The world rushed to black.
“Carbuncle! ” someone roared, and the world behind Bahamut’s eyelids turned red and white, heat piercing under his ribs like a knife. The world came rushing back. “Hold him here!”
“This is awful,” a female voice said, strangely familiar. “He’s going to need everyone.”
“Every last drop,” said a voice of steel and stone that could only belong to Regis. “Now bring the line of Lucis, and every last Fleuret oracle.”
Bahamut felt life trickle back into him, a red thread of power feeding a stream of energy that stopped him from dissolving away entirely. What he opened his eyes to nearly killed him once and for all.
Staring down at him like the ghosts of Lucis past were Regis, Noctis, Mors, Sylva, Lunafreya and—everyone. Every generation of the bloodlines, the ones he chose. Every single one stood around him in black and white and silver and gold, hands linked and faces bright.
“We’ve got you,” said Shiva, who took Leviathan’s hand, who took Titan’s. “Carbuncle, use us too.” Down the rope of their linked hands, power was channelling, gathering and passing until it reached Ramuh and then Carbuncle, who touched his horn to Bahamut’s forehead. It hit Bahamut like a physical wall, slamming into his now-corporeal veins in a torrent of confusing scent and sound as four different elements poured into him, feeding him life.
“Will that do it?” Noctis asked, and for the first time he realised their chosen was dead, and tiny, and standing on his chest so he could stare properly. “Save him?”
“This won’t,” said Carbuncle, whose ruby horn was beginning to smoke. “We’re just buying time.”
“It’s all right.” Regis was rolling back his sleeves to bare his forearms. “Luna, Noctis. Bring them all. Circle him. It took blood to do this. Blood and a promise.” His eyes burned like emerald in sunlight. “I intend to do the same.”
“Regis, this isn’t…the fight is done.” Bahamut coughed, and in a tremble of power he lost his great size, sending Noctis sprawling over his chest before he could scramble away. “Just pull the plug.”
“No, great one, we will not,” said Lunafreya, taking his clawed hand between her own. Her eyes were very wide, but she didn’t flinch from his gaze. “One hundred and fourteen kings and queens. One hundred and fourteen oracles. You shared your magic and your grace with us all, passed down from one to another.”
“Except it didn’t quite leave us after death, did it?” Regis said, kneeling at his side. “The magic still burned within us. Still borrowed. Stagnating in spirits that don’t need it anymore.” Lifting a hand, Regis summoned a flame to his palm. “Careless dragon. It’s a very good thing you gave me years to contemplate just what to do about you.”
It slowly occurred to Bahamut that Regis had summoned every spirit that had ever touched his power. His crystal. His trident. And inside each one glittered a tiny little echo of what he’d given away—
“You didn’t sell your heart to Creation, Bahamut,” Regis said with a quirk of a smile, just touching the corner of his mouth. “You gave it to us. And in blood, we’re giving it back.”
They formed ranks, as though they had it all planned. Together they created one enormous curling spiral around him, fanning out, making room for the astrals as they shifted down to match the human spirits, never breaking their chain.
Then Regis stabbed his palm deeply with Carbuncle’s horn, and pressed it to Bahamut’s chest.
The realm exploded.
Or it felt like it. A blinding onslaught of pinprick souls like supernovas rushed beneath his skin, swarming with their light as it hit him five, fifty, a hundred times, countless times, each one leaving behind a piece of something he’d thought was gone forever. Life. Light. Strength. Slowly, something began to fill in the raw cavity of his chest, something that thrummed with old power.
A heartbeat, he realised, eyes open wide as the drumbeat slowly pounded in his chest. His heartbeat.
“You gave it to me, did you not?” Regis said, sounding exhausted and just—so damn pleased with himself. The bloodied hand that pressed to his chest could no doubt feel each heavy, life-giving thump. “As it turns out, promises from a god carry some weight. That day, your heart became mine, and mine to give back.”
Bahamut stared at Regis as he pushed himself upright. Beside him, Carbuncle was passed clean out, smelling like singed fur and ozone. Keeping him alive long enough for Regis to perform his miracle had taken a pretty big toll on the usually fickle little fox. Privately, Bahamut wondered how Regis had even known Carbuncle could do it—if he even had. What the hell had happened when he wasn’t paying attention?
“How did you know?” Bahamut blurted, raking his hair back from his face with a shaking hand. “Regis…light, all of you…” Around him, the faces of the combined bloodlines stared back. Some were confused, others were unimpressed, but all of them were there. “Shouldn’t you all be off enjoying your afterlife, instead of resurrecting a dying old god?”
“Yes,” Mors said frankly. He darted Regis a curious look. “But somebody insisted we had a debt to pay.”
“Somebody said you and I had the same problem,” Noctis added, squinting at him mistrustfully. “You kinda missed that part of the speech.” He hesitated. “Sorry I called you a dick.” Noctis didn’t look sorry though; he batted Lunafreya’s light slap away with a grin, looking bright and soft in a way Bahamut hadn’t seen since before his father had died.
His attention was pulled away as Regis stroked a hand down the bloody handprint on his chest, his brow knit in worry and something tensely restrained. Unthinkingly, Bahamut covered the hand with his own, no less reassured when Regis tried to smile.
“I fear I’ve been keeping secrets,” he said quietly, “about the nature of my time spent in your absence.” He glanced around at the milling crowd, at Leviathan and Ramuh, Shiva and Titan. Noctis and Luna. “We should discuss it at length, when matters here are settled.”
Well, that was ominous. Bahamut watched with quiet reflection as Regis stood and herded them all away, reminded of the last time he’d demonstrated such command—and hell, it was also the last time he’d saved Bahamut’s scaly ass. But he’d long since given up on being offended about being saved by a single dead human king. As it turned out, Regis was actually incredible. No shame in being rescued by the best, he thought with reluctant amusement. Even if he had no idea how.
Titan knelt down and tugged one of his arms across broad painted shoulders, hauling him to his feet in one smooth movement. The look he slid him promised murder.
“You’d better pray to light and life that you never recover from this bullshit, Bahamut,” he said flatly. “The moment you’ve got your grace back in full I’m going to take it out your ass with both fists.” He started marching them both toward the portal for lack of anywhere else to put him, glaring ahead like he couldn’t stand to even look him straight in the face. A muscle in his chiselled jaw twitched angrily.
“I thought Noctis was the only one able to pull off a good martyrdom,” Leviathan added, slipping under his other arm. Her face was paler than usual, and strange shadows were gathered beneath her eyes. “You’re one selfish bastard, trying to clock out like that.”
“Now, now,” Ramuh said with a quelling shake of his head, striding ahead of them all. “He knew if he spoke of it to anyone that Shiva would fall on the sword as well…so to speak.” Leviathan flinched at that, darting him a startled look. Further away, Shiva was holding hands with Lunafreya, speaking in hushed tones. Her expression clouded.
“So what, maybe we all would have,” she said sullenly, but her heart wasn’t in the words. Back then Leviathan wouldn’t have spat on humanity if they were on fire—and honestly, for a while there they had been.
“It was a long time ago,” Bahamut said, trying not to stagger. He might have his heart again, he might be alive, but he felt like he could honestly sleep like the dead. “But for what it’s worth, I didn’t think anyone would really care. It’s nice to be wrong.”
Titan’s step faltered for a split second, but he didn’t say a word. Leviathan was chewing down on her own lower lip like she wanted to gnaw it clean off. Ahead, Ramuh just sighed like the put-upon old man he pretended to be.
“Regis cared.” Ramuh sounded like he was bracing for something. “He cared quite a lot when I showed him the altar of Creation, ten years past.”
Bahamut’s feet turned to lead beneath him. He felt himself blink once, twice.
“You what?! ”
The realm bled white and rainbow for a second time, but for Ramuh it quickly turned black and blue.
Bahamut eventually got the full story in bits and pieces, sprawled out on his stomach in Regis’ little bowl house because it was the only soft place anyone could think to put him that wasn’t Leviathan’s cleavage. She’d offered, but Titan had grabbed him before she could, tossing him into the house like an underhanded pitcher, where he’d landed all tangled in his own silk. He’d gathered an armful of it and buried his face there, smelling Regis and breathing deep.
Ramuh had been quick enough to admit his part in things, head tipped back to staunch the flow of a tremendous blood nose. From there, the story had followed. It didn’t take long for Bahamut to put two and two together—Regis had left him at the battle with Ifrit to confer with his ancestral line and find Lunafreya, who passed the word to her mother and the first oracle. Or perhaps he’d found them both. Either way, it was galling to know yet again he’d tried to throw himself on the line only to be rescued from his own bad plans.
Galling…and a little bit wonderful.
“You can’t do things alone like this anymore,” Titan said, as buried in the silks as he could make himself. He looked like a haunted bowling ball with the rest of his body ensconced in red and gold. Across his torso, Leviathan was comfortably sprawled cross-wise, plucking at the unravelling edge of one torn bolt. It was a strange kind of sleepover they were all having, but Bahamut wasn’t sure he minded them being clingy.
Besides, Regis was nowhere to be found. Not that he was thinking about that.
“All right, no more secrets,” Bahamut sighed, feeling his eyelids slide shut. “Though I honestly don’t see any of us needing to carve out parts of ourselves anymore.” No more crystals. No more rings, or tridents, or tragic kings dying before their time.
“Unless Ifrit comes back again,” Shiva said, her fingertips stuck up Ramuh’s hooked nose to stop the bleeding with ice. “Is the scourge completely done with now?”
“The scourge was burned out.” Ramuh sounded nasal. “It’s gone, as per the bargain that was made. If Ifrit wants to start anything after such a cataclysmic failure, we’ll be there.”
“Was it a failure though?” Leviathan asked with a frown. “So much of the population were slaughtered while the world was in darkness. Daemons everywhere, magitek soldiers turning to dust upon the dawn…” She sighed. “At least Cor survived.”
Bahamut started. “Cor made it? Good for him.” If he wasn’t dead he couldn’t go sniffing after Regis, he thought, then mentally slapped himself.
“I still say it was a failure. Humanity prevails. Bahamut didn’t die. The world keeps spinning, and the heroes get to rest.” Titan frowned at the ceiling of what used to be his favourite soup bowl. “But what are we supposed to do now? I don’t want to be stuck watching through the portal anymore. I want to get back down there. I want to move.”
“Well, we are free now, aren’t we?” Leviathan looked thoughtful. “No more covenants, no more sleeping. No more dickhead emperors crowing about world domination. But who’d pray to us for help?”
Bahamut thought about it. “Fishermen, Levi. These people have been starving for fresh meat and vegetables for almost a decade, no matter what they could grow in Lestallum under their artificial light. Stir up the sea and give them a nice catch.” He smiled. “They’ll be throwing wreaths into the sea within weeks.” Her slitted eyes lit up at the thought, almost sparkling as she smiled at Titan.
“And you? Turn the soil over,” she urged the archaean, excitement painting her voice. Her spined fingers found his arm and shook it. “Give them crops again, and clear the roads blocked by all that imperial stone.” Her reward for that idea was a scarred hand emerging from the silk to tangle sweetly in her hair.
“What about a beach?” he asked, giving her a telling look. “I could make you a place you could lounge on the sand.”
“I’ll need company.” Leviathan didn’t bat an eyelid at Titan’s surprised jerk. “You know, someone to oil my skin so it doesn’t dry out.”
“I could do that.” Their shared smile was secret, warm, and Bahamut felt equally pleased and uncomfortable. He was laying hip to hip with Titan, after all.
“I could water the arid lands Titan can’t enrich,” Ramuh added, completely tone deaf to the mood while he prodded his cold nose. “And clear the skies to let the sun touch new growth.”
“I’m going to hunt Ifrit,” Shiva said simply, “and see to it he doesn’t hurt us again.”
“You’re going to kill him?” Bahamut wasn’t sure he liked that idea after coming so close to a final death, himself. But Shiva was already shaking her head, pulling her knees up to her chest.
“Not unless I must.” She touched her lips in remembrance of something, then realised it was the same hand she’d just had half up Ramuh’s nose. “Ugh.”
They lay in thoughtful repose for a while after that, pausing only to realise they’d left Carbuncle unconscious somewhere. Ramuh went to find him, and the like the ebb of the tide the rest trickled out, leaving Bahamut to his solitude and his thoughts. They weren’t great thoughts, and the bowl seemed cavernously cold and empty despite the silks and torches that burned with warm starlight, now that Bahamut could do things like light them again. As his power returned in gentle rivulets of warmth and radiance, he began to remember the kind of things he used to be able to do for humanity. Back when they’d only wanted him, not needed. Back when he could blaze the stars to brilliance on cloudless nights and bless their gatherings with the streak of showering meteors. When he’d been more than swords and a crystal.
To return to that…
It felt a little empty, but it had been his life once.
It could be again.
The world beyond was more beautiful and perfect than anything Regis could have imagined.
Billions of worlds and dreams for spirits to immerse themselves in, all intermingled to form a perfect oasis for the restful dead. Old friends, new lives; places to reunite and separate and imagine. The entire place seemed like it was filtered through stained glass and sunlight.
For Lunafreya and Noctis, it meant a shared rest after a hard journey. A kingdom at peace once more, dressed in flowers and shining glass spires. A place to dance and laugh and wait for their friends and loved ones to join them.
A place Regis could join with his own dreams of a life beyond the torment and struggle of the life he’d left behind, until the hourglass turned over again and he was delivered into Eos once more, ready to begin again.
After spending so long in the soft light of the astral realm, cradled in the soft blues and purples of the world that had gathered them all so close to watch over the living, the world beyond, this…afterlife, was almost painfully brilliant to witness. To Regis, it was the picture of a kingdom he only remembered from his childhood; a perfect place of safety and light, still unblemished by the burdens of truth and adulthood.
It was home in its familiarity, and a dream in its perfection. A place to wait for his friends and companions. To reminisce a life once lived.
It was his reward, Regis told himself firmly. It was his home. But the pit in his stomach wanted to disagree.
Noctis eventually found him pondering those thoughts; found him standing on the roof of the palace, breathing clean air and watching the unnatural sunset flame red and orange and pink at the edge of the horizon.
“I think this place is supposed to be comforting, or something,” Noctis said as he drew alongside him by the railing, frowning out at the skyline. “But I just feel kinda stupid up here when the real Insomnia is down there, falling to pieces. Kind of…”
“Hollow,” Regis said quietly. “Having had a hand in the fate of the world will do that, I suppose.”
“Yeah.” Beneath the neat fall of soft dark hair, Noctis nodded. “I’d rather take the dirt and the rubble and try to fix it, not sit up here in my ghost palace, waiting for my ghost friends.” He slid Regis a glum look. “Not that it’s not great seeing you again, Dad, but…I think I want to go back.” He tilted his head slightly. “Like Mom did.”
Regis jerked in surprise, casting Noctis a disbelieving look. Quirking an odd smile, Noctis shrugged.
“I was kind of mad at first, like she didn’t want to meet me, or see you again,” he admitted. “But the more I think about it the more I get it.” Reaching out to grip the steel rail, Noctis arched back and looked straight up at the sky. The clear twilight sky, just beginning to glitter with the promise of starlight. “I don’t think me and Luna can sit still after the life we just had. It was too small, Dad. It was short, and it hurt. So I think…after the guys get here, however long that takes, I’m gonna try it all over again.”
It wasn’t a true surprise, really. Noctis had always been ill at ease in the palace, far preferring his friends and his common high school, the open road and his freedom. The sting of what felt a lot like a dismissal was the only argument Regis had. But it was Noctis’ life—afterlife—to live. Besides, it gave him a few ideas of his own.
“You might end up a penniless beggar,” Regis said dryly. “Or a toad squatting on a lily-pad.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Noctis snorted, flashing his father a grin. “And you can’t miss what you don’t remember, right?” Spinning around, he rested his elbows on the railing and pulled in a long, deep breath. “Besides, you’ll be looking out for me. You and Bahamut.” His slanted blue-eyed glance was knowing; his smile close-lipped and secretive.
Regis felt his cheeks heat. “I’m not sure what you’re implying.”
“I was there, Dad. I had to listen to you crapping on about his precious heart.”
Oh, light. “That was to repay him for—”
“I’m happy for you,” Noctis interrupted, grinning wickedly. His expression was utterly at odds with his ceremonial attire. Far too cheeky and pleased with himself, Regis thought with stiff embarrassment. “Really. I mean, a dragon god made of swords. You got game, Dad.”
That little shit.
“Well, he isn’t exactly three crownsguard in a tent,” Regis said with wry humour, watching Noctis flush pink from his neck to his hairline. “But I suppose he’ll do.”
It was enough of a blase line to embarrass Noctis into a spluttering, jittery fit, but for Regis it held more than a little uncertainty. Bahamut may not even want or need him anymore, with his power restored and the line of Lucis of no particular value anymore. Dragon god made of swords, he thought, knowing he was merely a man even if his skin was unlined and his hair was dark, needing no brace or cane to help him on his path. The world beyond had given him a body from his prime, but he held no magic nor particular value to the astrals. Certainly not to Bahamut, beyond that which his own sentimentality had allowed.
Regis had seen with his own eyes how quickly they could move on from loss.
Still, Bahamut had promised him something. Something Regis had no intention of letting go of—not for all the blood rituals and world-ending magic the universe could spit at him. That heart might be back in Bahamut’s mighty chest, but it belonged to him. After all, Regis was at his core an exceedingly selfish man.
As the sun quietly set and the moon rose high like a heaving great pearl in the sky, as they stood in the gathering evening light, Noctis looked at his father askance and seemed to smile.
Bahamut wasn’t certain how long he’d slept. Recovering magical energy was a strange thing: it could take eons or it could take moments, and the worlds could whirl out of sight and come back into view with hardly a change from the viewpoint above. Opening his eyes amid crimson silk, his skin luminescent with a faint soft light, Bahamut reached up and with a single motion he painted the ceiling with the image of a hundred million constellations buried within the hanging cloth. Just an illusion, a window and a small test of his power, but enough to tell his blood and breath that his magic was most definitely returned.
He could step down to Eos like this, he told himself, and wondered why the thought didn’t bring him any particular joy. What kind of miserable bastard had he become? Regis had bled all over him to give the power and his life back and Bahamut was sprawled in his chamber like a dropped pie, moping.
It occurred to Bahamut then that if he wanted to stay the size of a toenail and sleep in the bowl for another thousand years he could do exactly that, and damn being a watchful guardian. The others could do it. He was due for a holiday of some sort.
Regis was probably living his best wishes and dreams in the world beyond.
Rolling over onto his stomach, Bahamut pushed his face into the silk until he couldn’t see anything but blackness. Heroes deserved rest and reward, and Regis deserved everything. Time with his son and his friends passed on, good health and strength—and a peaceful afterlife that wouldn’t put that concerned line between his brows. A life that would bring his laugh lines out, but only when he thought something was really great. The look he’d given Bahamut on the stone portal’s edge, before he’d pushed him into the shining water.
I would stay with you an eternity, if I could.
Gritting his teeth, Bahamut clenched his fists in the silk, feeling it shred beneath his claws.
The prophecy was done. The debt was repaid. The world was saved.
What did one heartsick dragon weigh against all of that?
So he slept again, and dreamed it all away. He burrowed all the way down into the darkness of slumber and twisted himself around memories of searching hands and smiling eyes, of a kiss so desperately hungry it bruised. Bahamut dreamed of his claws dragging through dishevelled dark hair, of Regis’ wide amazement beneath the water when he’d spoken directly into his mind, of cool hands pressing ice against his wounded back.
Regis’ hands, pressing down on his shoulders to gently shake him.
A forehead pressed between the bony black leather of his wings, and the gust of warm breath on his skin.
“—ke up. Baha—”
A single, almost biting kiss on the nape of his neck.
Bahamut’s eyes snapped open.
“Regis,” he whispered, swallowing. “Regis?” Slowly, he tried to push himself up, hardly daring to hope.
Hands like iron grabbed his shoulders and flipped him over, shoving him back down into the nest he’d created for himself. Green eyes were wild as Regis stared down upon him, his gaze roving across every part of Bahamut he could see. The clutching vice of his thighs pinning Bahamut’s was warm, and alive.
“You wouldn’t wake,” Regis said, his voice shaking. Long-fingered hands were mapping trails across Bahamut’s chest, a self-comforting gesture if the empty fear in his eyes was any indication. “I thought—perhaps I hadn’t gotten it right after all.” As Bahamut continued to stare in wide-eyed incredulity, Regis seemed to flinch. “I owe you so much, so many explanations; I deceived you and I kept my knowledge hidden, I—”
“Love you,” Bahamut said hoarsely, and dragged Regis down to meet his mouth in a rain of kisses so harrowing, so desperately needed, he would throw his heart down before Creation a thousand times more if it meant he could just live endlessly in that one perfect moment. Because he had Regis, strong and warm and heavy against him, and the stars were burning above him like a tapestry of light, pure and brilliant at his back.
“I missed you,” Regis said between long, open-mouthed kisses, panting against the greedy pull of Bahamut’s parted lips. “For every second I was gone I learnt a little of how you must have felt, missing your heart for so long.”
“Did you rehearse that?” Bahamut whispered, fingertips moving beneath the looping chains that held Regis’ suit and half-cape together. “You can tell me.”
“No, I—can you please not ruin this with critique?” Hands slid down the muscles of Bahamut’s lower back, then delved beneath the concealing fit of leather hide. His hips twitched upward before he could properly register what he was being goaded into. “Especially when you can put your mouth to far better use.”
Bahamut’s teeth flashed in a smile, and he knew his eyes were gleaming like stars from their reflection in Regis’ gaze. The devilish edge to his human king’s smile faded into a dark kind of wonder, shadowed with need.
“As you command,” Bahamut said as Regis bore down against him, slinging chains and bolts of black cloth everywhere. He earned one single plunging, silencing kiss for that, and then for a long, long while there wasn’t much room for talk at all.
Later, in the tangle of their limbs and breath, half-draped in silk and on the whisper’s edge of sleep, Bahamut brushed his lips against the proud curve of Regis’ cheek and wondered if he could ever stand to be parted from him again.
“You’d give up a divine afterlife for me?” he asked softly, more to himself. “All the rewards of a life spent in service to the gods?”
Regis’ eyelids lifted slowly, revealing a warm and slumberous gaze.
“Somehow,” he murmured, sliding further into the circle of Bahamut’s arms, “I find you’re the only reward I could ever want or need.”
“That’s so sappy,” Bahamut breathed, quietly delighted. “I can’t believe you’re using these lines on me. Have you got any more?”
Regis didn’t baulk that time; rather he exhaled a small laugh. “I’ll trade you. But I warn you, it will have to be good.” Somehow, even half-stuck to him and twined about Bahamut’s limbs he still managed to portray an air of imperious, kingly regard.
Bahamut barely needed to think it over before he opened his mouth.
“A thousand years ago I swore my heart to your bloodline and suffered,” he said, letting the amusement fade from his voice. “And after a thousand years you gave it back. Today, I give it to you again.” He smiled at Regis’ tremulous expression. “Somehow, I don’t think it will hurt this time.”
Swallowing, Regis stared at him for a long, quiet moment. Then he fell back against the silks.
“Damn, that is good.” Beside him, Bahamut leaned down and gave Regis a lingering kiss.
“Look on the bright side,” he said as he pulled away, shaking his wings out. “You’ll have an eternity to think up a better line.”
Regis blinked up at the star-drenched ceiling of their little tissue house, where whirling galaxies flared in shifting colours. Bahamut didn’t have to follow his gaze to know he was searching out Eos, where it glittered in a light-bathed splendour.
Dawn had finally come, and with it was a world of promise—and time.
“Yes,” Regis whispered, a fierce and abiding joy in his voice. “I suppose I will.”