When Gladio struck down Gilgamesh, he wasn’t expecting to get anything.
The purpose of the Tempering Grounds is to prove yourself. It’s in the name. Gladio’s goal was that, true, but it was also to find power. He wasn’t sure what he’d meant by that. Maybe, if he’d pulled his head out of his own insecurities, he’d have noticed that the world is not a fantasy book, and there’s no abstract, shapeless ‘power’ that gets bestowed to the worthy.
“Very well,” says Gilgamesh, when Gladio’s blade has cleft him in two and left no mark, like he’d struck a mirage. “You came for power, and you shall have it.”
And then the world twists around in a nauseating tumble, and when Gladio knows up from down again, he finds himself lying prone on his side, on the same ground he’d just trodden, and unable to focus his eyes properly.
Also, the colors look off.
Everything looks off.
‘Concussion,’ he thinks, and then he tries to stand and sees something furry and fingerless where his hands are supposed to be. The objects move when he tells his arms to move. They are his arms.
He shivers –
and feels hair rising across his entire body.
He stands. Somehow. Moves his limbs in ways they seem to want to be moved. He stands on all fours, shaking just a little, and tries to get his bearings in a world that seems to have lost all color except blue, that’s blurrier and louder and smellier than it has ever been before. It’s disorienting. He feels like throwing up.
Something moves in front of him.
He looks, and the image of Gilgamesh distorts and vanishes before his eyes, leaving behind nothing but the face of the crag and the ground speckled with Gladio’s own blood.
‘What the hell did you do to me?!’ he tries to ask, but it starts as a growl and ends in a doggy yelp, and Gladio had never been this scared in his life.
He runs outside, into the scents of damp soil and fresh leaves, and skids to a stop, ignoring the pain in his abused feet.
Cor’s right there.
The relief makes him weak.
With his vision out of whack as it is, Cor is somewhat blurry around the edges, but his posture is unmistakable, and he is the only thing around that smells like sweat and human skin, so it really can’t be anyone else. A wild hope beats in Gladio’s chest as he catches his breath: Cor can help. Cor has been to this place before, and even if he’d never heard of anything like this, he tends to know things that neither Gladio, nor his companions do. Cor is experienced, and smart, and a friend.
Cor unsheathes his sword and points it loosely at Gladio, stance ready.
They stare at each other for a long several moments, Gladio stunned and Cor sharply focused. When Gladio dares to twitch forward, the blade of the sword shifts as well, until it’s pointing straight at his face, and he freezes again. Any sort of hope he’d held is gone.
‘Cor, it’s me,’ he wants to say, but all that comes out is a low whine.
“Be on your way,” Cor commands, quiet but firm, and a small part of Gladio wants to laugh at him for talking to something that’s decidedly not human, but the rest of him silently despairs.
He doesn’t want to leave, doesn’t want to be alone with this, and he lets himself dwell on it long enough that Cor takes half a step forward and barks a sharp, “Get,” and Gladio shuffles backwards, uncertain.
There’s no recognition in Cor’s face – only a cold readiness to cut him down.
Gladio turns tail and runs.
He huddles under a rock outcropping, somehow able to tell that it’s night even though everything looks plenty bright to his eyes, and tries to think. Key word being, ‘tries’.
It doesn’t really work.
In his exhaustion, the only coherent thought he’s able to grasp, the one that cycles through his mind on endless repeat, is, ‘So this is the power I wanted?’ Even in his head, it has a hysterical ring to it.
He’s too wired to close his eyes, but he blacks out anyway.
He wakes up just before dawn, still not in his own body, and firmly forbids himself from freaking out. Again.
So he’s stuck like this, with no obvious means of fixing it, so what. Assess the damage and move on.
He spends some time tottering about like a newborn anak, getting used to his legs and weight and balance. It’s almost funny: in his mad dash away from the crag and Cor, when he’d barely had the wherewithal to think about how he moved, his feet had carried him forward all on their own, but now that he’s calm and trying to run on purpose, he ends up flat on the ground more often than not.
He gets the hang of it, eventually. His dignity takes a beating, but he beats it down even more, all the way into submission, until it gets the memo that mobility currently ranks way above it.
His new senses leave him dizzy at first. Yeah, his vision is shit and anything more than fifty feet away is blurry and flat and the color red doesn’t exist and green is now yellow, but he can see a mouse sneeze from those fifty feet. Hell, he can hear it sneeze, if he listens for it. He can smell where it went after it sneezed, and how long ago that was. The sheer amount of information his nose offers him is astonishing.
The outdoors enthusiast in him is delighted.
In the cacophony of scents that follows him everywhere he goes, one stands out – one that he can’t identify for the life of him. Yet for all that he can’t tell what it is, it’s familiar, like the sight of his childhood bedroom after years away.
He beats his curiosity down. There are better things to worry about.
Like, how does he get back to the guys.
And whether he even should.
Gladio entertains the thought of living out the rest of his days in the forests of Duscae for all of a minute. It wouldn’t even be that bad, survivalist freak that he is. Then he gives himself a firm mental knock upside the head and resolves to track his friends down. Two feet or four, he is still Noct’s Shield; besides, who knows, they might all put their heads together and figure out a way to turn him back. Trying to deal with this predicament on his own is pointless.
Decision made, he points his feet – paws – towards Caem.
Then promptly turns around and heads north instead.
It’s that scent. The familiar one that he can’t identify. It’s a feeling in his gut, something that’s telling him, ‘Hey, if you wanna get to Noct, go this way.’
Gladio doesn’t have a good history with gut feelings. His entire life, since early childhood, had been discipline and protocol and definitive instructions. There had been very little space for gut feelings.
This, though. This is like that moment mid-battle, the one where even with his back to Noct, he feels, now, and jumps between his prince and danger with his shield out. It’s urgent, and entirely instinctual.
The impulse doesn’t even feel foreign. That’s the scariest part.
Plan abandoned, he sets out across the sloping hills west of the Crag, eventually settling into an easy trot and following the lure that weird scent provides. The weather is merciless on him, day sun turning everything too bright for his eyes and heating his fur until he has to open his mouth and let the cool wind skim across his tongue. He stops at a creek once, but very quickly realizes he has no idea how to drink without any cheeks, and nearly chokes when he tries to put his entire muzzle underwater and it gets in his nose.
A crow, small and sharp-smelling, watches his pitiful attempts from the other bank. ‘What’re you looking at,’ he growls at it.
The stupid bird doesn’t even blink.
He reaches the road leading into Lestallum and stops. The scent is definitely pointing him towards the city, prominent even over the stench of cooling asphalt and tire rubber, but he can’t just waltz into town the way he is and expect it to go over well. He mulls on the problem for a minute, then crosses the road and makes his way towards the cliffs overlooking the city. It’ll be a climb, but he’ll get a view, at least.
From up top, the blur of Lestallum is laid out like a model of a town, lit up all over and smelling of stone dust and some foreign ozony thing that seems to radiate from the meteor along with the heat, and also faintly of garbage. The constant updraft of warm air along the cliff face ruffles his whiskers and fur as he paces along the edge, unsettled for no good reason. He doesn’t know what he was hoping to see from here. The source of that scent that has drawn him here, probably. He’d forgotten that his vision isn’t very good right now.
He sleeps above those cliffs that night, fitfully, ignoring faint pangs of hunger. The scent doesn’t change. Gladio will give it one more day here before calling it quits and making for Caem. Whatever it is, he can’t investigate it in his current shape, and he has priorities, damn it. Number one is his job. Everything else can wait.
The very next morning, the scent picks up and rolls northward out of Lestallum.
It’s like the universe is messing with his plans on purpose.
His nose takes him on a fairly straightforward trek, until he catches an actual scent that’s the same as the one he’s been following but also not. It’s late afternoon, the ground is warm and the grass is smelly, and he spends probably upwards of an hour untangling the weave of scent tracks laid out on the rocky soil. They crisscross and round on themselves and vanish only to reappear dozens of feet away, and they mix with traces of other scents – some kind of animal, gunpowder, coffee – coffee? They vex him to no end, and then he finds some dried blood that he’d estimate about a few hours old and figures there must have been a fight between at least three hunters and some wildlife.
He wants to think it was Noctis and the rest of the gang, but he knows better than to hedge his bets on it.
He finds the carcasses, eventually. They’re not human ones.
He finds the scent that’s not a scent, too.
He hears them before he sees anything useful. Familiar voices skirt the edges of his hearing, Prompto’s high-pitched chatter and Ignis’ mellow commentary. They’re camped pretty high up on a hill: the sounds carry wide across the surrounding plains from the hazy blue flare of haven runes. Energized, he puts on a burst of speed. There’s hope.
Then he remembers what happened the last time he’d hoped.
His legs slow down all on their own, and he clambers up the hill mostly on momentum. His mind works. He can’t afford to scare them into driving him off, so no coming across as something that wants to eat them. Slow down. Keep your head low. Maybe just, just lie down and make big, sad puppy eyes at them. What’s dignity, anyway. Needs must.
He can make out their faces, now.
Alerted by something – a clack of claws, a loud breath, Gladio doesn’t know, – Prompto perks up, looks over, and blanches immediately.
He smells distinctly like gunpowder and stress.
“We’ve got company!”
Noct jerks awake where he was nodding off in his chair; Ignis pops his head out of the tent and adopts one of his scarier expressions, the rest of him out in the open and lance-equipped in moments. There’s a brief stalemate while nobody dares move: Gladio at the inner edge of the haven, the guys frozen in various degrees of alarm.
Gladio huffs and sits down. Or, well, tries to. It’s a bit awkward. He’d never paid much attention to dogs and how they move.
Damn if it’s not a relief, though, to rest his legs after two full days of walking.
Prompto, as usual, is the one with the least amount of self-preservation around animals, and he relaxes in increments as Gladio continues to sit there placidly, not licking his chops or staring at anyone or anything. Really, he tries his best.
Prompto asks, tentatively, “…Is that a dog?”
Gladio could snort if he wasn’t trying so hard to be non-threatening.
No shit, Noct.
“It rather looks like a wolf to me, although I didn’t know they came in this size.”
“Wolf?! Aren’t those, like, extinct? I mean, I slept through History, but, hey, I’m pretty sure they never show up in nature documentaries. At least not in any I’ve seen.”
“That would’ve been in your Biology module, but you’re correct. The last wolf on Eos was hunted down almost a century ago. Still, I’m fairly certain they only got as big as a Great Galahdian Shepherd.”
The more they talk about him, the more they calm down, from battle-ready to mildly wary. Ignis lets the tip of his lance dip down until it’s almost to the ground; Prompto shuffles around the camp chair he was hiding behind and takes a few steps towards Gladio, even as Ignis warns him in a quietly panicked tone to stay well away from a potentially rabid animal. Everyone freezes again when Gladio shifts a bit, but then he figures out how to lie down on his stomach, and the sigh that escapes him is completely involuntary. He’d really spent too long on his feet today.
“Maybe it just wanted a safe spot to lie down,” Prompto says, now only a few feet away, and Gladio finds that he doesn’t much care what they do, as long as they let him stay right here, not too close to the stinky fire, and just rest. His eyes are fluttering closed on their own, and he tries valiantly to limit it to slow blinks. He’s tired, and hungry, but his friends don’t seem eager to attack him anymore, so he’s safe, at least. He can be content with that for now.
“Hey, there, boy,” Prompto coos from right in front of his legs, and Gladio drags his heavy eyelids open by a gargantuan push of will. The kid is balancing on the balls of his feet, teetering back and forth; Ignis hovers over his shoulder, tense, ready to intervene if need be, and Gladio is suddenly tired in a different way than before. He just wants some damn support, is that too much to ask? Why does he have to deal with his friends treating him like a threat?
Fresh out of shits to give, he lays his head down on his stretched-out front legs and ignores the twitch that goes through Ignis at the motion. He casts his gaze from him to Prompto, to Noct, impassive and indecisive in the background, back to Prompto again, then lets himself zone out into the middle distance. Prompto starts chattering again, quiet and what probably passes for soothing in his book, and cautiously smoothes a hand along his muzzle, up from his nose towards his eyes. When the extent of Gladio’s reaction is a few tired thumps of tail – do whatever, shrimp, – he does it again, and again.
Distantly, he notices Ignis unwinding again. All he can do is sigh.
“Hey, Noct, come over here. I think the big guy likes pets.”
“Noct, please – “
“How’d you know it’s a guy?”
“Eh, I’m just guessing.”
“Highness – “
“Here, I’ve been petting him on the nose like this, he seems to like that.”
The scent of Noct swamps his senses, unexpected and familiar in a weird way, like the sight of his childhood bedroom after months of camping and motels and dank caves, and he opens his eyes – when did he even close them? Prompto is crouching in front of his face, and Noct next to him, and as Prompto removes his hand, Noct reaches out.
Gladio’s bones start humming.
That’s all the warning he gets.
There’s touch, warm and light, for all of a second, before a bright-hot thread extends from the spot through to Gladio’s very heart and pulls –
He’s turning inside out – The world is inside out –
Then he’s lying on his side on the cold and dirty haven stone, and his hands are hands again.
He takes a moment to just breathe.
Laboriously, Gladio rolls onto his back and stares blankly at the starless expanse above. The night sky is its normal deep black again, but after just two days, it seems strange. He breathes and only gets ‘outdoors’ and ‘campfire’ and ‘food’.
He swears, colorfully but quietly, and feels some of the tension of the past few days leave him.
From above him, Noct asks, uncertain, “You alright?”
Gladio breathes some more, swallows around the stone in his throat, and doesn’t even try to get up. His legs wouldn’t hold him. He’s not sure he even remembers how.
“Thought I’d never turn back,” he says eventually, and it’s like telling someone about the nightmare you just woke up from: you feel like an idiot at first, but then you feel better because you’ve got one more degree of separation between yourself and the scary thing. If it sounds dumb when you say it out loud, then it’s nothing to be scared of.
It doesn’t sound that dumb. He could’ve been stuck like that for the rest of his life, for all he’d known.
Would it have sucked that bad, really?
He doesn’t know.
“So, are you, like, one of Ifrit’s hounds? You know, the ones that drag the really bad sinners to the top of the Ravatogh and feed them to their master?”
“Fuck, no.” Gladio sends Prompto a look that’s a cross between ‘irritated’ and ‘what the hell is wrong with you’. The blond jerks back in his seat and raises his hands in front of himself in a gesture of conciliation. “I, uh…”
I did something stupid.
“I went to the Tempering Grounds.”
And got cursed for my efforts.
It doesn’t take that long to explain everything, when he leaves out all the confusion and fear and self-doubt. Really, didn’t he seek out Gilgamesh to get rid of those? And yet there they are.
Maybe you can never be rid of those things.
‘If I have more power, I won’t have to be scared.’
‘If I have more power, I won’t have to worry whether I’m good enough.’
‘If I have more power, I’ll know how to be better.’
Like “power” is an unlockable video game gimmick that’ll make the final boss a breeze.
Childish delusions, all of it.
He’d thought it would be easy, for a change. Go in, pass the test, come out victorious. Finally put that seed of doubt to rest. External validation and tangible results in one neat package. Easy.
There’s no such thing as ‘easy’ in this world. He really is old enough to know that. There’s standards, and holding yourself up to them. That’s all there is.
His main standard, as it is, should be keeping his king alive and functioning.
He wants things, though. He wants his home back. He wants to kick Niff ass until he doesn’t feel one wrong choice away from snapping. He wants a future where the whirr of dropships overhead doesn’t make him jolt and reach for a weapon.
He can’t make himself discard those things. He knows he should. But he can’t.
His life has already been decided for him.
Let him have his dreams, at least.
“So, if I understand correctly,” Ignis says, once Prompto is done being loudly fascinated by everything that happened to Gladio while he was away, “you turned into… that, immediately after defeating the lingering spirit of the Founder King’s Shield? And he implied that he was giving you what you‘d come for?”
The fire crackles.
“Perhaps…” Ignis thumbs at his chin. “Perhaps he’d meant it as a boon, rather than a curse.”
“How’d you figure,” Gladio asks. Anger, defensive and vicious, rises in him like gorge, unexpected and unstoppable. He swallows it down.
“Think of it this way,” says Ignis. “That sixth sense you had in that form, the one that led you to Noct. You could certainly find a use for that, if you ever get separated. I can’t say yet if you’d make a more formidable opponent in battle, aside from the sheer size of your other form, but, let’s say, if faced with aggressive wildlife, you would have the combined advantages of a predator’s natural offenses and a human’s cunning.”
Damn Ignis and his rational thinking.
“Yeah, maybe,” he grumbles.
He doesn’t like what Ignis seems to be suggesting, and he hates that he has to like it.
It makes sense, strategy-wise, to use any tools they have to the best of their ability, but Gladio can’t help the knee-jerk ‘No’ that surges in him.
Fear in battle is a momentary thing. A swoop in your stomach, when you see a blade, or a claw, or a pincer coming at you and you have to act, and now. Fight-or-flight. Adrenaline. A split second where your body is weightless and charged with electricity. Most of the time, you don’t even notice it, because there is no time.
This – experience, though; it was nothing like that. It was a long, long time of ice crawling through his limbs and his core shuddering under his bones and his mind going ‘What-am-I-going-to-do what-am-I-going-to-do what-am-I-going-to-do’ like drumming his fingers on a table. It was constant, and it came from within, and he could no more fight it off than he could scoop out his own stomach.
Worse than anything, it hadn’t just been a bodily reaction – it had taken over his brain, too, and left him with no control over anything. Like sitting in a train that’s barreling towards a cliff, and having no means to stop it.
He doesn’t want to feel like that again. He doesn’t know how to deal with it.
Incompetence gets your king killed, his father’s voice sounds in his head, stern and uncompromising, and Gladio wants to cringe in shame.
Yes, he’d been scared. Yes, he’d considered running away in shame. But.
Didn’t he get past that, in the end?
Is that too much leeway?
Later, when Ignis is cleaning up his makeshift kitchen and Prompto’s hiding from mosquitoes in the tent, it’s just Gladio and Noct by the fire, silent and stewing in it. There are words, shapeless, that need to be said, floating away from them on the sparks from the fire. At least, Gladio feels like it. It’s always hard to tell, with Noct, if he’s gathering his thoughts or just trying to stay awake.
Noctis hasn’t said anything since Gladio turned human again. At all. Even for him, that’s not exactly normal.
Gladio doesn’t push him. He would have, normally, but whatever answers he owes, he doesn’t particularly feel like giving them. If Noct never gets around to asking, all the better.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Noct finally says, looking Gladio straight in the eye. He says it without any blustering or hedging. Gladio quirks a brow in confusion, and he clarifies, “Of you. When you came in from the dark like that.”
“Well, that was fucking stupid,” he scoffs and ignores the stink-eye Noct gives him. “A huge wild animal comes close to you, you’re supposed to be godsdamn careful. Coulda been just some monster with rabies.”
Noctis huffs in annoyance, looks away. “I knew,” he says, “that you wouldn’t hurt me.”
Disbelieving, Gladio asks, “You knew it was me?”
“No, I just – I just knew. Like I know what’s in the armory. That it was safe.”
He stares at Noct, who’s being sullen without showing it.
You should’ve been afraid, he wants to say, again and again until it sinks into Noct’s thick skull, because when he was wolf-shaped, he could see the top of Prompto’s head when the kid was standing up, and he knows how much damage an animal that size could do without even trying. He wants Noct to have enough sense to keep himself alive if Gladio ever isn’t there.
The thing is, he cares about Noct a whole lot, this kid who plays video games and gets excited about fishing and takes the blame for those weaker than him, who had to grow up in the span of a few days when he lost everything and who hasn’t been a kid for the majority of his life. He wants to keep him safe from all harm, from the enemies at his front and from the pain in his back and from the daemons in his mind, but he knows he can’t. He can't be there in his head when he’s shutting down from too much worry, and he can’t return to the past to crush the Marilith before it crushes his prince, and sometimes, he can’t even deflect a hit in time.
Incompetent, and oh, it bit every time his dad said it.
Keeping Noct safe is his job, and it’s what he’d do even if it wasn’t, but it’s hard to imagine.
Noct has a job, too, and that’s taking care of the country.
That’s Gladio’s job, too: to make sure Noct can do his. For some reason, he’s been taking it to mean he has to make sure Noct actually does it. He doesn’t understand it, but it feels crucial to keep thinking that. When Noct can’t continue forward on his own, he has to push. That’s his role.
He wishes, sometimes, when his eyes are skimming over well-read passages without taking any of them in, that he didn’t have to.
He’s pushing Noct straight into the Infernian’s pit, it feels like.
The worst part is that it’s Gladio’s job, to push when needed. His duty to the kingdom.
Outside of that, he sometimes thinks, Don’t make me push you. It’s a wretched, incompetent thought.
He doesn’t want to be the one to cause Noct’s suffering. Directly, indirectly, whichever. Utter selfishness, that’s what it is, when the country is in shambles and the future is uncertain in completely unprecedented ways, and all he wants is to not be the one to harm his king.
So it has to be Noct’s choice to take that responsibility. It has to be. It will still be horrible, but Gladio doesn’t know how to handle that other guilt. He can’t bear that. It would crush him and leave nothing behind, and he’s afraid of it the way an animal fears imminent death.
He’s supposed to be above it.
But he isn’t.
His obligations towards Noct as a person and Noct as a king – why do they have to exclude each other?
Why is everything such a mess?
Yeah, better not think about that one for too long.
Noct keeps shooting him these sidelong glances as the silence drags on, like he’s checking for something, like whatever needed to be said still hasn’t been said and he’s waiting for Gladio to get the hint.
What does he want Gladio to say? ‘Sorry I’ve failed as your Shield, and sorry I’m going to keep failing because I’m scared?’ You don’t just say things like that, and feeling sorry won’t help matters. ‘Sorry I fucked off for days and left you without the protection you deserved?’ But Noct deserves so much better than a pair of junior Crownsguard and an almost-civilian tagalong, better than a Shield that can’t manage his own shortcomings, he deserves an army and a kingdom and a fortress that will never fall. None of those things are something Gladio can give him.
He wants to offer him those things like a knight returned from war with spoils and riches and new territories, and he also wants Noct to grasp them on his own, to stand tall and walk proud and strike respect into everyone he meets, and he doesn’t know what he wants.
He wants to be a Shield worthy of the king Noctis could become.
Then stop moping and start working, and this voice sounds more like Cor than anything else.
Gladio almost grins.
What else can he do, anyway, except give his best?
“Glad to be back.”
Noct looks at him for a long moment, and Gladio meets his gaze straight on.
“Glad to have you back,” Noctis says, serious, and he doesn’t smile, exactly, but it’s a close enough thing. It means all the more for that.
He’ll give his best, and it will be enough. He’ll make it enough.