When he wakes up this time, it’s in a lush forest where the air is damp and the beasts exotic. Nausea ripples through like a soft current, ebbing and flowing into his head and stomach and throat. Noctis grumbles, turning his face into the mossy carpet, and he feels the dew cool and refreshing against his cheeks and eyelids, when suddenly he’s aware of the warmth licking at his ears and neck and the crackle of wood burning. He’s not on fire, though, so he’s sure he’s not being cooked alive. Not in any immediate danger, he decides to keep his eyes closed for a little longer, and he thinks he dozes off for just a while, because not a minute later, he senses a presence beside him and feels a hand carding through his hair. It's a comforting sensation, yet so nostalgic that he wonders why he feels the sudden tug of grief at his edges.
(A silent voice tells him to remember, but he knows that territory only begets agony.)
“Hello, Ardyn,” he greets, eyes still closed.
“Hello there, Noctis,” comes the deep drawl. No matter how many times he hears it, that timbre and cadence never fails to pickle his skin.
They say nothing afterwards, both listening to the song of life around them — the lively music of nesting birds, the rustle of thick leaves as small critters rush through, the distant echo of a rushing river, the growl of something definitely predatory. Noctis only moves to turn fully on his side and curl his knees up, when Ardyn holds his head to slide his own leg underneath to serve as a pillow, to which Noctis hums in appreciation.
It’s another five minutes of comfortable silence before Noctis thinks to ask his usual set of questions. “Where are we?”
“Malmalam. Though I do believe the better question would be when. ”
“I was getting there.”
“Hm, well, I suppose that all depends on what era you came from.”
Noctis cracks his eyes open, sees a small campfire burning a few feet away from him. He licks his lips, tries to reach for the most recent memories that still cling to him. Having spent so many years leaping through the different ages and never going in a linear timeline, his memory has become a mess, a tangle of yarn that spirals and twists and frays. It’s hard to keep track of which event belongs where, of when which occurrence happens or if it has yet to happen, and too many times has he confused the both of them with his garbled up nonsense. Sometimes, he wonders if any of them have actually occurred — or will occur, to be precise.
(And has he really been travelling for years? Perhaps, in retrospect, it could only be days or minutes, when he’s constantly leaping backwards and forwards, adding and subtracting from his own time. Or perhaps he’s been doing this for the full stretch of a century, if he collects all the seconds he’s spent in his limbo of time and stitches them together in this messed up patchwork he calls his life.)
“I think… Is there a Chocobo Post in Duscae?” Noctis finally says.
“Not that I know of. So we can safely assume you’ve come from the grand, brilliant future.”
They long gave up on using dates, ever since Noctis learned historians could be extremely inaccurate with pinning and dating important events. There was a time when he was positive it was post-Solheim and had asked Ardyn how he was holding up with the aftermath of a crumbling kingdom. When it turned out his home and people were still standing, Noctis spent an agonizing guilt-ridden hour skirting around Ardyn’s insistent prodding. Ever since then, he’s been careful to make sure when and where he was before making any small talk, before even mentioning anything related to Ardyn.
“How’s, um, Solheim?”
“As resplendent as ever.”
“Oh. That’s good.”
Ardyn was always happier in the times when Solheim kept standing. More light-hearted with sincere smiles and an excruciatingly gentle touch, less ragged and empty and something Noctis never dares to think about. Still as theatrical though, that never changes.
(If only he could use his time-bending abilities to help, to keep that tender smile perched on his still young face. He’s tried before, though he’s lost count about fifty cycles ago, and hasn’t ever since.)
“Did you know, my dear Noct,” he says, fingers tickling a sensitive patch at the base of the younger man’s skull, “that apparently I’m to be king?”
Ah, now Noctis knew exactly what timestream he had fallen into — the calm before the storm, he calls it. He hums in affirmation, turns onto his back to look up at Ardyn and his golden eyes, the ominous glow absent in this time. It’s these eyes that he loves the most, bright and confident and sentimental, free of his future burdens and fermenting scorn. (And that’s what makes it more painful.) He looks past the man, up into the canopy of the trees where he can catch glimpses of the setting sky’s pinks and purples. “Shouldn’t you be in some royal palace then? Getting fancied up for a snazzy ceremony and all that?”
“I’ve still a few years and Somnus to hash out the details, should it come to that. I decided to go wander and explore the lands of Eos while I can, heal the ailing as I do. Something informs me I’ll be chained to Solheim once I’m crowned, and I’d like to indulge in the freedom I have until then.”
Noctis almost chokes. He remembers doing the same once, long ago. With his three friends whose names and faces he can no longer remember. But he recalls the wind tousling their hair and listening to old pop music on repeat, trekking over sand and hills and filling their boots with muddy swamp water, taking in the sights and sounds of an island nation and sweetening their tongues with foreign delicacies. But he remembers fire and ruins, sacrifices made in blood and flesh, daemons and screams and darkness. They’re all fragments now, blurs in his decrepit memory, and though they feel so faraway, they still leave a dull ache in his chest, the strong remnants of fear and grief still threatening to spill tears from his eyes and sobs from his throat.
His distress must show on his face, because Ardyn’s pulled him up to his chest now, one hand patting his dark hair, the other rubbing circles into his back.
“Sorry,” Noctis says, not for the first or last time.
“A bad memory?” Ardyn states more than asks, tone so soft and gentle that it hurts .
(Because Noctis knows his future. That despite the fondness Ardyn will still hold for him, it does not change the spite and poison that replaces his tender heart.)
“Yeah, but it’s not like I really remember it anymore.”
And that, more than the broken emotions, is what makes him hurt.
Next time he sees Ardyn, it’s freezing cold. Through the blizzard that attacks his vision, he can at least tell he’s in civilization. From the thick layers of white, he sees tall, dark buildings rise into a starless sky, spires and towers reaching as far as he can see. Occasionally a fool decides to brave through the storm, and a car rushes past him on the snow-ploughed streets, sending a cold slush of rain and ice at his legs. He yelps and tries to dodge, though he’s surprised he can still feel anything despite how numb his face and fingers feel.
And despite wondering if this is how he’ll die, freezing to death in the streets of some foreign country in an unknown time, Noctis can’t help but feel a wave of nostalgia. This city isn’t the same, but it’s familiar and modern. Like his home. If only he could remember its name.
He collapses into the side of a flickering streetlight; at this point, he hopes he dies soon — though technically, it’s not a true death. He learned on his first passing, that dying just meant an immediate time travel. That one second he might be on the ground bleeding out his guts, and on the next he’ll be standing in the middle of a desert, stomach intact and not a scrape or bruise in sight.
It’s a shame he’ll be missing Ardyn this go-around, but maybe he can catch him in the next cycle.
And as luck or coincidence or fate or whatever would have it, he sees a swish of heavy fabric and knows this familiar presence. “Took you long enough,” he manages to stutter out.
Whatever Ardyn says is lost to the howling snowstorm, but Noctis doesn’t miss that grin before he lets himself fall into the embrace of darkness.
So when he next wakes up, he thinks he’s travelled again, thinks he’s died right when Ardyn found him. But in the bundle of warm blankets and plush pillows, he can still feel the hollow cold in his chest and the sluggish weight that holds onto his limbs, and he realizes, with mild delight, that he’s still alive. He wants to just lay there, maybe fall back to sleep, but he doesn’t know how long he has in this cycle.
So with monumental effort, Noctis pulls away at two, three, four layers of blanket and gingerly climbs out of bed. He pats himself down and notices his clothes have been changed. He’s wearing a loose long-sleeved sweater and sweatpants, an ensemble of all white in contrast to his usual blacks, but he doesn’t complain. It’s comfortable for what it’s worth, and it wouldn’t be the first time Ardyn’s seen him nude.
He’s admiring the snowstorm from the safety of his window when Ardyn steps in, a silver tray with what Noctis smells is food. He continues to look out into the white landscape until he hears a soft clatter of plates followed by a pair of arms around his waist. He feels the rough stubble of Ardyn’s beard poke at his ears and cheeks, and Noctis is grumbling in protest of the oncoming beard rash.
Ardyn just chuckles, ignoring the half-hearted swats at his forearms, and digs his face into the crook of Noctis’ neck. He nips at the soft skin there, not hard enough to leave any trace, but his lips linger still.
“Hello, sweetest heart,” he whispers into his skin. “I’ve missed you sorely.”
(And his heart stops. And he knows it’s not from Ardyn’s sweet words. But because he knows , even as he refuses to believe it.)
Noctis breathes in, realizes they’re past that point in time when their companionship had evolved into something else. But in the deepest pits in his stomach, he also realizes this is the future where something sinister and dark plagues Ardyn, when he loses the grace of the gods and falls to despair. Though it seems he’s past the stage of grieving.
“Hi, Ardyn,” Noctis replies, hands lightly gripping the window sill. He keeps his eyes trained on a frozen car.
“Did you miss me as well, my dear?” His cold hands snake down to the younger man’s hips, his gentle touches suddenly bruising and sharp as he digs his fingernails in.
“I did.” He barely flinches. Noctis closes his eyes and reaches a hand around to grab at a bunch of burgundy hair, pulling Ardyn down for a kiss. Slow, languid. He keeps his eyes closed. “Ardyn.”
(And he still does. He misses the Ardyn of the long forgotten past, the Ardyn before he was denied his crown. But beggars can’t be choosers, so he keeps his eyes shut and takes what he’s offered.)
“I'm terribly sorry for what happened last time, so I do hope you find it in your dearest heart to forgive me. I got a little too excited, you see, and I was absolutely ravenous.”
Noctis crinkles his eyebrows, stares at Ardyn’s mouth instead of his eyes. He isn't sure what the man’s going on about, until he realizes it must be a time he has yet to visit. “I… don't think that's happened yet. Or I mean, I haven't been there yet.”
Ardyn briefly pauses from his pepper of kisses along the younger man's shoulder. “Ah.”
He doesn’t care to explain; at least, he makes no intention to. Noctis ignores the unease that settles from it, because Ardyn’s here, he’s here, both of them alive — as they can be, Ardyn an immortal and Noctis some time-defying being — so it should work out in the end.
But his thoughts escape him, his gaze glued to the windowsill when Ardyn takes him, makes him pliant and gasping with his precise and unmerciful hands. He closes his eyes when he cranes his neck around for a clash of lips and tongue, to rough teeth biting and pulling and the taste of iron. He looks out onto the streets, keeping his white-knuckled fists against the cold glass, when he feels Ardyn’s agonizingly slow pace turn fierce and unrelenting. His mistake comes when Ardyn wraps a hand around his neck and the tight coil snaps, when he lifts his eyes and sees their reflection in the window. When he sees a daemon’s smile and a pair of glowing golden eyes staring through the darkness.
It’s sweltering here. And dark. Noctis wills what little is left of his magic and conjures a blue light into his hand, carefully picking his way through the cave. He wants to pass out from the humidity and the heat, and he almost stops to turn and go back up, to the cooler ocean breeze that wafts through his hair. But then he remembers he’ll still be stuck on the island with no boat to ferry him to shore. So he presses on, careful to avoid the jagged rocks that might cut his hand.
His slow crawl turns into a mad dash, and he cuts his hand when he tries to catch himself from tripping over his own feet. He doesn’t know whether to pull at the chains or let them stay embedded into Ardyn; and if he wasn’t so racked with panic and terror, he’d marvel at how there was no blood despite the thick metal driving themselves through the man’s flesh and bones. It’s a chorus of ‘Ardyn,’ ‘I’ve got you,’ ‘It’ll be okay,’ and a mix of the three as Noctis feels around the chains and tries to calm himself down enough to think.
Ardyn doesn’t respond to his presence or his words, so he suspects the man’s unconscious. Which, he supposes, is a good thing because the only solution he comes up with is to tear the chains right out of Ardyn.
(And as he picks away at the restraints, he pushes down the haunting feeling of ‘ wrong ’ that pulls at his arms, that wants to take him away from Ardyn. It’s a mistake, his instincts tell him, but he’s not sure what the mistake is.)
It’s a surprisingly bloodless ordeal with nary a scream. There’s no way Noctis can carry him back out to the surface, so he stays there and cradles Ardyn in his arms. He’s nodding off when he feels the slightest twitch of muscle underneath his hands. There's a sharp intake of breath, but he's not sure if that's from himself or Ardyn. He lets the man roll out of his lap and onto his side before coming up to his hands and knees.
Noctis watches quietly as Ardyn pulls himself back to life, and he wonders where they're dotted on this construed timeline. Just when he thinks he can go no more forward or no more backward, the universe always makes sure to correct him and dump him in some entirely different era. He thinks this is one of those times. Ardyn’s never mentioned anything like this, but Noctis is positive this isn't in the “past” when nearly the whole of Eos worshipped him like an Astral, when they wouldn’t dare to let their Healer King rot away under stone and dirt.
“Oh, my dear Noctis. So good and so very dear to me,” Ardyn rasps out. His voice sounds horrible, like he swallowed a box of nails, but he keeps on with that lazy drawl of his — or tries to, anyway.
“Ardyn, are you okay?” Noctis reaches a tentative hand out, lightly brushes his fingertips against a dirty shoulder. Ardyn is still facing away from him, but Noctis sees something trickle off his chin and onto the cavern floor. He feels a wave of worry, when he realizes it's blood, despite how black it is.
“Believe me when I say ‘Never better’ because truly, I've never felt such euphoria in my entire miserable, gods-forsaken existence,” he spits out.
(And Noctis begins to understand the mistake.)
“But you've always been that brilliant little light in the hour of darkness — so true to your name — and you have yet to fail me. Such a dear, sweet thing you are.” Ardyn grips his wrist. There's even more blood now, and it pools around them, and it crawls over the floor and up the prison walls and covers every inch until all he sees is black. Until it’s only him, Ardyn, and the dying light of his magic. But it’s not the darkness that tips him off.
It's the heavy scent of decay that he can taste on his tongue, the eerie silence that stretches on before disaster strikes. It's the sheer poison that drips like honey in Ardyn's voice, promising an unspoken oath of vengeance and complete destruction. He knows this because he sees and hears and feels it all in the future, and it's then he realizes when they are.
A daemon turns his head, and he sees a flash of gold.
When he opens his eyes, it's a cruel twist of fate, he thinks bitterly, that he knows when and where he is.
In another lifetime, in another world, he would be standing here with his most trusted friends, weapons in their hands and unwavering courage in their hearts. Despite the darkness and the ten years that once separated him from his comrades, they would stand side by side and cut through the demons and steel soldiers, fighting in perfect step down to the slightest twitch of muscle. They would emerge triumphant before the Citadel, to usher in the new dawn.
(But at the end of their hard-won battles, Noctis would be left alone to ascend the steps. To walk toward his death. He still doesn’t remember their names.)
But it's the one thing he knows is the same, as he quietly walks up the familiar stairs. And he thinks, he may actually die here — no more resets and new cycles — and he almost wishes it to be true. There was no daemon or ghost to stop his way when he first found himself in the burning streets of Insomnia, and whatever servant of the Scourge he did come across decided to turn the other cheek. He's alone from the beginning to the end, no daemon or old comrade to greet him, but he knows of one who will be waiting for him at the end of these steps.
Ardyn sits the throne, and Noctis doesn't dare look at the chains that hang from the once grand ceilings.
“My dear Noctis. How darling of you to return to me. Always so dear, ever so sweet.” His words are so thick with honey, Noctis might suffocate from it. Ardyn extends a blackened hand, invites him lovingly to sit by his side.
He feels the terrifyingly strong pull of familiarity and kinship, and that alone is enough to send him a step forward. He stops when he sees Ardyn's eyes.
He turns on his heel, and for the first time, Noctis runs.
“Congratulations, once again!” A man lifts his mug in a toast, and a cheer rumbles through the tavern. “To their child! May he live a long and healthy life!”
“Aye!” they all shout in unison.
“So tell us, brother, what is the lucky boy’s name?”
A man with auburn hair smiles. “Ardyn.”
Noctis turns on his heel and walks back into the rain. Away. His feet take him to the outskirts of the village, where he finds shelter underneath an oak tree and its broad branches. He slides down against the rough bark and pulls his legs against his chest, burying his face into his knees. He cries.