, anyway, but you’re free to believe what you like.”

That was the thing though. She may have thought she was just another species of being, and sure, that was true. Maybe it was because of their upbringing, they all couldn’t help but see her as anything but a god, even if she didn’t approve. Gladio wasn’t gonna fall down and worship at her feet or anything, but she deserved as much of his respect as the colossus above their heads—maybe even more, because she had a point. She was the one standing down here with them, ready to draw her swords in Noct’s defense same as the rest of them.

“Hey, don’t rush off on your own, huh?” Gladio called out to Noct, who had started jogging toward the path. Gladio and Laura caught up with him.

“Don’t get left behind,” Noct shot back, and Gladio could tell the kid was stressed enough to pull out that sullen teenager bullshit again, damnit. He’d been doing so well lately.

He shot a look to Laura, who muttered, “It’s the Royal Armiger, I think. Takes more out of him than he lets on. Believe me; power always comes at a cost.”

He hadn’t really thought about that. They all knew of the toll it took on the King to keep the Wall up, even if no one ever talked about it. But the Royal Armiger . . . King Regis had acquired his before Gladio had been born, so if he had gotten it at a cost, no one but his dad would’ve known. Maybe that was what all those “support him in times of need” lectures had really been all about.

The heat was brutal as they made their way up the path, and Gladio and Noct had to remove their jackets just to cool off a little. Noct’s shirt was sticking to him like a second skin, and they were both dripping with sweat. Since Laura had nothing to hide from them anymore, he noticed she took her jacket off and her skin was a little pinker than usual, but she was powder fucking dry. Sometimes, it paid off—being an alien.

Of course, the only shit they encountered on that walk was Gladio’s one weakness—flying shit. His sword was big enough and he could jump high enough as long as they flew low, but they didn’t seem interested in dying today, so Noct was having to warp-strike the bastards down to the ground for him to finish them off. There was a downside to all the movement, though. The heat was making him and Noct woozy as they worked, which was only gonna make Noct worse, he was sure.

When they’d finished with the flock, Laura’s face was tense as she reached up to place a quick hand against his forehead and said, “You guys let me know if you need help, okay? I will if I have to, especially with the others missing.”

“We got it for now, babe,” he said, wiping at the sweat on his brow so it wouldn’t fall into his eyes. “But we’ll call on ya if stuff starts heatin’ up—more than it is, anyway.”

“How the hell does it get this hot?” Noct complained. “Feels like I’m about to combust.”

“Pretty sure all the lava flowing underneath the ground below our feet and the meteor on fire have something to do with it,” Laura said with an amused smile, summoning hand towels for them both to use to keep their faces dry. “Here—most important item you can carry, ya know.”

It was a difficult hike between the narrow ledges, sharp protruding rocks, and ground tremors, made even more difficult by his swimming head and those godsdamn bird things, which Laura unhelpfully informed him were called dynoaevis, a relative of the daggerquill that was weak to firearms, daggers, and fire. It was almost like having Iggy down there in the pit with them.

He enjoyed hanging out with Iggy and Laura during these long walking hunts. It was really only with them, where he wasn’t forced into a mentorship role, that he could relax a bit and be himself. But with those two in the middle of their thing, he was probably gonna be spending more time alone just so he could remember who he was when he wasn’t being the Shield. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be like that with them trying so hard to pretend they weren’t together.

Gladio wasn’t naïve like Noct and Prompto. He knew Laura and Iggy had either gotten together or were gonna get together before the phoenix down fever, and he knew they were trying to downplay whatever had resulted in its wake. It hadn’t been long enough to tell for sure, but based on how they acted yesterday morning, they were doin’ a pretty good job of it. But it didn’t erase the fact that Gladio had seen that Iggy’d had a pretty big crush on Laura before Lestallum, and Laura, who was probably way more experienced, never seemed to look like she’d fallen quite as hard for him. While he was pretty sure he could trust her with Iggy’s heart, he did have to say something.

“So . . . about you and Iggy—”

“I told you, Glad,” she interrupted. “As much as I love you guys, I’m not giving you anything he hasn’t, which I know is pretty much nothing. He’s the more reserved of us, so what you guys know is on him.”

“I know, and I’m not looking to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. We did our ragging and we’re done—for now, anyway,” he said with a grin. “But you gotta know that you’ve got power over that man now. And if you hurt him? I’m sorry, but much as I love you too, I’m gonna have to kill you.”

Noct wasn’t particularly subtle about it, but Gladio could see that he’d slowed up ahead, narrowing the distance between the three of them so he could listen to Laura’s response. Laura hadn’t missed this either, as her eyes flicked to Noct’s back before turning to Gladio.

“I’d expect nothing less of you,” she said. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but Ignis is the one with all the power here, not me. I was careful to set things up that way.”

That was encouraging news, but he wondered how serious it really was then. It wasn’t like he could tell from their behavior. Iggy wasn’t the type who was just jonesing to get laid, so he definitely had to have feelings for her. But then even Gladio was a little shocked he didn’t see a reaction from Iggy when Laura said she wasn’t sure about her plans after this. Whether it was serious or not, Gladio supposed it really wasn’t his business until it started affecting their job.

“That’s good to hear, but don’t worry, Princess,” he said with a wink. “I’ll be giving him a similar speech sometime soon. But hey, whatever you guys got going on, I’m happy for ya.”

He put his arm around her, pulling her into his side as she said, “Thanks, babe.”

“Damnit, it’s a dead end,” Gladio heard Noct say, and he looked up to see him standing at the edge of a precipice that radiated with fumes of volcanic heat. They rose into the air and created rippling mirages that made Noct look like he was standing in puddles of water.

“This way,” Gladio said, pointing to a narrow ledge leading off to the right. “No room for error here.” Noct and then Laura followed behind him.

“Make it quick,” Noct snapped. “I just want this to be over.”

Gladio ignored the attitude, for now. He himself wasn’t feeling so hot at the situation they’d found themselves in. It wasn’t that he was afraid of heights, it was that he had succeeded in becoming the biggest badass motherfucker in Insomnia, and people like that didn’t really need to be balancing on a ledge that ranged from the length of his foot to half that—especially when that ledge was overlooking a two thousand foot drop into a pit of liquid fire that might as well be Ifrit’s fiery asshole after a night spent bingeing on hot chickatrice wings.

But of course, when they’d reached the middle, the narrowest part that fucking ledge, the tremors started up again, threatening to vibrate his feet right off the edge. He looked over to Noct and Laura to make sure they were okay. Noct seemed fine, but Laura had gone stiff, staring up at the rock wall in front of them, hiding Titan from their view.

“Brace yourselves,” she warned. “Looks like he’s not going to wait until we catch up with the others.”

Noct and Gladio had just scooted their heels back as far as they could and gripped the jagged grey rock behind them when a hand as big as a Magitek engine slammed through the rock in front of them and reached out for Noct, sending sharp shards of stone debris hurling at the bare skin of their arms and faces.

“Hey! Titan! What’s the big idea?” Noct screamed at the hand as they shuffled for the other side.

“Save it!” Gladio growled. “Get to solid ground first.”

“Faster!” Noct yelled back, and Gladio could tell the kid was starting to panic.

As he continued to shuffle as fast as his suddenly unnecessarily-bulky boots would go, Gladio looked past him at Laura, who was narrowing her eyes at the hand. It jerked back as though burned.

“That’s right,” he could hear her mutter. “This bitch bites back.”

“Take it easy on the mind games, will ya?” Gladio said. “We don’t need you pissing him off any more than he already is.”

“He wants my block taken off Noctis’s head, and he’s letting me know it,” she replied, looking to Noct. “I’ll do it if you want, but not until we’ve reached the other side.”

It wasn’t too much of a relief when Gladio was able to grab a hold of a branch from an ancient, desiccated tree, but at least it was something to brace himself with in case any more of the ledge was shaken away by Titan’s tremors. But the strength of the wood was tested far too soon, in Gladio’s opinion, when the ridge beneath Noct crumbled beneath his feet, and Gladio had to lean out, grab the kid’s arm, and swing him out and over to the solid ground below. The branch creaked as he pulled himself back against the wall, but held. Hot damn, if Cor coulda seen that move!

“If that’s his welcome, hate to see how he treats intruders,” Gladio grumbled as he and Laura leapt to down next to Noct. This was his first time dealing with the gods up close and personal, and he had to say, he was less than impressed with their treatment when they were the ones called here in the first place.

“You wanna talk? So do I,” Noct said, glaring up at the god before turning to Laura. “Not until we get to him. I don’t need him poking at me anymore than he already is.”

After another few minutes of walking in silence, ducking under stone arches, maneuvering around lava vents, and pointedly ignoring the crackling rumbles coming from Titan’s direction, Gladio could see Noct was reaching that point that was soon gonna piss Gladio off: lifting his eyes to the sky and scowling, complaining about the heat, and dragging his feet.

He’d started training the kid when he’d turned eleven and the King had decided he wasn’t going to recover any more than he had from the attack. And it was then Gladio had realized what a spoiled little princess he’d inherited. He woulda been proud to protect someone like King Regis, but the whiny, sniveling, lazy little shit he’d been assigned to was so unlike the King that he wondered if the kid hadn’t been switched out at birth.

If it was his job to die for the Prince, then it became his job to make sure he was worth dying for, and to make sure Gladio wouldn’t have to do something dumb, like jump between him and a fucking sabertusk, to do it. The Prince was gonna learn to be a warrior at his hand and learn to take care of himself a little too. It meant that Gladio always had to be the tough guy, the ass kicker, the growling angry guy. The Shield—another, more permanent, persona.

They’d come a long way since then. Noct still had a tendency to get his head stuck up his own ass when the going got tough, but he had guts, which was a start. He was proud of how the kid had handled the Fall so far and how he’d been doing in their battles in general. But now that all their role models were gone or elsewhere, that meant that it was now Gladio’s sole responsibility to turn the boy into a man, into a king. It wasn’t gonna be easy.

It only took another five minutes for the complaint to come as he stumbled over his own feet: “I’m so sick of this endless walking.”

Summoning the Shield inside himself, Gladio hauled him bodily up off the ground. “And I’m sick of your endless whining. Are you a man of royal blood, or aren’t you?”

“Of course I am! I couldn’t forget it if I tried. What about it?” Noct argued, pushing Gladio off him.

Good. Piss him off a little, remind him of his duty, and maybe he’d start acting like the king he was supposed to be.

“You’re not the only one having a tough time. We’re all on edge,” Gladio reminded him.

And fuck, he might not be showing it, but he sure as hell was on edge. His dad and everyone he’d ever known was gone, and he was not only responsible for the King that would save the world, he was also responsible for one of the last noble houses of Lucis—not just his little sister, but Jared and Talcott as well. Gladio had a duty to them just as much as Noct did to Gladio and Iggy, and he had no idea how he was gonna manage that when he was away beating back the dark closing in on them all. He had no idea, but he was gonna find some way to do his duty—all of it. The least Noct could do was step it up and become the King. This was fucking war, and it was time for them all to become soldiers.

“We Amicitia are the King’s sworn Shields. Guard the King with our lives—that’s the way it’s always been. I’ve embraced my duty, and I take pride in it.” Gladio turned to focus his gaze directly on Noct. “When you can’t focus, I focus for you. It’s my job. So let me do it, all right?”

“All right,” Noct sighed, but Gladio could tell by the tone in his voice that he’d gotten through.

“Sorry, but I had to get it out. Come on,” Gladio said with an encouraging smile.

“Hey, Gladio,” Noct said, “Your dad . . . I’m grateful to him. You too, ya know.”

Gladio’s widened his eyes a little in surprise. Noct and Iggy had been having a lot of squishy little epiphany moments lately, but he never expected Noct to turn his burgeoning ability to express emotion on him.

“Just doing our job,” Gladio said, but any additional words he may or may not have had planned were interrupted by Noct’s ringing phone.

“Ignis,” he answered. After a couple of seconds, he hung up, saying, “Got cut off, but it sounds like we’re about to have Imperial company.”

“Just what we need,” he heard Laura mutter from behind him.

Gladio was about ready to leave this entire fucking place behind when the jagged cliffs on either side of them opened up to reveal an outcropping of rock—guarded by a platoon of MTs and overlooking a dropoff from where the Archaean, bigger than the Citadel towers, stood hunched over and heaving with exertion from the weight on his back. Taking out the MTs was easy work between the three of them; the entire group was getting to the skill level where these models were more of a nuisance than an actual threat unless they were overwhelmed with them.

When the last MT had shorted out, Noct turned to Laura and said, “All right. Take it off now.”

Laura nodded, stepping up to Noct and placing her hands on his head and doing her weird finger thing. It only took a second before she was pulling her hands away, and Noct immediately bent over double, clutching his head.

“What the hell is it you want? Quit screwing with my head!” he yelled up at Titan.

Gladio looked to Laura, who shook her head. “He’s not letting me in on the conversation. I can still step in to protect him if I need to.”

“Looks like he’s done talking though,” Noct said, shaking his head and standing straight. “I didn’t get anything from him but nonsense.”

Had it been an hour earlier, Gladio might have been able to appreciate just how massive Titan’s fists were—just how much damage they could do with a single punch. But they’d been poked, prodded, and grabbed at enough for one day, and at that point, he wasn’t feeling particularly poetic. As the curled fingers came hurtling toward them and he prepared to leap at Noct again, he heard Laura shout.  

“Gladio, duck!” She slapped a hand to the back of Noct’s neck and pushed him to the ground as Gladio threw himself to the stone at his feet. Gladio was ready to roll in case the big guy decided to slam his hand down on all of them, but instead he felt the shards of rock and dust ticking at his back as the fist passed over the three of them.

“Hey guys! Did ya miss us?” Gladio heard Prompto call out.

“Come now, Gladio, this is no time to be lying down on the job,” Iggy said with a quirk of the lips as he grasped Gladio’s hand and tugged him to his feet.

“What can I say? Felt like a good time for a nap,” Gladio said, clasping Iggy’s shoulder for a second before turning back to Noct.

“Not particularly burdened with that meteor if he’s got enough energy for this,” Laura grumbled. “And this is just fantastic, now we’ve got company.”

As much as he hated to turn his eyes away from the god who seemed to think they were nothing more than insects to be squashed, Gladio spared a glance behind him just long enough to see the six Magitek engines headed toward them.

“Damn,” Gladio muttered.

“And I got more bad news for ya, babe,” Laura said, looking up at Titan. “This is apparently a trial for you guys, not me. He wants me to sit this out, or he won’t play ball.”

“You mean we gotta fight that guy ourselves?” Prompto squeaked.

“What can I say?” she said with a small smile. “Sometimes ya gotta roll the hard Six. Believe me, I’d be more than happy to kick his ass for you, but you won’t get his help that way—if that’s even what this trial is about. Go on. I’ll take care of the Imperials; you take care of John Galt over there.”

“Who is John Galt?” Prompto asked, his face twisting in confusion.

Laura positively beamed at the question, and Gladio figured it was just another one of those alien references he’d never understand. “Ohhhhh, Prompto. You just made my year, you have no idea. But never you mind. We don’t have time for a seventy-seven-page rant right now. Get going!”

It felt like hours of hacking as Noct warp-struck the shit out of himself, Ignis flipped around like an acrobat on uppers, and Prompto hurled flasks of every element at the big guy’s arm. Gladio didn’t really see the point of this; they might as well be attacking the Citadel towers with their swords. But for all his size and strength, the big guy didn’t seem to be hurting them all that much. He seemed to be toying with them, wasting their time, and nothing pissed Gladio off more than wasting his time. So when Iggy and Prompto came up with a plan to team up and use blizzara to freeze the bastard’s arm off, Gladio had long reached the point where he was all for it, god or not.

“Certainly didn’t expect this much trouble!” Iggy said almost cheerfully, burying a polearm into what was hopefully the sensitive stone skin between Titan’s thumb and forefinger. The rest of them followed suit, and when the arm went still for a moment, they all threw their blizzara flasks at Titan’s forearm. Gladio could smell that sharp tang, like the inside of an ice machine, and feel the wind grow cold as white crystal fractals spun their way up the god’s arm like a spider web.

“It’s over!” Noct screamed as he re-summoned his sword and swung it down in a wide arc over the Archaean’s hand. It shattered like glass and crumbled onto the stone ledge, and the Archaean fell onto his frozen stump with a deafening crash.

“Hey, we all still here?” Noct called out.

“Yep, still here,” Gladio said a little smugly.

“If a little battered,” Iggy said, brushing ice and stone dust off his jacket.

“Does this mean it’s over?” Prompto asked.

joʊ wɛbɛts jʌʃʌɹ fɛɪ ʊnə bʊm,” Titan rumbled, forcing Noct to lean on his knees with one hand and grab his head with the other.

“He says he has a message for you,” Laura said, coming up from behind them. “And this is fracking ridiculous. I can understand him. He can just tell me!”

“How many languages do you speak?” Iggy asked.

“Don’t even ask, Iggy,” Gladio said. “It’ll only depress you.”

But anything he might have said in response was drowned out by the horrible, ferocious roar Titan let out in that moment. Gladio had believed that all the bone-shattering bass they’d endured since they’d gotten to this fucking place had shaken him down to his soul, but it was nothing compared to that brutal howl and that primeval snarl on the Titan’s face. As he continued to scream, golden sparkles blossomed into existence and swirled around him like fireflies, leaving glittering trails in their wake.

“What the fuck are you doing, Laura?” Gladio yelled over at her. Because he’d since this magic once before, those gold sparkles were the same kind that had trailed behind Laura the day Insomnia fell.

“It’s not me!” she screamed back over the sound of the god still howling above them.

The golden sparkles hurtled toward Noct, surrounding him, and he cried out in shock. Gladio was about to leap forward to knock him out of the cocoon of shimmering light when Laura rushed over first, placing a hand at the back of his head.

“He’s all right,” she said with her eyes closed, and she pulled her hand away just as Noct opened his eyes.

“That was . . . Luna,” Noct said in surprise, looking up at the Archaean. “You spoke with her? That’s why . . ..”

The Archaean suddenly flashed a blinding gold, sending out sparks that flew into the six hovering Magitek engines, setting their engines ablaze in red flame and black smoke as they dropped out of the sky. It was the last thing Gladio saw before the thunderous cacophony and overwhelming radiance of the godlight forced him to cover his eyes. There was one more chest shattering boom before everything went quiet.

When Gladio was able to look up again, Titan was gone, and the meteor, which had been held up since the War of the Astrals, had finally made contact with the ground it had sought two thousand years ago.

Laura was standing on the edge of the ledge, looking down into the pit.

“Well,” she said with a slight smile. “I guess Atlas . . . finally shrugged.”

Gladio looked to Iggy, as he was the one most likely to know what the fuck she was talking about, but he looked just as bemused as everyone else. They all looked back to her as she barked out a laugh.

“Blimey! If only I ‘ad a pair of sunglasses ta put on right ‘bout now!”

“Whaaa?” Prompto asked with a facial expression that said that even he was about to drop her off at the nearest hospital to have her checked over for head injuries.

Laura laughed merrily and pulled Prompto’s forehead to her lips. “Don’t ever stop being you, Prom. So, anyone know why he’s been holding that meteor up for so long if it’s suddenly okay to put it down now?”

“Because he’s a giant jackass,” Gladio said emphatically.

Noct shrugged, “At least he’s a jackass that’s on our side now.”

Gladio was almost beginning to get used to it, the world exploding in fire and percussion, so he barely even flinched when a circle of stone exploded next to them in a burst of blistering lava and yet more sharp stone shrapnel. When the ground nearly shook them all to their knees, he’d decided he’d had enough of Titan’s bullshit.

“Time to go!” Laura called out cheerfully.

“We’ll never make it,” he bellowed at her, but he’d already started stepping in that direction anyway, as had the others, because there was no way in hell they were going down without a fight.

“Not unless we hitch a ride,” she said, pointing up at the Magitek engine that had just descended above their heads. “We let the troops jump out the back, and you guys take care of them down here. Noctis and I can warp to the ship and take out the pilots. Sound good?”

Gladio nodded, readying his weapon and not even bothering to see what the others’ reactions were. It wasn’t like there was any other choice. The only problem was . . .

“Do you even know how to fly one of those things?” Iggy asked.

Gladio looked over to see Laura’s face light up with a smile as she stared up at the ship. “Wouldn’t be the first time I hopped into a ship and had to take a quick course in not crashing. Power, pitch, yaw, and roll. Piece of cake.”

“Whatever,” Noct said.

But something was wrong as the back doors slowly opened. A troop of soldiers didn’t appear to jump down to them; a single figure strolled casually up to the edge of the open door. It didn’t matter that the heat was creating a haze or that the guy was over fifty feet up. Gladio would recognize that swagger, that weirdass outfit, and that hair anywhere: Ardyn.

“Fancy meeting you here!” he called down to them in a jovial voice as though he were greeting them at a royal dinner party. “It occurs to me I never formally introduced myself. Izunia. Ardyn Izunia.”

“Imperial Chancellor Izunia?” Ignis asked, aghast.

“At your service, and more importantly, to your aid.”

As Gladio quickly traded a glance with the others, he saw that they were all just as skeptical as he was.

Laura said just loudly enough to be heard enough above the engines, “Keep in mind when making your decision that this man was likely involved in planning your father’s assassination.”

They all looked back up at Ardyn as he continued ‘reassuringly,’ “I guarantee your safe passage, though you’re always welcome to take your chances down there. Buried among the rubble, is it?”

“Dying here is not an option!” Iggy said, turning to Noct. “We have no choice, Noct.”

It seemed like the best choice to Gladio. He was pretty sure the five of them together could take the guy if something went wrong, immortal or not.

Noct looked back up at the ship, then down to the five of them. “I know,” he said.

***

It seemed as though whatever Iggy and Prompto had gone through to get to Titan hadn’t been as exhausting as Gladio and Noct. Prompto was crouched down next to Gladio, rocking back and forth on his toes with the movement of the ship as it jostled them. Iggy was keeping watch by the door with his arms crossed over his chest and a glower on his face, but Gladio and Noct needed to sit down after the hours spent walking and battling for their lives in the volcanic heat. Laura’s legs were nearly brushing Gladio’s crossed ones as she stood next to Iggy, completing the barrier between them and Ardyn.

“Oh, thank the gods I found you boys!” Ardyn said in a faked fretful tone as he casually leaned against the other side of the back door.

“And what will you do with us now?” Iggy asked, leaning into his hip.

“Why, grant you safe passage—just as I said.”

Laura snorted and shook her head, “Yeah, a regular saint, you are.”

Gladio watched closely as Ardyn narrowed his eyes, pushed himself off the wall, and sauntered over to her. He leaned down close to her face, tilting his head as his pupils seemed to dart over her, searching for something. When he spoke, his voice wasn’t that of the oily politician Gladio had come to associate him with; it was soft, stripped of its flamboyant cadence.

“Your heart was as cold as ice until it was drawn to flame. Has your burning passion transformed your nature so drastically since last we met?” He inched a little closer, gazing into her eyes. “Then again, when the fires of aegis are stoked on love’s behalf, one’s entire being can be altered, no? I must say I find the transformation rather stirring.”

Laura looked up at him with the same searching expression. Even to Gladio, it almost looked like they were about to kiss each other, and what the ever-living fuck was that about? He was all for personas, but this was too much, too weird. Iggy was standing not two feet from them as the two hovered on the edge of making out, his arms still crossed, but now with a bored expression on his face—though Gladio knew that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

“You know,” she began in the same soft voice, “I’m not a fan of Rand, personally, but it appears to be that kind of day.” She smiled sweetly. “Contradictions don’t exist. Check your premises.”

Ardyn snapped his head away, turning to amble back to his spot on the other side of the door.

“I’d rather you not belittle my intelligence. There are very few options from which to choose an everlasting soulmate. The tide does not walk upon the land, and we all know the inferno is not drawn to her.”

He sounded almost irritated to Gladio when he said it. Good, so whatever freaky-ass fuckery Laura was pulling on him seemed to be getting somewhere, even if he had no idea where. He’d gotten last night that Ardyn thought Laura was Shiva, and personally, he thought she should roll with it so he’d leave them alone. From the sound of it, he still thought so, and it made sense to Gladio. It wasn’t like there were a lot of immortals to identify on Eos: the gods, the Messengers, the Lucii, Gilgamesh, and apparently Ardyn. If her magical aura identified her as a god, what other conclusion could Ardyn draw? Aliens were the stuff of fiction on Eos; they weren’t a thing here, let alone alien gods. From what Gladio had heard as a kid of the Tidemother’s attitude toward mortals, Ardyn did have a point that the only other option could be Shiva, even if the idea of Shiva biting a man was fucking hilarious.

“So ice and water are the only two choices?” She let out a carefree laugh. “Blimey, sounds like either way you look at it, the inferno’s screwed, poor sod.”

“You needn’t fear for your precious flame, my dear. He’ll positively blaze under my careful tutelage,” Ardyn said, his eyes growing warm and mischievous again. “And, if I am fortunate, I may be able to unite fire and frost.”

“Well, I wish you all the best of luck. Now, if you don’t mind, we’ve got some travel plans to make, which I’m sure you already know all about, so if you’ll excuse us?”

“But of course,” he said, rolling his hand before dipping into a bow.

It was only once he’d strolled to the front of the cargo bay and into the cockpit that Iggy and Laura kneeled down next to Gladio.

“I need to know something, and I need to know it right fucking now,” Laura began, and Gladio saw that her face had gone pale, her eyes wide with fear. “Shiva’s lover. Who is it?”

“Ifrit,” Gladio said.

“And his element is fire?” she asked, and Gladio nodded.

She turned to Iggy and said, “Are you absolutely positive that no one has ever known the meaning of all those Latin names you guys use around Insomnia? Ever? Even thousands of years ago?”

Iggy furrowed his brow in concern. “I’ve studied the matter extensively, and the meaning of the words to which I believe you’re referring have most certainly never been known. There are a few connections, of course, to modern-day Lucian words, but we’ve no way of knowing if their meanings have shifted over the millennia. Is everything all right?”

Laura closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Yes. I think so. Even if he did know the language, I would’ve felt him nearby if he’d . . .. Anyway, it’s not important. Do we have a plan for when he drops us off?”

“Go get the car,” Noct said.

“Right. We can’t leave her unattended for long,” Iggy agreed.

True to his word, Ardyn dropped them off safely. Unfortunately, he had dropped them off in the middle of fucking nowhere.

 

Chapter Text

The five of them stood poised at the ready, watching the Magitek engine until it was no more than a speck in the sky. Only then did Laura turn to the four of them.

“Would you guys mind if we take a moment? Ignis and I need to talk.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you do,” Gladio said, waving them away. “You guys talk while we figure out where we are.”

Ignis followed as she led him several meters away—behind a boulder that was large enough to give them some semblance of privacy.

“Hey,” she said in a low voice, looking up at him with searching eyes. “You know none of that was real, right?”

“Of course I know,” he said, allowing an edge of irritation to slip into his tone. “When an enemy puts a sword to one’s throat, one has no option but to pull one in return. That doesn’t mean I will ever enjoy watching as you toy with one another.”

“You hid it well, I thought,” she said with a soft smile, stepping closer to him.

Ignis sighed. “Though I cannot pretend I fully understand the games you immortals play, I do understand that it is, in fact, a game—a dangerous one.”

Ignis understood well the concept of using a persona to give off an air contradictory to one’s feelings. He couldn’t imagine the terror he would have become had he not managed to create a fortress of composure and courtesy to mask the paradoxical combination of sarcasm and self-consciousness that he was beneath the surface. But he had always created his own persona from the stronger pieces of himself, never adopted someone else’s, as Laura had implied with Noct. To act in a manner so completely contrary to one’s true identity was a foreign concept—one he didn’t think he could ever adopt. He tried to imagine for a moment what it would be like to sashay over to a man, threaten to bite him, then imply sexual attraction all within the span of a single day. He couldn’t.

“I know,” she replied, looking down at his feet. “It was never a game I was really good at either. Fortunately, he seems to be young, impatient, and bound by the limitations of the narrow focus of one planet and its species. Otherwise he would’ve beaten me by now.”

“That’s hardly reassuring,” he replied, stepping closer to her so that he had to look beneath his lenses to see her eyes.

“Come now, we’ve made some progress, haven’t we? Even with my doing nothing more than denying his accusations. Have you noticed?”

“Yes,” he said with a nod. “The idea of an Astral, perhaps even Shiva herself, lying to him upset him greatly; there’s a history there. And he doesn’t like being patronized. If I may offer some advice?”

He wasn’t certain she would even want his advice in whatever this high-stakes game was. What could he, a child, possibly have to bring to this battle?

Even though they weren’t connected, she still seemed to know what he was thinking.

“Stop making that face. I told you I was no strategist, and I would welcome any advice you have.”

He blinked in surprise. Advisor to the gods was not something he ever thought he’d put on his life’s resumé, but then again, neither was lover.

“Speaking in riddles and condescension seems to be where he feels most comfortable. If you apply pressure to those areas which are known weaknesses, you may maneuver him into sincerity and force him to reveal something more.”

“Patronizing I can do. And he thinks I’m lying when I say I’m not Shiva, so we’ll keep up with that. As long as I can hold up the veil of mystery, it keeps the focus off you guys.”

Ignis leaned back to glance around the edge of the boulder, where the other three were engrossed in studying the map. When he turned back to her, he pulled her into his arms. He wouldn’t admit it to her, but he was afraid—afraid for how much interest the Chancellor had shown in her, afraid at the unknown stakes, and afraid for the damage he’d suggested he could do to her, even if he had gotten her identity wrong.

“Please, be careful,” he murmured into her hair, which reeked of sulphur and smoke. “He seemed to imply that he’s done something to Ifrit, and if he has such power, then he has the power to do you great harm. Rose, he threatened you.”

He felt her press her lips to the hollow of his throat before replying. “He threatened Shiva, love. There’s no guarantee whatever he can do will affect me. But I do have a question. What made you think I was Shiva all those years ago?”

He’d eventually confessed the full scope of his memory of that time, including his misjudgment and subsequent devotion to the Glacian throughout his youth. In return, she’d recounted the full details of reality, which in turn jogged even more of his memory. It hadn’t been a happy conversation for either of them.

Ignis closed his eyes, thinking back to those two glorious days when he’d first met her.

“At first I thought you were a member of the royal family in a very poor disguise. But then, your eyes, the lowlights in your hair, the way your skin seemed to glow suggested something beyond human to my mind. Shiva, the Glacian, gentle as snow. You were . . . so very kind and gentle, brimming with magic so powerful, even in your weakened condition, I could almost feel it on my skin when you touched me—too powerful to merely be a Messenger. I did my research, of course, and determined that you had to be a High Messenger.”

“An avatar?”

He nodded. “A Messenger chosen by the gods to temporarily or permanently play host to an Astral spirit. High Messengers are indistinguishable from their original Messenger form until they ‘reveal themselves to the chosen.’ You can imagine I’ve done extensive research on the topic, and that was all I could find. I thought your display of power and the unique properties each time you summoned something was you choosing to reveal yourself to me.”

She heaved a sigh against his grip on her. “You and Ardyn coming to the same conclusion. But a footprint doesn’t look like a boot.”

“Well, the Chancellor is likely drawing his conclusions from more reliable evidence than I did.”

“That would be my aura, most likely.”

“The power of it? I swear even I can feel it sometimes.”

She pulled her head back to look at him. “Even when we aren’t connected?”

He nodded. “It was strongest the day of the Fall and again when you told me about feeling the turn of the planet. It was almost,” he searched for a word that wouldn’t upset her, “awesome. And I don’t mean that in the way the others use the word.”

She blew a laugh through her nose. “I would never make the mistake of thinking that.”

“What is it we’re sensing on you?”

“It’s . . . complicated, as always. But the easiest way to explain it in the terms of your world is that I have time magic. I’m bursting with it. It’s different enough that your Crystal recognizes and despises it—well, despises everything about me—and it’s similar enough that corporeals mistake it for the magic of Eos, god magic.”

“The gold from the Archaean. The gold from the day Insomnia fell.”

“Titan used the magic of time to show Noctis a vision of the past, but Lunafreya was glowing golden in that vision as well.”

“Her particular brand of magic, including her power to heal the scourge, is derived from the power of the gods.”

Of course, he already knew from his hazy memory of a flash of pain and blinding silver light that her healing magic wasn’t the sort that could be taken for god magic.

“May I tell the others of this time magic and its resemblance to the power of the gods? I get the sense that Gladio has already made the connection, the way he shouted at you when he saw it on the Archaean.”

“I don’t see why not. It was only the moment with Ardyn that I felt needed to be said in private. I’m sorry to put us at the center of attention, but I needed to make sure you knew immediately.”

Even in that moment, watching as she had looked up into the Chancellor’s gaze, her eyes darting down to his lips ever so briefly in suggestion, Ignis saw that the spark of euphoria and wonder were missing. He hadn’t doubted her for a moment. They had spent time in one another’s minds, in one another’s arms. He knew, even at his age and with his non-existent experience, he had found something certain and enduring. And gods, how he missed her now.

She was unable to maintain such an intimate connection over more than a few feet, and as a result, he hadn’t communed with her since the morning they’d awoken on the couch—with his lips at the back of her neck and shins pressing into her heels and everything in between pulled flush against her. Once she had convinced him to walk nude across the suite, they had taken care of one another in the shower, washing the sweat from one another’s bodies only to replace it with love and pleasure. They had grinned like fools at one another in the mirror as he’d styled his hair and she had conjured his shaving brush to whip his soap into a lather.

It was the last time he’d tasted her, and he’d waited long enough.

Pulling a hand from around her back, he ran a gloved thumb down the line of her jaw before grasping her chin. He hadn’t even begun to apply pressure to lift her face before she was standing on her toes, pressing her mouth to his. But he’d barely managed to flick his tongue against her lips before she was pulling away, stepping back out of his arms.

“Noctis is coming,” she explained.

It had been his decision to keep the depth of their involvement from the others. He’d wanted something to keep for himself, for once in his life. And though being caught in such a disgraceful position still shamed and horrified him, he had endured the requisite humiliation as recompense and was relieved to know that the others knew of the relationship’s existence, if not the full extent. At least he wasn’t keeping secrets from his liege, and he’d been given explicit permission to pursue her in any manner he desired—a gift he didn’t feel he deserved but would take nevertheless.

Ignis turned and walked out from behind the boulder to see Noct striding toward them.

“Specs? Is your phone dead too?” Noct asked.

Frowning, he pulled out his mobile and pushed the lock button, only to find the screen black. It was impossible, of course, that his phone’s battery could be depleted when he had ensured it was fully charged as they had arrived at Cauthess.

“Yes. Some trick of the Chancellor’s?”

“I’m thinking yeah,” Noct said as he turned and started back toward the others, and Ignis and Laura followed. “All our phones were good when we got outta the car.”

“So here’s the situation, best we can figure,” Gladio began. “We’re just west of Kettier Highland. Closest safe haven is Wiz’s, about two, maybe three days’ walking.”

“Walking?” Ignis asked with some alarm. Two or three days without a haven, while possible to survive with their combat skill, would still take a toll on them all.

“Yeah, it seems someone let the chocobo rental expire while we were in Lestallum,” Gladio said, glaring at Noct, who was suddenly busy fixing his bangs.

“Well, there’s no point in pointing fingers,” Ignis said with a sigh. “We are where we are, unfortunately.”

“Might as well get started now then! Eh?” Laura said, clapping her hands together and grinning.

“Indeed,” Ignis agreed.

Gladio chuckled a little as they turned in the direction of Wiz’s. “Knew you guys getting together would be a pain in the ass,” he said, shaking his head.

Though the terrain was stunning as always—rocky, vibrant green hills; impossibly tall Duscaean Pines; and the stone arches that formed the outer wings of the Disc and seemed to defy the laws of physics—he found he couldn’t enjoy it. The journey was tortuously arduous, which shouldn’t have surprised any of them, given how they’d gotten there to begin with. Whether through coincidence or through some magic of the Chancellor’s, the group was besieged nearly continuously by what seemed every wild animal Duscae had to offer. They had all shown signs of fatigue after two hours of walking and near-constant battle, at which point, Laura joined in to assist them, much to Ignis’s relief and dismay. 

They made a minimal camp in the most defendable location they could find that evening, and Ignis wasn’t terribly surprised to see Laura turn pale and a bit green at the sight of the omelette he’d made for her. Though she’d masterfully kept up the pretense of cheer and optimism all day, he could see it in her eyes—the agony of near-constant death.

“I’m so sorry,” she said in a low voice. “I just can’t handle that tonight.”

“You need to eat something,” he entreated.

“If you insist, I’ll just cut some bread and make toast,” she said with a sigh, summoning one of the loaves she’d made in Lestallum.

“Please, allow me.” He set down his can of Ebony, took the bread from her, and turned back to the stove.

He heard her tsk as he was slicing into the warm loaf. “I don’t want to make more work for you.”

“It’s such a rare opportunity to be put in the position where I’m able to do something for you, kindly allow me to do so without comment,” he said, not completely eradicating the heat in his tone.

“Gods, I wish I could kiss that frown off your face,” she whispered. “But I need to do a check of the area.”

“Another time, perhaps,” he replied with a smirk as she turned away.

After they’d taken turns eating and battling off the packs of voretooths, Laura insisted that the four of them keep watch while she got an hour’s rest before taking the rest of the night on herself.

“The area’s defensible enough for one person to handle anything that comes along, and if tomorrow is anything like this afternoon, you all will need the full night’s rest.”

As they switched off for the evening and the four of them settled into their usual spots in the tent, Gladio spoke into the darkness.

“Anyone else think this is a bad idea? I’ve seen more daemons in the past hour than I have in the past week.”

“I dunno,” Noct said as he folded his pillow in half in an attempt to get more comfortable. “I always got the sense she was holding back with the combat thing, even today.”

“And she’s got a point,” Prompto added. “I mean, we can still see where we landed earlier. At this rate, it’s gonna take double what we thought to get to Wiz’s.”

“It’s a necessary evil, I’m afraid,” Ignis said with a sigh. “Just be grateful we have a means for handling it.”

Following a similar pattern each day and night, it took them seven days to reach Wiz’s Chocobo Post.

Ignis had tried to sleep that first night, but the whoosh-clang of warp-strikes and the juicy thud of steel in flesh that seemed to occur every twenty minutes or so kept him awake all night, tortured with worry every time those sounds ceased. He had longed to get up to check on her every time, but he knew that irritation would be an understatement for her reaction. After the second night, however, she requested that she put him to sleep from just outside the tent, and only his exhaustion after battling the hordes all day convinced him to acquiesce.

He spent every moment of walking during that week thinking of her—the way her mind made him feel complete, the way her body felt under his, and the way she challenged his intellect with her vast stores of knowledge and wondrous adventures. He cherished the way she cared for and accepted him for everything he was and wasn’t. It was a simple fact that she made him happy. Since he wanted as much with her as he could get, he walked himself through each of her points with the view that they would bond.

Lonely though he was, it was of no interest to him whether or not she had a family here. They now had their own family to share—possibly more in the future if he found his parents—and given her superhuman ability to make friends wherever she went, he doubted they would ever want for company.

As to their own family, most noble houses indoctrinated their children from birth to breed and create as many offspring as possible to ensure the continuation of the bloodline. Perhaps it was because Ignis was raised by his tutors while simultaneously raising a child himself, but he’d never felt a particular desire to pass on his own genes. For now, he was satisfied with the freedom he’d been given—something he’d never had in his life—freedom to explore, freedom to be with Rose, freedom to pursue as much as he could within the bounds of his duty. Should he change his mind in the future, he had no doubt that the war would have, unfortunately, supplied the population with far too many orphans needing loving homes.

The rest of her points, while valid, did nothing to turn his thoughts from consenting to bond with her. They both had their duties they had to put before each other, as had already been discussed. He was somewhat aware of some of her past misdeeds, but he also knew her heart as it was now, had seen it all for himself in the throes of death. He knew she was worth keeping despite her dark past. It wasn’t as though he himself were still the innocent man he’d been when they’d met in the throne room.

He was forced to think selfishly when considering their disparate lifespans, as she had assured him the pain of his loss was well worth the happiness their life together would bring her. But he would be the one to be blessed with her company for his entire life, and the illusion of their aging together was some comfort. The only point she had made that gave him pause was her comment about the afterlife. No one knew what went on in the great beyond. He’d thought about it nearly the entire fourth day and decided if she was willing to live on for eternity without him, he was confident that he could make that same sacrifice for her, assuming he was even going to meet anything more than oblivion in death.

Really, it came down to the simple conclusion that after having had her—mentally, physically, and emotionally—he knew in his bones he’d never be satisfied with another. He loved her completely and she loved him—expressed in a medium in which their claims could not be doubted. His decision thought out and made firm, he only needed to tell her.

When they’d finally arrived at the post, Noct immediately paid for a seven-day chocobo rental for all of them.

“We need to add this into the budget from now on, Igs,” he said. “I don’t wanna get stranded like that ever again.”

“I’ll see to it. I believe we make enough to afford such an expense.”

Once they’d charged their phones, they learned from a frantic Iris that the Regalia had been taken from the Disc of Cauthess, Duscae was on lockdown, and they’d been presumed dead for the last week. Once she’d been reassured that they were most certainly alive, they split up their contact list to set about finding the Regalia: the Marshal, Cindy, Dave, Monica, Dino, Vyv, and Sania. Cindy had been their best hope, as she’d stated she had several contacts that could look inside Imperial bases for the vehicle.

In desperate need of respite and with nothing terribly pressing on their agenda, they paid for the camper for the next week so they could rest and run errands for Wiz, and while Prompto, Noct, Gladio, and Laura sat outside at the tables drinking tea, playing games, and talking, Ignis decided he would try to make Noct’s pastries with the bananas he’d found at the market in Lestallum. He was just bringing the banana filling together when the camper door opened, and Laura stepped in.

“Do you need any help?”

“No, thank you; this is more of a personal project. I’m just making this latest batch of pastries for Noct. I found this fruit—the vendor called it a banana—that I thought I would try in the recipe. Hopefully this should make them a little closer to his description,” he pulled out his notebook and checked his latest notes on Noct’s feedback.

“Yes, I know bananas. Bananas are good. Excellent source of potassium,” she said with that wistful smile of remembrance. “Closer to what description?”

He told her of the sweet Noct had sampled in Tenebrae and how he had been attempting to recreate it for years now. “I haven’t yet made a successful batch, however. I believe I have the pastry itself down, but the filling eludes me.”

“If he tried the pastry in Tenebrae, it probably contains an ingredient unique to that area.”

“Yes, that’s most likely the case. I had thought that as well. But, given our limited access to ingredients outside Lucis, I make do with what I have available.”

It was quiet for a moment as he spooned the filling into the shells. Then he said, “It just occurred to me that Noct has sent photos of me with the pastry to Lady Lunafreya. I wonder why she didn’t recognize them immediately.”

Her expression turned warm and sentimental. “Maybe he didn’t ask her for the same reason you didn’t just look it up on the internet.” When he cocked an eyebrow at her, she continued, “You wanted to have this with each other.”

A wave of tenderness washed over him, both for Noct’s sentiment and her words. How had he managed to miss that they’d been telling each other for years now?

“By the way, I wanted to thank you for your fortitude this past week—and also for your intervention to ensure my rest.”

“You’re welcome. It was my fault you couldn’t sleep though. The others seemed to have no trouble, exhausted as they were. I’m only sorry I couldn’t touch your mind completely from that distance.”

“I have missed you so,” he gasped the confession. “The world seems rendered flat and grey this past week without you.”

“Ignis,” she said on a sigh as she stepped closer and looked up at him.

He never could resist when she whispered his name like that, and it seemed as though she was always on the verge of rushing him when she said it anyway. He turned and seized her head in both his hands, attempting to mimic the way she held hers when she connected them—an implied request. The warmth broke over him the moment their lips met, and he groaned at the dual sensation. He let his every thought this past week wash over his surface memory for her: his worry, his love, his responses to her cautions about them bonding.

When he had reached those memories, she pulled back abruptly, her mouth falling open in shock.

“Yes,” he confirmed, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. “I want to bond with you. It may seem a rash decision, but I’ve always known what I wanted the moment I decided. In fact, my only regrets in life thus far are opportunities I’ve not taken. My decision is firm. I shall not waver.”

He could feel her reaction to his words unfurling in his mind—wonder, incredulity, love, and a touch of apprehension. Evidently, she had more of herself to reveal to him still—information only a potential bondmate should know. He pulled away, turning back to the pastries.

“You talk while I work.”

“Are you in a rush or something?” she said with warm eyes and a smirk. “You know we can’t bond today, right? We need to be alone for the night at least, and in a safe location for a day or two while you get used to it.”

That was somewhat of a disappointment for him to hear, and she chuckled at his thought.

“I’m certain of your desire to bond with me,” he explained. “I should like to do the same for you. For once in my life, I’d like to start living the existence I’ve chosen for myself. The sooner we can make a plan, the sooner we’ll both feel settled.”

“I do so love it when you get bossy with me,” she purred into the back of his neck before gripping his hips, stretching up, and pressing her lips there.

“That’s rather fortunate,” he replied dryly as he summoned the ingredients for the topping. “Talk.”

He heard her sigh as she moved to sit down on the bench across from the front door.

“I’m not exactly alone . . . up here in my head.”

He paused for a moment over the bowl, wondering what she could possibly mean by that but not understanding enough to have an opinion.

Go on, he encouraged.

“There are two types of bonds. A high bond is what you and I would have. We’d be connected constantly through all of time and space, but not dimensions. We’d be able to keep our privacy but share anything we like—surface thoughts, memories, images, sensations, visions.”

“That sounds ideal,” he said, thinking of the potential of having such deep access to her mind.

“You have no idea,” she replied in response to his thought. “That’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to—the thrill of showing you my memories.”

He heard her stand and watched as she stood in front of the other counter and summoned a knife, cutting board, and the vegetables they would be having that evening for dinner. As she began working, she continued.

“The other kind of bond is a low bond. It’s more . . . eternal friendship, usually with immortal beings so far beyond humanoid that they’d be difficult for you to relate to. I share such bonds with three entities; one is back in Lliaméra, and two are with me at all times.”

He could feel that her telling him this made her nervous for his reaction, and with good reason.

“Do you mean to say that our every private moment has been subjected to an audience?”

“No!” she said sharply, dropping her knife on the cutting board and placing a hand on his arm. “One of the entities isn’t even aware of the tangible world like that.” She let her eyes unfocus for a moment, and Ignis could see the flecks of gold appear and shoot through the blue. “She drifts among the tides of time, all-seeing, all-knowing, but unable to speak her secrets. She helps when she can.”

“Rose? Your aura is visible,” he said, doing his best to show her the image he was seeing.

She shook her head, clearing the gold. “It doesn’t surprise me. She’s what people see in me to call me the Goddess of Time. And that wasn’t even fully calling on her.”

“And the other entity? They are aware of the world around us?”

“Yes, but he spends most of his time asleep these days unless I call on him for help or guidance. Believe me, he has no interest in my personal life.”

“And I would meet these beings when we bond?” As strange and alien as each new revelation of hers was, he couldn’t deny that it was part of what made her so extraordinary, and it was becoming easier and easier to simply ‘roll with it,’ as they said. Even if they both returned to Insomnia and spent the rest of his life there after this was over, there was no doubt that she would always make living an adventure.

She noted the certainty in his response that he still wanted her, and he flicked his eyes over to her to see her smile fondly. “You don’t have to, but yes, if you wish.”

He was about to tell her that she hadn’t been completely honest with him; she did come with a family after all, but she had only just caught his thought and felt his affection when the front door to the caravan opened.

“Hey, um, guys?” Prompto’s head poked in, his eyes scrunched tight. “Um, Noct wants to know if we’re gonna eat soon?”

“Why are you doing that?” Ignis asked.

“Prom! It’s all right! You can open your eyes,” Laura said with a cheery laugh.   

Prompto grimaced a little and cracked an eye open before fully looking at them both. “Oh, okay. I was just, you know . . ..”

Ignis raised his eyes to the ceiling and sighed. “You thought we were being inappropriate in here while cooking your meal.”

“Well you do got a history with kitchens, Iggy!” he heard Gladio call from just outside.

He closed his eyes against the heat rising in his cheeks and muttered. “May the Tidemother wash me away from this very spot. I suppose I deserved that.”

***

That evening found them all crowded in the front of the camper, dressed for bed and staring into the bed area in the back.

“I forgot this was one of the smaller ones,” Prompto said. “Are you sleeping outside with Saracchian like last time, Laura?”

“Four beds—I don’t see the problem,” Ignis said. “Laura and I will share.”

He was surprised to hear the words issue from his mouth, and even Laura looked up at him with wide eyes. At the sight of the others staring at him with varying degrees of incredulity, he realized he hadn’t thought this out and had no idea what to say now.

“Oh, come on,” Laura said, rolling her eyes at the other three. “You all know. We know that you know. You know that we know that you know, and so on. Ignis and I are together. Let’s quit this weirdass tiptoeing around and just get it out there.”

“Fine,” Gladio said, putting his arm around her and smirking. “But keep the porno reenactments to yourselves please.”

“Please, Gladio,” she said. “Think what you will of me, but does Ignis at least strike you as the exhibitionist sort?”

Ignis stood stock still as Gladio looked him up and down. He knew this good-natured teasing indicated affectionate feelings, but honestly, he didn’t understand the custom of humiliation as comedy. He’d had minor successes coming up with the appropriate response over the years, but usually only when the ribbing hadn’t focused on him directly.

Just be yourself, love.

But that was the problem. Stripped of his persona, he was . . . really rather rude. Was that what she was implying he be?

“I don’t know . . .,” Gladio mused. “Never can tell about the quiet ones. But you’d know better than anyone, hey? Tell us, is it true what they say about them? Is he a coeurl in the sack?”

Though Gladio was a half a foot taller than he, Ignis straightened his spine, rising to his full height in an attempt to gain some position of superiority. He raised his chin and tilted his head a little as he said in the haughtiest tone he could manage, “If you’re really so curious to find out, Gladio, why don’t you try asking me out on a date yourself?”

He’d thought he’d gone too far as he stood in the deafening silence, his eyes drifting to the wide-eyed, open-mouthed faces staring at him. He was about to apologize when Laura spoke.

No. That was brilliant. Just . . . give them a moment.

“Just make sure he buys you a drink first. Maybe a nice meal? Don’t put out for free!” Laura said with a laugh, which broke the spell and set them all to chuckling.

“Shit, no way I could afford his tastes!” Gladio complained, shaking his head and raising his eyebrows in disbelief.

“Yeah, probably too high maintenance for you,” Prompto said, snickering. “Better leave him to Laura.”

Noct leaned over to smack Ignis on the arm. “Good one, Specs. You know, the Scotch tab alone would be too much for him. I dunno how you manage it yourself.”

“One need only consume in moderation to occasionally indulge in life’s luxuries,” he reminded them, guiding Laura to the back of the caravan with a gentle touch to her back. He wanted to escape before the quivering in his innards migrated to his hands and was noticed by the others, or before he said something else that would bungle this most recent victory of his.

He could feel the eyes on them as Laura settled on her side, facing the wall of the camper, and he lay on his back next to her, summoning her blanket to cover the both of them. Choosing to ignore the stares, he closed his eyes, settling into Rose’s mind and knowing full-well that they’d end up wrapped around each other at some point in the night—hopefully after the others had drifted off.

***

Everyone, including Laura, was still asleep when Ignis stirred before sunrise. Though now was usually the hour for foraging or sparring with Laura, he couldn’t bring himself to wake her. Between the midgardsormr and his death, staying up all night to watch over the Chancellor as they slept, and seven days of hell, it was no wonder she was still unconscious.

Instead of getting up immediately, he buried his nose in her hair and breathed the scent of her shampoo. If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could just make out the flickering images of her dreams, which seemed to pass by at the speed of light. He saw many images he recognized: their own faces, the back seat of the Regalia, Saracchian, and the places they had been together. But he saw many more images he didn’t: a ring of fire that seemed to stretch to infinity, a blue shed, a view of a forest from the back of an enormous silver creature, a pale face with yellow eyes, a blue humanoid feline creature, children dressed in the black robes of academia and laughing, a man with large ears and a leather jacket.

He shook his head and pulled back, feeling a headache blossom behind his eyes. He had only meant to see her mundane dreams, not pry into her history. Though his headache was likely due to his inexperience with deeper contact, he couldn’t help but feel it was the proper punishment for his intrusion. He only hoped she felt the same when she awoke.

It’s all right, love, came her drowsy thought. You’re going to see it all for yourself soon anyway.

Shh, he sent back, brushing his lips against her temple. Go back to sleep.

He rolled over to place his feet on the ground and looked up to find Prompto sitting up on his bed, already dressed and chewing his lip. Prompto jerked his head in the direction of the door and hopped down to go, looking back at him. Ignis nodded his understanding and made his way to the restroom to hastily throw himself together. Prompto was sitting at one of the tables outside when Ignis joined him.

“Is everything all right?” he asked as he sat down.

“Yeah, everything’s just dandy. It’s just . . . oh man, I dunno how to ask you this.”

Ignis closed his eyes briefly. Laura. This was about Laura. “May I suggest the direct approach?”

“I know we tease you about Laura, but seriously . . . how’d you do it?”

“I’m afraid I’m not certain of what you’re asking.”

“You know . . . she’s all . . . pretty and amazing and stuff,” he said before looking down at the table. “How do you get a girl like that to notice you? I mean, you got skills and all yourself, Crownsguard and all that training you had at the Citadel and stuff. And you’re really smart. But I was kinda hoping for some tips I could use myself?”

When Ignis remained silent, Prompto continued, looking up and waving his hands in the air.

“I’m not trying to humiliate you or tease you or anything, I swear. It’s just . . . I’ve got my eye on someone special, and I don’t even know how to start with her, you know?”

As much as he didn’t wish to speak of this to anyone, he could see that Prompto’s request was sincere, and Ignis could never turn down anyone asking for help. But he really had no idea what to say. Thinking back to the beginning of their relationship, he could hardly see how any success was due to skill on his part.

He sighed, “Honestly, Prompto, I haven’t a bloody clue. It just happened, despite my ineptitude. Fortunately, Laura was willing to overlook my clumsiness and pursue me. I assure you, my success has had much more to do with my good fortune.”

“Oh,” Prompto said, frowning. “That’s not gonna help me much.”

“No, I fear I’m a bit of a disappointment. I will say this much—be yourself. If she doesn’t return your affections, then you know to move on. There’s no hiding anything once you’re together.”

“Yeah, but being myself has always been kinda the problem,” he mumbled.

“I always thought the same, at least in the realms of romance,” Ignis replied, hoping he could give the man something that would be of some use.

“Really? But you’re so . . . I dunno. Capable. Seems like you’d be good at anything you set your mind to.”

“I assure you, that’s not the case. When I couldn’t foresee myself sweeping anyone off their feet, I decided to ignore the matter entirely. I had more important duties, after all. But I’m beginning to believe that perhaps this entire ritual is fraught with doubt and misery, at least in the beginning, no matter who you are.”

“Huh. That’s an interesting take on it. Never thought of you as doubting much of anything. Anyway, sorry for getting all up in your biznas,” he said with a chuckle and an overenthusiastic drum to the table.

Ignis felt a stab of pity for him. After all, he himself had been in an almost identical situation scant weeks ago. He only wished he could give him some profound piece of advice that would be a true help. Then he remembered.

“Oh, and Prompto?”

“Yeah?”

“Laura mentioned that Cindy was a hobbyist engineer, of sorts. Perhaps, next time we’re in Hammerhead, you could try to engage her in discussion about her work? Ask her what sorts of projects she’s working on, perhaps.”

“Oh, so you knew who I was talkin’ about, huh?” he said with a wince. “Guess it’s kinda obvious. But that’s a really good idea. Thanks, Iggy.”

“The pleasure is mine. I only hope it helps.”

Chapter Text

Laura lay back in the grass, digging her fingertips down beneath Saracchian’s top layer of feathers to reach the new pinfeathers coming in at his crest, while the others continued to laugh at Prompto’s most recent tumble from Sunny’s back onto his ass.

“Bet that’s gonna leave one helluva bruise,” Gladio teased.

Ignis shook his head. “It appears as though someone’s behind in his riding skills.”

She let the conversation drift away and instead concentrated on sending fond feelings to Saracchian. Though the darkness from his experience still hovered over his mind like a storm cloud, he’d proven to be loyal, fierce, and protective in their company as they ran their errands out of Lestallum and Wiz’s. Not only did he always come when called—even on the brightest of days—he also stayed to defend them when smaller enemies appeared. She sent him a wave of pride at his progress and affection for what a good bird he’d been, and though she wasn’t certain how much he understood of the stunted contact she was capable of on this world, he still closed his eyes in contentment.

They had spent the last six days running errands for Wiz, frolicking in the fields next to the ranch, and taking the chocobos out to collect the Royal Arm from the Tomb of the Clever while waiting for their web of contacts to get back to them on news of the Regalia. It was fascinating during that time to watch Ignis’s tension and exhaustion ease into attentiveness and giddiness as the stress of the previous week faded into memory. She loved that he felt comfortable enough to be, as he described it, ‘terribly brusque’ with her, but to see that quietly passionate side of him resurface once he’d relaxed some . . .. Except it was no longer particularly quiet. Once he’d decided that they would bond the first night the conditions were right to do so, he seemed to have taken it upon himself to court her like a boy in love, and she’d adored every second of it.

On their third morning there, he’d surprised her by being the one to pull her off on an adventure for once, dragging her off to their field just beyond the copse of Duscaean ash trees, pulling off her shoes, running his hands over her legs, and massaging her feet before confessing that he’d spent two hours looking up videos on how to braid hair. He hadn’t started simple of course, instead choosing to do a decent imitation of French braids on either side of her temples, combining in a single braid at the back of her head with the underlayers of her hair hanging loose. Later that afternoon as she was feeding one of her Terran pomegranates to Saracchian behind the camper, he’d tackled her, pushing her up against the back wall and devouring her mouth for a teasing moment before pulling back to grin radiantly, tuck a tiny white flower in one of her braids, and run off to race Calima with Prompto and Noctis.

He seemed to find joy in the risk of expressing his affection in front of the others without getting caught—shooting her secret smiles when no one was looking, stealing brief kisses behind trees and in the camper, and even once arranging the beans on top of her chili into a smiley face. It was only too easy for him to send her wave after wave of happiness when they were connected, so he’d taken to doing it in the middle of conversations—as he discussed vehicle maintenance with Prompto, Gladio’s latest book, or Noctis’s battle tactics lessons. Only the night previous, he’d shocked the hell out of her by waiting until the lights had gone out to feather his fingertips over her body for nearly an hour before sliding his hand beneath her shorts and lazily stroking her to climax, pressing his other hand against her mouth as she came.

The color of his thoughts had been changing lately, however, growing darker and needier as the days passed. Today had been the worst so far; it seemed that his eyes followed every move she made, including every stroke of her fingers through Saracchian’s crest. She was surprised he’d lasted this long, young and virile as he was; he’d been exuding a cloud of intoxicating pheromones that sent a flash of heat through her every time he was near. She’d all but begged him to let her take care of him these past few days, but it seemed someone was always in the camper, and he was still apprehensive about any sort of ‘inappropriateness’ outdoors.

As he glared at her and clenched his jaw for the third time in ten minutes—jealousy, of all things, coiling in his mind—she’d decided she couldn’t take it anymore. Noctis was asleep against Byrrus; Prompto was facing in the other direction, engrossed in something on his phone that was frustrating him; and Gladio was buried in the latest book he’d picked up in Lestallum—The Business of Agriculture. That left the camper free, and if she worded her request properly, she could get Gladio to keep a lookout without giving away anything about their relationship. Just this once. It wasn’t as though they didn’t know she and Ignis were sleeping together, after all.

“Kaloreth bamiam, Saracchian?” she asked, chucking the bird lightly under his beak so he would raise his head. She stood slowly, raising her arms above her head and stretching her spine straight, wiggling her hips a little as she did so. She didn’t need to turn around to know that his eyes followed every shift of her body—could almost feel the burn of his stare as she bent to touch her toes before standing.

Walking over to Gladio, she leaned in to speak into his ear. “Would you mind keeping watch while we go back and start dinner?” Gladio looked up at her, smirking, but his expression turned serious when she said in a solemn voice, “Please.”

Gladio nodded. “Sure, Princess. Anything for you. I can maybe buy you a good forty-five minutes, but the kids are gonna wanna see the evidence as soon as we get back, if ya know what I mean.”

She kissed him on the cheek, saying, “Thanks, babe.”

“No problem.”

Turning to Ignis, she tilted her head at just the right angle, their code to request a connection when they were in front of the others. He nodded, and when she poured herself into his head, she held out her hand to him.

Take my hand.

Your hand? he asked, reaching out for her. Take my heart. Take my life.

Wow. Who knew beneath all that logic and stoicism lay a true romantic?

Romantic? he snorted. I’ve been sitting here all afternoon contemplating what a feat I’ve committed managing to keep off you as long as I have.

They strode to the camper hand-in-hand in silence, and as they drew nearer, he sped up so that he was pulling her along behind him, attempting to relieve the heaviness in his groin and the tightness in his trousers by adjusting his straining erection as decorously as he could manage. It pleased her to no end, seeing him want something and reach out to take it, especially when that something was her. But as she sent him the tingles sparking through her nipples and the warm, wet ache building in her center, she knew that no matter how much he wanted her, he would do his best to make her feel adored within the boundaries of their time constraints. How would that manifest itself today, she wondered?

The tension snapped the moment he slammed the camper door closed behind him, his shoulders heaving with his labored breath as he grabbed her by the arms, spun them around, and shoved her against the back of the door.

You’ve got a thing for walls, don’t you? she asked as his mouth flew to hers with a moan.

I enjoy the feeling of pressing myself against you, he replied, pulling back long enough to yank her sweater above her head and toss it on the bench behind him. His grey Crownsguard t-shirt followed suit before he leaned against her to rub his skin across hers, shivering against the sensation.

“Ignis,” she keened as his tongue laved across the shell of her ear, his breath all she could hear as he panted in desperation.

He seemed to have learned after his first two times that it was better to eschew talking aloud for speaking directly into her mind so that he could occupy his mouth with other, more important, things.

As his teeth found her shoulder, he said, You’ve consumed me, Rose. I’m afraid I don’t know how to control this constant desire. Am I going mad?

Yes, she said with a smile into his neck. I’ve been wanting to lick your jaw all day, I swear. You’re too beautiful for this world.

Please, he begged as he left a wet trail across her collarbone, pulling down the straps of her bra and reaching behind her to undo the clasp, tell me it’s not just me. Tell me you feel this too.

He yanked himself straight with a gasp as she ran her nails lightly down his back, his eyes opening wide before slamming shut with a shudder.

Are you kidding me? I’m drunk on your pheromones. Don’t ever stop, she said as she practically ripped his belt open and began fumbling for the button. Oh gods, did you know the skin on your neck is just as soft as the skin on your cock?

She could feel his cheek heat beneath her lips as he replied, Can’t say it’s something I’ve noticed, no.

There was only one awkward moment as she gripped his shaft and tried to lead him to their bunk; they’d both forgotten that he hadn’t been barefoot as she had, and he’d nearly tripped over his trousers still wrapped around his feet as he stumbled after her.

“That’ll teach you to never wear boots on your off days,” she chuckled, leaning to suck on the tip of him briefly before bending down all the way to slip his boots off.

“I’ve learned my lesson.” He kicked free of his trousers, bent to pick her up, and carried her to their bunk, careful not to knock her against anything in the small space. He tried to set her down on the mattress so he could lie over her and do everything he felt he should have done their first night together, but she managed to roll them both over and pin him underneath her.

“Oh no, you’ve been in charge twice now. And we don’t have the time for what you have in mind. Next time?” she asked breathlessly, careful not to hit her head on the bunk above as she straddled him. She could feel his disappointment, another lament and worry that he hadn’t taken the time he felt he should have on her body that night.

Stop worrying about that, love. She leaned forward to press her lips against his. Gods, they were so soft. He reached out to thread his fingers through her hair as he opened his mouth to push his tongue between her lips. That night was supposed to be about you. I promise, the first opportunity we have the time, I’ll let you take all night if you want.

I’m holding you to your word.

Laura paused a moment to take in the sight of him—lips and cheeks flushed with desire, viridian eyes wild with want, and his mind overflowing with awe and tenderness—before rising up and impaling herself to the hilt of him with a sigh. Even after having done this twice, the fullness of him everywhere at once was almost too much to bear. She savored the warmth of his body the feel of his breath beneath her as he raised his hips against hers, and she ran her hands over his face in reverence as he closed his eyes.

“Rose,” he groaned before biting his lip. But his eyes flew open again as she began moving on him—grinding and rolling and thrusting—and his hands shot to her hips, gripping tightly in an attempt to slow her down before skimming up her ribs to send chills down her spine. His fingers roamed over her breasts, pausing at her nipples before taking them between his thumbs and forefingers, pinching lightly.

“Ignis,” she gasped, knowing how much he loved it when she said his name like that, and he rewarded her with a crooked grin and a wave of smug satisfaction. That expression was replaced with his eyes rolling up into the back of his head and his mouth falling open, however, when she retaliated by mirroring his actions.

She knew well what most men liked—tits, ass, and legs. But Ignis found her body as a whole a work of art to pay homage to. His favorite parts of her were the expressions on her face, the grace of their movement together, and the way her hair would brush over his bare skin and create a dark curtain around their faces when she leaned over him. Most of all, he adored her skin—was addicted to touching it with his hands, lips, tongue—his entire body. The man enjoyed touching and being touched almost more than the physical act of sex, and if he was going to spend the rest of his life with her, it would be her honor and greatest pleasure to soothe that ravenous hunger.

He ran his fingers through her hair from her shoulders to her waist, brushing the backs of his hands to trail down her body as he did so. Exhaling sharply in an effort to control that tightening coil feeding off both their pleasure, he spoke into her mind.

By the gods, your hair is the night and your skin made of starlight. My Rose, you are the Goddess of the Dawn in my mind, Queen of the Night Sky under my hands.

Her hearts ached at his praise, and she leaned over him for a moment to caress his lips with hers, worshipping him in return by running her palms over his jaw and down his shoulders and chest as she pushed herself back up. But he wasn’t done talking. The man who was so well-known for being stoic and laconic, who had described his first sexual encounter to his best friends as ‘a good thing,’ was surprisingly verbose as she rode him.

Curling his spine up to take the tip of her breast in his mouth, he murmured, My body is yours to do with as you will. Take it, and use it for your pleasure, I beg of you.

It goes both ways, Ignis, she reminded him with a gasp as he slipped his fingers between her legs. I am just as much yours as you are mine.

Yes, he replied, his eyes opening wide as he gazed into hers. I can see eternity in your eyes, Rose. I can see our future.

Though she knew he was simply being poetic, there was something about the age of his eyes in contrast with his face as he said those words. In his mind, he was so young, idealistic, beautifully kind, but his soul was ancient as any immortal she’d ever met—thoughtful and wise beyond his years, slow to provocation, but swift and vicious in defense. He would use the same hands to worship her as to kill in defense of those he loved without hesitation—reach out with his last breath to help someone in need as to reach out to squeeze the life out of someone who threatened the light. Was this what pain created in a man? Perhaps just this man.

He was even rarer than she’d originally thought, and to her everlasting astonishment and honor, he’d given her permission to keep him.

As she leaned over again to leave more licking, breathy kisses against his lips, cheeks, and jaw, the new position changed his angle of penetration so his prominent rim caught her just right as he nearly pulled out of her. Gods, she was getting close, and she could tell by the way his body was growing rigid beneath hers and his breath was releasing in open-mouthed whimpers that he was on the cusp as well.

“Please, Ignis,” she moaned with a shuddering breath into his ear, her grip on his cock tightening involuntarily as their movements grew hurried and uncoordinated.

“Gods, Rose, I can’t—"

His fingers sped up for a moment before his back arched sharply, his head pushing back into the mattress as he bared his teeth in a grimace and emptied himself inside her. That tide of tingling warmth washed over her, and with a quivering intake of breath, she leaned down to clutch his shoulders as she followed him.

Collapsing on top of him in a breathless heap, she buried her face in his neck, suckling at the velvet skin gently and inhaling the scent of coffee, sage, and sex. Gods, he always smelled so good. Minus the sex, his scent always reminded her of Christmas in London—that first pot of coffee as they opened presents together with the turkey just put into the oven. He was her home, in more ways than one.

She could feel him fighting himself in his mind—trying not to find offense in this wanton tryst in the middle of the afternoon, hoping he’d done enough to please her, worrying about having dinner ready in time, wondering how much humiliation he would have to endure from Gladio—but then she heard him say to himself, make now always the most precious time. His mind finally went still as he sighed in contentment, grabbing a fistful of her hair and pressing her face snugly into his neck. She counted out 147 beats of his heart as she skimmed a hand back and forth over his cheek, his afternoon shadow making pricking sandpaper sounds in the quiet camper.

I’ve missed you.

She felt his head shift as he looked down at her. “Was that your thought, or mine?”

“Both?”

He sighed. She could feel the skin beneath her lips heating up again and knew he was about to say something he found ‘scandalous’ as he tried to keep the thought from her.

“Perhaps when we get back out into the wild, we can come to some sort of . . . arrangement. These past two weeks—it’s been . . . difficult.”

“You mean hard?” she said, smiling into his jaw. But she sent him a wave of relief at his words. These past two weeks had been difficult for her too. 

He chuckled. “If you prefer.”

“It’s true you lose some of the romance during these ‘wanton trysts,’ especially when they have to be rushed like this, but they have their uses.”

If you promise to keep a lookout, he said hesitantly, and if we remain fully clothed . . . perhaps during our foraging and sparring sessions?

“Mmm,” she replied with a nibble to his collarbone. “Now I’m really looking forward to getting up in the mornings.”

Turning his head to press small kisses along her cheekbone, he sighed, I suppose we’ve run out the clock. As it is, the rice won’t be ready by the time they get back.

“So don’t use that Saxham rice then. Takes, what? Forty-five minutes? Would’ve had to start it as soon as we got here. I’ve got some Jasmati rice from Earth—takes half that.”

“So we have time then,” he said with a grin as he ran his blunt fingernails down her spine, making her shiver.

“Insatiable lech,” she laughed with a smack to his chest as she pulled off him. “We still have to get cleaned up, and as careful as I was with your hair, it’s a bit mussed in back.”

After they had straightened everything that needed straightening and were making the finishing touches to the evening meal, he asked, “Why Gladio?”

“Are you kidding me? That man is the sappiest closet romantic I’ve ever come across. I can feel the mush dripping off his mind any time we so much as come within six feet of one another. And he desperately wants to see you happy.”

He blinked down at the fish fillet he was removing from the bone. “I could quite easily see Gladio as a romantic at heart, but surely not interested in my happiness, personally?”

“Gods, as intelligent as you all are, you can be a bit thick sometimes, you know?”

“Well, enlighten me then.”

She gestured with her knife, pointing it at him. “Oh no, this is something you two need to figure out on your own.”

Ignis put down his filet knife and reached for his can of Ebony. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to start rationing these. The shops haven’t had any for weeks due to the blockades, and I’m starting to run low on my own supply. Even coffee beans are getting more difficult to find.”

Laura looked at him, a smile curling at the corner of her mouth as he took a sip. “I know you live and die by that stuff, though I can’t imagine how good it could possibly be coming from a can, but I do have an extensive collection of roasted and unroasted beans myself, you know. You’re welcome to them.”

“Do you really? I thought you were more of a tea connoisseur.”

“I’ve been known to enjoy a good espresso from time to time,” she said leaning over to bump him with her shoulder.

He grimaced, a tinge of pink rising to his cheeks. “I can’t have espresso,” he said carefully.

She tilted her head, attempting to read more than embarrassment from his mind, but he’d already learned so well how to not think about what he didn’t want her to know and was concentrating on deboning the next filet.

“Sounds like there’s a story there. Tell me!”

But he was saved from giving himself away as she felt the others arrive—just as they were transferring the meal to the plates. Though it was unnecessary, they both heard Gladio’s voice ring out in loud, casual conversation with Noctis and Prompto, and Ignis turned to her with a gentle smile.

“That is rather kind of him. I’ll have to find some way to make it up to him.”

“So, meat and Cup Noodles for the next week then? Honestly, love, I think a smile would send him over the moon.”

She handed Prompto, Noctis, and Gladio a plate as they came to the door, giving Gladio a peck on the cheek and a sincere “thank you” as she did so, to which he grinned boyishly.

“You’re welcome. Both of you,” he said seriously, nodding to Ignis, who smiled bashfully into a returning nod of thanks.

It started raining as Laura and Ignis joined them outside with their plates, and Ignis cranked the canopy out to cover them so they wouldn’t have to crowd into the camper to finish eating. They were only halfway through their meal when Laura felt that burning spark of prickling gold light up on the edge of her consciousness. She stiffened, tilting her head in concentration and reaching out to increase her range of awareness. It wasn’t the first time she’d met this being, so recognized the mind—the second burning gold spark hovering just beyond, however, she didn’t. It recoiled in distaste at her passive touch—a telepath, then, like the dog—but made no move to retaliate. The mind felt similar to Umbra—gold with the magic of Eos and probably immortal, which likely made the stranger and the dog either Messengers or High Messengers.

Laura couldn’t blame the mind for recoiling; it seemed she and the higher servants of the Crystal, even Noctis sometimes, still caused one another pain, despite her best efforts to align. She sent out a broad-spectrum apology, not making true contact as was custom, and did her best to shutter her passive telepathy to the immediate area only as a show of respect and peace.

What is it? Ignis asked from beside her, but she answered aloud.

“Noctis, your immortal dog is here,” she said jerking her head in their direction. “And he’s brought divine company.”

“Umbra’s here?” he said as he nearly knocked his chair over to stand.

“Uh . . . who’s the divine company?” Prompto asked.

“Dunno,” Laura replied as she and Ignis stood to follow. “Let’s go introduce ourselves, shall we?”

The alabaster-skinned, black-haired woman awaiting them in the deserted corner of the ranch was certainly an immortal to Laura’s eyes, even if she couldn’t see directly into her downcast gaze. That golden aura tasted enduring, and the woman’s head seemed to jerk slightly in her direction on her arrival in recognition. Yes, immortal identity mutually established then, now what? Based on her experience with other immortals on this world, she would either be completely fine, if a bit flinchy; or she would question her identity before attacking.

The Messenger apparently chose to be fine with Laura’s foreign aura, for she turned to Noctis and began speaking in an unnecessarily ethereal voice as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

“Hear me, oh King of the Stone. By the Storm Sender’s blessing will the path to the stone be opened. When the covenant is forged, the Oracle and the Ring shall await their King at the walls of water.”

Great, another speaker of riddles. As it was physically impossible to lie in Lliamérian, her people had become masters at speaking truths to mislead, a practice she was most certainly not raised with and never could fully adapt to. Still, she had some skill, having practiced for hundreds of years with beings far older than she was, even if she had been trounced every time. Though she didn’t doubt the veracity of this woman’s claims, the speech pattern was similar, and that familiar irritation bubbled inside her, provoking Ignis to turn his head questioningly in her direction.

To her surprise, Gentiana, as Noctis had just called her, turned her head in Laura’s direction again. She withdrew from Ignis’s mind abruptly in an attempt to prepare herself for whatever was coming, and she saw him flinch out of the corner of her eye. She’d have to apologize for that later, as she knew from experience that such a quick retreat was not a pleasant sensation.

“When the Warriors of Light seek the crime, Pitioss shall light the dark path of the shame of the Six.”

Laura raised an eyebrow before responding, “All right then.”

She’d been waiting for something like this—some clue that would lead her from the trailhead she’d discovered back in Insomnia. She had no idea what Pitioss was, but accounting for thousands of years of language drift, the place sounded suspiciously like Pit of Eos, or Pity Eos.

As she had left the throne room that fateful day, attempting to prepare for a journey with not nearly enough information, Regis had mentioned that the painting outside depicted the prophecy. She’d found the nearest passing person in the foyer, an advisor named Caeli, to tell her everything about it. She’d had a feeling that the seventh depiction of divinity in the painting with a sun’s corona near her head had been more than just an artistic representation of justice, or even the Oracle, as he’d explained to her. She knew a Goddess of the Dawn when she saw one—would know one better than most—and it couldn’t have been a coincidence that the entire planet had been named for the Greek Goddess of the Dawn.

But then she’d learned that the gods were physical beings, and still everyone only ever spoke of the Six. When Titan recognized her golden power as she defended Noctis, he was likely too far away to feel the burn of it, its alien nature. He’d asked in fear and anger if she’d been Eos, which confirmed the seventh deity’s existence, at least. He’d only become violent again when she denied the question, but still, she wondered whether the Six were involved somehow in the demise of the seventh—perhaps even with the scourge that might have been represented by the darkening of her robes and wing in the painting. Given that that golden light, the power of time, light, and life, ran through all the gods and their messengers, Laura had to assume that Eos had been their mother. What would make gods kill their own mother? If they were anything like Earth gods, it could have been anything.

Of course, there were far more worrisome aspects of that painting, like what had happened to either Ignis’s or Prompto’s eyes, but she couldn’t dwell on that. Prophecies could either be taken literally or figuratively. Either one of them could have suffered a permanent injury, a temporary setback, be titled ‘the blind hand of justice,’ or even simply be represented as a man who didn’t see something coming, so honestly, the depiction was meaningless. If he completed his training with her, Ignis, at least, would be labeled as the man who could see in the dark, and that was some comfort. All she could do in the meantime was keep a weather eye out and deal with the issue when, or if, it came.

It seemed Gentiana hadn’t finished speaking to her, as she tilted her head a little and continued, “At the walls of water, the Mate lives or dies by the Anathema’s choice.”

Laura could feel Ignis’s eyes on her, so she did her best to keep her face relaxed and blank as her mind worked frantically at the woman’s words. ‘Anathema’ was easy enough to figure out, and of course the Mate was in danger—had been in near constant danger since he’d left the city. Closing her eyes, she called on the golden power in her mind, immersing herself completely in the timelines as she so rarely did. There. Maybe? She couldn’t be certain, but the point appeared as though it was still in flux—for now.

With the power still forefront in her mind, she opened her eyes to Gentiana, allowing them all to see the vortices of swirling gold in her eyes. Her voice was doubled when she spoke, and even after all these years, the sound of it creeped her out, likely because she so rarely called on it.

“There is no choice to be made. The Anathema has made a vow—whatever the cost—and the Fire shall burn its full potential.”

As she released the bond, Gentiana bowed her head. “The Anathema must take care that a new path is not born of the labor, or the Fire will perish with all.”

“I am very well aware.”

Gentiana faded away as the others were distracted by Umbra’s return, and she grumbled, “Damned immortals. There must be something about the infiniteness of time that makes them incapable of uttering a straight sentence. It’s too fracking hard for them to say, ‘Hey Noctis, go get Ramuh’s blessing then head to Altissia and see Luna to get the ring.’”

“You managed okay, I thought,” Prompto laughed. “You guys sounded like you were exchanging some super-secret spy passwords or something. So she’s immortal too?”

“She’s a Messenger,” Ignis replied, “a spirit faithful to the Oracle.”

“Oh, uh . . . for real?”

“Have you heard of Pitioss?” Laura asked Ignis as Noctis bent to take his notebook from Umbra.

“No.” He tilted his head at her the moment she looked over in response to his sharp tone.

Something’s frightened you. What’s wrong? he asked as soon as she’d made contact.

I’m so sorry, love. This is one of those things I can’t tell you. You’ve traveled in time yourself; you know the consequences should I say or do the wrong thing.

He frowned. I . . . understand, he replied, but she could feel the intense frustration coloring his mind. He would never be happy when he couldn’t share her burdens, and it was a feeling she was familiar with, as she hated that she couldn’t simply wipe his away with the wave of a hand either. But this was one of the many costs of being with her, knowing that she knew snippets of the future but couldn’t share them. It was a hard cost, a high cost, and he at least seemed to be understanding that before they bonded and not after.

“Let Luna know I’m okay, and she won’t have to wait much longer. We’ll be together soon,” Noctis said to Umbra in a choked voice, and through that ever-so-slowly clearing haze of numbness, Laura could feel the most tentative wave of a fledgling feeling.

He loves her, she said in awe as she stepped toward Noctis and Umbra. I wasn’t sure he did.

Ignis came up from behind her, watching as he sent her images and words in explanation: the death of his nanny; the injury and subsequent time spent in a wheelchair; his change from a bright and lively child to a sullen rebel, intent on sneaking out, necessitating Ignis to tag along and take the fall when they got caught.

She clenched her teeth in response, knowing what ‘taking the fall’ must have entailed for him should his tutors have found him and not the King himself.

I have no regrets on the matter—not even now. He was never the same after the incident, but I would like to think those excursions brought him back to life somewhat. And through it all, there was Lady Lunafreya. If you believe me to be a private man, it’s nothing compared to the jealousy with which Noct has guarded his relationship with her. Even I don’t understand it fully.

“Gentiana’s doing the telepathy thing,” Noctis said, standing to turn to her.

“Is she hurting you?” she asked, stepping forward. She reached out with her mind to probe the area around Noctis’s head, but she found the thread of foreign thoughts was gentle as it should be—even if it was still without his express permission.

“No, she’s giving me instructions for getting the Storm Sender’s blessing. Come on. Let’s get outta this rain,” he said, starting to jog back to the camper.

Prompto punched a hand in the air as he ran. “Great! So we just gotta get Ramuh’s blessing, then we hit up Altissia. Finally!”

“That entails passage aboard a ship. Caem may serve us now as it did them then,” Ignis said.

“The hidden harbor. Hmph, just might work. I’ll have Iris set it up,” Gladio said.

Prompto skidded to a halt under the canopy and shook the rain out of his hair like a dog. “So . . . in the meantime . . .?”

“We get some sleep, then head into the Storm first thing tomorrow morning,” Noctis said.

“A rendezvous with Ramuh . . . can’t wait,” she said sarcastically.

***

“It’s not good to throw daggers in the dark,” Ignis remarked, but Laura felt the accompanying distaste that made it more of a complaint to her mind.

“It would be nice to brighten things up in here,” Noctis agreed.

I believe . . . I can feel you. I think?

She checked his mind to see what it was he was feeling—the gold, the eddies on the air from her aura rolling off her. It seemed he could even taste the immortality in it, though he hadn’t identified it as such yet. She pointed it out to him, and he nodded his understanding.

Can you reach out farther? Can you feel Gladio walking next to us?

They had spent the entire morning running their chocobos across what seemed all of Duscae so Noctis could collect the power of Ramuh from the electric trees placed hours apart from each other—with nothing but wilderness, Imperial soldiers, and a constant downpour in between. Compared to other moronic errands they’d been sent on, this wasn’t so bad, so Laura had kept her disdain mostly to herself. Still, the chocobos would be requiring extra care tonight, and even though they were now collecting the last of the blessing from a cave out of the rain, the humans were shivering with the cold. Perhaps some soup and soothing oolong tonight at Wiz’s would keep them all from getting ill.  

Yes, soup, Ignis thought longingly.

For now, she was trying to distract him from the cold and what he refused to acknowledge as his fear of the dark. His explanation was that he disliked the unknown of it—that everything he used to make decisions was nearly completely cut off, and nothing good had ever happened to him in the dark. It was then that she realized that he loved the adventure when he was on it, but that fear of peril was another matter. Certainly, he would ride out and meet it without hesitation when faced with it, but he’d rather not seek out the danger if possible. It explained so much about him—that duality every time she’d pulled him off on an adventure before they got together, the way he would advise Noctis not to drive at night but then happily jump out of the back seat to face whatever daemon had surfaced in the middle of the road, his presence at this very moment in this dark cave teeming with daemons.

I can feel the sensations you taught me in combat—the heat of his body, the shift of his clothes, the vibrations of his feet on the ground, but nothing from Intuition. He shivered, pulling his damp jacket lapels more tightly around him in an effort to trap in body heat.

He’ll be a bit harder to feel. Try sensing life instead of magic. Every being emits an electrical signal. She wasn’t certain he’d be able to manage it, as it always seemed easier for a being with magic to detect auras, but electrical signals were so much more subtle.

Laura felt again Gentiana’s presence wash through the cave and float toward Noctis, and she did her best to bite back her irritation. She’d been gentle and helpful so far, and even though Noctis didn’t seem to mind the contact, she had still never asked permission. That sort of behavior was punishable by death on some worlds, but she had to keep reminding herself that she’d be a hypocrite of the highest order if she passed judgment on the practice.

“Are you all right, Noct?” Ignis asked.

“Gentiana again,” he said, shaking his head clear.

“What did she say?”

“That Luna is awakening the Six.”

Laura had only heard snippets here and there about Lunafreya—mostly from radio reports and Ignis—so she didn’t know much about the young woman they had originally set out to meet. But any mortal that gave up her life to heal the sick and could stand in front of Titan with that blazing look in her eyes certainly earned Laura’s respect. She seemed to do her duty without any thought of reward or what was fair—yet another young person on this world giving up her only life in service to others. What was it about this planet that seemed to create such extraordinary people in such abundance? She hoped they had some time to get to know one another in Altissia. Perhaps she would join up with their group afterward to take on the Empire.

I cannot feel an inkling of Gladio, but straining so hard to do so, I believe I can feel Noct.

Excellent job, love, she said with pride, and his mind preened a little at her praise.

What’s that shimmer on the air just up ahead? It feels wrong.

Some daemons just bled into existence. We’ll probably be seeing them soon. You’ll probably never be able to identify them through Intuition, but you might be able to sense their weaknesses. Can you?

No, he said, shaking his head with frustration.

Don’t push yourself. You’re learning so quickly already, I promise.

It was easy to spot the purple glow of the thunderbombs when they turned the corner, and Ignis called out softly to the others, “Daggers and swords everyone. And take care not to be electrocuted, if you please.”

Cheater, she accused with a smile.

This is war, after all, he replied smugly. It’s only natural I use every tactical advantage I have, including sight.

We’ll probably be working too far apart for me to keep a connection, but don’t think I won’t be watching you dance with one. Go on.

As she assisted Prompto, Laura kept an eye on Ignis as he worked. There was no doubt in her mind that he was improving; even when he ran up beside Noctis to lend a helping hand, he was getting better at doing so without injuring himself as he kept his feet and daggers moving. But he was still trying too hard. She’d told him several times that his analytical mind was a treasure before and after a battle, but things simply happened too quickly in the middle of one for him to use it. She could see it on his face—the way he overanalyzed, attempting to anticipate what the enemy would do. Though he’d learned to take in information from more sources and had vastly improved the sensitivity of his senses, he wasn’t treating them equally still, wasn’t allowing his instincts to take over.

“Hey, really good work there, Ig,” Noctis said when they’d finished. “Noticed you been taking it easy on the potions lately.”

“Much obliged, Highness,” Ignis said with a nod. “I thought it prudent to cut back, if only for the sake of our funds and your exertion.”

“I’m just glad we’re not getting hurt as much,” Noctis said quietly. “To hell with the money and the magical energy.”

“It’s amazing,” Prompto said with a sigh. “The power of the gods in the palm of your hands.”

Ignis came up alongside her again as they continued walking and tilted his head. “Never dreamt I’d see lore come to life before my very eyes,” he said.

Among so many other things, he said with a wave of affection.

The adventure is only just beginning, Ignis, but I assure you, the feeling is definitely mutual.

“Leaving Insomnia was eye-opening, but this is mind-blowing! I mean, first Laura, now Noct’s collecting the power of the Six? It’s like—the whole world’s gone crazy.”

“After Ramuh, we go see Leviathan, right?” Gladio asked as he jumped up on an outcropping of stone to see up ahead.

“Indeed,” Ignis replied. “Though I daresay Noct has to collect the Power of Kings from a few more tombs before we set sail for Altissia. We were fortunate the Tomb of the Clever was close enough to check off as we rested.”

“We shoulda done the Tomb of the Tall while we were at it,” Gladio grumbled.

Noctis scoffed. “Even with the chocobos, no way am I headed back into that hellhole without the car. We’ve no idea if that was Ardyn or if that area’s always like that.”

“Damn it,” Gladio swore before letting out a massive sneeze. It seemed even the self-proclaimed living furnace had caught a chill from the rain, and it wasn’t helping his mood much. He’d been trying to contact Iris ever since they’d left Wiz’s, but she hadn’t answered her calls.

“What’s wrong, Princess? You’re not going to get a signal this deep into the caves,” Laura said, walking over to where he stood with his phone out, worry pouring off him. Ignis followed close behind to maintain their connection.

“Yeah, I know,” he sighed. “Just thought I’d try again. I told her to be ready to move out at a moment’s notice.”

“I’m sorry, babe,” she said, threading her arm through his. “Hopefully we can hitch a ride to go check on her as soon as we’re done with this.”

“Yeah.”

“Guys, what was that sound?” came Prompto’s voice, sounding small in the distance.

“I didn’t hear anything, Prom,” Noctis called out. “You should come back closer to us though.”

Laura stretched her mind out, feeling for Prompto’s location in the dark cave, as not even his travel light was visible. His prickling mind was easy to find, but there was something there, something nearby she couldn’t identify. It almost felt like a mind, but not quite?

A daemon about to appear, perhaps? Ignis asked, reading her surface thoughts with some alarm. It didn’t feel the same as a daemon, but either way, it wasn’t as though anything they were going to find in this cave was going to contain rainbows and kittens.

“Prompto, come back over he—” she called out, but before she could finish, they heard him scream. The ear-piercing sound seemed to go on forever as it bounced and echoed off the rock walls, decreasing in amplitude as it sunk down one of the bottomless drop-offs next to their path.

“Prompto! What happened?” Ignis asked as they rushed in the direction she could feel him from. Is he all right?

“This way. He feels like he’s all right, but why isn’t he answering?” Laura asked.

“Prompto!” Gladio roared. “Are. You. Okay?”

They had almost reached where Laura could feel his frantic mind when she heard him scream out, “No I’m not okay! This place is LITERALLY the worst! And why’d it have to be a SNAKE?”

They found him huddled in a corner, shivering near the last electric tree Ramuh apparently wanted Noctis to touch. Honestly, there was something a little perverted about a god asking a boy to run around and stroke his various lightning rods, she thought.

“Prompto! Are you all right?” Ignis asked, bending to check him over and helping him to stand.

Your mind can be an appalling place to reside, sometimes, he said with some amusement.

Better get used to it, she said cheekily.

“I’m so glad to see you guys! She dragged me down here. Dunno where she went.”

“She’s there,” Laura said pointing in the direction she felt the anomaly. A snake, only a quarter of the length of the midgardsormr slithered into the beams of their travel lights, her body covered in grey scales and black diamond patterns that shimmered in the indirect lighting. In place of a snake head, however, was a woman’s—or what was left of her. Some of her black dreadlocks had petrified into an icy blue, matching the tone of her pale-blue, horrendously veined face. Her lips were pulled back into a snarl, revealing crooked, human-looking teeth. There was something different about this daemon, though. It was almost as though she was clinging onto her last shred of humanity still; Laura could still feel that hint of a spark of her in her mind. There wasn’t enough left for Laura to connect and put her out of her misery as she had with the man on the side of the road, unfortunately, but there seemed to be enough of her left to speak.

“My baby. Where . . .?” the snake-woman hissed at them.

“Sorry, can’t help you there,” Noctis said.

“Noctis,” Laura chastised.

Of course he didn’t understand yet. It was so easy to forget that these things were once human when they all ran around every night chopping at them with abandon.

She looked up into the face of the snake looming above them, her hearts full of pity and regret. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Rose, what is it?

She was once human. But that doesn’t change anything. We have to take her down regardless. All this suffering . . . breaks my hearts.

“Noct! Do something!” Prompto screamed, pointing at the snake-woman as she lowered her head and raced at them.

“Don’t ask me. Do it yourself,” Noctis replied, jumping out of the way and summoning his sword.

Ignis sighed. “Yes, there’s the attitude of leadership we were all hoping for,” he said under his breath as he summoned his daggers, and Laura chuckled in response. In a louder voice, he said, “She’s a naga—greatswords, daggers, and ice. Be sure to put on the proper items, or it’s going to be a toadally bad day for all of us.”

“Oof, Iggy,” Prompto winced.

See you on the other side, love, Ignis said with a smile as he felt her pulling from his mind. She gave him a wink before he stepped up to Noctis’s side.

After the disaster that had been the midgardsormr, the naga was relatively simple for them to handle, especially since Laura was able to join in this time. The naga still moved as quick as lightning, forcing both Laura and Noct to warp-strike and hold her in place as the others caught up to concentrate an attack. Ignis still seemed to be struggling as he ducked and wove with the snake’s movements, but she could tell his reduced visibility was limiting how much he could see and deduce from the naga’s musculoskeletal structure. Perhaps they could do a telepathic lesson in Lestallum soon so he could see firsthand how her mind processed a battlefield. Even if he still couldn’t grasp the full scope of her thoughts, it might be a step in the right direction.

 Prompto finished the naga with a holler and a toss of an ice spell in her face.

“Bring back . . . my baby!” the creature lamented as it melted into a pool of miasma.

Wherever humans went on this world, if they even could go anywhere after having been daemonized, Laura sincerely wished the woman peace—and that she had been reunited with her baby.

“If her baby’s anything like her, I ain’t going near it!” Prompto shouted at the puddle seeping into the stone at their feet.

“She was confused,” Laura said in a low voice. “They used to be human, remember? She had just enough presence of mind to miss her baby, down here, alone, in the dark.”

“Oh man,” Gladio said, running a hand through the short hair on the side of his head. “I didn’t think about it that way.”

Prompto went quiet as Noct muttered, “Yeah.”

As Gladio, Noctis, and Prompto turned toward the tree, which reminded Laura a little too strongly of the White Tree of Gondor and all the dear friends she’d lost in that battle, she reached out a hand to Ignis, who took it with a squeeze.

Noctis pressed his hand to the trunk of the white tree, and there was the expected sound of booming thunder as the cavern was shot through with purple lightning. She fought the urge to roll her eyes; after all, she herself had a flair for the dramatic—it was almost a defining trait of the immortal—but it seemed the Eosian gods took the inclination entirely too far.

Laura heard Ignis’s sharp intake of breath as Noctis turned around to reveal the sinister red glow fading from his eyes. Horror clouded his mind at the sight of his childhood friend rendered unrecognizable by the power of the gods.

“Let’s get outta here,” Noct said in a low voice, turning to jog back the way they came.

What was that? Ignis asked as they followed after him. Is that the manifestation of the Mark of the Fulgurian?

Power always comes at a cost, she said, and she didn’t understand why she had to tell each of them this. Had they not seen how badly Regis had suffered at the power of the Ring?

Yes, but this felt more like gathering allies to assist in taking back the kingdom. What concerns me is that we didn’t even ask for a price.

“Eh, I expected more fire and brimstone,” Prompto said casually.

Honestly, he doesn’t have much of a choice.

No, she heard him sigh out loud. He never did—ever since he was a child. He’s known so little of true happiness in his life, though I did my best.

“Some gods are friendlier than others, I guess,” Gladio said.

It doesn’t seem as though any of you have seen much happiness, she replied, reaching out to run a hand across his shoulders.

We manage to find some, in the moments in between, he said with a significant look in her direction.

“But not all of ‘em,” Noct mumbled. “Poor Luna.”

“Perhaps you had better console her in person,” Ignis suggested.

“Just a boat ride away!” Prompto said. “Can’t wait to actually get out and see the ocean!”

The sight that greeted them all as they finally stepped out into the light was a most welcome one. The rays of the sun were bright and warm as they shafted through the trees in cheery yellow beams that reminded Laura of transporter pads, and the recent rains seemed to have made the trees glow green with life. When she breathed in that scent of petrichor, she noticed Ignis followed suit, a serene expression settling across his formerly tense features. She glanced at him, and they shared a quick, tender smile in remembrance.

“Hey, it stopped raining!” Prompto cheered over the sound of Noctis’s phone ringing and the roaring engines of an enormous ship flying overhead.

Noctis put the phone to his ear and listened to the speaker on the other end, and Laura didn’t need extrasensory abilities to know he was getting some bad news, as much as he was groaning.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out,” he said. After he’d hung up, he turned to the four of them. “The Regalia’s at an imperial base. I’d say it’s time we get our car back.”

“You do know it’s a trap, right?” Laura asked, as much as she hated to. She could never tell when this group was just insane and ready to spring a trap—a tactic she was almost always completely down for— or when they were naïve enough to take what was presented to them at face value. Their return to Insomnia after the fall and camping with an immortal infected with Starscourge had proven to her that they had one or the other trait in reckless abundance; she just wasn’t sure which.

“Of course it’s a trap,” Ignis replied. “But with a little planning, we may be able to arrange things so that the trap snaps on the hand rather than the rodent’s neck.”

Somehow, she doubted it would be that simple. Ardyn was playing some sort of game, not only with her, but with them as well—helping them along and testing their mettle at the same time. But he hadn’t made a true move just yet, so springing the trap it was. Perhaps they would get lucky, and he wouldn’t even be present for this little heist of theirs.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t discern the precise moment she’d detected his presence, not being entirely certain that she hadn’t simply been pretending not to notice as he lazily meandered through the maze of shipping crates and scaffolding to get a glimpse of them unseen. The moment he’d laid eyes on her, however, her chin tilted slightly in his direction as she nodded gently in greeting, apparently choosing to ignore the infantile display of testosterone taking place in front of her. Given the gods’ abilities, he wasn’t at all surprised that she knew this strutting and posturing would bear no fruit. He himself knew the High Commander would never raise a sword to the boy with his sister’s loyalties bound as they were.

He was curious, however to find them here. The children would undoubtedly feel a keen sting at the loss of Daddy’s vehicle and risk life and limb to get it back, but why had she allowed them to fall for such an obvious trap? She did seem fervent in that newfound sense of adventure of hers, or perhaps she simply wanted to play again.

Once again, he wondered what her angle was. She could have told the boys that first moment they met in Galdin to steer clear of him, but she clearly hadn’t, as proven by their second meeting in Lestallum. The devious pretender must have been playing a game on both sides then—a nasty habit of the gods—toying with allies and enemies alike as puppets, forcing them to dance for their own unknowable amusement. Perhaps he could use her deception to his advantage—reveal her betrayal at just the right moment to obliviate the little King’s trust in his allies and all hope of succeeding in a mission he hadn’t even truly been informed of.

As Ardyn’s own puppet held a blade to the Shield’s throat, he noted that the Advisor was the one to react most dramatically to the threat while the girl crossed her arms over her chest and leaned into her hip, bored with the proceedings.

“Be still. All of you,” the High Commander intoned, holding a hand out to the Advisor to stop him from . . . what exactly was the boy planning to do with his comrade held at the edge of a blade? These foolish youths clearly had no sense when it came to those unyielding and ancient rules of engagement with a vastly superior foe.

That the world was bequeathed to these moronic children was a crime against Eos. Much as he despised the Kings of old, they’d had cunning, subtlety, power. Now the vim of his own bloodline was watered down to this gormless child and his hodgepodge collection of misfits. All these years he’d waited as the world rose and fell around him, dancing and twisting to the tune he played; it was an insult to his talents that he should have to exact his revenge on this spoiled babe. Even the Father hadn’t provided the source of entertainment he’d been looking for; the elder Lucis Caelum had all but laid down and died like a sickly cur the moment the Empire had arrived. The little Prince would need tempering to burn off the chaff and transform him into a true King, to make his efforts worthy of the long years he’d endured, and perhaps he could find some pleasure in that process.

Ardyn’s eyes narrowed in loathing as he witnessed the Shield step in to protect the Prince from his puppet, like a loyal dog trained from birth to defend that which he wasn’t even aware wasn’t worth the effort. How many would offer to throw away their lives for this mildewed dishrag?

“The King’s sworn Shield,” the High Commander sneered.

“You’d better believe it,” the Shield growled with clenched fists.

Oh, to be young again and find these charming little displays appealing rather than dull. At least he wasn’t alone in that regard, as the girl seemed just as eager to get to the main event as he.

Ardyn had always prided himself in his steadfast patience, the patience that could only come from settling in for a vigil that would last two millennia. He’d stood by as a youth and watched as the rivers of Solheim ran red with blood and charred flesh from the roiling wrath of the Infernian. After being betrayed so many years later, he had been the muse whispering in the ears of the founding emperors of Niflheim—guiding, molding, shaping—snippets placed strategically here and there over the course of those two thousand years to source them with Solheim’s lost secrets of technology. He’d been the one to lure the Infernian away from the path of light with the very plague they’d cursed him with only twelve years previous.

That the god had managed to be tricked into getting yet another body infected proved their weakness and stupidity—stunned asleep as they’d been after the minor matter of their family spat. Summoning his lover, who awoke in a fit of rage and aegis for her lost husband, had been only too easy as well. Murdering her astral body with the same weapon that had kindled the War of the Astrals had given him not only a shiver of pleasure, it had also paved the path for a major climate shift in the Empire, transforming the vast deserts and lush forests of Niflheim into a tundra wasteland and forcing the Emperor to grow more and more desperate with avarice for the abundance of resources in Lucis.

The starvation and suffering of his people had convinced the Emperor to listen to Ardyn’s sighs for the use of daemon weaponry against the shining, wealthy city of Insomnia, despite the populace’s enmity of them. He’d so easily deceived that old fool in using that same populace to create the MTs and diamond weapons that would be strong enough to defeat the Old Wall and take back Ardyn’s birthright. Encouraging the Scientist in creating his clones, one of whom was currently cowering behind his superiors, had been merely a matter of course.

Yes, patience had defined his existence thus far. But now that Ardyn had succeeded in taking down the kingdom of his true birthright and had both the Infernian and the Emperor in his thrall, this journey of inevitability was coming to a close. He found he was experiencing that unfamiliar edge of impatience to see it reach its conclusion—whether that was the sweet relief of eternal sleep at last or the complete destruction of all mankind at his ascension. Even he wasn’t certain which he desired more at this point.

Moving the boy and his friends along the path was to have been a simple matter. Even now, he watched as the Shield’s knees collapsed under the sheer strength of his puppet’s arm before the High Commander gut-punched him hard into the side of the Regalia. The Clone rushed to his side like a mother hen, and even the little Prince stepped between them, summoning his Royal Armiger in yet another show of testosterone. Only seven Royal Arms after all this time? How disappointing. Yes, this would have been a dull matter indeed had it not been for her.

“Hey! Want a go? Let’s do it.”

He supposed, at least, the child was growing some gall under the Glacian’s tutelage, which was intriguing, but then again, she herself had grown a prodigious amount of gall since last they’d met twelve years ago. It wouldn’t have been the first time her temperament had drastically altered in the name of her love. He’d attribute it to the fact that her astral body had been lost in such a traumatic fashion so recently, but that hadn’t seemed to affect the Infernian’s pliability. Perhaps this new Messenger form of hers simply had a more dominant personality. Perhaps this had turned personal between the two of them. What a delicious thought!

He’d known, of course, the moment he’d seen her, who she was. Her astral body destroyed, she’d had no choice but to migrate to her sub-pantheon of Messengers, the forms with which not even Ardyn was completely familiar. He couldn’t understand why she’d chosen to reveal her High Messenger status and continue to deny it so vehemently. He could smell it on her. She positively reeked with the power of Eos, and though he’d felt not the slightest twinge of pain nor pleasure in over two millennia, since the gods had last retired to their slumber, the concentration of it burned at his mind as he drew near, reminding him that he was the Anathema, the Accursed, the Unloved—as though he’d needed the reminder. He, after all, had been the one awake and moving in the world all these years, not they.

His puppet tilted his head, contemplating. “Should the Chosen fall, that too is fate.”

And that was his cue to step in and save the little retinue, play the hero and keep them on their toes, even if his charade was only kept up by her mercurial good graces.

“I’d say that’s far enough. A hand, Highness?” he asked with a simpering sneer.

It was amusing to see the Advisor clench his fists and lean forward at the ready as though he were actually capable of doing some damage. The child had truly believed he was being subtle and intelligent when he’d likely planned this little break-in of theirs. But to be a scholarly man out here in the wild, summoning weapons and sleeping among the animals like a barbarian, the boy must have had more viscera and dedication than even the Shield to stray so far from his true nature. What had the Prince done to inspire such loyalty?

“Not from you,” the Prince muttered.

Well, it wasn’t the boy’s oratory skills that inspired them, that was certain.

“Oh, but I’m here to help,” he replied with sincerity.

“And how is that?” the Advisor cut in.

Honestly, he wouldn’t be surprised if this boy tied the Prince’s boots in the morning—protective and mothering as he was. Not even the Shield was standing this close and with such a defensive posture. If the Prince were ever to be forged into a king, the Advisor would certainly have to be taken out of the picture—perhaps at the same time Ardyn finally tired of toying with the Prince’s own personal goddess and disposed of her.

“By taking the army away.”

He turned on his heel, casually strolling to where she stood looking up at him through her eyelashes with a come-hither smolder. Allowing his voice to drop and soften, he leaned in to speak, noticing that she didn’t pull back in the slightest from his presence. Did she truly not fear at all how quickly and easily he could infect her?

“When next we meet, it’ll be across the seas.”

She snorted indelicately, her head nearly brushing his chest as she bent to laugh. It had been a very long time indeed since someone had been foolhardy enough to show him the back of their neck, and the man had paid dearly for his mistake. Curbing the sudden desire to run his hand along the soft skin there before reaching up with his other hand to grasp her jaw and snap her neck in two, he waited for her faux mirth to subside to hear what words she had planned for him. He wasn’t yet ready to reveal himself to the retinue, and why spoil the fun they were both having? Patience.

“What?” she chuckled as she straightened, rolling her eyes. “Where you plan to ask me out on a date for hot dogs and ice cream?”

This was the game for which he’d decided to keep her alive. After seeing her in Galdin for the first time, he’d intended to get her alone and scourge her right away in Lestallum, perhaps use her to pick off the retinue one by one as they traveled closer to Gralea. But then those first words issued from her mouth, brazen, fiery, and flirtatious instead of frigid and boring. He’d never known her to be like that—never known any being, mortal or immortal to withstand the abomination that was his aura long enough to be aught but disgusted or suspicious of him. She’d suddenly made this farce diverting, and it wasn’t as though she could do him permanent harm. It was a sign he’d been too long on this world that he no longer considered even the gods worthy adversaries.

Until he’d met her, weariness had weighed down his bones and apathy had settled in his mind like a cancer. He’d grown tired of these frivolous mortals—with their brief lives and everything in them they found important—mere things like food, family, wealth, and land. There had been nothing left that this world could offer him. He’d beaten it already. The rest was merely down to details. But then she’d gazed into his eyes with her ancient ones blazing with that spark of mischief—a wordless offer to play—a challenge. She might have been the Ice Mother, but now? She was so very full of fire, and he always did love to toy with fire, even if she couldn’t truly burn him.

He was about to tell her that he preferred something a bit bloodier for his repast, but she cut him off before he could utter a sound.

“You know what? I’m getting a little tired of you running hot and cold on me, so why don’t we cut to the chase?”

“And what did you have in mind, my dear?” he purred, having no idea where this conversation was going, but absolutely thrilled to find out. Would she truly reveal her identity here and now? In front of the children?

Her hand flashed out suddenly, grabbing for his lapel and yanking him down toward her face. He allowed the manhandling—found the sensation rather intriguing, as it had been the first time in memory anyone had voluntarily touched him out of aught but violence. She leaned up on her toes, her cheek nearly brushing his as the scent of wild time washed over him. That burn intensified, and he had to clench his fists to keep from summoning every weapon in his Royal Armiger and slicing that body of hers to ribbons—and wasn’t that a curious desire? Perhaps his hatred ran deeper than he’d realized.

Her breath tickled at his hair as her murmur reached his ear, “I . . . am an alien from outer space. Take me to your leader.”

He shoved her away from him much harder than was strictly necessary, but she only needed to take two steps back until the Shield caught her around the shoulders. Her eyes were lapis jewels glittering with mirth as she grinned with the abandon that only came from the edge of insanity.

Did she truly think she could fool him with such childish nonsense? As she’d drawn closer, he could practically taste the power of Eos on her, could have licked it straight off her cheek as she uttered her damnable falsehoods, bold and impertinent in his ear. How stupid did she think he was?

“Oh, you’ll most certainly meet the leader, my dear,” he said, clenching his jaw a brief moment before continuing, “and you’ll see just what a wicked end he has wrought for you.”

Perhaps the loss of her husband, the loss of her body, and the time spent bouncing back and forth between her two Messenger forms at the sides of the King and Oracle truly had addled the goddess’s mind. No matter her malady, she’d needed reminding of the damage he could do to her should he choose. For whatever stakes she was playing this game, she must remember that he was the coeurl and she the arba in this scenario, and oh what fun he would have in hunting her down!