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Death Fears Not the Reaper

Chapter Text

 

 

The smell of blood was thick on the air. Acrid, metallic, pure . A symbol both of life and of death, and of many things in between. He had always wondered why the scent of it was considered repulsive when he found it to be so...focusing. After all, it was once the blood had started to flow that he did his best work.

One more scream -- pained, anguished -- echoed through the otherwise empty warehouse, and he knew it was time. He emerged from the shadows just beyond the circle of lights, dressed all in black with cold, venomous eyes piercing out from behind his spectacles, looking altogether like the daemonic figure for which he’d earned his reputation. He approached the trembling body in the chair before him, removing his black driving gloves finger by finger and keeping his gaze locked on his victim.

“Enough, Gladio.”

Those two words, forceful but elegant on his lilting tongue, instantly stilled the room. Gladiolus pulled his fist away from the man’s already bloodied face and cracked his red knuckles loudly. “He’s all yours, boss.” A rough smirk and he was backing away, opening a path for the man to get a good look at his approaching executioner. Through one half-swollen eye, he watched in terror as Ignis the Reaper closed in. Piss rolled down his leg as his mouth opened in pure fear.

“P-please…. No. I’ll talk, a-anything you wanna know, I -- “

Shh .” Ignis’ fingers curled around the man’s chin, surprisingly gentle despite the ice in his stare. “It’s too late for that. You had your chance.”

A gross sob, and fresh blood oozed from the man’s lip. “ Please… .”

“Sounds to me like he’s begged for his life before, Iggy,” came Gladio’s amused tone from somewhere to his right. There was a wet sound as he spit on the floor. “I say we put an end to this worm for good.”

“Indeed.” Ignis’ gaze had never left his trembling victim’s face. To the man’s utter horror, those too-beautiful lips curved up into the darkest grin he had ever seen in his miserable life, and he knew his end had truly come. “Do you know why they call me the Reaper?” Ignis asked, voice low and quiet and just for the two of them. There was no reply, but then again he hadn’t been waiting for one. “It isn’t  because I’m particularly good at killing, although I am.” Here, he paused to draw a long, thin dagger from the sheath at his hip, turning the glittering blade over in the light as delicately as one might handle fine jewelry. “No, I’m called the Reaper because those who see me are right to abandon hope.”

For an anguished moment, nothing happened. Then those piercing green eyes flashed in the light as the dagger sliced through the air, the tip cutting clean through the man’s jugular and throat in one swift move. Ignis stood up just as the first waves of blood gushed forth from the wound. The man, eyes wide and mouth open in a silent cry, threw his hands up in instinct -- but his red lifeblood spilled through his fat fingers and stained his already filthy shirt, and within seconds his body ceased its pitiful shaking. Several last, dying jerks, then he went still. Ignis snatched a clean towel from the rack nearby and wiped his beloved dagger clean even as he began to walk away.

“Take care of the mess,” he ordered his men, but the Glaives were already in motion before the words reached their ears. Black plastic sheets were being rolled out over clean cement, and a variety of  hacksaws and shears were exchanged between waiting hands.

Leaving the others to their well-practiced routine, Gladio grabbed his leather jacket and hoofed off after Ignis.

“You know what they should call you?” he grinned as he caught up and fell into step beside the other. Ignis remained silent, so he answered himself instead. “Ignis the Yapper . Geez, the guy’s about to die and you’re just talking his ear off like a -- “

“I was trying to intimidate him.”

A deep laugh. “Isn’t that what the kitchen knife is for? You’re pretty damn intimidating without all that ‘abandon hope’ crap.”

Ignis arched one trim eyebrow, but otherwise didn’t comment. The pair reached the exit, and, as two men dressed head-to-toe in black opened the front doors for them, stepped out into the brisk night air. Gladio slung his jacket over his shoulders against the chill. “So. Where’d you park?”

About fifty yards away, the Regalia’s headlights burst to life as Ignis pressed the auto-ignition button on his key. The custom-made car had been a gift from the kumicho himself, and Ignis was fiercly proud of it. “Right over there.”

“Nice.  Mind if I catch a lift? Iris is making dinner tonight.” Iris, Gladio’s younger sister, was the only member of the Amicitia household with talents for anything other than bashing skulls. When she wasn’t helping the Glaive gather intel or in the dojo training to use a sword, Ignis knew she loved indulging in a hobby they both held dear; cooking. At only fifteen, she was already proving to be quite a natural chef. Missing one of her meals would indeed be a waste.

“Fine. But wipe the blood off your boots first. I’ve just had her washed.”

Gladio grinned. While he scraped his shoes clean against the asphalt, Ignis circled around and slipped into the cool leather of the driver’s seat. He gripped his fingers around the wheel -- and nearly laughed aloud when he realized he’d never put his gloves back on after working. He drew them out of his pocket then, smiling to himself as he felt the supple leather slide over his skin with ease.

“You give me shivers when you do that,” Gladio said, shaking his head and squeezing his large, muscular frame into the passenger seat. He was looking at Ignis’ hands, expression caught somewhere between creeped out and turned on. Ignis rolled his eyes.

“Do you ever stop?” Adjusting his glasses, he revved the engine to start the car rolling forward.

“Not really, no.” From his jacket pocket, Gladio produced his phone and immediately swiped the screen to check his latest texts. “Hmph. Cor wants to know if we got any info off that slimy Niff bastard. Whaddya want me to tell him?”

With a sigh, Ignis shrugged. “Tell him we had a bad lead. That man would have told us anything to spare his own life, but they would have all been lies. He had no idea who attacked our men, either. It was a futile interrogation.”

Gladio was silent for a moment as he typed. “...don’t....got…shit. Got it.” He sent a few more messages out as they drove in silence, Ignis guiding them fast but safely through the streets of Insomnia and back toward their boss’ compound.

At last, nearing their destination, the dark-haired bodyguard turned to look at his companion. “What about you, Mr. Reaper? Any plans for the rest of the night?”

“Perhaps a hot bath and a good book before bed,” came the ready answer. But Gladio knew better. He studied Iggy’s face for a moment, taking in the unmistakable dark lines above high cheekbones and the tight-lipped way he was staring forward at the road. Worry, concern. In part for their mission, of course, but there was more to it than that.

“Are you going to see Noctis tonight?”

The car stopped abruptly, still about twenty yards away from the front entrance of the Amicitia manor, and Ignis reached over his companion’s lap to throw open the passenger door. “Well, then. Have a good evening, Gladio. See you bright and early in the morning.”

 

--------

 

It was only a short drive from the main complex to the penthouse apartment where Noctis, son of Lord Regis L. Caelum and heir to the family’s veritable underground kingdom, lived alone. It had been a compromise of sorts between him and his father; while Noctis wanted nothing more than independence, Regis wanted him close at hand to keep learning about the family business. Getting him his own place nearby seemed like the perfect solution, and Ignis himself had been asked to scout the area for suitable living arrangements. As such, he knew the place like the back of his own hand, and even had his own access code to get him through the heavy security.

Stepping up to the front entrance, he ignored the cameras that tracked his every move and punched in his key code by heart. The doors swung open and he was inside. It seemed easy, perhaps, but he knew that one false step, one suspicious move and he would never even hear the bullet coming. Regis took no chances when it came to his only child.

Ignis rode the elevator to the top floor as he’d done countless times in the past. As he waited, he withdrew his phone from his shirt pocket and skimmed through the various messages he’d received throughout the night. There was one from Cor, undoubtedly in regards to Gladio’s half-assed reply after the warehouse fiasco, and a few updates from other members of the Glaive whose names he’d never bothered to learn. Surprisingly, there was a message from Noctis as well; this was the only one Iggy bothered to read. He swiped the notification next to the familiar icon to see only two words:  

Bring pizza.

A long-suffering sigh escaped him. Yet as the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open, he had no choice but to step forward into the vast expanse of the ohji ’s suite.

From the foyer, he could see past the kitchen and into the drawing room that Noctis had furnished with plush grey sofas and a gigantic flat-screen television against the far wall. Noctis was there, too, as far as he could tell from the mess of black hair bobbing rhythmically above the edge of the couch to some music only he could hear.

Approaching, Ignis cleared his throat twice before the young heir, finally noticing him, yanked out his earbuds and turned around. “Oh! Hey, Iggy,” he grinned, and set his game controller on the cushion next to him. “Didn’t hear you come in.” He got to his feet and circled around the edge of the sofa.

“You should take more care. Lucky for you I’m not an enemy of your family, but the next time….”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Not like this place isn’t harder to get into than a maximum security joint.” Still smiling, Noct folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the sofa. Dark blue eyes roamed up the length of Ignis’ body, taking in the sight of his suit, his gloves, the way his hair was beginning to fall out of place where he’d slicked it back much earlier in the day. Fresh off work, then, and decidedly not carrying dinner. Noct feigned a pout.

“All out of pizza at the pizza store?”

He almost laughed aloud at the way Ignis stiffened. “Apologies, your Highness, I only just received your message. If you’d like I can call for delivery, or -- “

“It’s fine, I’m kidding. Anyway, I’m sure I’ve got some ramen or something around here.”

As he brushed past his advisor on his way to the kitchen, Ignis released another sigh. “Highness….” No response. “Noct, please. At least let me prepare something for you.”

“It’s fine ,” came the reply, Noct’s voice muffled inside the half-empty pantry. “C’mon Igs, you’ve gotta be exhausted. Don’t worry about me.”

A firm hand closed around his shoulder, causing him to jump half out of his skin in surprise. He hid it as smoothly as he could behind a cough. Above him, Ignis’ eyes softened. “Noctis, you are the one and only son of the most powerful man in the city. You need to learn how to let others serve you. Trust me, cooking for you is a pleasure, not a chore.”

The red tint that started at the bridge of Noct’s nose and spread slowly over his cheeks was impossible to hide. He swallowed, dropped his eyes to the gloved hand on his shoulder, and nodded. “...Then, uh, thanks. I guess I’d like that.”

“Very good.” Ignis shifted, moving instead to the refrigerator to inspect what little his ward had in the way of ingredients. “Hmm. How does a simple stir-fry sound to you?”

“Yeah, fine.” Mostly recovered now, the dark-haired heir to the criminal underworld hopped up on the edge of the kitchen counter and stared his advisor dead in the eye. “But no veggies.”

“...H-highness….”

 

In the end, Noctis acquiesced to the addition of green peas to the stir-fry provided Ignis double the serving of potatoes and smother the whole thing in sauce. While certainly not the most balanced meal, it was a far cry better than what Ignis normally got him to eat, so he accepted the deal without much argument. Noctis watched as, stripping off his gloves, Ignis stepped up to the sink and began to rinse his bare hands under the warm water. He noticed, of course, the dried blood under the other man’s fingernails, and the subtle red tint as the water washed away the rest, but he knew better than to comment. Ignis never talked about the details of his work with Noct, and now was hardly the time to press.

They ate together in relative silence. The dining table in Noct’s penthouse was large enough to seat eight guests comfortably, but more often than not it held only one. Dinner for two was a rare treat for the young ohji . Perhaps that was why, when Ignis got up to collect the tableware and, inevitably, excuse himself for the night, Noctis jumped up to stop him before he even knew what he was going to say.

“Wait a sec.”

Ignis paused, a plate in each hand, and glanced over his shoulder. “Something the matter?”

“No, I just, um.” The young crime lord shook his head, thinking quickly. “Don’t you want to grab a shower or something before you go?”

The look Ignis gave him made him instantly regret his choice of words. But never one to back down from even the scrappiest of fights, Noct straightened his back and continued. “I mean obviously you have a perfectly good shower at home and all that, but, well, it’d be a shame to get your car dirty on the way, right?” Open mouth, insert foot , he chided himself, though he managed to hide his grimace behind a convincing smile.

Ignis glanced down at himself -- his pristine suit jacket, his pressed pants, his polished shoes -- and arched a brow. “Do I offend ?”

“N-no, no!” Kicking himself mentally, Noctis decided to spare himself further humiliation by instead sidling up to Iggy and very gracefully snagging the plates from his grip. “I just mean, why don’t you take it easy for once, hm? Relax, pamper yourself. You go shower, and I’ll take care of the dishes.” That dark green gaze narrowed in suspicion until he was forced to add, “Well, I mean, I’ll at least put them in the sink for you. Go on, stop wasting time.”

Though his mind was spinning a mile a minute trying to catch Noct’s angle, Ignis couldn’t very well ignore a direct order. He padded down the hall to the bathroom, stripped and folded his clothes, and placed them neatly on the counter. While waiting for the water to heat up to an adequate temperature, he stole a glance at himself in the mirror.

And frowned. He had served for the Caelum family his whole life, just like his father and grandfather before him, and from a young age he’d gotten accustomed to the plethora of scars and injuries that came with the territory. But something he had never quite learned to accept were the tattoos. A mark, a brand even of his history with the yakuza, his irezumi were colorful, exotic, covering nearly every inch of his body from waist to neck. His chest was a menagerie of gruesome beasts with great, open maws. On his left arm, lotus blossoms scattered on the surface of a blood-red stream. On his right, falling leaves burned and blackened in a fiery wind as great, winding dragons ascending to the heavens. His back held the largest piece of all; the most fearsome skeletal figure imaginable, a Reaper, surrounded by the anguished souls of its countless victims.

Horrors, all of them. Noctis had never seen the tattoos, and Ignis was determined to keep it that way.

He tore his eyes away from the mirror and stepped into the hot water, letting it burn away the filth and rot of the day’s unsavory work.

 

When Ignis returned to the living room, hair damp but not a button out of place on his suit, he found Noctis once again on the sofa with his headphones. This time, however, he was nose deep in a comic book and, much to Iggy’s chagrin, had his shoes propped up on the arm.

Really , Noct,” he started, swatting his feet down and snatching the comic from his hands. “Is this all you do in your free time?”

“No. I play videogames, too.”

A resolved sigh before Ignis was taking a seat on the sofa at his side. There was a stack of black, sealed files set on the table in front of them, and he swiped up a few to pass forcefully to his companion. “Why not read up a little about the state of your family’s current investments? This is going to be very important for you one day.”

Noct accepted the files, glanced at the title on each, and tossed them back onto the table without ceremony. “Money comes in, money goes out. Got it. Hey, here’s a question,” he said suddenly, shifting a little closer until he could pick up the scent of lilac soap on his advisor’s skin. Ignis leaned back a few inches out of instinct. “Why don’t you tell me about those Glaives? Y’know, the ones who died yesterday.”

Behind his glasses, green eyes widened in surprise, then just as quickly narrowed. “Where did you hear about that?”

A shrug, and a smirk. “Y’know, around . ...Actually, it was Nyx.”

“Of course it was.” Ignis pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose with one gloved finger and sighed. “How much do you already know?”

“Not much. I heard it happened in broad daylight, that three of them were attacked and -- “ He paused, drawing his thumb across his throat in a meaningful gesture. Ignis’ mouth twitched.

“Beheaded, yes.”

“Right, that. So they’re dead, and now my father thinks someone is trying to start a turf war, or whatever.” He looked at Ignis for a long moment, his deep blue eyes searching for answers, for affirmation, anything written in his stoic expression. “Is that what you were doing today? Why you had blood on your hands?”

For once, Ignis wasn’t sure how to respond. As much as he wanted Noctis to someday successfully fill his father’s shoes, he was also loathe to drag him down any further into a world he didn’t yet belong. Still, he supposed this counted as studying in its own right, so he was willing to let both the comic book and the economics issues slide for now. “Yes. And no,” he added quickly, not missing the curiosity piquing on Noct’s face. “Nyx isn’t entirely wrong, but your father knows this is no mere turf war. The killings were sudden, unprovoked. Neither the Niffs nor the Nox Fleurets have stepped forward to claim the acts, and we haven’t been able to find any witnesses or reliable….informants.”

The young heir let the words sink in for a moment before asking again with renewed interest, “So who did it? What’s your theory?”  

He shrugged. “A couple of rogues? Or a mistake. Even a fool wouldn’t pick a fight with the Caelum family without some kind of deathwish. Still,” he sighed, reaching forward to lay a gloved hand on Noctis’ shoulder. “Until we sort things out, it isn’t safe for you out there. Noct, you’re going to need to stay here for a few days.”

Anger flared to life almost instantly in those usually calm eyes. “Stay here, alone in this glorified prison?” Noct spat, suddenly raising his voice. “The tournament is this weekend, Father promised he’d let me go this year!”

“Noct, calm down. I’m sorry, this isn’t my decision.”

“But you agree with it, don’t you?"

"For your safety, yes, I do." His reply was met with rebellious silence as the dark-haired nineteen-year old folded his arms over his chest.

It wasn't that Ignis didn't understand. Of course it was only natural that Noct was lonely, of course he wanted a taste of freedom. The boy had spent his entire life under constant surveillance, after all, under lock and key by an overprotective father who was doing what he thought best against the dangers of the cruel world. But no teenager ever understood that. And Ignis, for his part, would have given the world to see Noct happy, if only that choice were up to him.

"If it helps," he offered, voice quiet and soothing in the space between them. "Once this all blows over, I promise to take you fishing. Outside of the city."

"...Really?" Noct’s tone was a mix of hope and incredulity, but if nothing else the thought got him talking again. "And you think Father would allow that?"

A warm smile, one that made Ignis’ eyes crinkle as he patted the other’s cheek. "It may just be our little secret." That was the kind of thinking that would likely land his head on a spike someday, but he wouldn't really be Iggy if he wasn't risking his own neck to please the prince.

Although still somewhat reluctant, Noctis managed a smile up at his advisor. His gaze faltered for a moment, then before he lost the nerve he leaned forward and pulled the taller man into a hug. "You're the best, Specs."

Few things made Ignis the Reaper’s heart thud in his chest. Danger, the adrenaline-fueled thrill of a fight, was one. Palming a brand new set of knives was another. But perhaps more than either of those was the feeling of holding Noctis Caelum in his arms.

Only five years apart, Ignis had quite literally grown up alongside the young would-be boss. They'd been friends once, back when the innocence of youth had allowed such things, and even as they fit piece by piece into their ever-shifting roles, Ignis had wanted nothing more than to stay by Noct’s side. Selfish, perhaps, given the sheer amount of secrets he kept to preserve their relationship, but it was a feeling that gave him strength all the same. And, at times, had him questioning his own sanity.

He returned the hug gently, almost reverently, and willed his mind to focus on the present. "It's late, Noct. Would you like me to help you to bed?" Because that didn't conjure up any vivid images at all.

Against his shoulder Noctis shook his head. "Nah. Not tired yet. But...you don’t have to go right now, do you?”

Once more Ignis checked the clock on the wall. He had a meeting first thing in the morning, and Regis would be expecting results that he didn’t yet have. What he should be doing was making his report to Cor and checking that his men had properly disposed of the evening’s evidence.

What he did instead was pull Noctis closer and settle into the cushions of his sofa while he watched him play videogames for several more hours.

 

The young ohji had fallen asleep against him sometime just before midnight. Ignis carried him to his room and laid him out on his bed, at least taking the liberty of removing his shoes if nothing else. In sleep his face was so peaceful, so beautiful that tearing himself away from the sight was almost physically painful. Yet it was as he turned out the lights and made his way back toward the foyer that he finally retrieved his phone once more from his pocket. Now that Noctis was settled, it was time to get back to business. He pressed a single key on his screen and the line was ringing before he even stepped into the elevator.

Cor answered after only two beats. “Scientia, where the ever-loving fuck have you been?”

“Working,” he replied politely. It wasn’t entirely a lie.

“You’d better be. Now that our last informant is sinking in about twelve different parts of the Crestholm -- and I suppose I have you to thank for that? -- we’ve got nothing to show the boss. He isn’t going to be happy. You and Amicitia have exactly seven hours to fix it.”

“Overtime again, then, I take it?” His answer came in the form of a dial tone, and Ignis raked his gloved fingers back through his hair before switching to text.

Be outside in ten , he warned Gladio, letting his head fall back against the wall of the elevator as he continued to descend.

On the bright side, at least he’d already had a shower.




 

Chapter Text

 

Cor Leonis was waiting for them the moment they stepped into the boardroom. Most of the other high-ups were already there: Clarus Amicitia, Weskham Armaugh, even Cid the Saw Sophiar had apparently been called in to discuss matters of grave importance. Only Lord Regis himself was absent at the head of the table -- not surprising, Ignis mused. After all, a true boss never arrived early for a meeting; it was the meeting that began when the boss arrived.

He was distracted from his thoughts as Cor suddenly stepped forward and placed his body between the two newcomers and the room beyond. “Well?” he asked expectantly, voice hushed but cold eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. “Since you both look like shit, I’ll assume you put your night to good use. What news?”

Ignis exchanged a look with Gladio beside him. The bodyguard was very obviously fighting back a yawn. Only natural, he thought, for they had in fact spent the better part of the last seven hours out playing detective around the city. Yet for all the missed sleep, their efforts had turned up little more than a crackpot theory and a shaky lead. Even those would have eluded them had it not been for some help from Gladio’s hacker of a little sister.

But Cor was waiting for something, and Ignis happened to be the one under his scrutinizing gaze. “I don’t have a head on a platter for you yet, if that’s what you mean. But I can tell you that our mystery murderer was most likely a lone rogue,” he said matter-of-factly.

Cor leaned in closer, teeth bared much like the beast of his namesake. “Are you saying one man is responsible for killing three armed Glaives without so much as a fight? Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Hardly,” Ignis shrugged, clearly unmoved. “And neither is Regis. I can prove I’m right.”

“Just trust us on this one, old man,” came Gladio’s gruff voice at his side. Cor bristled -- the kid’s abrasive attitude and contempt for authority had never sat right with him -- but the three were spared further words as the far doors slid open and Regis Caelum entered the hall.

The room fell silent. Gladio tugged Ignis toward their open seats at the table, and as their boss strode forward all heads dropped in a collective bow. Regis surveyed the scene for a moment. His steel-blue eyes were hard, his mouth set in a tight line above his greying beard. He held a cane in his left hand, carved of ebony stone and set with a silver knob, which he leaned on as he made his way to his seat at the head of the large conference table. On his right hand, plain for all to see, he wore the Ring of the Lucii, the symbol of his family’s power and of his authority over all who hung their heads before him.

“Gentlemen,” he began, and his voice boomed strong and healthy through the hall. “ Non enim dormiunt!

Insomnia Immortalis!

Amidst the chorus of voices he took his seat, and the meeting began.

“My Lord.” It was Weskham, Regis’ closest advisor, who stood first and bowed his respects to their oyabun . “We all know why you’ve called us here today.”

“I don’t,” Cid muttered next to him, but Weskham smoothly ignored the comment as he continued.

“I think the question now is, was this attack a precursor for a greater battle ahead? And if so, how quickly do we strike back?”

Regis scanned the faces around the table until he found the head of the organization’s intel operations. “Cor. Report.”

The Immortal Lion got to his feet and bowed deeply. “My Lord. At this time, we know very little about the purpose of the attack, nor do we have evidence of the killer’s identity.” He flicked his gaze across the table to where Ignis sat, calm and almost eerily patient despite the tension building in the room. “But I believe those two have some...speculations.”

As Ignis and Gladiolus got to their feet and bowed, all eyes in the room turned to watch them. Hushed whispers hummed on the air. The Reaper and the Shield? Was Cor mad to leave this matter in such reckless hands? But Regis merely gestured for silence as Ignis began to speak.

“This attack was neither the work of a rival clan, nor was it a declaration of war in any form we can yet comprehend.” He adjusted his glasses and waited for silence again. “Consider this: there are only two families with any possible motive to see the Caelum line destroyed -- the Nox Fleurets, and the Nifelheims. The former has suffered inner turmoil for years, and have only recently chosen a new leader. Ravus may be young and headstrong, but violence is hardly his style.”

Around the table, several heads nodded in agreement. Gladio watched, mouth curling in a smirk, as even Cor seemed to be soaking it in. Ignis continued. “That leaves the Niffs. Our greatest rivals, that is true, and even one like myself considers them sadistic to the core. My Lord, I believe you’ve experienced firsthand just how brutal they can be in a fight?”

Regis gripped his cane tight, his fist shaking around the silver knob as he nodded his head. “Ruthless. Violent, mindless beasts.”

“Street punks,” Ignis agreed. “Without grace or tact or, most of all, fear of repercussions. But as we know, our men were murdered by someone who clearly didn’t want to get caught, at least not yet.”

Ever sharp, Clarus raised an eyebrow at both Ignis and his son next to him. “You say ‘some one’ like you think a single person was capable of this act.”

“That’s right.”

Again, muttered voices swept the hall until Regis held up a hand to silence them all at once. “Go on, Ignis.”

“My Lord,” he said, bowing again. “The proof is in the nature of the murder itself. A group of Nifelheim thugs, even in significant numbers, would have a hard time taking out three of ours without at least drawing a scene. No, this attack was planned, calculated. And whoever did it, did it alone. With one....clean... slice .”

No one had seen him draw his dagger, but suddenly it was in his hand and arcing through the air, thudding down on the table in front of him in the span of a heartbeat. The blade sunk several inches into hard wood, and the room fell deathly silent. Even Gladio flinched at that one.

“Easy there, Iggy,” he said, putting on a thin smile and patting the other’s shoulder in a light-hearted gesture. “Uh, I think what Ignis is trying to say is that we found a lead.”

The only one in the room unphased by the Reaper’s outburst, Regis now turned his attention to the dark-haired son of his most trusted warrior. “Well, that’s certainly promising. Who is he?”

She ,” Gladio corrected, and drew a folded sheet of paper from the front pocket of his leather jacket. He passed this along the table until it reached their boss’ hands. “Name’s Highwind. She’s an ex-merc with a bad reputation for dirty jobs. That right there is just a sample of her ‘resume,’” he said, gesturing to the list Regis was now unfolding to read. “Not only does her profile fit, but we had Iris do a little digging last night. Turns out this Highwind character disappeared off the radar several months back -- now the rumor is she’s accepting her paychecks directly from Aldercapt himself.”

“So the Niffs are behind this!” Weskham growled, slamming his fist on the table before him. “Regis, if this is true -- “

“We can’t be certain, not yet.” The news seemed to weigh heavily with the oyabun , who ran his fingers back through grey locks and released a sigh. Mercenaries were notoriously untrustworthy, and it was hard to believe Iedolas, old and daft as he was, would stoop so low. Then again, if the woman had been acting alone….

Alas, mere speculation, however convincing, was hardly justification to jump into a hasty war. “Nyx,” he called, and the young, bright-eyed leader of the Glaives snapped to attention. “Do what you must to bring her in. Use caution, avoid conflict if you can.”

“You got it, boss.” Nyx bowed and nodded at several faces around the table in silent understanding.

“And Cor. Until we have real proof, the search continues. This continues to be your top priority.”

“My Lord.”

“Ignis. Gladiolus. Your work has been invaluable. Now please,” he said, and for the first time the corner of his mouth turned up in an almost-smile. “Both of you get some rest. You look like hell.”

 

---------

 

“Did you see the look on Cor’s face? Priceless.”

Ignis made his way down the steps of the Citadel, the high-rise office building Lord Regis used as a facade to cover the less-than legitimate side of his business practices. Behind him, Gladio tailed close as he laughed to himself. “I think we pretty much ruined his day.”

“Well, I’m certainly glad one of us finds this all so amusing.”

If not for the sun making its slow rise in the cloudless sky above them, Ignis could have easily mistaken the hour for mid-evening. He was tired, exhausted really, and though he could well-enough mask his features to hide his mood, he couldn’t disguise the edge in his voice. Even in the meeting, he’d let his emotions get away from him; the dagger had appeared in his hand before he’d realized he’d drawn it, and it had taken all of his strength to steer it away from flesh and blood and toward the table instead.

How long had it been since he’d lost control like that?

Gladio, more sensitive than most to Ignis’ subtle mood changes, seemed to pick up on the tension boiling under his skin. He scanned ahead, located Iggy’s car parked across the street, and stuck out his palm. “Keys.”

Those green eyes flashed instant venom up at him. “Excuse me?”

“Let me drive you home. You got even less sleep than I did last night.”

“Out of the question.”

“Iggy.” Gladio stopped, hand on the other’s shoulder, forcing him to meet that unyielding amber gaze. “Come on. You’re spacing. If you drive like this you’re gonna kill someone, and I don’t mean intentionally.”

For a moment there was a heated battle of wills atop those marble steps, but in the end it was Ignis who backed down. He tossed over the keys with a cold glare and frowned. “Not. A. Scratch.”

“Have some faith, wouldya?” With a grin far too excited to put Ignis at ease, Gladio followed him to the car and, slipping into the driver’s side, slammed the seat as far back as it would go on its rails. Ignis cringed.

Not until they got on the road did he finally let out a long, shuddering breath. He needed rest, he knew, but it wasn’t simply the all-nighter or even the pressure of the current manhunt that was wearing him thin. Work he could handle; murder, bloodshed, espionage, it all came second nature to him. So why did he keep feeling so unfocused…?

“It’s been awhile since I last saw your place. Is it a right up here, or a left?”

Without thinking, Ignis replied, “Go right.”

Gladio rolled the car through the stop and sped out of the curve. The landscape was starting to look familiar. “Straight?”

“Take the second left.”

They continued this way for a while longer, Ignis staring out of the window deep in thought, Gladio following his half-mumbled directions. It wasn’t until they rounded the next corner and the Caelum complex loomed up ahead of them that the bodyguard realized what was happening.

“Oh, shit,” he said under his breath, and glanced sidelong at his companion. As feared, Ignis signaled him to take the next turn ahead -- and suddenly shot up straight in his seat as reality hit him like a splash of cold water.

“This isn’t -- “

“No, it’s not.”

“But why are we -- ?”

“Talkin’ in your sleep, maybe?”

The Regalia slowed to a crawl in front of Noctis’ apartment building. Ignis stared out at it, disbelieving, but he could feel Gladio’s eyes on his back and a surprising warmth creeping over his face. He’d fully intended to go home, so why had he guided them here…?

“So, um. Maybe the little king’ll let you crash on his couch or something.” Gladio ran his fingers back through his hair as he did his best to avoid the elephant in the, er, car. “This is closer to my place, so it works out anyway, I guess.”

“Right.”

“...You okay?”

“I don’t know.”

An awkward silence followed. Gladio eased the car into a spot across the street, and was just about to nudge Ignis into motion when something caught his eye from the front of the building. He leaned closer to Iggy as he peered out the passenger window. “Is that...a chocobo ?”

In the tall bushes lining the path to the entrance, a strange yellow shape was moving amongst the leaves. It shuffled to the left, stopped, turned, and moved back again as if searching for something impatiently. Evidently Ignis had seen it, too. His shoulders were back, his body tensed. “Too small. Too human.”  

“I’ll follow your lead.”

Ignis crept silently out of the car, his momentary distractions set aside as instinct kicked in. Deft fingers itched in empty air above the sheath at his side. “Grab him,” he hissed, and Gladio lunged forward into the bushes without hesitation. There was a high-pitched squeal and a yelp, and then the heavyweight bodyguard was hoisting someone in the air. Ignis zeroed in; his dagger was drawn and pressing into the side of a pale, trembling neck the second that thin frame collided with the wall of the steps.

“W-woah! Chill the fuck out!” it -- he -- cried, throwing a hand up in front of his face to ward off any incoming blows. “I-I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“We shall be the judges of that,” Ignis snarled, his blade threatening to piece through the young man’s skin with even the slightest pressure. “Who are you.”

His bright blue eyes were locked on the monster of a man hovering directly in front of him. Despite the weapon against his throat, this guy, with his lips pulled back in a sneer and his heavily tattooed arms almost as big around as his entire body, seemed the more immediate threat. And indeed when several heartbeats passed without an answer, Gladio snatched up a fistful of blond locks and slammed the kid’s head back against the wall. “He asked you a question, chocobo. Stop staring, start talking.”

Pained tears stung at the corners of those blue eyes, and a whimper tore from his throat. “F-fuck that hurts,” he whined, and felt rough fingers tighten in his hair again. “Okay, I get it, geez! My name’s Prompto, I’m just here to see my friend Noct!”

The two men exchanged surprised looks, but neither made to move. “This brat appears to have a deathwish,” Ignis observed as he took another good look at their captive. He was young, maybe eighteen or nineteen judging from his flushed, freckled face, and dressed in a casual sleeveless tee under a denim jacket. Around his wrists he wore a multitude of colorful bands, and his hair was styled up at odd angles, very much giving him the appearance of a wild chocobo. Well, the ass end of one, at least. “Gladio, grab his phone.”

“You heard him. Hand it over.” The kid -- Prompto he’d said, though Ignis was hardly ready to believe a word out of his mouth -- gestured to his jacket pocket. Gladio reached in, dug out his phone, held it out for the kid to punch in his passcode. “Lesse here,” the bodyguard started, randomly tapping things on the screen. “Anything in particular I’m looking for, or...?”

“Evidence. If he claims to know Noctis, he must have proof.”

“Right-y-o. Photos then.”

“H-hey, you can’t just go through a guy’s stuff like this!” Prompto whined against the dagger at his throat. “That’s a violation of privacy, a-and stuff!”

A thick eyebrow arched, and Gladio’s mouth set in a dark grin. “Suspicious much? Sounds like probable cause to me. Let’s just take a peek in -- “ His voice cut off, and his eyes widened at the image now plastered on the screen. For a long moment his thumb hovered, frozen, unable to believe what he was seeing. Then he took a breath and zoomed in. “Is...this you ?” Ignoring the kid’s flustered protests, he held the phone up to compare the two faces side by side, and let out a low whistle.

Ignis, however, was growing impatient. “Gladio!” he growled. “ If you would be so kind.”

“Uh, right, yeah, Sorry.” He grinned again, this time holding the phone out for Prompto to work himself. “Maybe you’d better take over, loverboy.”

The blonde snatched the phone violently, glaring through bright red cheeks as he closed the image and instead opened up a chat window. “Here,” he huffed, and shoved the phone at Ignis instead. “You guys are assholes.”

Gladio reached forward to pat his cheek. “Interesting choice of words,” he smirked, and Prompto fell into another sputtering defense.

“Hmm. Hard as it is to believe, he checks out,” Ignis interrupted with a shake of his head. “This is, indeed, Noctis’ account. But it still doesn’t explain what you’re doing here .”

“Crawling around in bushes, no less.”

Prompto bit his bottom lip, looking between the hard faces of the two men as if considering his options. The knife against his throat didn’t really help matters. “W-well, usually when I come over, Noct let’s me in, but he wasn’t answering his messages today a-and I know he sometimes tosses down a key card for me when he gets busy a-and -- “

“Enough.” The flare in behind Ignis’ glasses definitely wasn’t a trick of Gladio’s imagination, and he instinctively took a step back as the man straightened himself and sheathed his dagger. “You. With me now. Gladio, the door.”

Prompto swallowed hard at the tight fingers squeezing around his upper arm as he was half-dragged, half-marched in the direction of the building’s entrance. The dark-haired man who looked like he spent way too much time at the gym had bounded ahead of them, and by the time they reached the doors they didn’t even have to slow down on the way inside. Stuck between the two solid bodies of his abductors, Prompto could do nothing but shiver the entire ride up to Noct’s apartment.

At last the doors slid open, and he was shoved roughly out of the elevator.

“Noct!” he shouted, immediately twisting out of the knife guy’s grasp and bounding for the kitchen.

...Just as his friend rounded the corner. “Hey, Prom. Sorry I just got your texts, I was…in the...shower,” Noct ended flatly. Behind Prompto, Gladio and Ignis stood like demonic guardians, twin towers of foreboding force. The young ohji swallowed, set down the open (and doubly incriminating) beer he was holding, and forced a smile. “Hey. Meeting over already?”

Silence was his answer, so he shifted tactics and tried again. “So, introductions, huh? Prom, the guys. Guys, meet Prom.”

“We’ve met.” Gladio crossed his arms over his chest and smirked at the blonde in front of him.

“He has some very interesting stories about how someone’s been letting unauthorized guests into this building.”

Shit . He didn’t actually think he’d ever seen Ignis truly angry before. The image chilled him to the bone.

“Noct, do you actually know these creeps?!” Prompto took another step forward to grip the sleeve of his friend’s t-shirt as his mouth formed silent words: They’re crazy!

“Uh, yeah. Gladio and Iggy kinda…work for my dad.”

Blue eyes widened incredulously. “They’re reporters ?”

“Um. Cameramen.”

Gladio didn’t know what kind of bullshit stories Noct had been telling, but he knew an opening when he saw one. “That’s right,” he grinned, voice low. Prompto whirled around just in time to catch him drawing his fingers up to his face in the shape of an invisible camera, winking as he clicked the ‘shutter’. The blonde flushed a telling crimson.

“Noctis, a word.” Already moving forward, Ignis wrapped a gloved hand tightly around the younger man’s wrist as he led him into the living room. Noct followed obediently; the damage was done, he knew, and there was little point in fighting. If he could at least persuade Ignis to hear his side…

“How long?”

The directness caught him off guard. “How long, what?”

“How long have you been seeing him?” Wait, what? Ignis shook his head. That wasn’t what he’d meant to say. He tried again. “Friends, I mean. Here, in this apartment.”

Oh. Noctis chewed at his lip while he concocted a nice, vague answer.. “...A few months. But it’s only Prompto. We met online, we game together. Trust me, you can check my chat logs if you -- “

“Do you know how much danger you put him in by inviting him here?” That shut Noct’s mouth fast. Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t this level of guilt trip so soon. “He could have been killed , Noctis. We could have killed him today, and for what?”

“...I’m sorry.”

“The entire Glaive is on edge right now. This isn’t the time to start your teenage rebellion.”

“That’s not what this is about, I --”

“If you’re angry about this weekend -- “

“I’m not angry! Just -- ”

“Stop acting like a child , Noctis.”

That was it, right on the button. “ Shut the hell up and listen to me for a second! ” he screamed. Ignis took a step back; even Gladio glanced up from Prompto’s reddened face (pressed, as it were, nearly against his chest between him and the wall) at the sudden outburst.

Trembling, Noct sucked in a breath. “Prompto is my friend. All I wanted was to be able to hang out like normal friends, do things normal people do. I get...lonely up here. And you’re not always around.”

A soft sigh. “...Noct.” There it was, that feeling again like he was drifting, floating. His chest felt tight. “Forgive me, I overreacted.”

From the kitchen, Gladio listened in utter disbelief. Had Ignis, the man he’d seen slit a hundred throats without a moment’s hesitation, just apologized? To Noctis ? “Oh, shit ,” he breathed for the second time that day.

He heard a click , and looked down in time to see Prompto snap another photo of the two across the room. His smile was bright enough to light up the entire apartment. “Sorry,” he said, pocketing his phone. “They’re just…kinda cute. When that guy isn’t being a total douchebag, I mean.”



Chapter Text

 

“So, are you gonna tell me or not?”

Palm on the edge of the counter, Gladio leaned in close enough to sense the prickling on the back of Prompto’s neck. The blond was doing his best to ignore him, staring instead at the doorway where Noct and Ignis had disappeared and willing his friend to hurry back. But he could still feel those unsettling, auburn eyes burning into him from the side, so without shifting his gaze he took the bait. “Tell you what ?”

“Who those pics are for.”

Ugh! His cheeks flushing under a speckling of freckles, Prompto slumped down a few more inches on the bar stool. “They aren’t for anyone, okay?”

“Uh-huh. Sure. You just like posing for dirty selfies for fun, right?” His voice, dripping with sarcasm and amusement, was right next to Prompto’s ear, sending shudders all the way down his spine. He shifted awkwardly on the stool as his blush spread from cheek to cheek and down to his chest. How was he supposed to answer that? How could he defend himself when this behemoth of a man had already seen the low-res evidence of him with his fingers buried in his own ass? His answer, if it could be called that, was to simply bury his face in his hands and groan.

Gladio’s grin widened. “Does Noct know about ‘em?”

Another whine. “W-would you just forget about the photos already?”

“Not gonna happen, chocobo.”

Though far from done yet, Gladio put his burning questions to the back of his mind for the time being as Noct finally returned from the bedroom. He was alone, which meant Ignis was hopefully getting some much-needed rest. The young ohji flopped down onto the bar stool next to Prompto and let out a tired sigh.

“How is he?” Gladio asked, breaking the silence.

Noct shrugged. “Sleeping, finally. He kept insisting he should go home and rest instead. I don’t know, I’m worried he might be sick.”

There was a scoff, and Gladio shook his head. “Yeah, you can say that again. He’s caught something pretty serious from the looks of it.” Though Noct glanced up at him expectantly, the bodyguard clearly wasn’t feeling inclined to elaborate. He instead patted Noct on the shoulder and, grabbing his coat off the back of Prompto’s chair, announced that he was heading home to get some shut eye himself.

“You okay to walk?” Noct asked. Gladio waved his hand.

‘Course. My place isn’t far from here.” With a promising wink in Prompto’s direction, he added, “In case you were wondering.”

Blue eyes rolled. “I wasn’t.”

This earned them a deep, rumbling laugh in return, and then Gladio was heading for the door. He paused along the way just long enough to snag Noct’s open beer bottle off the counter.

“Hey! That’s mine!” the young ohji started to protest -- but Gladio was already knocking it back with a smirk.

“You’re not old enough for this stuff. I’m just being the responsible friend.” Ignoring Noctis’ simmering glare, he tipped the bottle up again as he stepped into the elevator and disappeared behind the sliding doors.

Prompto released the breath he’d been holding. “That guy is such a creep,” he said, shuddering. “Just because he’s hot he thinks he can go around hitting on whoever he wants. Literally.” He rubbed the back of his head lightly with his fingers, feeling the growing knot where Gladio had slammed it into the wall.

Noctis had gotten up and was digging through the refrigerator for two more beers when he caught Prompto’s comments. Shrugging, he popped the tops off and pressed an ice cold bottle into his friend’s waiting hand. “Don’t take it too personally. He’s kinda rough, but he was just doing his job. Ignis, too. You probably looked hella suspicious slinking around out there.”

“Well, I might have been more careful if I’d known your place was being watched by vicious attack thugs.” Prompto took a sip of his beer as he followed Noct into the living room. “Are you sure those guys are cameramen? They both seem...way too psycho.”

For a moment Noct didn’t speak, instead flopping onto the couch and tossing a game controller into Prompto’s lap. He grabbed one for himself, and as Justice Monsters Five: Redemption booted up on the console, he took a deep breath.

“They’re not really cameramen,” he said as calmly as he could manage despite the fluttering in his stomach. If Ignis -- or worse, Regis -- knew what he was about to say…. “And my father isn’t a journalist.”

Prompto selected his character from the main screen and glanced over at his friend. “What’re you talking about? Your dad works for the Galdin Beacon, doesn’t he?”

The first match started. The screen filled with targets, and the boys took turns blasting them one by one. Deep blue eyes stared straight ahead as Noct carefully chose his words to reply. “Actually, no. He...kind of owns the Galdin Beacon. And the Citadel. They’re like, covers, y’know, for...his real work.”

Suddenly he had Prompto’s full attention. Game forgotten for the moment, he blinked his round, bright eyes and tried to grasp what Noctis was telling him. Own the Beacon? And that monstrous high rise downtown where only people in suits were allowed in? Just how rich was this guy?! For someone like Prompto who had grown up with so little, just getting used to the size and luxury of Noct’s apartment had taken time. What Noctis was telling him now was enough to blow his mind. “...So he’s, like, a CEO or something?”

“In a way.” Noct paused the game (Prompto’s character had already died while he wasn’t paying attention anyway) and shifted on the sofa until he was fully facing his friend. “Prom, you have to promise me you won’t freak out. And you can’t tell anyone else, got it?”

The blonde swallowed. He wasn’t sure he liked the way Noct had suddenly gotten so serious. But despite himself, he nodded. “Y-yeah, alright.” His friend let out a breath.

“My father is Regis Lucis Caelum, He’d the head of our family’s organization, which makes most of its money...illegally. Extortion, mostly, and some stuff with taxes, Ignis tried to explain it a couple times. I never really listen.”

Prompto’s jaw fell open. “W-wait, that sounds a lot like….” His voice dropped to a whisper as if he were afraid the word alone would summon trouble. “ Yakuza.”

Whatever he’d expected in response, it certainly wasn’t a lazy shoulder roll and a small smile. “Yep.”

“Then that makes you…?”

“Next in line for the ‘throne’.”

“Oh.” Prompto fell silent, caught somewhere between disbelief and shock. As long as he’d known Noctis, nothing had ever given him the impression that he was a criminal, or at least a criminal in training. Well, there was his expensive penthouse, of course, and the fact that he had to sneak over just to hang out. And the fact that he’d never actually met his father, or anyone in his family, for that matter. The fact that he’d been beaten up that very afternoon by a couple of deadly bodyguards….

Okay, so maybe it was more believable than he’d thought. But still, Noct was Noct and it was nearly impossible to imagine him doing anything to hurt anyone. After all, isn’t that what the yakuza did? Hurt people?

“You okay, Prom? You promised not to freak out, remember?”

“Uh, y-yeah, I’m good,” he said quickly, sucking in a breath. “It’s a lot to think about, that’s all.”

Noctis laid a hand on his shoulder and leaned close, smiling. “I know. Sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner. Ignis was right, me sneaking you in here without any kind of warning put you in a lot of danger.”

“Hey, it’s okay, that’s not exactly something you can trust just anyone with, right?” Prompto mirrored his smile for a fleeting second, then his face fell again. “You guys don’t, like, kill people, though. Do you? It’s just about money, right?”

Noctis faltered. What could he say? When he was a child, he’d seen countless people dragged screaming into secret rooms. He’d heard the arguments, the bickering between the Glaives about the best way to “deal with rats.” He’d seen the black bags being taken away under cover of dark. His father had gone to great lengths to protect him from the crueler side of his family’s work, but he had no illusions about what went on behind locked doors.

“Um,” he started, finding it hard to look Prompto in the eye. “I’m not sure. Maybe. But I know Gladio and Ignis would never do anything like that, and neither would I. Not everyone in the business is so bad,” he finished with a weak smile.

Several moments passed in silence. Prompto was still processing, still trying to wrap his head around everything Noct was saying to him, when another idea struck him. The thought alone was enough to make him flush, and he was sure giving voice to it would only make things worse, but…. Well, it wasn’t everyday this kind of opportunity passed by. “So, like, your dad is the one in charge, right? And he listens to you, right?”

Another noncommittal shrug. “I guess. Sometimes, yeah. Why?”

“Do you think I could get a job? Y’know, nothing too hard,” he added quickly, fumbling as Noct’s eyes widened in surprise. “To be honest, I’ve been a bit strapped for cash lately, but I can’t really find much….”

“You find out my family is involved in the criminal underworld and your first thought is that you want to join them?” The question would have been harsh if not for the astonished laughter in Noctis’ voice. “Are you nuts?”

“C’mon, it can’t be that bad, right? And as long as I don’t have to hurt anyone I don’t mind the other stuff. Money is money, I totally get that.”

“Yeah, well. I somehow doubt your parents would be as cool with it as you are.”

Prompto deflected with practiced skill. “They’re never around, they won’t even notice. Please, Noct? Help a bro out?”   

Shaking his head, Noct once again picked up his controller as he brought the conversation to an end. “Whatever. I’ll talk to Iggy about it and see what I can do, okay? Let’s just finish this round already.” He clocked Prompto on the shoulder and flashed him a grin before turning back around to resume their game in silence.

 

--------

 

Ignis awoke to darkness in an unfamiliar space. In the fog of his lingering dream (an abstract, unsettling vision), he couldn’t quite remember where he was or how he’d arrived there, and it put him on edge. Out of instinct, he reached for his own end table and the glasses he always kept there -- yet his fingers landed not on thin frames but instead on soft, warm flesh.

And all at once he understood. He was in Noctis’ room where the ohji had brought him to rest earlier in the day. Evidently more time had passed than he’d intended. Now he could make out the dark night sky just beyond the windows, the few stars that were visible through the haze of city lights shining high up above. Just how long had Noctis let him sleep?

Next to him on the mattress, the young man in question let out a soft snore into the pillow beneath his head. Green eyes opened wide. Only a few inches separated his face from Noct’s, and although he was curled up in his pajamas on top of the sheets (a habit he’d developed as a child) while Ignis was beneath, their bodies were all-but pressed together despite the ample space in the large bed. The brunette swallowed hard, feeling his fingers begin to slide on their own accord across the smooth skin of Noctis’ arm where they had landed. In his chest, his breath caught and held, lest he release it and somehow break the spell.

Noctis was beautiful in sleep. Ignis thought now, indeed had always thought, that he looked as peaceful, as ethereal as a vision of Etros in human form. Watching Noct sleep brought a sense of calm to Ignis’ world like nothing else ever had or ever could again. He smiled inwardly. Would Noctis laugh to hear such sentiments? Would he bury his blush against Ignis’ chest, seeking to hide his embarrassment in his arms?

The cellphone on his pillow vibrated again, interrupting his rare moment of self-indulgence. Ignis snatched it up before the ohji , too, awoke, and quickly scanned the name on the screen.

Nyx .

There was only one reason for the Captain of the Glaives to be contacting him now. Clearing his throat, Ignis answered in a hushed tone. “Yes?”

Silence on the other end. Then, “We got her.”

“I’m on my way.”

He found his jacket and gloves hung over the back of a chair near the bed as he got to his feet. These he pulled on quickly, efficiently, before locating his glasses atop the end table on Noct’s side. He slipped them on, and then made the mistake of looking down once more at the sleeping form of his prince before him.

Time was of the essence, there was no room to dawdle, and yet…. Ignis reached out one gloved hand to stroke over a pale cheek. Lithe fingers wisped the dark strands of hair from his face. Before he realized what he was doing he had leaned forward and pressed his lips to the ohji’s forehead.

Noct shifted. Fingers caught the front of Ignis’ shirt before he could pull away. He froze, staring directly down into blurry, sleepy blue eyes. Noctis’ eyes. “Iggy?” His brows furrowed in confusion. “Don’t go.”

An eternity passed before Ignis found his voice. “It’s...work. I’m sorry, I -- ” He cut himself off, no longer able to think beyond the face in front of his eyes. Unease gnawed at his gut. He ignored it. “Noct?”

The raven-haired young man frowned. Still half-asleep, he was having trouble understanding. Ignis was leaving, but he didn’t want him to go. He was close, but he wanted him closer. “Please.” Mouth parting in a breath, Noctis tugged on the shirt between his fingers, pleased at how easily Ignis moved at his command. He felt warm lips brush over his, smiled against them, let his eyes fall closed. This feels so right , he thought. This was Ignis, and Ignis meant lilac and emeralds, meant light and dark and everything in between. Ignis meant the world.

But he pulled away from the kiss far too soon. Noctis looked up again in time to catch Ignis clap a black-gloved hand over his mouth, eyes unreadable behind those glasses. As realization sunk in through the haze of the ohji’s sleep-fogged mind, his advisor turned on his heels and flew from the room.

Noct couldn’t work his voice in time to stop him.

 

------------

 

They spotted the Regalia as soon as it turned the corner and began crawling down the block. Its headlamps went out, the engine fell silent, and the car came to a stop just outside the back entrance of the Citadel. A moment later, Ignis the Reaper stepped out of the driver’s side dressed in his signature black suit and gloves, and a particularly terrifying scowl on his face. The two Glaives exchanged looks.

“Sir,” one of them bowed his head as the other hurried to get the heavy steel door behind him open. “Nyx is waiting inside with the prisoner.”

Guest ,” Ignis corrected coldly. “Show me.”

“Yes, sir.”

Inside the building, the hallways were dark, empty, illuminated only by the flicker of neon green exit signs at the far ends. A disconcerting yet appropriate stage for the late-night business of the underworld.

Nyx Ulric met them outside of what appeared to be a little-used storage room. Beyond, Ignis could make out stacks of boxes rising high enough along the back wall to block out the windows, but the rest of the room was bare. Save, that was, for the single metal chair in the very center, and the unmoving body strapped to it. The figure’s head was covered by a black sack, but even from the hallway Ignis could tell it was a woman.

Highwind.

“We didn’t have any trouble tracking her down,” Nyx was saying as he followed Ignis into the dim room. “She wasn’t even hiding. Put up a bit of a fight inside the bar, though. Strong one, this little lady.” He smirked and rubbed the dark purple bruise coloring his cheek; but the act was lost on his audience.

Already Ignis was circling the chair, eyes hard and jaw set as he focused solely on the task at hand. Whatever else he was feeling, whatever other thoughts plagued his mind in that moment were silenced by the sheer force of his willpower. It was time to work. It was time to let the Reaper take control.

A growl filled the room as he ripped the black bag away from the woman’s face. Dark eyes full of ferocity and anger glared up at him, and she tugged on her bonds with enough force to strain the metal bars to which they were attached.

“Let me guess,” she snarled. “You’re the fucker who’s gonna explain to me why I’m tied to this fucking chair?” Full lips peeled back in a feral grin. “Go on, I’m dying to hear this.”



Chapter Text

 

“Let me guess. You’re the fucker who’s gonna explain to me why I’m tied to this fucking chair? Go on, I’m dying to hear this.”

 

Even bound, Aranea Highwind lived up to her reputation as the “Dragon,” it seemed. An untamable force with a tongue of fire, she was said to fear no one and nothing. Normally, Ignis would relish the challenge of breaking her, of wiping that grin off her face -- but that night he was hardly in the mood for games. Even her words, venomous as they were, phased him not in the least.

“No,” he answered simply, and tossed the black sack he’d removed from her head onto the floor. “I’m here to watch. And to judge. And to pick up the pieces once they’re through with you.” He ignored the amusement playing on her lips and turned instead to face Nyx, who was waiting a few paces out of range. At the cue, he stepped forward to begin.

“I expected you to warm her up a bit more for me,” the Glaive Captain smirked as Ignis moved to the sidelines to observe. “Ah, well. More fun for me. And man am I gonna enjoy this.”

Aranea flicked her gaze over him dismissively. “Thought I recognized that voice. You’re the asshole from the bar. Don’t you know it’s rude to jump a lady when she’s in the middle of a shot?”

“First of all, it’s called the element of surprise for a reason. Second,” he paused, grinning down at her as he placed the heel of his boot over the laces of her sneaker and ground down hard. “You’re not exactly much of a lady.”

There was a hiss of pain, but Highwind’s expression never faltered. “Maybe that’s why it took ten of you guys to bring me in. Speaking of which, how’s that bruise, sweetheart?” Dark eyes roved over the left side of Nyx’s face, where a deepening purple-and-blue mark was spreading across his cheekbone. It looked painful. She hoped it was.

“Yeah, lucky swing. Enjoy it while you can.” One of the Glaives standing at attention in the back of the room strode over at Nyx’s summons. He was carrying an envelope, brown and nondescript, and handed it over in silence. With a bow he retreated again, leaving his boss to draw out the set of photos concealed inside.

He was still watching Aranea, but all signs of humor were gone now. Mouth set in a thin line, he held the first of the photos up to her face and waited.

“Hmm,” she mused. She tilted her head, examining the pictures with a sense of mirth usually not reserved for murder scenes. “Guess it’s too late to tell those guys to duck.”

“You wanted to know why you’re here,” Nyx pushed, doing his best to ignore her comment. “So do we.”

There was a pause as she considered his words. “You think I had something to do with this?” She gestured to the photo with her chin, scoffing. “Not my style. Too messy, too easy to trace.”

“You weren’t exactly laying low. Some of us think maybe you wanted to be found.”

“Are you crazy?” Again, Highwind tugged hard on her bonds, snarling in agitation. “Why the fuck would I want to end up tied to a freezing-ass chair in the middle of your secret club house, when I could be getting drunk and enjoying my evening?”

Nyx switched to the second photo, a close up of one of the victims, and shoved it directly into her line of sight. “Her name was Crowe,” he choked out. “And she doesn’t give a fuck what you’d rather be doing tonight, either.” Around the room, several of the Glaives growled their agreement. Aranea’s eyes darkened.

“Look, I get you’re pissed. Clearly someone’s got it out for you guys and they targeted your friends.” Her gaze swept from Nyx’s face, tight with rage, to the face of the man who’d first addressed her. His expression was unreadable, his eyes effectively hidden behind his glasses; he would be of no help. “But I’m telling you, I had nothing to do with this. You got the wrong gal.”

A rough snarl. Nyx slammed his palms down on the arms of the chair as he hovered over her. “The hell should we believe you, Niff scum? I saw you fight in that bar. Someone like you would have no trouble taking out three armed guards from behind like a coward!”

“I could, sure, but I didn’t . Trust me, I don’t go to work unless I got a direct order. Ain’t nothing in it  for me, you understand.”

“Your honor is truly inspiring.”

“I’m a mercenary, not a saint.”

“You’re a murderer.”

Fuck you!” When she spit, she aimed directly for Nyx’s polished boot. “I said you’re wrong!”

Tense silence hung between them, Nyx still poised in front of the chair and Aranea straining against her ropes for a fight. And perhaps it would have indeed come to blows, if not for the sudden distraction that was Nyx’s cell phone ringing in his pocket.

He froze, and Highwind’s mouth stretched in a wicked grin. “Gonna answer that, sweet pea?” Frustration spilled out in a string of expletives as Nyx whipped out his phone and stalked several feet away.

From the shadows, Ignis watched on in simmering silence.

“Nyx here. Kinda busy, what d’you want?” A pause as the voice on the other end explained something in a hurried tone. Then, “DAMMIT! Who?!” This time Ignis found himself growing interested. The Glaive Captain seemed to tense for a moment; the fist at his side clenched tight with fury. At last, he managed a low, “I understand. I’m on my way,” before sliding his phone back into his pocket and walking with unnatural calm toward the back of the room.

A moment later he erupted. Empty boxes went flying as Nyx kicked again and again at flimsy cardboard, his anger turning to strangled cries as they tore from his throat. He’d destroyed two entire stacks of boxes before, with a final kick that sent broken pieces across the room, he fell silent again.

The other Glaives in the room exchanged subtle looks. Even Aranea refrained from comment in the wake of the outburst. Only Ignis, already stepping forward with calm strides, dared break the tension surrounding them all.

“What is it, Nyx?”

The Captain didn’t turn to face him. “There’s been another attack,” he explained, voice thick with a different kind of emotion now. “I sent some of my best out to Tenebrae tonight on a recon mission. They apparently got hit outside of a club. All dead, same as before.”

Ignis took the unsettling news in stride, preferring to focus on facts until they had more information. “Do we suspect the Nox Fleurets, then?”

But Nyx shook his head. “No. They lost three of theirs in the attack, too.”

Unsettling, indeed . Assuming this information was reliable, it meant that members of two of the most powerful clans in the city were dead in the second of what appeared to be a series of targeted hits. That left the third and largest house -- Nifelheim -- with the most to gain from the ensuing chaos. Yet if this attack had happened within the last hour or so, that meant that their current suspect was….

Aranea faced away from them in the chair, but her shoulders were visibly shaking as she continued to laugh, low and deep and taunting. “Would you listen to that, boys?” she mocked, turning her head to catch them in her peripheral vision. “Sounds like I just scored an alibi.”

Nyx automatically reared back to attack, but Ignis stopped him with a single hand on his shoulder. “Don’t. She’s right.”

“You. You seem like the kinda guy who can listen to reason.” She beckoned Ignis over with a nod. As he rounded on her, she looked up into his cold, emerald gaze and grinned. “Whad’ya say you let me go, hm, gorgeous? In exchange, I’ll promise to forget all about this terrible little fuck up. Water under the bridge. No hard feelings.”

“Ignis.” Nyx’s warning came from across the room and he immediately ignored it.

Very few of the unfortunate souls who had ever dealt with the Reaper had lived to tell the tale. That’s why they called him, wasn’t it? To finish the jobs others could not? Under normal circumstances, Aranea’s words might have fallen on deaf ears -- after all, she knew too much, and the risk of retaliation was always better avoided.

Yet that night, Ignis could hardly say he was in the right frame of mind for his work. He was distracted. Tired. Soft. He looked into Aranea’s eyes and... trusted her. Before Nyx could interfere, Ignis had whipped out his dagger and sliced clean through the ropes binding her wrists behind her in the chair.

Aranea Highwind stood, somewhat unbelieving, as he gingerly flexed her arms and fingers before her. “I guess not all of you are as bad as you seem,” she mused, and for the first time that night her voice was free of the cynical tone it had held before. With a smile in Ignis’ direction, she turned on her heel to face the others in the room. She stopped when she caught sight of Nyx.

“Water under the bridge, right?” he said, forcing a grin as she began her approach.

“Oh, yeah. Totally. Kidnapping me, stuffing that mold-ridden bag over my head, tying me up, stepping on me and -- that’s right, accusing me of murder.” Her teeth flashed deadly white. “ All forgotten. No worries.”

He swallowed but allowed his shoulders to relax a little. “Well, then. That’s very considerate of -- “

His words were cut off as Highwind’s fist collided with his face with a sickening crack. Nyx stumbled back, eyes wide, as he threw a hand up to his right eye out of instinct.

“That,” the Dragon grinned. “Was for spilling my drink.”

Glaives scattered out of her path as she stalked toward the exit, leaving the Reaper rather impressed and the Captain now sporting a tell-tale bruise on each of his cheeks.

 

------------

 

The tiles were like ice against his forehead, chilling him despite the heat of the water that flowed over his naked back. If nothing else, the cold was helping to clear his mind, to distract from the tightness still choking his throat. It had been so long since since he’d cried like this.

Noctis would be the first to admit that he had been weak as a child. Even before the car accident that had taken his mother’s life and left him bedridden for months, he’d been frail, fragile, not only in body but also in mind. When he’d scraped his knee, when he’d lost his favorite toy, when there had been no one to tuck him in at night, the tears had always come so naturally. But as he’d grown up, he’d come to face a hard reality; boys weren’t allowed to cry. Least of all boys would would one day become kings of their father’s empire. Regis had chided him time and again, until Noct had learned how to hide his pain from those around him.

Everyone, that was, except Ignis. With him, he’d been free to be himself. To feel things, to laugh and yell, and shed his tears until his eyes stung and his chest burned. Ignis had always understood, had never judged. Had only held him and smiled, and told him he would make it all okay.

But this time, he was utterly alone. Ignis wasn’t here, would likely never be again, and all because he’d acted on impulse and made a mistake.

Was it a mistake, though, really? For Noctis, the gentle pressure of Ignis’ lips against his had felt so right . Even half-asleep as he’d been, he’d recognized the significance of the act; all the years of tension, of curiosity, of simply not knowing , had made the kiss feel like an answer to a question he had never fully had the courage to ask. And he’d certainly thought Ignis would sense it, too.

Yet Ignis had pulled away as fast as if he’d been slapped. Why? Why, in the privacy of his own bedroom with not a soul to judge them or tell them they were wrong, had he still turned and fled? The only possible answer Noct could see was the one that hurt the most. It broke his heart to think that Ignis didn’t -- had never -- loved him in the same way. The ache became physical pain, his chest tight and eyes burning, and he clawed at the wall of the shower as sobs racked his frame.

How could he have been so blind?

A knock on the bathroom door carried over the sound of the rushing water, followed by a soft but firm voice. “Noctis, you mustn’t keep your father waiting. You’ve been in there for nearly half an hour, please finish up and come along quickly.” Monica waited for a response that didn’t come, then closed the door again with a sigh.

Noctis swallowed back the lump in his throat. The last thing he had needed that afternoon was for his father’s messenger to arrive unannounced and bearing a summons for some asinine meeting. There hadn’t even been any details save the order to “arrive well-groomed and on time.” Whatever it was, it sounded formal and important -- two more reasons for the young ohji to drag his feet.

Sticking his head under the hot shower stream, he let the water wash away the evidence of his tears as he slowly reached for the shampoo.

 

The building was eerily empty as he followed Monica toward his father’s private meeting hall. It had been weeks since the last time he’d last visited the Citadel, but he could already feel that something was very wrong. While the corridors were usually bustling with activity -- Glaives moving between posts, business being conducted in tempered tones -- today the building appeared all but abandoned. The silence, combined with his sour mood and Monica’s hurried strides, had him wishing not for the first time that he’d just stayed in bed that morning.

He focused in on the dark tattoos winding up out of the back of her suit jacket and asked, “Where the hell is everyone?”

“Waiting for you,” Monica replied, voice flat, neutral. “Mostly, anyway. The Glaives are…. Well, they’re busy. Right this way.”

The pair stopped in front of a set of elegant paper doors, modern with dark brown wooden frames and flecks of golden overlay -- the entrance to Regis Caelum’s personal reception hall. It was where he met with businessmen and entertained important guests, and whenever Noctis was asked to join he inevitably fell asleep halfway through the conversations. Pleasantries and inane ass-kissing were simply against his nature,

Yet this time, when Monica slid open the doors he was shocked to find so many familiar faces. His father was there, of course, looking stern and displeased at his late arrival; behind him were his closest advisors, Clarus and Weskham, and behind them in a row sat Cor, Nyx, Gladiolus, and Ignis. The latter had his eyes fixed on the small wooden table in front of him, once again looking haggard, distant. Noct swallowed and turned his attention to the other half of the room.

Seated directly across from the host, Ravus Nox Fleuret cut a surprisingly imposing figure. Noctis hadn’t seen him in years, but he’d evidently grown into a powerful young man very quickly. His fair hair shone bright under the lights, a perfect match with his inverse pinstripe suit and dark purple tie. Fashionable, stylish; the hallmark of the high-class Tenebrae lifestyle. Behind him sat a small collection of his advisors and guards, faces Noctis recognized but couldn’t name, and in the very midst of them was Ravus’ younger sister, Luna.

She was turned toward the door, her smile brightening as she caught sight of Noct. He smiled, too. Lunafreya was one of his oldest childhood friends, a playmate he’d grown up with before the death of her parents had left a rift between their families. As pale and well-dressed as her brother minus the distasteful scowl, she was the only welcome face among the room of serious expressions.

Bobbing his head in greeting to her, he kicked off his sneakers and stepped up onto soft tatami. His seat was an open cushion at Regis’ right side. Feeling his father’s steel gaze on him as he approached, Noct made an attempt at a bow to the general room before folding his legs and plopping down on the cushion.

“Uh, sorry I’m late,” he said in response to all the hard stares from around the room. He turned to his father, smiled, and out of the corner of his eye managed to catch Ignis watching him. Or, at least he thought that’s what he’d seen -- his green gaze was back on the table before Noct could be sure it hadn’t been just a trick of the light.

“Well, if I may continue?” Ravus cleared his throat, and Regis nodded in his direction. “As I was saying, the time for our families to put aside our differences has come. We are both under attack by forces unknown, and uniting may be our only weapon against them.”

Regis was silent for a moment. Behind him, Clarus and Weskham conversed in hushed tones. Noctis felt as though he’d missed something important. Under attack? Did this have something to do with the Glaives who’d been killed that week? Had something else happened since then?

The silence was broken as Regis let out a deep sigh. “Young Ravus, you speak with a wisdom beyond your years. It is true that our houses have been sundered for too long, and that an alliance now would greatly benefit us both. But I wonder if a marriage between Lunafreya and Noctis is truly the only way?”

The young ohji nearly jumped to his feet. His eyes flashed wide and round as he looked up at his father in utter disbelief. What the hell had he just heard? Marriage? Him and Luna ?!

Across the room, Ravus ignored the groom-in-question’s stammering shock and pressed on. “Given the circumstances, we believe tradition dictates the marriage between bloodlines and the birth of an heir to symbolize the unity of our houses. Given that your Lordship hasn’t any daughters, I’m afraid offering myself would amount to little good.”

The blood pounding in Noct’s ears nearly drowned out his father’s reply. “And may I ask, how does the Lady Lunafreya feel about this arrangement?”

Thanks for asking your own damn son! Noct grit his teeth, fists clenching in his lap under the small table set in front of him. It was in that moment that Luna stood up across the room.

She was dressed in white, her skirt sweeping the floor as she stepped confidently to the center of the room. Though some of the Tenebraens flushed at her boldness, Regis only smiled in his warm, fatherly way as he encouraged her to speak.

“My Lord Regis,” she said with a deep bow. “And Noctis. Please know that I was the one who suggested this marriage in the first place. For too long our families have harbored an unnecessary animosity toward one another. But the Nox Fleuret line is weakening. My brother and I alone cannot defend against these threats, nor any that may come in the future. We need an allegiance with the Caelum house or we will fall.” She paused, her bright blue eyes dropping to the floor as she gathered her emotions. At last, she looked up directly at Noctis and smiled. “That is why I have offered myself in marriage, if Noctis will have me.”

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think clearly. His father was looking down at him as if waiting for some response, but his tongue was like cement inside his mouth.

Ignis.

“Noctis, are you listening?”

Iggy, please look at me.

“Lunafreya has asked you a question.”

Why won’t you just look at me, dammit!

“Noct, where are you -- ?”

He was on his feet before he even realized what he was doing. Amidst gasps, curses, and his father’s shouts, Noct turned and stormed out of the room without another word.

 

/So what r u gonna do?

/I don’t know yet.

I don’t think I have a choice

/They can’t really force you to marry her can they?

/They’re gonna try

/Soooo not fair, dude!

What about ur scary boyfriend?

/????

/U kno

Stabby knife guy

/Ignis?!

/Ya him

I bet he’s pissed af

/ ...

“May I sit here?”

Luna smiled sweetly down at Noctis where he sat, phone in hand, on the rusted park bench. He was in the middle of thinking of a reply to Prompto when her sudden arrival made him jump in surprise. “Luna?!”

She motioned to the open seat beside him, and he nodded dumbly.

“H-how did you know I was here?” The park was easily a half mile from the Citadel; he’d walked there in a daze of anger and confusion, vaguely hoping along the way he hadn’t been followed. Apparently he hadn’t been careful enough.

Luna shrugged under her soft fur jacket. “It just seemed like a fitting place for you.” She swept her gaze around them, taking in the green of the trees tinted by the golden hue of late afternoon. “It’s peaceful here. Calming. I like it, too.”

For several moments Noct could only stare at her. Luna was, he knew, beautiful even by Tenebraen standards. Her skin and hair were pale, her features soft and delicate, yet at the same time her heart was stronger than most anyone he’d ever met. She hardly fit the mold of the daughter of a notorious yakuza family -- she seemed much more like a fairy tale princess, who would one day become a benevolent queen.

Logically, Noct knew that he should be overjoyed at the prospect -- arranged or not -- of marrying someone as pure and genuine a soul as her. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that Luna was Luna and that meant childhood and summer holidays, reading storybooks and picking flowers together. To him, Luna was a fixed point in his memory, and although they had both changed over their long years apart he still saw her in many ways as an older sister. He loved her, but not in the way she was asking him to.

“Noct?” she ventured softly, her blue eyes sad as they searched his face. “What is it?”

“It’s just...not fair.”

“What isn’t?”

“Everything. You and I, we’re just pawns to them. They keep us under their thumb, use us when they want something. They don’t care if we’re happy, it’s all about business.” Noct’s voice was shaking, his anger burned to ashes and lumping in his throat. “How can you be okay with all of this?”

Again, Luna fell silent for a moment. When at last she spoke again, she reached over to take one of his hands in hers. “My mother raised me with the knowledge that one day, my choices would no longer be my own. I had no illusions about my future. But I’ve come to accept my duty, and have vowed to help my family in any way that I can.” Her smile, though sadder now, was unfaltering. “Believe me when I say I’m happy that it’s you.”

“Luna….”

“I understand this is hard for you, Noctis. You didn’t ask for this situation, after all.”

“What did my father say after I left?”

A weak laugh. “He was angry, but can you blame him? I’m sure he understands, though, deep down. He asked Ravus and I to wait until he can speak with you himself.”

“No, he doesn’t understand. He can’t possibly know what this feels like. He never cares about what I want.”

Luna squeezed his fist in her palms. “...There’s someone else, then?”

“What?” Deep blue eyes widened, the young ohji surprised not only by the question, but at the answer that first came to his mind. “Yes. ...No! W-well, not really, I mean, at least I don’t think so. We’re not…. That is, I haven’t….”

“I see,” Luna smiled. Her eyes crinkled at the edges as tears -- guilt, hurt, sympathy -- welled up. “Then I’m...very sorry.”

“No, Luna, don’t apologize,” Noct said quickly and shook his head. “Everything you said…. You’re right. I-I know that, really, I just. I think I need some time to, um….”

“To process?”

“Yeah, that. Listen,” he did his best to mirror her smile as he wrapped both hands around hers. “We’ll figure this out. I’ll talk to my dad, I promise.”

Bowing her head, she brought their hands to rest in her lap. It was a familiar gesture she’d used to comfort him since they were children. “Thank you, Noct. I know you will.”

 

Chapter Text

 

    Nearly half an hour had passed since Dustin had ushered him into the small, private office and left him to wait alone. He hadn’t exactly expected his father to rush to meet with him, but he also hadn’t expected to be treated like just another business acquaintance. He was Regis’ son, after all; why should he need an appointment just to talk with his dad? On the wall behind him, the clock counted the seconds with agonizing slowness, and Noct felt his impatience building with each tick, tick .

    After dodging out of the reception with the Nox Fleurets the day before, Noct hadn’t spoken a word to his father (or Ignis, for that matter). He had promised Luna he would think things over, consider the marriage proposal and make a decision on his own before broaching the subject with Regis himself, and that was exactly what he’d spent his night and the better part of that afternoon doing. And after hours of thought, of frustration and self-pity, Noctis believed he had his answer.

That was, of course, before he’d stepped into this office and his conviction threatened to abandon him all over again.

Another twenty minutes passed. The young ohji had just about given up when at long last the back door of the office opened and his father swept into the room. He looked even more grim than usual, dressed in a dark grey suit and clutching his cane under a white knuckled grip. Noctis swallowed. “Father,” he said, getting to his feet and bowing his head. Regis looked him over once, then gestured for him to be seated with a wave of his hand.

“Were you waiting long?” he asked as he took his seat behind a sleek black desk.

Noctis shook his head and lied. “Not really.” He wrung his hands nervously in his lap. “You, um, seem busy today.”

“I am.” Steel eyes were bright, observant, and the way he spoke slowly let Noctis know he was carefully choosing his words. “In addition to tracking down whoever is responsible for the death of now eight of my men, I also find myself fielding the grievances of a very insulted and hot-tempered Tenebraen.”

Well, there it was. So much for easing his way into this. “Guess he’s always been pretty sensitive, huh?” he joked in a poor attempt to lighten the mood. Yet Regis’ expression not so much as flickered, and quickly Noct dropped his gaze to the floor. “About yesterday. I’m sorry for running out like that. I know it was a mistake, that I hurt Luna and looked like an ass.”

“You made all of us look like asses, Noct.” A heavy sigh tumbled out into the space between them as Regis templed his hands atop his desk. “But I suppose I can’t really fault you for being upset. It’s a very selfish thing that’s been asked of you.”

For a moment, Noct wasn’t sure how to respond. He’d expected his father to be angry, sure, but sympathetic?

“Is it true? What Luna and Ravus said about there being no other way?” There was probably little point in asking now, but the young ohji thought it might be worth a shot.

His father considered him for a moment. “For the Nox Fleurets, perhaps not. They need to secure our protection, and is has always been their way to buy their friends with deep pockets. It seems this time they consider offering Luna’s hand in marriage as ample payment.”

“And yet Luna still somehow sees it as ‘doing her duty’.”

“She has accepted what she must for the sake of her family, and that is to be commended.” Noct heard the dual meaning in his father’s voice even without him speaking the words: You could learn something from her. He dropped his head, eyes shielded behind a veil of dark locks.

“...And what would you have me do for the sake of our family?”

He didn’t realize the oyabun had gotten to his feet until he caught the silver of his cane glinting against the hard wood of the floor where his gaze was fixed. Noct glanced up, surprised.

“I would only ask that you do the right thing for the future of our name. What that thing is, I leave to you to determine.” The hand not gripping his cane came to rest lightly on Noct’s shoulder and he gazed down at his son with a rare smile. “I won’t be around forever, Noctis. One day you will have to make many difficult decisions, weigh the value of the individual against that of the collective. Sometimes you will hurt people with your choices, and sometimes you will bear the pain in their stead. In either case it is rarely easy to choose, especially knowing there will be consequences for every action you take. I fear this is the burden I will one day pass down to you - choose to pass down, for despite the difficulties you will inevitably face, I know that without your leadership this family will not survive.”

Something flickered to life within Noct’s chest as he listened to his father’s words. For the first time, he thought perhaps he was seeing his own worth through Regis’ eyes. Worth not only as his son, but as a young man with ideas, opinions, convictions. With the ability to make his own choices. And indeed that seemed to be what his father was telling him to do now, so long as he could accept responsibility for the outcome. That, more than anything, was enough to forge a lump in his throat as he tried to answer.

“Dad. Father . I…. Thank you.”

Regis shook his head. “Think carefully about your answer. Consult those closest to you and heed their advice. I think I can keep Ravus busy for a little while longer.”

Noct gave a firm nod and got to his feet before his father. “I think I’ve made up my mind. But...there’s one person I need to talk to first, just to be sure.”

“Very well. Try not to keep Luna waiting too long, hm?”

“Right.” Noctis’ lips curved up in a smile. Bowing, he had just turned to make for the door when a sudden thought hit him. “Oh, hey Dad? Actually, there’s one more thing. I kinda...know someone who’s looking for a job and, well, do you think the guys could use any help around the office? He’d work hard, learn whatever he had to.”

Regis scratched his fingers thoughtfully through his beard. “If he comes with your personal recommendation, I suppose we could find a way to put him to work. Have him stop by tomorrow morning to meet with Clarus for evaluation.”

“Uh, sure! Yeah, that’s great, thanks. Really.” Another bow, then Noctis was heading out into the hallway, phone already in hand as he texted Prompto the good news.

 

For some time, Regis stood in the center of his office and stared after his son. Pride, as well as regret, swelled in his chest, for Noctis had clearly grown into a fine young man right under his nose and he had hardly noticed. While he was busy building his kingdom, his son had been living a life all his own . How many of Noct’s years had he missed in the name of his work? The small details of his life, the ones that defined him as a person, were still mysteries to Regis. What, for example, was his favorite food these days? How did he pass the time when he wasn’t studying? Had he -- and Regis caught himself smiling at the thought -- ever fallen in love?

He supposed there were others with whom Noctis had trusted these secrets, and that comforted him somewhat. To know that Noctis wasn’t totally alone, to know that there were those around him, like Gladiolus and Ignis, who could support him in those aspects of his life where he himself could not…. It was a relief that nearly brought tears to his eyes.

Unfortunately, his emotions would have to wait, he realized with a tired sigh. He had a meeting with a banker in less than fifteen minutes.

As usual, Dustin was waiting just outside his office when he finally turned off the lights and pulled the door shut behind himself. “A favor,” he said, and Dustin immediately produced his memo pad with a cheery smile.

“Sir?”

“Let Clarus know he’ll have a new recruit in the morning. A friend of my son, so tell him to go easy on him.”

“Of course. It seems your car is all ready for you out front, sir. Is there anything else you’ll be needing this evening?”

Regis patted him on the shoulder. “Send a couple bottles of wine to the Nox Fleuret suite. Something expensive, and strong. We’re going to need to buy a little more time in their favor.”

“Yes, sir. Right away.”

No sooner had the head of the Caelum family turned again toward the exit than Dustin was already setting to work, dialing Clarus on one phone while researching local wineries on another. Regis chuckled to himself, and made a mental note to give the man a special holiday.

His car was indeed waiting for him at the bottom of the steps of the Citadel. The engine was running, and two Glaives in black suits and dark sunglasses guarded the exterior. At his slow, limping approach, one of them smoothly opened the back door and helped to maneuver him inside. The other got into the driver’s seat and strapped himself in wordlessly.

“Downtown,” Regis informed him as he settled back into plush leather.

The car began to roll forward, and he let his eyes fall closed in a rare moment of peace. There were still a little time before they arrived, perhaps he could catch a few minutes of rest.

A sigh escaped him --

-- As a cold hand reached out and icy fingers hooked around his throat. A voice, haggard yet deadly, sounded next to his ear.

“Good evening, my dear old friend.”

 

--------

 

Ignis the Reaper usually didn’t drink. Alcohol fogged the mind, impaired his reflexes as well as his judgement, and he was the type of man who preferred thinking in perfect clarity.

But that night was different. That night he didn’t want to have to think at all.

The vodka seared his throat as he downed the shot, and he grimaced at the strong aftertaste. He would never understand how Gladio and the others could drink this for fun, but it was more than enough to serve his purposes for the evening. Reaching across the island counter, he snatched up the bottle of Cauthiss Fire and swifty refilled his glass.

How had everything gone so incredibly wrong? In the space of thirty-six hours, Ignis felt like his entire world had fallen apart around him. He’d made mistakes, he’d lost his grip, and now control had slipped completely through his fingers.

Highwind had been entirely his fault. That was a blunder that should never have been allowed to happen; yet due to his own overconfidence, all they had gained from the fiasco was a new enemy. A dangerous one with ties to the Niffs, no less. In hindsight, he sighed as he knocked back the second shot, maybe he should have just killed her while he’d had the chance.

Yet even excessive violence likely wouldn’t have helped his mood that night. Not unless he could wrap his fists around the throats of the ones who really deserved it.

Like Ravus. That sniveling little shit would make a fine sight sliced to ribbons and strung from the rafters of his living room, he thought with a dark smile. The whole of the Tenebrae family could hang there, for all he cared. Hadn’t they meddled enough? Hadn’t they come to Lord Regis with enough selfish demands over the years? Now they wanted to take Noctis away, too.

Ignis slammed his fist on the counter. Choking back his anger, he caught the vodka bottle before it could topple over and took a long swig directly from the mouth. It burned like its namesake all the way down his throat, until his tongue ached and his eyes filled with tears he could only hope were from the pain.

The sound of a doorbell echoed through the sparsely furnished apartment, and the bottle nearly slipped from Ignis’ grip in his surprise. He hadn’t been aware his apartment even had one of those things. Quickly wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he dropped the liquor back on the counter and got as steadily as he could to his feet. The doorbell sounded again, more urgent this time as his uninvited guest pressed the button over and over.

At his side, Ignis’ fingers twitched anxiously just above his sheath.

Then a shout -- “Iggy, it’s me! Come on, open up, it’s cold out here.”

The brunette’s blood froze. Noct?! There was no mistaking that voice, but how -- ? Instinct took hold, and he had the door open and was tugging the ohji inside before he’d even figured out what he was going to say.

Noctis stumbled against a solid body. His fingers caught in soft fabric, he snapped his eyes up instantaneously to meet Ignis’ burning gaze. And gulped. “Evening,” he muttered.

“What are you doing here?”

“Uh, y’know, I -- ”

“It’s late.”

“I wanted to talk.”

Ignis sighed, ran his fingers back through his hair. “You have a phone , do you not?”

Even in the dim light of the hallway, he could see Noctis’ face flush with indignation. “This is important .” There were dozens of other things Ignis could have said -- coming here was reckless, have you not been listening to a word out of my mouth this week -- but in the end he settled for grabbing Noct once more by the wrist and half-dragging him back out to the living room. He pointed to the sofa and, while Noct was cautiously settling in, Ignis went to the kitchen to pour them each a glass of water. He returned just in time to catch the younger man hanging over the back of the couch and staring quizzically at the open bottle of liquor on the counter.

“I’ve never seen you drink before.”

Ignis cleared his throat, taking his own seat upon the edge of the coffee table. “It’s been...a trying few days. Here.”

“Thanks.” Noctis accepted the water as he leaned back into familiar cushions. It had been months since he’d visited Ignis’ place (they’d stopped by once so Noct could borrow a necktie on the way to a meeting), but very little had changed in that time. The place was spotless as always, almost too clean to be properly lived in. It sometimes made him wonder just how little time Ignis actually spent at home.

From behind his glasses, Ignis was watching him closely. He shifted on the edge of the table to cross his legs. “So what was it you wanted to discuss?”

“I thought that would be obvious. You were at the meeting yesterday.” Noctis looked down at the glass in his lap as he spoke, his voice low and hard. “Don’t you...think we should talk about that?”

Anger, frustration welled up again in Ignis’ chest despite having consumed a third of a bottle of vodka, but he clenched his fist tight around his glass and forced his voice steady. “I don’t see why that’s necessary. It has nothing to do with me.”

“Iggy!” The young ohji looked up then with eyes round and pleading. “How can you say that? Don’t you understand? They want me to marry Luna!”

“And I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.” Ignis’ stoic mask was already threatening to crack. “Did you come here for help planning your wedding ceremony?”

The younger man let out a strained sound deep in his throat. “Why are you being like this?”

“Because who you choose to marry is none of my business.”

“Are you kidding ?” Face growing red, Noct leaned forward toward the edge of the cushions. “How could you possibly think I chose this?”

“But you will marry her, won’t you?”

“I -- “

“You are the heir to the Caelum family, and she is a fitting match for you. Anyone else would be a fool to hope to win your heart.”

“That’s not true.”

“Noctis, I’m merely trying to help -- “

“You’re the one I wanna be with.”

The words flew from his lips, and in that moment both Ignis’ greatest hope and greatest fear were realized. He stared at Noct with wide eyes, mouth set in a tempered line as if he hadn’t quite understood what had been said to him. In the silence, Noctis tried again. “I never said anything. I guess I thought you’d be angry, or hate me. I’ve...felt like this for a long time, actually. The other night in my room, you were so close and...I couldn’t help it, I knew I wanted to kiss you, and so I did.”

“Noct….”

“I thought...maybe you liked it, too, but then you left so suddenly. And you started avoiding me. Then everything happened with Luna and I thought...that we should talk.” He was sunk back in the sofa cushions again, and his eyes kept moving between Iggy’s face and the floor as he spoke. “I guess I just need to know.”

When Ignis at last found the words to respond, his voice came out in a single breath. “Know what, exactly?”

A dejected shrug. “If you feel the same way. If you’ve ever felt that way. It hurts…not knowing.”

His control finally snapped. The glass hit the table with a loud clank and Ignis was plunging forward. He wrapped his fingers instead around Noct’s arm, and before the ohji could react he found himself pressed back into the cushions of the sofa, Ignis’ warmth and breath suddenly surrounding him.

Noctis melted instantly into the hug. His hands wound their way up to his friend’s shoulders as tears -- this time in hopeful relief -- stung at the corners of his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Highness,” Ignis said into the side of this neck. “I only meant to protect you, I didn’t realize....” The knowledge alone that Noct had been in pain was enough to break Ignis’ heart. But to know that he himself had been the cause, that was enough to bring him to his knees. For someone who had watched, unmoved, as grown men drowned to death in their own blood, it seemed an irreconcilable contradiction.

Despite himself, a small laugh bubbled up from somewhere deep in Noct’s throat, and he held the body in his arms closer against him. “Is this a yes, then?” he asked. Ignis didn’t reply, but neither did he pull away. With the heat of his neck pressed against Noct’s cheek, soft and tempting, the young ohji couldn’t resist a test of sorts. A slight shift gave him perfect access to first map out, then close his lips over the pulsing vein just under pale skin. It beat noticeably faster under the kiss.

Noct smiled.

Iggy hadn’t made to move yet, so he continued to press his limits further and further up the length of that neck. His kisses were light, probing as he traced along Ignis’ jaw, up his cheek, plucking off his glasses before gently coaxing him closer. It was the latter, combined with a soft breath against the lobe of his ear that at last brought Ignis back to the moment. Judgment impaired by more than just the alcohol, he turned his head and surrendered himself to his prince’s kiss. This time, neither pulled away.

What Noctis lacked in experience he made up for with eager touches and soft little sighs every time Ignis’ tongue slid over his lips. He opened for him, tasting the sting of the vodka mixed with something uniquely Iggy , and rolled his own tongue against it seeking more. It was intoxicating, more so than he’d ever imagined such a simple act could be. The kiss, combined with the way Ignis’ weight was pressing down on him as the older man’s knee sunk into the cushions of the sofa, was already setting his body alight with a fire he’d never known. And he desperately wanted more.

“Iggy,” he breathed against the other’s mouth. His voice sounded strange to his own ears, strained, pleading. The hand resting on the back of Ignis’ neck slid forward along the starched line of his collar, seeking out the first of the buttons that held his shirt in place. Though his eyes were closed in the heat of the kiss, deft fingers made quick work of the clasp, then moved on to the next, and the next. Against him, Ignis stiffened.

“Noct,” he warned, pulling back, but the ohji immediately followed his mouth with his own. The kiss deepened, and Noctis moaned softly around his tongue. He wanted, needed to feel Ignis’ skin against him; impatiently, he used his other hand to tug the brunette’s loosened shirt down over his shoulders even as he continued to work the front open.

The first touch of bare, heated skin under his fingertips sent a shiver through him. Ignis was all smooth flesh and lean muscle, from his powerful shoulders to his chest, and Noctis couldn’t get enough. He touched him and kissed him and pulled him closer, all thoughts abandoning him but for the ones screaming more, more, more .

Again, Ignis stiffened. When he put his own hand on Noct’s shoulder, it wasn’t to draw him closer but to hold him still as, roughly breaking the kiss, he called him back to the moment. “Noctis, stop,” he said, and the younger man snapped his eyes open with a gasp. Iggy was staring at him, cheeks flushed but expression hard, his shirt hanging open, chest and shoulders exposed. And Noct felt his heart stop.

The tattoos were everywhere. All sharp lines and bright colors, covering every inch of skin save for a narrow line running from his throat to his navel. Terrifying beasts with wild eyes, intricate patterns bleeding into explosions of color and shapes. Noctis stared at them, mouth open and eyes wide as they roved over Ignis’ body. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t respond to the burning question hanging in the air between them.

Ignis waited until the silence had grown almost deafening. “Noct. I never wanted you to see….”

“They’re beautiful.” The ohji’s voice was distant, as if he were speaking from out of a dream.

“No, they’re not. They’re reminders of what I really am.  I’ve tried...to protect you from the truth.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Perhaps you should be.” Ignis sighed, brows furrowing as he fought the mix of alcohol and lust still threatening to distract him. “Hands as dirty as mine don’t deserve to touch you, Highness.”

If he’d heard the comment, Noctis didn’t reply right away. Instead, he dipped his head to press kiss-swollen lips against the swell of a wave that crested along Ignis’ collarbone. He followed it over the ridge of his shoulder, trailing a line of wet kisses in his wake until he reached the junction of his right arm. He guided Ignis’ hand up slowly, pleased not for the first time at how malleable the other man was under his touch, and at last guided long fingers up to his mouth. Closing his eyes, he pressed a kiss to each fingertip, down to his palm and finally his wrist. When he next looked up at Ignis from under heavy lids, he found the other man watching him with tears in his eyes.

Noct… .”

“Your hands are perfect,” he smiled, lips curling. “And I want them to touch me everywhere.”

There was nothing more for them to say. Ignis swallowed back every ounce of his uncertainty as the distance between them closed once more. His shirt came off completely, his own fingers began mapping out the soft skin of Noctis’ stomach under his black tee, and both of them shuddered at the long-overdue contact.

Panting, body trembling with excitement and need, Noct pulled away from Ignis’ mouth with a shy smile. “C-can we...go to your bedroom?”

Familiar green eyes almost swallowed up in the black of blown pupils searched his face. “If that’s what you want.”

A firm nod, and then Noctis was being hoisted up and led through the living room, past the kitchen and down the hall to the room where Ignis’ bed jutted out from under an arched window. The room was dark -- the night sky beyond the window was grey-black, overcast -- so he switched on a small lamp atop the end table before sitting Noctis on the edge of the mattress. Between hastily resumed kisses, he gently pulled the younger man’s shirt up and over his head, then guided him down onto his back.

The ohji shivered, feeling the cool sheets in total contrast to the overwhelming heat of Iggy’s skin hovering above him. In the shadows of the dim light, his irezumi seemed to dance atop his flexing muscles; beautiful, deadly, just like Ignis, he thought, and another surge of fire pooled in his gut.

“Highness. May I?” Ignis was smiling down at him as his fingers ghosted over the front of Noct’s dark jeans. They brushed against the sensitive bulge trapped just underneath and Noct let out a groan. In place of words, he answered with an enthusiastic nod of his head.

Ignis smiled. Though he’d spent so long denying his feelings, he felt now as if he had seen this exact moment time and again in his dreams. It felt so natural the way his prince squirmed as his fingers danced over the bare skin below his navel, how his flesh would shiver and tense at every simple touch. It was surprisingly familiar to slide his pants down over slender hips to reveal the thin fabric of his boxers (and today they were a light blue), pulled taut against the strain of his erection. Perhaps he had seen this before in his dreams, but the real thing was by far more breathtaking than anything he could have imagined. Aware of Noct’s deep blue eyes watching him close, Ignis leaned forward and closed his mouth around the head of the ohji’s cock through his underwear.

The gasp he released from the other end of the bed filled the air of the room around them. He’d seen his fair share of porn, of course (he might be the son of a yakuza boss, but he was still as horny as any other boy his age), but this was something entirely different. Even through the cotton he could feel the heat of Ignis’ lips and breath surrounding him, and he flushed from his cheeks down to his chest. He fought the urge to drop his head back onto the sheets in favor of watching as, now rolling down the hem of his boxers, Iggy took the head of his heated flesh directly into his mouth.

Ignis moved with the confidence of one more experienced than he let on. Noctis subconsciously wondered where he’d learned how to give a proper blowjob, but for the moment settled for simply enjoying the waves of pleasure crashing over him. Every one of his soft moans and shaky gasps had Ignis redoubling his efforts; before long he was concentrating on swirling his tongue over the slitted tip even as his lips and fingers squeezed the length of the shaft. Despite his best efforts to lie still, Noctis found himself involuntarily bucking up into the touch as his stomach tightened painfully.

“I-Iggy, stop , I -- “

Humming in encouragement, Ignis smiled inwardly as he swallowed him back down again. Yet the young ohji’s fingers clutched at the sheets, and he shook his head. “N-not yet, p-please -- !” With a sigh he felt Ignis’ mouth pulling away, and the coiling tension subsided for the moment.

“Noctis,” came Iggy’s gentle, lilting voice from above him. The older man once again moved to hover over his frame. “Are you sure you want to -- “

“Yes, hell yes. I j-just need a minute. That was….”

As he trailed off, Ignis couldn’t suppress an adoring smile. “Come here,” he said, and drew Noctis into his arms and back into another deep kiss. The younger man blushed, tried not to think about the new, unfamiliar taste on his advisor’s tongue as he melted against him. Keeping one hand tangled in light brown locks, he dropped the other to his own hips and began to struggle out of his jeans.

Ignis moved to help. He resumed his kisses instead over Noct’s throat as he undressed him, letting his pants and boxers alike fall to the floor in uncharacteristic haste. His tattoos flashed in the dim light as he pulled back to remove his own belt and slacks, eyes and smile still locked on his prince.

A shudder ran through Noct’s entire frame. Eyes wide and hungry, he took in the sight of Ignis’ naked body before him, of the light playing over toned muscle and inked skin, and settled at last on the thick length curving out from between hard thighs. Suddenly, his throat felt unnaturally dry. “Uh, wow.”

“Highness,” Iggy laughed, sliding back down to steal a fleeting kiss. “You are so beautiful like this.”

Noct swallowed again, finding it difficult to form proper words. Iggy’s fingers brushed over his hip, along his inner thigh, further impairing his ability to think until there was nothing left to do but roll up against that graceful, powerful body and moan into his mouth.

This was exactly how Ignis had dreamed it, right down to the softness of Noct’s pale thighs under his touch and the eagerness of his sensitive body. What he hadn’t expected, however, was for Noctis to suddenly flip him over on the mattress and squeeze his fingers around the mound of his ass.

Ignis gasped in surprise into the kiss. Noctis still had his eyes closed, but had casually settled down between his legs and was rolling his naked hips down in a telling gesture. Was he expecting to…? A laugh started somewhere in Iggy’s throat. But of course. He should have known. Noctis was a virgin, after all, still young and inexperienced, and just so happened to be the most powerful nineteen year-old in the city.

Deep blue eyes fluttered open and Noct glanced down in confusion. “Iggy?” he asked, but the older man only kissed him in return.

“Allow me to guide you, Higness,” came the purred response, and Noctis suddenly found his fingers being drawn up to sensual lips. Ignis flicked his tongue against them as he rolled his own hips up against Noct’s throbbing erection in a slow rhythm. The ohji watched breathlessly, the sight of his fingers sliding in and out of Ignis’ mouth reminding him of how those lips had worked other parts of his body, and he groaned with need. Ignis’ hand moved with him to draw those slick fingers away, instead guiding them down between their bodies and into the space where Noct was nestled against him.

Wordlessly, Ignis pressed the tip of Noct’s index finger against his own opening, and smiled. “Will you prepare me?” At the younger man’s breathless yes , Iggy closed his eyes and gently guided Noctis finger inside him.

A low groan escaped his lips. There was no pain, not enough to affect him, anyway; rather the look on his prince’s face, of pure awe and raw hunger, combined with the pressure of his finger sliding deeper inside was already more perfect than anything else he’d ever experienced. Slowly, reverently, he assisted Noct’s hand moving between his legs, gradually adding a second finger as he felt himself stretching little by little.

“Ignis, you…. Does it feel good?” Noctis’ voice was soft, his words cracking as he concentrated on so many sensations at once: Iggy’s beautiful body beneath him, heavy breaths escaping through parted lips, the heat of him surrounding, squeezing his fingers.

Ignis nodded and squeezed Noct’s palm. “It does,” he admitted with a weak moan. “Try curling your fingers a bit. Like this.” He demonstrated the motion against Noctis’ palm, and hissed as he felt the ohji mimic the move inside him. “ Yes , that’s very good, Noct. So good.”

Swallowing, the younger man repeated the move, deeper this time, and flushed as Ignis’ hips nearly jumped off the bed. “ There ,” he instructed, and Noctis’ cock throbbed in sympathy as he pressed again at the spot that was causing Ignis’ body to jolt with intense pleasure.

“S-should I put a third one in?” His throat was dry, his lust driving him forward like thirst toward an oasis. His ring finger teased at the tight circle of muscles clenching around his others, awaiting the command, but Ignis shook his head.

“No,” he panted, and flashed a heated smile. “End table. Top drawer. There’s a small bottle and some condoms.” Reluctantly, Noctis climbed off of him enough to reach across the bed and pull the items from the drawer. Again, he wondered briefly at who else he might have been keeping these for, but he shook the idea from his mind as he once again resumed his place in his lap. Ignis took them both. “Here,” he said, opening the silver packet and pressing the rubber into Noct’s palm. “Roll it down like -- “

“I-I know,” the young ohji blushed. Well, at least in theory he did, though perhaps his inexperience was still obvious from the way he grit his teeth as the band snapped several times against sensitive skin. After a few tries, he at last had the condom in place. Ignis smiled as he poured a little of the thick liquid from the bottle over his fingers and began to lightly coat Noct’s sheathed cock.

“You learn quickly when you want to,” he praised, stroking him lovingly. Satisfied with his work, he spread his own legs and guided the younger man into place, the head of his erection pulsing against the slick opening there. “I would expect no less from you, Noct.”

Blue eyes flashed under heavy lids. “Ignis,” he shivered, hesitated, chewed his lip before -- “I love you.”

And then he was pushing forward, turning Iggy’s stammering reply into a low, deep moan. Heat surrounded him, radiating out from that tight channel and filling his body completely, burning the breath from his lungs. Noct pressed his hips forward again and yet more of his advisor’s body yielded to him. It was amazing. Ignis was amazing. If only he could form the words in that moment to tell him so.

But Ignis was touching him again, drawing him down with strong arms around his shoulders, and at that signal Noctis began to move. He pulled back, feeling Ignis’ heat slip away, then pushed back into him again with a gasp. Again and again, his rhythm erratic at first but growing ever more confident, Noctis let Iggy’s body as well as his own instincts guide him through the act. With one hand, he held himself in position above the other man as he let his other drop down to steady his hips. Ignis helped by wrapping his legs around his waist, and together they built up a passionate pace.

Already Noct had been so close to the edge once, and his body was stimulated by so much more than just the physical. As his hips began to pump into Ignis’ body harder, deeper, an aching pressure slowly grew in his lower body. Tension, tight and coiling, threatened to snap at any moment. “I-Iggy, I…need to… -- “

Noctis. ” That single word, spoken with such praise and reverence, reverberated through him. He caught and held Ignis’ gaze for a burning moment, a calm in the storm, before his orgasm struck and he slammed forward into comforting warmth with a cry.

The tension passed. Noct’s head came to rest near one of the lotus flowers tattooed on Ignis’ shoulder as he panted for breath. Soft kisses over his brow gradually pulled him back, and he eased himself out of the other’s body to rest instead against his side.

“Alright, Noct?”

“Yeah,” he sighed, mouth stretching into a grin. “Really good.”

Ignis smiled affectionately as he run his fingers back through soft hair. “You’re a natural.”

Pausing for a moment, Noct glanced down at the still-hard erection pulsing against Iggy’s stomach and blushed. “Um. Can I, y’know, help you?” Without waiting for an answer, he reached down and delicately brushed his fingers along the shaft.

The brunette’s breath hitched in his throat. A sharp nod had Noct’s fingers wrapping around him, and then the ohji was swallowing his soft moans in a kiss as he pumped him toward his own climax. The friction brought much needed relief -- a mix of pain and pleasure releasing the tension built up in his own gut -- and after only a few moments he was spilling himself into his prince’s fist. Chest burning, head light and dizzy, he sank back into the mattress and pulled Noct down into his arms.

Eventually they would have to move again. Eventually they would have to clean up the mess and find fresh clothes for the night. But for now, as long as possible, Ignis wanted nothing more than to enjoy the moment, and to fall asleep with Noctis whispering his love next to his ear.  







Chapter Text



The sun was just beginning to crest over the mountains beyond the wall of the city, casting a pale golden hue across the morning sky. Yet throughout Insomnia, the stubborn shadows of night clung to concrete and asphalt alike as if fighting off the dawn

Early morning was Gladio’s favorite time to go for a run. The streets were nearly empty save for the last few stragglers making their way home from bars, and the rush of the morning traffic was still hours away. It was peaceful, in it’s own way, he thought. With the crisp air clearing his mind, he could focus on the day ahead as he ran -- usually, that included hanging around headquarters and wearing on Cor’s nerves, with a trip or two to the gym pencilled in between. But that particular morning, he had slightly more important work to do.  

At the next block he veered right and made straight for the Caelum compound up ahead. He waved his greeting to the guard on duty, then jogged through the gardens until he reached the wide brick building that housed the Glaives’ training facility. The main doors were already unlocked, and as he stepped inside a couple of the fighters were already there waiting for him.

Well, waiting for someone , anyway. The Glaive on the right dropped his hand mid-salute and grinned. “Gladio! Good to see you, man!” he said, clapping him on the shoulder. “What are you doing here? Where’s Clarus?”

Gladio returned the greeting, nearly knocking Libertus off his feet with the force of it. “‘Sup. My old man got called off for business a few hours ago, something urgent, but he didn’t give me the details. That leaves me in charge of training you kiddies today.” There was an audible groan from the Glaive behind him, and Libertus swore.

“Here I was thinking I’d get off easy today,” he smirked. “Shoulda stayed in bed.”

“If you’re gonna complain now you can start giving me push ups right here.”

“Warning accepted. Shutting up.” The two followed Gladio toward the locker rooms as he scanned over the day’s checklist. Warm-ups, drills, hand-to-hand counter techniques …. Child’s play, he scoffed. For the last set, which was a series of parrying exercises with various weapons, the Glaives had been divided into groups of four. Their teams were listed at the bottom of the paper, but it was evidently an old list -- eight of the names had been crossed out in thick, black marker. Gladio felt his stomach bottom out.

“Oh, hey, I almost forgot,” Libertus suddenly said from behind him, a grateful distraction as Gladio glanced over his shoulder. “There’s a new recruit today. Apparently a friend of the boss’ kid, doesn’t have a lick of experience.” He shrugged. “But since we’re already understaffed as is it, we couldn’t really turn him down, could we?”

“A friend of Noct’s?” Gladio stopped in his tracks, suddenly staring at Libertus through narrow eyes. Not that he was an expert, but he was pretty sure the ohji didn’t get out enough to know that many people. It could simply be a coincidence, and yet.... “What’s his name?”

Libertus shrugged again. “I didn’t catch it, but he was the first one to arrive this morning. Energetic little thing, I’ll give him that.”

Gladio was already moving again. He didn’t bother changing out of his jogging gear, instead bypassing the lockers and heading straight for the main hall. With the two Glaives in tow behind him, he marched across the hardwood floor directly toward the bright blond poof of hair bobbing in laughter on the other side of the room.

Prompto hadn’t known what to expect when he’d first arrived at the address Noctis had texted to him the night before. For one thing, he had never (knowingly, anyway) stepped foot into yakuza territory, and for another, he had no idea what they would be asking him to do. Playing things safe, he’d stuck to a pair of plain grey cargo pants and a sleeveless red tank under his favorite denim vest; casual enough for the street but not completely sloppy in case he ended up behind a desk, either. But the guard at the gate had directed him toward a low, spacious building, and he’d stepped into what appeared to be an oversized dance studio to meet a pair of (surprisingly) friendly faces

They called themselves ‘glaives,’ whatever that meant, and they weren’t much older than him, so he’d struck up an easy conversation. They were of course very interested in how he knew Noctis, and answered his questions regarding their typical training routine. One of them was just in the middle of an exceptional Clarus Amicitia impression when the doors across the hall slammed open and three figures stalked out.

As one, the Glaives around him snapped to attention. Prompto shuffled on his feet for a moment before someone tugged him into place in line. But as he turned about face and straightened his shoulders, he caught sight of the men walking toward him.

And froze.

His knees turned to jelly.

“Well, well. Funny meeting you here, chocobo,” Gladio said with a grin as he came to a stop directly in front of him. His dark hair fell in wild curls around his neck and beefy shoulders, the latter of which seemed fit to burst through the skin-tight jogging shirt he was somehow squeezed into. He looked, if possible, even more intimidating that he had just before body-slamming him into a wall the last time they’d met. Prompto swallowed as he fought the urge to bolt.

Then, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder, Gladio lowered his voice and turned Prompto’s stomach to lead with nothing more than his words. “Or should I call you QuickSilver ?”

 

--------

 

When Ignis finally awoke, it was to the sight of the mid-morning sun pouring in through the window and the sleeping form of Noctis still wrapped in his arms.

For a brief moment, he wondered if he wasn’t in a dream. If he blinked, would his prince disappear like a bittersweet memory? Reluctantly he closed his eyes again, but when he dipped his head forward his lips brushed through soft, black hair and his heart soared.

“Good morning, Highness,” he whispered into dark locks, and the body against him shifted ever so subtly. Still asleep, he smiled. That was hardly surprising, given Noct’s penchant for late nights and even later mornings, so Ignis slipped quietly from the sheets and padded down the hall for a shower alone.

The hot water left him feeling more refreshed than he could remember feeling in a long time. He stretched in the mirror, feeling a series of satisfying pops along his spine, and even caught himself staring at the tattoos lacing his skin with less repulsion than usual. Beautiful , Noct had called them, and he felt warmth creeping into his face.

It was later, after he’d dressed and was just beginning to fry some eggs for breakfast, that the young ohji at last came padding down the hall from the bedroom. He looked less than half-awake, yawning as he rubbed his eyes, tousled hair falling at odd angles around his head, but it seemed he’d at least had the forethought to slip into his pants before entering the kitchen (even if they were beltless and hanging dangerously low on slender hips). Ignis didn’t bother to hide his appreciation at the sight. “You’re up early, Noct.”

A soft mm-hmm as the younger man sidled up behind Ignis and leaned into him. Arms wound lightly around his waist, he rested his chin on his shoulder, and pressed a kiss to the side of his neck. “‘M hungry,” he mumbled.

Ignis laughed, the sound somehow lighter than he’d expected thanks to the warm, now intimately-familiar body draped across his back. “Breakfast is almost ready. Have a seat and I’ll bring you a plate as soon as it’s done.”

“You’re the best, Igs,” Noctis smiled, squeezing him in a brief hug before making his way the short distance to the island counter instead. Last night’s vodka was still there, and he slid the bottle out of the way to make room to lay his head atop his forearms in their place. By the time a glass of fresh juice and a steaming omelette were being set on the counter in front of him, Noct was once again snoring softly.

A gentle prod from Iggy and the smell of the food were enough to bring him around, his time with enough functionality to sit up and properly hold a fork. They talked about everything and nothing in particular as they ate, until, after a brief pause while he drained his glass, Noctis looked across the counter and smiled almost shyly at his advisor. “So, I’ve been thinking about something Prompto said the other day. Does this ,” he said, gesturing in the space between them, “ -- make you my boyfriend now?”

Ignis nearly choked on the piece of egg he’d been in the process of swallowing. He coughed once, gulped down half his juice, and stared at Noctis from above furiously reddened cheeks. The ohji’s smile only stretched wider. “ Well . I suppose…if that’s what you’d like me to be, it’s -- “

“Yeah. Iggy, I want you to be my boyfriend.”

“Ah. C-certainly.” An awkward smile -- Ignis couldn’t say he had ever been called that in his life, by anyone -- and he once more hid his scarlet face behind his glass as he slowly sipped the juice. Across from him, Noctis resumed eating with a very, very pleased smile.

Ignis was almost thankful when, several moments later a quiet thrumming sound distracted them both. Noctis instinctively threw a hand to his pocket, but shook his head. “Not mine.” That left Ignis’ phone, and it was almost guaranteed to be business on the other end. As he searched the kitchen and living room frantically for the source of the ringing, he was already practicing the choice words he had for whoever was attempting to ruining his morning of domestic bliss.

At last he dug his phone out from between the cushions of the sofa (how had it ended up there?). The ringing had long since ended, but as he checked his screen he noticed that not only had he missed that call, but more than fifteen others from Cor, Nyx, Clarus, and even Weskham. He froze, fingers tightening in a cold panic around his phone. Those were names he shouldn’t be seeing, and it could only mean that something was terribly, horribly wrong. He glanced over his shoulder to where the young ohji was polishing off his breakfast in peace -- perhaps they were all simply worried about Noctis’ whereabouts? Had he told anyone where he was going last night?

Dialing Cor, Ignis made his way back into the kitchen and leaned against the counter across from Noct. His eyes told the younger man immediately that something was up.

“Ignis, dammit! Finally!” Cor’s rough voice came through the speaker of his phone in a rush. “The hell have you been doing?”

“Noctis,” he answered, then caught himself. “I’ve been looking after him.”

There was a sigh from the other end of the line that would have sounded almost relieved had it not been tinged with exhaustion. “Thank the gods he’s safe. We’ve been searching for him all morning, too.”

Ignis’ eyes flashed, and Noctis looked up at him in question. “ Searching ?” he repeated. “Someone’s missing?”

“Regis.”

Knuckles whitened on the edge of the countertop. “ What?

“Dustin confirms he left yesterday evening in his car, but that he never arrived at his scheduled appointment. We think whoever was driving wasn’t one of ours.”

“The Nox Fleurets?” Noctis set down his fork as he stared up in desperate confusion.

“In their suite the whole night, their alibis are sound.”

“The Niffs, then.”

“Our best guess, yes.”

For a moment, Ignis fell into a tense silence as he processed the information. Noctis was now gesturing to him desperately -- what is it?! Tell me! -- but he felt his tongue had turned to led. When Cor spoke again, his voice sounded terribly far away. “Ignis, I need you to keep the kid safe, but we need everyone on this right now. Do whatever you can, take whoever you need to. Find him, please.”

With a nod that Cor couldn’t see, he switched off his phone and set it gingerly on the surface of the counter. He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Ignis, come on! What’s happening?” Deep blue eyes pleaded with him. A soft hand reached out, caught Iggy’s fingers and held on tight. The brunette steeled himself.

“Noctis, I need you remain calm and listen carefully. That was Cor. Your father is missing.” Those fingers clutched at him almost painfully. Almost. “Have you had any messages from him, any contact at all?”

The younger man pulled his phone out and scanned the screen quickly, but shook his head. “No. But I just saw him yesterday, before I came here. Everything seemed fine and -- ”

“Sometime after that he - and his car too, it seems - disappeared.” Again, he let out a heavy breath, lacing his fingers with Noct’s in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. “Conjecture does us little good at this point. We need to get moving.” The young ohji swallowed back his panic, too surprised by the fact that Ignis was apparently planning to allow him to come along to argue. “Can you call Gladio while I prepare to leave?”

Noctis nodded firmly, already dialing their friend by the time Iggy had rushed out of the kitchen. The phone rang for longer than he would have liked, and then an unexpected voice picked up on the other end. “Hey, Noct. What’s up?”

Prompto?! What the hell was he doing answering Gladio’s phone?

“Prompto, why the hell are you answering Gladio’s phone?”

There was an awkward silence, followed by, “Um, I. Well, he’s here with me in the locker room. A-at the gym, y’know. Um, we’re kinda in the middle of training.”

Training? In the locker room? But Noct pushed that aside for now. He was in a hurry. “Whatever, just put him on, it’s important.” He could hear the phone exchanging hands on the other side, then Gladio’s rough, irritated voice was booming through the speaker.

“Whaddya want, Princess?”

Noct groaned. “Shut up and listen. My dad’s gone missing, and you’re coming with me and Iggy to go track him down.”

There was a pause as Gladio processed this in stride. “...You guys try Iris yet?”

“No, why would -- ?“ But of course. Gladio’s little sister was the backbone of the intel division, and she might have a way of pointing them in the right direction fast. “Not yet. Can you call her? We’ll meet you outside the compound in twenty.” He stopped as Ignis reentered the room, a fresh shirt draped over his arm and a bag already packed with essentials. Despite himself, Noctis couldn’t quite hold back a thin smile. “Make that ten.”

“Yeah, got it. We’ll be there.” The line switched off. Noct took the shirt as it was offered to him, throwing it over his shoulders and swallowing when Ignis leaned in instinctively to button it for him. Green eyes searched him for a moment, then --

“Let’s go.”

 

---------

 

The Regalia was a sports car, which meant that while the interior had been designed for style and function, it wasn’t really made to seat four people. Not comfortably, anyway. And not when one of them was  wide enough to take up over half the backseat by himself.

Prompto leaned as close to the door with as much distance between himself and Gladio as he could manage. He’d hoped, of course, to grab the seat behind Noctis, but there hadn’t been enough time -- Ignis had started speeding off again nearly the second he’d finish pulling his legs into the car. Now, he found himself crammed in the back with Gladio’s elbow threatening to brush his thigh every time they rounded a corner. For his part, Noctis was completely silent in the passenger seat up front; Prompto understood, in a way, but he also desperately wanted to check in and make sure he was holding up alright.

He had just started to lean forward when Gladio’s voice into his phone cut him off. “There you are! Is Dad home yet?”

From the driver’s seat, “You got her?”

Gladio nodded. “That’s okay. Listen, we need a favor. Do you know how to access a GPS to track a vehicle?”

In her bedroom, Iris laughed out loud. She paused her game mid-battle and swirled around in her chair. “Uh, duh , I’ve been doing that since I was, like, eight. Why?”

“Think you can tell us where Uncle Regis’ car is right now, and if it’s moving anywhere?”

“Regis’ car?” Her desk chair slowed to a lazy spin until she came to full stop back in front of her computer monitors. “Yeah, if anyone was smart enough to register the tracking code in the database it’ll be a piece of cake. If not I can still do it, but it’ll take a while.”

“Do what you can as fast as you can,” Gladio said darkly, meeting Ignis’ gaze through the rearview mirror. “We’re in the Regalia now, heading toward Gralea. Send me coordinates when you get ‘em.”

“You got it, Gladdy. Be careful.”

“Will do. And call me if you hear from Dad.”

He hung up the call and dropped his phone back into his pocket. Next to him, Prompto was suddenly feeling chilled. “Did you say Gralea? Why are we going there ?” He knew the district, of course -- it was the city’s roughest neighborhood, with a notorious reputation for drugs, shoot-outs, and other violent crimes common in gang territory. He couldn’t understand what Noct’s father might be doing in a place like that.

“Until we get a better lead, our target is the Nifelheim clan. They operate out of Gralea,” Ignis explained from the front seat.

“But I thought that part of town was full of just a bunch of gangs.”

Noct scoffed. He was still looking out the passenger window, his profile hidden behind a mask of black hair. “The Niffs are basically just street thugs. Their boss is an old demented fool who lost control a long time ago, but he’s always hated my family.”

“Indeed,” Ignis frowned again. “It’s hard to imagine Aldercapt making such a bold move now, of all times, but….”

The Regalia swerved as the driver cut a sharp left, and Prompto clung to the door handle before he could end up in Gladio’s lap. “R-right, that sounds pretty weird. But, um. We’re not...going to fight anyone, are we?”

The other three in the car were silent, and the blond felt his heart jump higher up his throat.

Luckily for him, they were actually spared the trouble. A moment later, Gladio pulled out his phone and announced that Iris had already found something. “She’s sending a map in real time. Looks like…. Yep, there it is.”

Ignis pulled the car over to an abrupt stop along the side of the road. “Where?”

“Far. Outside the city,” he frowned as he passed the device up to the front. The screen showed a map of Insomnia, but zoomed out to include the outlying dust bowl of Leide, as well. Two dots flashed within the map -- one was white, and standing still in the center of the city. The Regalia. The other dot was light blue and blinking as it subtly traveled across the screen. That one must be Regis’ car, but what the hell was it doing way out there? And why was it moving so fast?

“Change of plans,” Ignis said sharply, and he threw the car into first gear, weaving his way back through traffic toward a new road that would take them to the city’s outer wall. Beyond that, the long, winding bridge across the channel and finally the open plains of Leide. Prompto hadn’t left the city itself in years. Excitement mixed with dread to make his heart beat embarrassingly loud in the cavity of his chest, so he turned toward the door and occupied himself as best he could on his phone.

Gladio, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly alert. Though he continued to glance down at his screen to the map Iris was tracking, he was suddenly more focused on watching the scene unfolding between the two front seats.

Noctis had, without turning his head or saying a word, just reached over to rest his hand on Ignis’ right leg. That in and of itself was strange enough, but when Ignis returned the gesture by curling his fingers around Noct’s and squeezing gently, Gladio had to struggle to keep his jaw attached to his face.

 

Chapter Text



Rumor was that Ignis Scientia knew the roads of Insomnia better than anyone else who had grown up in the city. He would never admit to this (out loud, anyway), but as he raced the Regalia down side streets and narrow alleys, avoiding congestion and traffic lights along the way, Noctis knew it had to be true. On a normal day, it would take nearly an hour to reach the outer wall of the sprawling metropolis; with Iggy behind the wheel, they were already passing under the arched gate and outside the city in less than forty minutes.

“Keep going, take the first exit after the bridge toward Hammerhead.” From the backseat, Gladio was concentrating on reading the map on the screen of his phone. Iris was still updating the coordinates in real-time from her computer back at the Amicitia Manor, but despite their efforts it seemed Regis’ car was only moving further and further out of range. “Shit,” he swore under his breath, causing the mousey blonde next to him to jump in his seat.

Prompto quickly glanced up from his own phone and cast him a look. “What is it?”

“I can’t tell where the car’s heading. There isn’t even a road there.”

He leaned over to show Prompto the map as the Regalia cleared the last of the city’s checkpoints. “Huh, weird,” the blonde said. He kept his eyes on the screen and tried not to notice the way Gladio’s bicep was pressing against his shoulder. “You sure this map is working right? Looks more like it’s following a track or something.”

Thick brows knotted together, and Gladio glanced up in time to catch Ignis’ emerald gaze flash in the rearview mirror. Both feel silent, but the sudden tension in the air was palpable enough for Prompto to immediately regret speaking up. He sunk back into the leather seat and confined himself to staring out the window, much like Noctis, and watching the railings of the bridge pass by one after another.

The shimmering blue seascape eventually gave way to dusty cliffs and low, flat mountains. Into the distance, the horizon stretched for miles ahead, all orange-brown and hazy in the midday sun. The Regalia took a right off the main road in favor of a worn dirt trail leading further into open plains.

“Hold up, Iggy,” Gladio said suddenly, and the brunette brought the car to another full stop. “This thing isn’t moving anymore. Looks like it’s taking a break a few miles out”

“We get as close as we can by car, then walk the rest of the way.” Ignis’ lips formed a tight line as he took off again, this time taking the curves hard enough to throw up fishtailing arcs of sandy dirt in the Regalia’s wake. In the backseat, Prompto gave up trying to cling to the door and was holding himself upright with one hand on the seat and the other gripping the sleeve of Gladio’s jacket.

By the time they skidded to a halt again about a mile-and-a-half out, the tracker indicating Regis’ car’s location still hadn’t budged. Strange, Ignis thought as he scanned the rough terrain stretching out in front of them. There was no sign of a car as far as he could see, nor any other form of transport for that matter. After Prompto’s surprisingly insightful comment, he’d half-expected to find the vehicle lashed to the top of a railcar, or chained and dragged behind some kind of powerful truck. He certainly hadn’t expected to find... nothing .

Noctis was already out of the car and moving ahead in a fierce, determined silence. Ignis looked to Gladio, Gladio motioned to Prompto, and the three of them started off after him, shoulders tensed and ready for action should the whole affair turn out to be a trap. The trek took longer than Ignis would have liked. With the loose ground and dusty wind slowing their pace, the afternoon sun was already beginning to sink low in the sky by the time they caught up to Noctis, who had come to an abrupt halt in front of what appeared to be a pile of discarded scrap metal.

Gladio grunted. The map on his phone indicated this was the right spot. Cautiously, Ignis approached.

“What the fuck is this?” Voice tight with anger and denial, Noctis could do nothing but clench his fists tighter as his advisor bent down and drew a broken hubcap from out of the pile. It was silver, polished to a shine where it was still intact. He knew it was identical to the ones on his father’s tires, and when Ignis flipped it over the small tracking device attached to the back blinked a weak crimson. “ Where’s the rest of it?

“I’m not sure, Highness. We should leave.”

“The gates’ll be closed by the time we get back across the bridge.” Gladio sounded hollow when he spoke, and Prompto noticed he was looking off at nothing in particular in the distance. “We should find a place to stay before sundown.”

Noctis shook his head. “No! We have to get back to the city! What if my dad’s -- “

“Please, Noct. Focus on what we know. If we go back to Insomnia now we’ll be stopped at the wall. No one in or out after dark, you know the rules.”

“Yeah, but -- “

With a sigh, Gladio stepped up and put his hands on the younger man’s shoulders. “Listen to me. My father and the others are still there doing everything they can, so trust in them. We came this far, let’s finish what we started.”

Behind him, Ignis dislodged the tracker and pocketed it, letting the rest of the hubcap drop to the ground without ceremony. “If I recall, old Cid used to own a shop in Hammerhead. Someone there might be able to give us information, or at least a room for the night.”

Noctis looked around at his friends -- at Gladio’s stern gaze, Prompto’s smile so full of concern, Ignis’ hand twitching at his side as if he were fighting the urge to reach out to him -- and sighed. “Y-yeah. You’re right, sorry. Whatever you guys think is best.”

“C’mon, Noct,” Prompto said, slinging an arm around his friend’s shoulders and leading him back in the direction of Iggy’s car. “I’m sure everything is gonna be okay.”

After a silent exchange, Gladio and Ignis followed suit.

 

“Welcome ta Hammerhead, boys!” The Regalia rolled to a stop in front of the well-lit storefront, the rumbling engine falling silent as Ignis killed the ignition and opened his door. From the shop’s entrance a young woman with sandy blond curls and cut-off jeans bounded out to greet them. “What’s a handsome lot like you doin’ way out here in a car this fancy?”

As the others slowly stretched and got to their feet, Ignis was already extending her a gloved hand. “Looking for a place to stay for the night,” he smiled. “And also for a man by the name of Cid Sophiar. Do you know him?”

The woman’s eyes brightened instantly, and her chest bounced between the open flaps of her suede jacket as she nodded. “‘Course I know ‘im! Paw-paw owns this whole place; the garage, the motel, and everything else y’see. But I’m afraid he ain’t here right now. Got called off to the big city a few days ago an’ left me in charge.”

“I didn’t know the Saw had a granddaughter,” came Gladio’s approving smirk. Stepping up behind Ignis, he extended his own hand in offering. “You must take more after your grandmother’s side, then.”

“I’m Cindy,” she said, shaking his hand and smoothly ignoring the rest. “And if y’all know Paw-paw then you must be good people.”

From his position leaning against the hood of the Regalia, Noctis arched a brow. “How do you figure that?”

“Because you wouldn’t be standin’ here talkin’ to me right now if he didn’t like ya. C’mon, I’ll set y’all up with a couple rooms and whatever else you need.” The four followed her into the shop, and nearly an hour later reemerged with two half-rusted keys, a single towel each, and all the information they could glean from her over a hasty meal. Cindy pointed them in the direction of the motel (it was a small, whitewashed building around back) and waved them good night.

It was Prompto who broke the heavy silence as they neared their rooms. “So, guys? Who’s sleeping where?” He gave an awkward smile, but didn’t hide the way he took a step closer to Noctis in the failing light. “I mean, if it doesn’t matter -- “

“Iggy.”

“Highness.”

The brunette stepped forward and unlocked one of the two doors. He held it open for Noct, who stepped through without another word to the others, then followed him inside himself. The lock clicked shut, and Prompto felt his heart sink. Beside him, he heard the other key jingle as, smiling, Gladio gestured toward the second room.

“Guess we’re in this one, then.”   

 

The door closed behind Ignis with a cringe-worthy bang. He locked it out of habit, concern forcing him further into the dimly lit room after Noct. The younger man was already stalking toward the single bed against the far wall. He sat down at the foot of it, stared silently at the floor between his feet for a long moment, then collapsed back onto the mattress with a heavy sigh.

“Noctis?” No reply, so Iggy moved obediently to his ohji’s side and kneeled down to begin unlacing his boots. “A shower, or perhaps a bath would do wonders to clear your mind. Shall I draw one for you?”

Still no response, so Ignis finished removing Noct’s boots, set them aside, then stood up next to the bed and slipped out of his own jacket. “If it helps, I’m going to take a bath, and you’re welcome to join me if you’d like.”

That seemed to do the trick as, flashing his dark blue gaze up at his advisor, Noct held up a single hand in request.

“Not too hot, okay?”

“Never.” Ignis smiled softly as he took that outstretched hand in his own and helped Noctis back onto his feet. The young ohji stripped out of his sweat- and dust-caked clothing while Iggy headed into the bathroom to start filling the tub.

In any other situation, the prospect of sharing a bath with his advisor (and now boyfriend) would have sent his nineteen-year old hormones into blissful overdrive. But that night, his heart hung heavy with worry, and his thoughts were consumed by all that they’d learned back in Cindy’s office. According to her local intel, the spot where the tracker on his father’s car had led them was along a common route for the freighters that carried waste out of the city. Cindy had said they passed by every few days, loaded up with scrap and garbage from Insomnia’s clogged streets, taking them instead to dumps far out in the wastelands. What that meant for the fate of the car was clear, but it left him with even more burning questions regarding his father’s whereabouts. Despite Gladio and Ignis’ words, he felt anxious, helpless, stuck out in the middle of nowhere when he should be back home joining the search.

Ignis’ head poked around the edge of the door in that moment and he beckoned Noct closer with a nod. His chest and the intricate tattoos covering nearly every inch of skin there were admittedly both tempting sights despite the heavy mood. “Come, let me help you,” Iggy said, keeping his voice low as he hooked deft fingers around the elastic of his lover’s boxers. He slid them down over lean hips and set them aside, his own conflicting thoughts keeping him from anything more than simply admiring the pleasant view. He gestured for Noct to climb into the warm water, then stepped out of his own pants and underwear in turn. The tub was small, but they didn’t mind the close contact in the least as, taking up his place behind Noctis, Ignis adjusted him comfortably into his lap and hugged him back against his chest. They released twin hums as they sank into the water together.

“It’s been ages since we last did this,” Ignis mused after several moments, smiling at the sensation of Noct’s hair ticking over his throat. The ohji laughed weakly in his arms.

“We were kids, then, Igs. It was totally different.”

“True.” Still smiling, he reached for the soap and lathered it in his palm, tracing lines of fragrant bubbles over Noctis’ chest. “But they’re pleasant memories nonetheless. Who would have thought….” He trailed off with a chuckle as he swirled his forefinger around the raised bud of a hardening nipple.

“Ignis.” That soft voice faltered, and Noct dropped his gaze to the water in front of him. “I don’t…. I mean, maybe we shouldn’t….”

“Of course. I understand.” Those fingers easily resumed their previous task of rubbing away the layer of grime on otherwise flawless skin; across Noct’s chest, over his shoulders, his neck, and back down his sides. They didn’t talk as Ignis washed him, but the further those hands moved down his body, the harder it was becoming for Noctis to resist. At first he fought the sensations, struggling to focus on the problems at hand, letting his worries knot his brow. But slowly, gradually, his tension began to melt away, and soon he was wondering if perhaps it wasn’t better to not have to think at all. Ignis’ mouth was so close, he only needed to turn his head and brush his lips against warm skin to make his growing need clear.

“Highness?” Far from surprised, but curious at the apparent change of heart, Ignis let his hand come to rest low on Noct’s abdomen. There he could feel the lean muscles tensing at his gentle touch, and his lips curled into a smile. “Are you certain?”

“Yeah, maybe. Just a little, though.” He brought one hand up from the water to snake around the back of Iggy’s neck, pulling him nearer. “Like a distraction.”

“Of course.” Again their lips met, and Ignis lowered his fingers to the junction where Noctis’ inner thigh met the rest of his body. “Please relax. Let me serve you.”

A nod, followed by a shaky breath as his half-hard cock was encircled in a gentle grip. Ignis worked him with slow, purposeful strokes, over and over until his flesh was firm and throbbing pleasantly in his palm. Noct’s eyes had fallen to half-mast, his breath passing through his lips in soft pants under his lover’s ministrations. When Ignis’ other hand slipped from around his waist to knead at the soft skin of his balls, the ohji let out a barely audible whimper into the heated air.

“Trust in me, Noct,” Ignis soothed. “Don’t carry your burdens alone. Allow me to bear some of the weight for you.” His lips traced the hard line of the younger man’s jaw, up to close over the shell of his ear. “You’re safe in my arms always.”

Iggy .” A lone finger had deferred from the trail and was now tracing light circles over the ring of muscle between his legs. He swallowed, but didn’t shy away. The moment was perfect, every touch working to tear his mind off everything but the pleasure pulsing through his body, and he wanted more. “I do trust you,” he breathed instead, and felt a jolt of pressure from beneath his hips. Ignis’ finger slid just inside the entrance, testing, stretching, before pulling back out to massage away the remaining tension. Noct felt a shudder sweep through him, and he spread his thighs wider in response.

“You’re beautiful, Noctis. So delicate, yet so strong.” Again his finger pressed inside, this time meeting less resistance as it sunk in up to the second knuckle. To the sound of soft, heady moans, he stroked his prince’s inner walls with loving care, all the while continuing to work his cock in languid pumps.

Noct was speechless, could barely breathe and much less think as he focused on the finger twisting and curling inside him. It felt...oddly pleasant, much more so than he’d expected, and he moaned passionately as a second finger slowly joined the first. Together, they thrust in deeper, again and again, at last hitting their mark with such accuracy that suddenly Noct could see nothing but white stars.

He came without warning. Around Ignis’ fingers, his muscles clenched and squeezed, his sex exploded into the water in milky bursts that floated to the surface, evidence of his pleasure. He felt Ignis’ smirk against the side of his neck, but was unable to form either apology or reproach as his head fell back against a tattooed shoulder and he gasped for breath.

“Highness,” he whispered. “My prince.” With Noctis satisfied his task was done. And while he was still flushed in awe of how apparently receptive the younger man’s body was becoming, he filed that information away for later use and instead coaxed him to his feet. Noct clung to his shoulders, the fight gone out of him along with the ability to speak, as Ignis drained the tub and instead switched the shower on overhead. Hot water cascaded down over them both; he made quick work with the soap, as well as the complimentary motel shampoo, and within a few minutes was helping Noct towel off in the middle of the bathroom floor.

Several times the young ohji reached down to brush his fingers over lean, powerful hips, but Ignis merely kissed him and drew his hands away. “Tonight is for you,” he whispered, and kissed him tenderly before leading him back out to the main room. Noct curled up on the bed and Ignis slipped in behind him. He pulled the sheets over their naked bodies, at last settling down against his warmth as he kissed the back of his hair.

“Thanks, Iggy,” Noct whispered at last, and the brunette smiled to feel familiar fingers twining with his under the blankets. “For everything.”

Another tender kiss, this time to the back of his neck. “Sleep, Noct. We’ll do what we can in the morning.”

 

------------

 

Luna watched the sun rising from the window of her hotel suite, desperately missing home. Tenebrae, and their estate therein, was only on the other side of the city, but Ravus had insisted on staying close while the negotiations between their clans were still underway. He had, he explained, hoped to put pressure on Regis in order to force a quick decision on the matter of the marriage proposal, but everything had fallen apart when Regis had disappeared. Nyx Ulric himself had come to their hotel the previous morning to investigate (Ravus had taken grave offense to know they were the Caelum family’s first suspects) and had since been given the order not to leave their room. She understood their concern, of course, and she, too, was worried about the oyabun , but….

“What’s wrong? You’ve hardly touched your breakfast.” Her gaze, bright and blue as the morning sky, turned to take in the sight of her brother across the table. He still wore his bathrobe, his hair falling in damp waves to frame the narrow edges of his face, and she couldn’t resist a laugh. “What? What?

“Do you remember,” she said, holding a had over her mouth as the giggles continued. “That time Maria fell asleep next to the bathtub, and you came walking downstairs all by yourself, soaking wet, to call for mother? You haven’t changed one bit.”

A flare of indignation colored Ravus’ cheeks. “ No , why would I want to recall something as humiliating as that?” But Luna was still smiling under twinkling eyes, and he could only fall into a grumble as he stuffed another roll into his mouth. “Eat something,” he ordered flatly around a mouthful of bread, and pointed to her plate.

She was just lifting a piece of fruit to her lips when a knock on the door caught them both off guard. Luna started to stand, but with a hand Ravus stopped her and went to the door himself. He came back a moment later, face grim, the morning’s newspaper gripped between his hands.

“What is it?” Luna asked. He tore his eyes from the front page, studied her for a long moment, and sighed.

“Take a look for yourself.” His voice was hard, tight, and she felt her chest tighten as she reached for the paper he now held out in offering. Her eyes scanned the large picture covering nearly half of the front page, and her tears were falling before she even had to read the headline.

“No….”

“The man who delivered this said it’s in every paper across the city.”

“Impossible.”

He shook his head. Eyes brimming, throat tight, Luna clutched the paper to her chest and got shakily to her feet. Ravus frowned. “Where are you -- ?“

“I have to call Noctis immediately.”

 

His cellphone was ringing from somewhere nearby, but Noct was too warm and comfortable to care. He yawned into the pillow and tightened his hold around the familiar arm draped over his chest, already feeling himself drifting back to sleep. Until, that was, Ignis shifted behind him. The mattress dipped, and the ringing sound grew closer.

“Noct, your phone.”

“Dun’ care.”

“...It appears to be Lady Lunafreya.”

There was a pause, and Noct felt a pang of cold guilt begin to replace the warmth in his chest. With a sigh, he reached back to accept the phone from Iggy’s grip. “Yeah?” he said groggily as he swiped the screen and held it to his ear. Ignis rolled his eyes.

Noct?! It’s Luna, can you hear me?”

“Yep, what’s up?”

Have you seen the papers?”

“Papers?” he parroted, and glanced over his shoulder to catch Ignis’ sharp emerald gaze. “No, we’re still in bed. Why?”

It’s your father, Noctis, he’s -- !”

“Father?!” Suddenly alert, the ohji shot straight up on the mattress. Ignis was close behind, already moving to throw on his clothes as he listened intently. “Luna, what happened?”

He…. He’s dead, Noctis. They found him this morning, a-and…. I’m so, so sorry….”

His blood turned to ice in his veins. The air suddenly felt thick, palpable, as if he were trying to breathe underwater. Pale fingers clutched as his chest as he slumped forward on the bed. “....Bullshit.”

“Noctis, stay here, I’ll be right back.” Ignis voice was too far away, little more than a whisper against the dull roaring in his ears. Even Luna’s words were small and high-pitched through the speakers of his phone as he let it slip to the blankets in his lap. It can’t be , he repeated over and over in his mind. My dad isn’t dead, that’s a lie!

The door to the hotel slammed shut, then flew open again a half-minute later as Gladio and Prompto, apparently summoned by Ignis on his way out, burst into the room in a panic.

“Noct, what’s going on?” came Prompto’s worried tone. He slumped down onto the bed next to his friend (politely ignoring his naked state) and threw his arms around his shoulders. “What did Luna say?”

“Give him a sec,” Gladio warned. He dropped to one knee at the foot of the bed and stared up into the ohji’s unfocused eyes. “Iggy’s coming back. Just hold on.”

 

Cindy frowned as she waved her fingers in front of Ignis’ face. He’d been staring at the front page of that morning’s Galdin Daily for several minutes now, his brow furrowed in a tight line and his knuckles white around the edges of the paper, but still he didn’t seem to notice her. His gaze was fixed on the headline, reading it over and over again as if somehow he could change their meaning with sheer power of will.

“Infamous Yakuza Head Found Dead;”

Then beneath, “No suspects yet in the apparent and gruesome murder of Regis L. Caelum, the boss of Insomnia’s own Caelum family. His body was found in the early hours of the morning having been hung from the Lucinia Bridge in what some are considering an act of mob war. Is this the start of a dangerous upheaval beneath the city? What will DA Claustra’s next move be to protect the peace?

The rest was hardly important. Ignis once again dragged his gaze over the words on the page to the large photo printed below. It was a blurry shot, taken from a distance in the dim light of pre-dawn, and yet the outline of the body hanging against the dull yellow backdrop of sky was clear as a nightmare. The rope caught around his neck held his body at an odd angle, but there was no mistaking the tailored suit, the veil of greying hair obscuring a bloodied face.

It was Regis, and they were too late..

 

----------

 

The funeral was held two days later. There was no body, as the police and city’s top investigators had gotten involved with too much red tape, and so Dustin and Monica arranged for a private ceremony outside the late oyabun’s former estate. Noctis was there, of course, but he spoke to no one. His eyes were tired, red, as he listened to his father’s closest friends deliver their farewells one after another. Fond stories, respectful prayers; he didn’t want to hear any of it. Their words only served to gouge deeper into the pit in his chest, reminding him of how little he’d really known about his own father, and how he’d never get a second chance to make things right.

It was Weskham who called the meeting that same afternoon at the Citadel. All the usual faces were there, except for the addition of the Nox Fleuret siblings near the back, and Noct, not Regis, occupying the seat at the head of the table. All of the faces around the room were grim.

“What I wanna know,” Cid was saying, his fist balled tight on the arm of his chair. “Is how the blasted papers knew about this bef’re we did!”

“Clearly we were meant to find out this way.” It was Clarus. His voice was tight with strain as he hung his head in his hands. “The reporters must have been tipped off. It was staged.”

“We own the damn papers! And the damn reporters! Are y’all so incompetent ya can’t think t’check the news before it ends up plastered all over th’ whole damn town?”

Weskham swore, slammed his fist on the table. “That kind of thinking won’t help us now, Cid! What we need to do is find out who is responsible and take our revenge.”

“It’s clear Nifelheim is behind these attacks!” Now it was Ravus who spoke, and all eyes turned to him in surprise. “Our family came to your doorstep as allies. We saw the need for a greater peace in these troubled times just as Lord Regis. But where, I ask you, is Iedolas Aldercapt? Why hasn’t he come to offer his respects?”

“Because he’s more decrepit an’ foolish ‘n me, that’s why.” Cid glanced at Weskham in the seat beside him and sighed. “But the kid’s gotta point.”

Cor joined in from the center of the table, across from where Gladiolus sat with a deep frown on his face. “The Niffs must know how this makes them look. If they were innocent, they would have at least sent an envoy by now, at the least.”

Noctis was only half-listening. As tempers in the room flared, he found himself focusing more and more on the chair in which he was sitting. It was old, older than his father and his grandfather before him, but it bore the marks of Regis’ time all too clearly. Firm, black cushions sank under his weight as they had for decades, the edges frayed with use; the carved wood of the arms was worn where fingers had worried away the details of the engravings. His father’s fingers. As Noct rubbed his thumb over the smooth wood, he felt a familiar pain begin to squeeze around his throat, slowly suffocating the breath from his lungs.

“Noctis!”

His name rang out in the hall, shocking him into sudden and rapt attention. Everyone was looking at him, even Ignis with his hard emerald gaze full of concern. Noct turned to the source of the voice -- Clarus, he decided -- and cocked his head to the side. “ What ?”

Gladio’s father had been something of a doting uncle to him growing up, and even now his frustration was dulled with sympathy for the young orphan who’s been so suddenly thrust to the head of his family’s organization. But only just. “Perhaps you would like to weigh in on this matter, as some in this room seem to be suggesting we charge recklessly into a needless war.”

“Needless?” came Weskham’s growl again. “Regis is dead, and you would have us leave justice in the hands of whom? The police? The damn DA ? She’s had it out for our family for years!”

“We need information, not more bloodshed!”

“We need Aldercapt’s head on a spike!”

“What if we’re wrong? Even if the Niffs were involved, this is beyond them. There’s something more at play here!”

“Perhaps, but…. Noctis - !”

“Noct - !”

The young oyabun had jerked to his feet, eyes cold and focused on nothing in particular as they swept over the room. His mouth moved unbidden, as if it had a will of its own. “If it’s a war the Niffs want,” he said in a voice foreign to his ears. “Give it to them.”

In the silence that followed, his gaze at last connected with Ignis’ across the room. He could sense the other man already moving at his command, and trusted him to follow as he turned and stalked out of the hall.

Chaos erupted. Gladio swore under his breath as he watched his friend go, with Iggy trailing quickly in his wake. While he knew his father was right, he also understood Noctis’ pain in ways most of the faces around the table could not; he’d been there, he’d watched Noct read that newspaper with tears streaming down his cheeks. All too well he knew the blinding rage of vengeance, and that Ignis was probably the only one who could help him now.

That’s why, when he saw Luna getting to her feet and starting toward the door after Iggy, he snagged his fingers in the skirt of her dress and tugged her to a halt. “Come on, Princess, let the man do his job. You’re not married to Noct just yet.” Her eyes went wide, but he ignored the burning look she sent him as he settled back in his chair and hoped for the best.

 

“Noctis…?”

Suddenly there were two hands on him, fingers twisting in the fabric of his shirt as he was pulled out of the empty hallway and into a darkened room. Ignis could see a pair of deep blue eyes wet with tears, and then Noct was on him, all nails and mouth and tongue and heavy, sobbing breaths. The kiss was sloppy, driven by need and desperation, and Ignis felt overwhelmed. He’d not come here for this, but now that Noct’s fingers were alternately raking back through his hair and over the front of his pants, he was powerless to stop it.

He groaned into the mouth sliding over his and pushed back until he felt Noct’s legs hit something. A dresser? A table? It didn’t matter. Their clothes were coming off fast, he felt the younger man’s naked cock brush against his thigh, and then he was laying him back onto the smooth, firm surface. Noctis let out a wrecked sob, bucked his hips up, and now Ignis’ could see the red of his face stained with thick tears as he begged, begged him to take away the pain.

His heart shattered in his chest, but he would never not serve his prince. Ignis kissed him again, harder this time, and felt Noct’s cock throb in his hand. Hiccuping moans filled the air of the small room as he began to stroke, rough and fast, until the sweet sounds had his own body aching for attention, as well. He adjusted thin legs around him, stepped closer to bring their erections together -- Noctis nearly cried out from the sensation of it, but then Ignis was once more swallowing his voice down in a heated kiss.

Please ,” Noct seemed to beg against his lips, and he pumped them both faster. “ Please, Iggy.”

“I’m here, I have you.”

Ignis -- a-aah! Please, help me.

He swallowed, caught between intense pleasure and overwhelming guilt. “Highness -- !”

Kill them ,” Noct moaned, and fucked up into his hand as if he was going mad in his lust. “ Kill them all. Please, for me…. M-mmm!

“Noctis!” Burying his face in the side of soft black locks, Ignis grit his teeth against dizzying nausea. Noctis’ voice was raw as he came then, bursting over Ignis’ fingers and into the space between their bodies, but still Iggy’s hand didn’t slow. Beneath him Noct whined, dug into the flesh of his shoulders.

Iggy -- !”

“For you, Noctis. I promise.”

Hot tears were flowing again, and feverish eyes met his gaze in a desperate plea.

Ignis’ orgasm tore through him, forcing his breath out in a startled gasp. He watched in awe as his sex splashed out over smooth, milky skin, mixing with the young oyabun’s own in pools, and suddenly he saw his task laid out for him in surprising clarity.

Yes, he would kill them. He would kill every last person who had wronged his beloved, who had driven him to madness in his grief. If Noctis asked he would slaughter the entire city, bring empires to their knees, purge the underworld of disgusting, rotten souls if it would make the night a little brighter for his prince.

Long arms wound their way around his shoulders, and as Ignis sank against Noctis’ body beneath him, he swore his undying loyalty with a burning kiss.




Chapter Text

 

Gralea, the Fallen Light of Insomnia. Once the height of commerce within the city, the district had long ago become overrun with poverty and violent crime. Towering buildings that once stood as symbols of economic prowess now did little more than obscure the light of the sun, casting ominous shadows through filthy streets in the day and lengthening the dark nights. Few businesses were left in operation here; those that still clung to life only did so by offering more than just the products on the shelf -- underground prostitution, drugs, black market weapons and animal hides, all illegal and available nowhere else in the city but here.  

For nearly a decade, Insomnia’s DA Camelia Claustra had made it her legacy to clean up the neighborhood and rid Gralea’s streets of those she referred to as “gutter rats.” Mostly she meant the thugs and ring leaders of the Nifelheim family, a hybrid yakuza-gang headed by a mentally unstable old man and his equally insane band of followers. Though she claimed credit for hundreds of arrests over the last few years, more and more Niff scum had continued to seep out of the cracks in the pavement to take their place. Her efforts had yet proven futile, while Iedolas Aldercapt’s reign only tightened around the choking district’s neck. His gangs had run amok, beyond the control even of their ailing master, untamed and fearless. Gralea was a dangerous area at best during the day -- only the very foolish dared to wander its streets in the dead of night.

The foolish, or the very, very angry.

Ignis came to a halt just beyond the reach of a flickering streetlamp, holding up his hand in warning. Behind him, Nyx Ulric and the four Glaives he’d selected for the job stilled their tracks as well, stopping to listen, and to wait.

Ahead of them, nearly half a block down and cloaked in shadows, was a man. He was moving erratically, legs unsteady beneath him as he half-walked, half-limped at a faltering pace. Ignis’ eyes narrowed at the scene.

“What’s his problem?” came Nyx’s low voice at his side. “Drunk?”

“Not likely.” Gralea held one more poorly-kept secret, perhaps its greatest claim to fame -- or notoriety. Though he had never seen a starscourge junkie firsthand, Ignis had heard rumors of the potent street drug and its powerful neurological effects on the human body: skewed balance, impaired motor function, memory lapses and, with prolonged use, permanent damage to the nervous system. The rumors claimed it had first been manufactured by one of Aldercapt’s sadistic followers, a man by the name of Verstael, as a home-grown painkiller with hallucinogenic side effects. But it had turned out to be a highly addictive and highly profitable narcotic.  The Niffs had since begun to use it to their twisted advantage, essentially conducting experiments on living, breathing humans to develop their dreaded “troopers.” They were heavy addicts of the drug who had traded their sanity in exchange for no longer feeling any kind of pain.

The man ahead them now seemed harmless from here, but it would be best to heed caution. An altercation would only draw unwanted attention to their party.

“We go around. A block west, then two more north. Keep close.” Nyx nodded in understanding. Tugging the black cowl of his jacket down over his forehead, he signaled to the Glaives behind him and took off in the direction Ignis was already moving.

He’d gotten the call early that afternoon, directly from the Reaper himself with orders for his ears only. Bring four of your best. Meet me at dusk, we’re going to even the odds . Nyx hadn’t bothered to ask the details; no one was as eager as him to avenge his fallen comrades, and he relished the opportunity to spill some blood in Crowe’s name.

Yet their actual destination had remained a mystery to him. Not until Ignis stopped again, this time across the street from the garishly bright neon sign of the Cartanica Station club, did he finally piece together the puzzle and at last understand Ignis’ plan. With a start he turned to the older man as if he’d suddenly grown an extra head.

Here? You’re really going after him?

“Would you turn tail and run after coming so far?” Ignis’ tone was calm, but Nyx knew a challenge when he heard one. He shook his head and crouched down at the Reaper’s side.

“Not a chance. Just wanted to make sure you’re actually as crazy as I thought.”

That drew a dark smirk as Ignis palmed the handle of his dagger still in its sheath. For now. “The plan is simple. Wait for my signal, then kill anyone who gets in the way.” Without waiting for a response he started across the road and right up to the front entrance of the club. Nyx and the others caught up with him just outside of the doors, and the Glaive Captain grinned as he stilled Ignis’ grip above the handle.

“Allow me. I’ve always wanted to do this.”

The wooden doors burst open in a violent display, slamming back against the walls on either side under the full force of Nyx’s attack. He lowered his boot back to the ground as every face in the hazy smoke of the room beyond snapped to attention. Ignis stepped past the grinning captain and tightened his gloves on his wrists. Tense silence followed; he scanned the room, counted the heads and exits, eyed the various weapons being drawn or lying open on tables. Then, teeth bright in the dark room, he raised his voice to the Glaives at his back..

Non enim dormiunt!

“Insomnia immortalis!”

The Niffs were overwhelmed. They balked at the violence with which the six fighters bore down on them, stumbled and fell over drunken limbs in their haste to flee or defend themselves from arcing blades and unyielding fists. While Nyx and the others took on the crowd nearest to the door, Ignis focused on cutting a blazing path toward the employee exit at the back of the room. His daggers sliced through flesh and bone alike, letting the warm blood staining his shirt and the screams of the injured men fuel him, ignite him, drive him forward with a bloodlust the likes of which he hadn’t experienced in a long time.

Kicking a fallen body aside, he reached for the door just as two larger man approached from behind. They were big, hulking things, broader even than Gladio, and their drooping eyes were red with a feverish haze. Troopers , Ignis realized, and tightened his leather grip around his blade. There was no choice but to take them out. Casting a glance at Nyx on the far side of the bar, he steeled himself and suddenly dropped to the floor.

Neither of the troopers was fast enough. They bent down to grab at him, but Ignis’ lithe form was already sliding out of their reach, down between the their trunk-like legs as his dagger flashed in the light. He hit his mark on one of them, slicing through the tendon on the back of his ankle with a sickening pop, and he got to his feet at their backs in time to see the man go down. Blood spilled out, his leg flopped uselessly, and yet his face showed no expression, no twist of pain or surprise. That was the power of the starscourge, and it made even Ignis’ skin crawl.

But there was no time to think. As the other trooper lunged for him Ignis swiped a bar stool from behind and swung it around in a heavy arc. It crashed into the man’s head, the wooden legs snapping and splintering with the force of the impact, and blood began to spill almost immediately. Still, he didn’t flinch. One of his thick, swollen fists wrapped around Ignis’ left wrist and squeezed, threatening to crush the bones with his bare hand. It was all Ignis could do to react through the pain. He brought his blade down with his other hand, thunk , cutting at a diagonal into the forearm that gripped him -- but it wasn’t his most powerful swing, and the steel of his knife caught in the bone and lodged there. He tugged, yanked, feeling the man pulling him closer by his painfully throbbing wrist. In a last act of desperation, Ignis switched tactics to kick upward, and his boot connected with the handle of his dagger with enough power to send it twirling up into the air. Twisting in the trooper’s hold, Ignis managed to catch it mid-fall and bring it crashing back down against the wound now leaking blood like a fountain onto the floor.

The trooper reared back, his arm coming off clean and those dead fingers slipping at last from Ignis’ wrist. Under the hem of his gloves his pale skin was red, angry, but he could deal with that later. Letting his hand hang limp at his side for now, he whirled on the two troopers, one of whom was still trying to crawl toward him on the floor, and pressed forward in a rage.

Grrryaaa! ” Animalistic, fierce, the growl that tore from his throat was the Voice of the Reaper himself. He delivered death with a strike to the neck of one of the men, and through the thick chest of the other, his aim impeccable after a lifetime of killing. Their bodies grew still in pools of dark, glistening blood, and Ignis stepped over them like litter on the street. Behind him, the bar had fallen almost silent. A final cry signaled the last of the Niffs had fallen, and within moments Nyx and all four of his Glaives were making their way to him.

“You’re hurt,” Nyx observed, nodding to Ignis’ wrist. His own brow was sheened with sweat and flecks of drying blood, but his eyes were bright, alert. Ignis shook his head.

“It’s fine. Our target is more important. We push on.”

This time they swung the door marked “Employees Only” open with considerable caution. Beyond was a dimly lit stairwell that led down to anywhere but an actual exit. No mistaking this was the right place. They descended in a line, Ignis at the front and Nyx bringing up the rear in case of an ambush, down, down, further than any of them had anticipated the stairs could go, until at last they reached the deepest level. There, beyond a final, heavy door, was a narrow room brimming with unnatural light.

“Holy shit ,” one of the Glaives swore as his eyes traveled over the tabletop arrays of burners, vials, steaming pipes, and glowing liquids passing through an elaborate network of glass pipes. “The fuck is this place?”

“The Factory,” Ignis replied coldly. “And there is our Foreman.”

At the end of the room sat an old man in a dirtied lab coat, his hair flying in wild tendrils about his head and a deadly scowl written on his face. He had turned at the sight of them entering the room, but had yet to so much as attempt getting to his feet. As they approached, the sound of his dark, rasping laughter sent chills through the air.

“Tell me, are you Regis’ lapdogs, then? Come to avenge your fallen master?” Dark lips curved up in a smile that could in no way be described as human. “I’m afraid I don’t waste my time with mutts like you.”

“Don’t waste your last words, Verstael. Make them count.” Ignis advanced, Nyx close at his side in the narrow path. “Bind his hands.”

 

--------

 

That evening, Prompto had been given his first official order as the newest member of the Caelum family’s prestigious Glaives. That was, in Cor’s words, to guard the oyabun with your life, and to keep him safe at all costs.

What he’d actually meant was a lot more like glorified babysitting.

Yet Prompto could hardly complain as it resulted in him being given a security code to Noctis’ apartment (no more sneaking in for him!) and strict orders to spend the night hanging out with his best friend. Even if that friend happened to be in a sullen mood (understandably so) and wanted to do little more than lounge around and read comic books (again, not complaining). Several hours had already passed relatively uneventfully, Noctis on his back on the sofa and Prompto stretched out on his stomach on the floor below, until the blonde broke the silence with a low grumble issuing from his gut.

“Oh man, I’m starved!” he announced, collapsing in a dramatic heap on the floor. “What’dya have to eat around here.” Above him, Noctis merely shrugged and flipped a page of the Justice Monsters Five comic he was reading.

“Not much. Ignis usually does the cooking, or brings me take-out.”

Blue eyes rolled. “Is he your boyfriend or your mother?” But there was no response to that one, so instead he reached for his wallet in his back pocket and checked his cash. “Could we order a pizza or something at least? How are you not hungry?”

“Dunno.” This time, the dark-haired oyabun’s shrug was followed by a vague gesture toward the kitchen. “There’s a menu in a drawer somewhere. Order whatever you want, put it on a tab called ‘Specs.’”

“Seriously?” Excited, Prompto bounded off into the kitchen to make the call, while Noct settled back down into the cushions with a sigh. Satisfied he was alone for the moment, he pulled out his phone and scrolled through his messages for the dozenth time since that afternoon.

He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t worried. Ignis had gone off to Gralea with only a handful of men, his mission kept an absolute secret from Cor and even Gladio, who would have no doubt tried to stop him before he could finish his job. Ignis was strong, of course, and even in the midst of enemy territory he wouldn’t be able to lose, not when doing so would break his promise to Noctis. That knowledge helped to soothe the young oyabun’s nerves, and yet…there had been no word from him since he’d left his apartment that afternoon. No calls, no texts, and the fear of everything that could have gone wrong was beginning to make Noct regret the way he’d so selfishly begged for his help.

Kill them. Kill them all.

His chest tightened as he recalled his own words, his own voice twisted and strange in his memory. He loved Ignis for his loyalty, but for once he almost wished he’d disobeyed.

“Who ya talking to?” Prompto came back into the room, slipping his own phone back into his pocket as he rounded the couch with a grin. “Iggy?”

“Maybe.” Noct switched off his screen and hid the heat of his cheeks behind his open comic. “He’s busy, and doesn’t know what time he’ll be back tonight.”

The blonde settled back down onto the floor, a little closer to his friend on the couch than he’d been before, and leaned back on his elbows. “A late-night mission, huh? That sounds fun. Guess that’s one perk of sleeping with the boss.”

Hey. ” Dark eyes flashed and Prompto narrowly dodged a comic book to the face. “Drop it.”

Fiiine .” But as he stretched out again, watching discreetly as Noct began scrolling once more through his chat screen, another thought occurred to Prompto. With everything that had happened that week, he wasn’t sure if his friend had even had time to consider the other problems surrounding him since last they’d talked. Yet as was so often the case his curiosity got the better of him. He cleared his throat and started in as light a tone as he could manage. “So! Now that you’re kind of in charge and stuff…. What are you gonna do about that girl? Y’know, the one you’re supposed to be marrying?”

From the way Noct’s shoulders stiffened at the question, he could tell that not only had he not considered it, but he’d apparently forgotten about the situation entirely. Guilt crept over his face as he turned to look at Prompto beside him. “...Luna’s supposed to go back to Tenebrae in a few days. I haven’t had a chance to talk to her.”

“So? You can’t just leave her hanging. What if she comes back in a few months and expects a wedding?”

“I’ll....” He trailed off. What would he do? There was no doubt in his heart that he loved Ignis, that he didn’t want anything to come between them, yet things with Luna weren’t so simple. His father’s last words to him had been to do the right thing for their family legacy, but he had left the decision entirely in his hands. But how was he supposed to decide when he had no idea what the future would bring?  “I’ll figure it out soon,” was all he said, and Prompto at last gave up with a sigh and a shrug.

In the awkward silence that followed, Noct pulled up his phone again. There were still no new messages, no updates to let him know that Ignis was okay, so he once more skimmed over the last lines of their chat to calm the churning in his gut.

/ And you’re sure Verstael will be there?

/ If our intel can be trusted, yes

Shall I inform you when he’s in custody?

/ Yeah

Yeah I wanna know

Ignis?

/ Yes?

/ Be careful

/ Of course.

That had been three hours ago. Just how long did it take to find a decrepit old man anyway?

“S-so, uh.” Prompto’s voice once again broke through his dark thoughts, and Noctis sighed. “Any word yet from Ignis?”

Frown deepening, Noct shook his head. “Nope.”

“Hm. No idea when he’ll be back then?”

If he didn’t know any better, he’d think Prompto was suddenly trying to get out of babysitting duty. With a thin smile he rolled his head to the side and deadpanned, “Why, you bored?”

Bright, blue eyes went round in surprise at the accusation. “H-huh? No, no, of course not. I just, y’know, was thinking I could go for a shower, is all. Still pretty gross from drills this afternoon.”

Noctis knew Prompto had come straight over after training with the Glaives that day, and sure, maybe he did smell a little like old gym shorts, but something still seemed off about the way he was smiling awkwardly and clutching his phone to his chest. Noct shrugged. “So use mine.”

“Really?” came the high-pitched response. “I don’t want to impose or anything….”

But Noct was already back to pouring over his chat messages as he waved Prompto off. “Bathroom’s down the hall.” The blonde bounded away with entirely too much energy, and Noctis sank into the cushions with a sigh of relief. As much as he appreciated his friend’s company, he was also in desperate need of some peace and quiet.

He held his phone against his chest and let his eyes drift closed. Worrying about Ignis was making it hard to do much other than, well, worry more ; and while his typical response to such problems was to simply sleep it off, he found that this time his brain refused to cooperate. Instead, it continued its endless loop of Where could he be? What if he’s in trouble? Is he okay? Why isn’t he texting me? -- over and over, until at last a buzz from the phone against his chest jolted him upright on the couch.

It was a message, and while overdue, it was from Ignis. Relief flooded Noctis almost to the point of tears, but he blinked them back as he quickly swiped his screen and read the words there.

/ Are you still awake, Noct?

 

The speed of the reply brought a smile to Ignis’ lips. In the ethereal green glow of the laboratory, the effect was more demonic than anything as he took a step closer to the man bound in the chair before him. But he didn’t speak, not yet, instead taking a moment to type another message on his screen. I apologize for the delay. We were forced to park the car a little further than expected.

Half a moment passed, then Noct’s message appeared in small letters below. / Please tell me you’re okay?

/ Of course. Though I can’t say the same for our host.

In the chair, hands tied tight in his lap and shoulders held firmly in Nyx’s grasp, Verstael could only struggle in vain as Ignis rounded on him. One gloved hand gripped his chin, jerked his head up to face the lens of his phone as the camera flashed before his eyes. Wordlessly, and ignoring the way the old man snarled at his back, Ignis turned and sent the photo to the chat.

“The hell kinda game are you playing at, Scientia? Did you come here to kill me or sign me a modeling contract?” Verstael sneered again, all crooked, yellow teeth, and Ignis felt his patience wear a hair thinner. He cast his sharp green gaze on the old man, then up at the Glaive Captain behind him.

“Nyx?” A nod, then a loud crack! as a black gloved fist connected with the bridge of Verstael’s left collarbone. He howled as his bone snapped under the force, then fell into a flurry of pained curses and growls while Ignis resumed his conversation with Noct.

/ That’s him? He doesn’t exactly look like a criminal mastermind

/ Perhaps. Nevertheless, he is second only to Iedolas himself.

And we discovered something else.

Once more rounding on Verstael, Ignis lowered his phone to his knees and focused in on his right hand. There, resting upon his thumb, was the ring of the Lucii -- last seen on the hand of Lord Regis himself, and the most damning evidence they could have expected to find. The camera flashed again, and soon Ignis was sending the picture off to Noct.

The reply was immediate, expected. / Get it back

“Nyx,” Ignis repeated, but this time the Glaive Captain was a little slower on the uptake. He glanced at the phone in the Reaper’s hand and smirked.

“You’re gonna have to fill me in on the details a little, boss.”

“Hold his wrist. Don’t let him move.” Having set his phone on the edge of a nearby table, Ignis was pulling off his gloves as he watched Nyx follow the order. Verstael swore again as his injured shoulder was jerked sharply, then Nyx was pressing down on his wrist against the arm of the metal chair. “Good. Keep him still.” The familiar sound of his dagger slowly sliding out of its sheath filled the air. Nyx and the Glaives, anticipating what would come next, tensed, and even Verstael’s eyes grew dark as they watched him approach.

The tip of his knife tapped twice against the ring. “This does not belong to you,” he said, voice icy, and earned a panicked laugh in return.

“It does now. It was gifted to me, that makes it mine .”

“Gifted by a thief and a murderer. Which makes you even lowlier than either.”

Verstael’s lips twisted in a nightmarish smile. “I’m invaluable to this city. Where would so many of Insomnia’s denizens be without my perfect medicine to cure all their ills?” He rolled his head, gesturing broadly at the laboratory surrounding them. “The boss sees my greatness. That’s why he gave the ring to me , instead of that prancing jester.”

Ignis raised an eyebrow, exchanged a look with Nyx. While most of the leaders of the Nifelheim family were considered senile or mad or both, he wasn’t quite sure who Verstael could be referring to now. “Your philanthropy astounds me,” he said, turning back to the man bound before him. But you have only four fingers left to tell me about this ‘jester’ of yours.”

“What are you saying, I’ve got all my fing - aa AAAAHH!” The dagger came down just above the knuckle of his pinkie, slicing clean through flesh and bone and dropping the bloody stump of the digit to the floor. Horrified cries filled the room. Behind Ignis, the Glaives shuffled on their feet, trying to contain their wicked mirth.

“I count four. Now, then.” Once again Ignis tapped the blade against the metal ring on Verstael’s thumb. “Smallest to largest. Before I reach my prize, I’d love to hear a good story.”

“You’re sick , Scientia! Crazy!” The old maniac’s eyes were red with pain as he glared up at his captors. “Kill me if that’s what you’re here for!”

Another finger fell to the ground with a thunk and a spurt of dark red blood. Over fresh howls Ignis smiled. “I plan to. But you may as well make your death meaningful, otherwise this is all merely for my entertainment.”

Curse you ,” he spat, and curled the fingers of his good hand into a fist. “You want revenge for your master? You’ve come to the wrong genius. He was the one who brought Regis right to our doorstep, not me!”

Sighing, Ignis affected a bored expression as he drew the tip of his knife across the next knuckle. “Perhaps you’ve never read a good book, but typically the story starts at the beginning .” With a horrifying squelch the blade came down again, taking not only one but two of Verstael’s fingers off in a clean slice. Nyx struggled to keep his wrists in place as the man flailed.

IZUNIA!” he screamed, grinding his yellowed teeth down hard enough to crack a few. “ His name is Ardyn Izunia! Kill the bastard for all I care!”

Surprise flashed across Nyx’s face. “Well that was easier than I expected.”

“Generous indeed.” Ignis gave an almost comforting pat to Verstael’s good hand, careful in the process to avoid the copious amounts of blood spilling down from his deformed stumps, and smiled. “You’ve earned your reward.”

Verstael’s eyes went wide as the dagger flashed toward them. Just in time Nyx pulled out of the way, and the deadly blade sliced through the old man’s skull in a diagonal arc. A thin line of blood formed across his forehead, his eyes rolled up to watch as his scalp slid sideways and clattered to the floor in a sickeningly messy pool of blood and brains. A few of the Glaives stumbled back, and even Nyx jumped away from the dead, mutilated body suddenly sinking down in the chair in front of him.

“....by the fucking Six!” Nyx swore, and covered his mouth as he stared in a mix of horror and awe at Ignis. While he’d worked with the man for years, his brutality was sometimes still too shocking for words.

Yet Ignis ignored him, instead tugging the blood-stained ring from Verstael’s limp hand and pocketing it. There were some less-than-clean rags lying atop one of the tables, and he calmly wiped his fingers clean before tugging his gloves back over his wrists. Not until he was finished did he look up to give the next command. “Burn the place. There are too many bodies for anything less. Do it quickly, thoroughly. Understood?”

“Sir!” The four Glaives sprung into motion, leaving Nyx to follow Ignis back out to the stairwell and up to the ground floor in silence.

 

Noctis clutched his phone tightly in his grip. He had been staring at his screen for what felt like ages, waiting desperately for some sign that Ignis was still there on the other end. He checked the timestamp of the last message -- only eighteen minutes had passed since he’d shown him the image of his father’s ring sitting on that bastard’s finger. Getting it back seemed like a simple task compared to the rest of his mission, and yet he had once again gone silent in the chat.

Down the hall, the sound of the shower switching off alerted him that Prompto would be coming back soon. He panicked, sent Ignis another message. / What’s happening?! Several long moments passed with bated breath. Then:

/ The task is finished. I’ll be home in two hours.

Relief flooded him. Although Ignis wasn’t quite out of Gralea yet, the worst was over. He dropped his phone into his back pocket and covered his face with his hands as he burst into near-giddy laughter. Ignis had succeeded. Their plan had succeeded, and he was one step closer to realizing his vengeance.

It was actually sometime later that Prompto emerged from the bathroom, his hair already styled and his face bright red above his dark jacket. He caught Noctis lounging on the sofa with a pleased smile, and quickly tucked his phone away before he took a seat on the cushioned arm. “No Iggy yet?” He joked, voice cracking noticeably.

Noct turned and grinned up at him. “Not yet. What’s with you? You look like a lobster.”

“J-just the hot water,” his friend laughed, then deflected. “How about some Totomostro while we wait for those pizzas?” Sitting up fully on the couch, Noct made room for his friend as he tossed a game controller in his lap.

“I’ve been leveling up, you are so owned this time!”

 

Two hours flew by. The pizzas were nearly finished and Noctis had indeed won the last five rounds in a row when his phone vibrated atop the coffee table. Pausing, he checked the screen and smiled. “Ignis is almost here,” he announced, glancing up at Prompto. “He says you’re ‘ Relieved of your duties for the evening. ’”

Prompto snorted as he chugged the last of his cola. “Is that fancy talk for ‘Get the hell out so I can snog my boyfriend in private ’?” His impersonation of Ignis’ accent alone was enough to warrant the playful shove that sent him sprawling across the couch, but before Noct could pounce again he was laughing and holding up his hands for mercy. “Fine, fine! I’m going! I can tell when I’m just a third wheel.”

Grinning, he snagged his bag off the floor next to the couch and, before Noct could dodge, reached out to ruffle his fingers through his hair. “Have a ‘good night,’” he air quoted in response to Noctis’ death glare, and turned to catch the last bus back to his own apartment.

To be honest, Noctis didn’t actually mind the teasing as much as he let on. The moment Prompto disappeared into the elevator, his glare melted into a lopsided smile, and he spent the next ten minutes before Ignis arrived tidying up the living room.

Well, he attempted to, anyway. He’d starting stacking the comic books back on table to put away when he realized he hadn’t actually finished the issue he’d been reading earlier. He stretched back out on the sofa and propped his feet up on the arm, and that was how Ignis found him when he entered the apartment right on schedule.

“Evening,” a voice greeted and Noctis threw the comic aside in his haste to get to his feet.

“Iggy!” The taller man was standing in the doorway, one arm crooked against his chest, the other relaxed at his side, hand resting on his hip. He smiled at Noct from behind his glasses.

“Sorry to keep you waiting. Is Prompto still here?”

Noct made his way toward his advisor, quickly taking in the dark stains on his slacks, the wrinkles in his shirt, the delicate way he held his wrist in place. “No, he’s gone,” he said carefully. He wanted to run to Ignis, to throw his arms around him and hold him close, yet something about him seemed... off .

“I see. You alright, Noctis?”

The dark-hair oyabun released a breath he’d been holding and shook his head to dispel the thought. “I missed you,” he smiled, and closed his eyes as Ignis moved forward and suddenly he was surrounded by his warmth, his scent, his breath. “I was worried.”

Tender lips pressed into his hair, and Ignis chuckled. “If you’re worrying about me , then I haven’t done my job well enough.”

Fingers wrapped around Noct’s left hand, and something was being pressed into his palm. He blinked, pulled away from Ignis’ shoulder long enough to look down at the heavy, black-and-silver ring now weighing down his hand, and closed his fingers around it.

“An unexpected spoil of war,” Ignis said. He was close enough now that Noctis could see the exhaustion in his eyes, the tired way his lips curved up to smile at him. And the flecks of dried blood hastily wiped from his cheeks.

Chest burning, Noct looked down at the arm pressed between their bodies. Ignis still hadn’t moved it, and now the angry red-violet bruises were plainly visible peeking out from the edge of his gloves. “You’re hurt.”

“It’s nothing, just a small sprain.”

“You should call Sania, get her to look at it for you.”

“Perhaps in the morning.” He smiled again, playful this time, in a rare way that made Noctis’ heart suddenly thud against his ribcage. “I’ve only just got back and you’re already sending me away?”

The tension broke in that moment. A warm laugh bubbled up from Noct’s throat, and soon he was falling into his lover as his arms wove around his waist. “‘Course not,” he grinned against the side of his neck. “Morning’s fine. You look like you could use a shower first anyway.” Pale fingers worked their way up the back of Ignis’ shirt, over the nape of his neck to tangle in brown locks as Noct pulled him into a slow, languid kiss. He smiled against Ignis’ lips, used his grip in his hair to lead him backwards through the kitchen and living room. He dropped his father’s ring onto the coffee table on the way past to the hallway and the bathroom beyond, and by the time their feet were moving across cold tiles Ignis had dipped down to trail a line of burning kisses over Noctis’ throat.

“L-let me, um,” the younger man laughed as he tried half-heartedly to disconnect their limbs. “At least let me wrap that with something.” He shivered as Ignis’ lips brushed the shell of his ear, then he felt his breath leave him completely to find himself staring up into those brilliant, piercing emerald eyes so close to his own face.

“There’s a medical kit in the cabinet,” he said, voice low, and Noctis nodded as if in a trance. There was, in fact, a brand new set of supplies in a small box under the sink, including gauze, tape, and several small plastic bags. Noctis helped Iggy to remove his glove, then smiled as they older man let him take over. Sealing the gauze with a thin layer of plastic and probably far too much tape, he took a step back to survey his work.

“That ought to keep it dry, at least.”

“It looks perfect, Noct, thank you.” Ignis lifted his arm, tested the tightness and weight of the makeshift bandage, and nodded. “I’ll take that shower now if you don’t mind.”

“Sure. Um,” he trailed off, took a step closer; pinched his fingers on either side of Ignis’ glasses and slipped them off. “Could you use some extra help?”

A heartbeat passed between them. Ignis curled his gloved fingers around Noct’s chin, guided him into another kiss as they shed their clothing. First Noctis’ t-shirt, then he was popping the buttons over Ignis’ chest as the brunette set to work one-handed on the oyabun’s belt and pants. Discarded fabric pooled on the floor, and then they were stepping as one into the shower and sliding the glass closed behind them.

“Did you already wash?” Ignis asked between frantic kisses when he felt cool water under his toes.

“Nnh. No, Prompto did.” Noctis’ chest was pounding, his mind spinning as he reclaimed the other’s mouth with his own and pressed him back against the tiled wall. Ignis yielded for him, sinking back and simply allowing his prince to kiss away the sin and filth of the night, letting his lips and tongue purify his tainted skin. Somewhere along the way one of them had the wits to actually switch on the shower overhead, and soon hot rivulets of water were running over and between their bodies pressed together against the wall.

The kiss broke as Noct pulled back for air. Panting, he took in the scene -- Ignis flushed and more beautiful than he could ever remember seeing him before, green eyes intense above slightly reddened cheeks, his hair falling in wet curls down to frame his face, his neck; down further to the intricate designs tattooed over his shoulders and chest. With a smile, Ignis offered himself to his prince fully, but Noctis only shook his head. He wrapped his fingers around Ignis’ uninjured wrist (it had ended up near his hip) and brought it up to his lips, kissing his palm tenderly before guiding his fingers back into his own hair. Ignis swallowed, tangled them eagerly in midnight black locks. “ Highness? ” he asked, breath heavy with lust, as Noctis dropped to his knees.

Ignis’ cock was hard and hot to the touch. Though Noct had felt it before against his own skin, it seemed different now, thicker and bigger, more intimidating than he’d expected. But he wouldn’t be easily dissuaded. With those piercing green eyes on him from above, Noct leaned forward and dragged his tongue over the head and slit.

There was a ragged sigh, Ignis’ fingers tightened suddenly in his hair. Noct repeated the motion and was rewarded with more breathy sounds from the man above him. Smiling, he closed his lips around the tip and tried to recall the way Ignis had done this to him not so long ago. The rhythm was disjointed at first as the young oyabun tried to figure out how to fit more of the organ into his mouth, but eventually he was gliding his lips further and further down the shaft with each pass.

Above him, Ignis was losing his mind. Despite Noctis’ inexperience, the mere feeling of those soft, perfect, innocent lips wrapped around him was enough to have him digging his heels into wet tiles, scrambling for purchase to keep his body upright. Not once did he take his eyes off his prince; not once did he miss the way he looked disappearing into that beloved mouth, or the way the oyabun’s other hand was hard at work stroking himself between his own thighs. Nocts was heaven around his heated flesh; he was perfection, and he was home.

Noctis, ” he hissed, and tightened his fingers in warning. Noct didn’t pull away, merely moved faster, picked up the pace that already had Ignis tipping over the edge. With a low cry and subtle jolt of his hips he released into wet heat, over Noctis’ tongue and throat. The younger man pulled back in surprise and out of reflex -- as Ignis’ cock slipped from his mouth, it trailed a sticky line of milky cum over his bottom lip and chin.

Noct’s eyes went wide.

“High...ness,” came the half-panted, half-moaned prayer from above. “You don’t….”

But already he was swallowing on instinct, the bitter taste following him all the way down his throat. He must have made a face, because Ignis was suddenly caught between laughter and utter humiliation.

“N-Noct,” he said, covering his mouth with his hand so that his prince couldn’t tell which of his emotions had won out. The young oyabun managed a smile, then slowly got to his feet.

“Guess I’ll have to get used to that.” He drew the back of his hand, warm from the water still cascading around them, across his mouth, leaving a more confident smirk in its wake. “I want to get used to that.”

Ignis couldn’t find proper words. He settled instead for pulling his beloved into another kiss, holding him close while Noct finished himself with his fist. They stood together under the heat of the shower, panting and kissing, letting the water wash away the evidence of everything other than that moment, the feeling of being so close and never wanting to let go.

 

Ignis fell asleep with his back against Noctis’ chest, head resting on his shoulder where they had lain together on the sofa after the shower. The half-eaten slice of pizza Noctis had tried to feed him hung precariously over the edge of the box on the coffee table, hunger abandoned in favor of exhaustion, and now the young oyabun held him close as he slowly examined his father’s ring in the dim light. Turning it over in his fingers, he noticed the blackish metal was tinted in places with dark red. Blood, he realized, and frowned.

Ignis has risked so much to bring this back to him. It was the symbol of his house, the mark of the rightful lord of the Caelum family. His father had worn the ring with pride, as had his father’s father, and so on for countless generations before him. Yet when Noctis slipped the band over his own finger it fell right off, far too loose, far too big a role for him to fill.

With a scowl he considered tossing it back onto the table, out of sight and out of mind, but then a sudden thought occurred to him. He glanced down -- Ignis was fast asleep, eyes closed and lips parted around his soft breaths. Surely he wouldn’t notice if he just….

Noctis delicately wrapped his fingers around the wrist of Ignis’ good arm, drew it up and stroked over the length of his fingers. Then, his own breath caught somewhere deep in his chest, he laid his palm against the back of his lover’s hand, lined up their fingers in a careful match. His heart was fluttering in his chest, his lips trembling. The ring passed over the tips of their smallest fingers combined, slid down to rest snugly just above the knuckles. A perfect fit.

Noctis released the air he’d been holding in a stuttering breath. In that instant, Ignis’ hand so warm and familiar joined with his, his path opened up clearly before him.

He knew what he had to do.

And he knew who he needed at his side to do it.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

There was a sharp sound, like knocking only more aggressive, on the door. Gladio could hear it over the sound of the shower, but he easily pushed it to the back of his mind as he focused on other, more important thoughts. Big brother privileges had been invoked, which meant Iris was just going to have to wait to use the bathroom.

He returned to the moment, resting his head against his forearm on the cool tiles as the heat of the water one again enveloped him. A sigh passed his lips, images danced through his mind’s eye; bright blue gems and soft, downy yellow, dark freckles on pale skin like stars in the sky, a shy grin below scarlet cheeks. “ Prom ,” the name left him in a breath, barely audible above the roar of the shower, but it brought a smile to his lips all the same. Below, his hand stroked faster over water-slicked flesh.

By the time he’d finished, rinsed, and dressed, Iris was waiting outside the bathroom with her arms crossed over her vest and wearing a very unbecoming pout. Gladio flashed her a grin and stepped past into the hallway. “Toilet’s all yours, piglet.”

“You are the worst brother ever! What were you doing in there anyway?!”

A shrug. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

Behind him, Iris flushed crimson with instant understanding. “... Gross!” She turned and slammed the door shut behind her, and Gladio couldn’t suppress a chuckle at her expense. If only she knew the half of it .

The rest of the hour was spent between breakfast and going over the day’s workout schedule with his father. Since Regis’ death, Clarus had shifted to a more supportive role at the Citadel, which meant Gladio had been put fully in charge of overseeing the Glaives’ training at the gym. Not that he minded the extra workload, of course, especially when it meant more time putting a certain attractive blonde through extra rounds of pushups and squats. So he jotted down the schedule and grabbed his pack from the hallway, and was just preparing to following his father out the door when Iris caught him on the way out.

“Hey, Gladdy,” she called from the end of the hall, and waved a sheet of paper in his direction. “You going to the Citadel today?”

As she jogged up to him she thrust the paper at his chest until he took it. “Yeah, first stop before I head to the gym. What’s this?”

“Some information Iggy asked for the other day. If you see him can you pass it along? Tell him I’m sorry it isn’t much.” Gladio’s eyes quickly scanned the paper. There were a few paragraphs -- looked to be scanned newspaper clippings -- with the word “Izunia” highlighted in several places. It didn’t mean much to him, so he folded it and slipped the paper into his pocket.

“You got it.”

“Thanks. You’re still the worst, though.”

“Hate the game,”he laughed, ruffling a hand through her hair on his way out the door.

He rode with Clarus as far as the Citadel. While his father headed upstairs to meet with Weskham and the others, Gladio made for the private offices at the back of the first floor. A pair of Glaives in sunglasses waved him through,and soon he was heading down a dimly lit hallway toward the heavy, oak doors of the Caelum Family Head’s office.

 

Noctis drummed his fingers on the edge of the desk, watching with intense fascination at the way the muscles and tendons of his hand flexed as he moved each of his fingers. It was an oddly calming sight, and yet he didn’t think he’d ever quite noticed it before.

Then again, he didn’t think he’d ever been quite this bored before.

Across from him, seated in a large black (purposefully uncomfortable) chair on the other side of his father’s desk, sat a fat, balding man who claimed to be from some bank that Noct had already forgotten the name of. He had been listing off numbers for what seemed like an eternity, while Ignis jotted down notes on a clipboard and the oyabun spaced out. Had this really been part of his father’s day-to-day business? Had he really given up spending time with his family to listen to smelly bankers drone mindlessly on and on and --

A hand on his shoulder served as a silent warning. Noct stilled his fingers on the desk and cast his gaze pleadingly up at Ignis, but his advisor was looking ahead and not at him. In his left hand he grasped his clipboard -- there was an impressive amount of memos scrawled across several sheets of paper -- and his eyes were sharp and focused behind his glasses. Noct let his gaze linger there for a moment before following the curve of his cheekbone down to the delicate profile of his lips. So soft , he thought, and smiled inwardly as he let his mind drift again. Oh, the things Ignis could do with those lips. From igniting the skin of his throat, his neck, his chest, discovering all those places on his body he’d never expected could be so sensitive. And when those lips slid further down, into his lap and over his throbbing heat….

“Sir?”

Noct sucked in a breath, sitting up in his chair as subtly as he could manage. “Yes?” he asked, and hoped his voice hadn’t actually come out as shaky as it sounded to his own ears.

“That...concludes the quarterly report.” Across from him, the banker was peering at him over the rim of his glasses, mouth twitching in a nervous frown. “Would you like me to go over the stock holdings as well, or…?”

Flashing a glance up at Iggy, Noct shook his head. “No. Uh, maybe another time. We’ve got some...financial...things to discuss first. But, uh, thank you.” He didn’t think he was imagining it when the man’s face flushed with relief, and he got to his feet in a flurry of bows.

“Yes, sir, thank you for your time. As always we appreciate your family’s loyalty even in these trying times.” More bowing, and then Noctis blew out a long, tired breath once he was finally out of the door.

At his side, Ignis smirked. “Well, that could have gone worse I suppose.”

Please tell me that was the last meeting for the day?”

“Sorry.” Green eyes fell on him at last, softening around the edges just as they met his deep blue gaze. “We have a full day by the looks of things.”

It was at that moment, as Noctis let out a dramatic groan and sank down against the desk, that Gladio chose to open the door. Grinning, he exchanged a knowing look with Ignis. “Rough day at the office, huh?”

He earned a grunt in response from between Noct’s folded arms. Ignis merely shrugged. “It takes some getting used to. Certainly nothing as exciting as waving around wooden sticks or running in place.”

“You got me there.” Chuckling, he withdrew the sheet of paper Iris had given him that morning and handed it to the older man. “My sis said you asked her for some background on this ‘Izunia’ character. Looks like there wasn’t much, but….”

“Ah, yes. Thank you.” Ignis took the paper, unfolded and scanned it quickly, then slipped it into his shirt pocket. “A suspicious name I’ve heard associated with the Nifelheim family of late. I would appreciate if you and the others could keep an ear out, as well.”

Gladio nodded, his gaze once again falling sympathetically on Noctis at his desk. “You two hang in there. Especially you, Princess.” His friend shot him a thumbs up, and Ignis stroked his fingers over his shoulder in pity.

As soon as Gladio was out the door, Dustin was already poking his head inside. “Your ten o’clock is here, shall I send him in?”

“No.”

“Yes.” Ignis raised an eyebrow at Noct, tightened his hand on his shoulder to pry him up in the the seat. Satisfied, he nodded again to Dustin. “Yes, send him in.”

 

It was late afternoon by the time Noct was finally following Ignis out of the building and down the long steps to freedom. His back ached, his legs felt stiff after a full day of sitting through meeting after meeting, and he relished the idea of a long, hot shower and some video games to take his mind off work. Turning toward the Regalia parked across the street, he stretched his arms up over his head and groaned with each satisfying pop along his spine.

“Y’know,” he started, catching Ignis’ attention as the brunette fished his keys out of his jacket pocket. “I never imagined being the boss of a yakuza family could be so boring.”

There was a chuckle, then Ignis was holding open the passenger door for Noctis to slide inside. “I suppose it isn’t all excitement all the time, no. Your father was more of a businessman than a fighter.” He closed the door, and Noct waited for him to make his way around to the driver’s side before letting out a sigh.

“I’m not exactly either of those,” he shrugged. The leather of the seat beneath him was cold, as cold as the early winter air outside, but it was almost a relief. He was finding it difficult to keep his eyes open.

Ignis set the key in the ignition, but didn’t yet start the car. Turning to face Noct, he favored him with an indulgent smile and reached across the space between them to brush his gloved fingertips over his cheek. “If it’s any consolation, I think you did quite well for your first day.”

“Iggy….” Noctis smiled, leaning into the touch as his features softened, relaxed. “I guess I owe you a ‘thank you.’ I couldn’t have handled it without you.”

For a moment, Ignis wasn’t sure how to respond. So long as doing his job meant standing by Noctis’ side -- whether through battle or business -- he hardly felt he needed to be thanked. It was second nature, after all, and he did it with pleasure.

He almost said as much, but Noct was still staring up at him with those gentle, loving eyes, his skin warm against his palm through the leather, and Ignis could no longer form the words to reply. Instead, he leaned forward to close the distance between them in the vehicle, and (with a quick check that they were alone for the moment) tilted Noct’s face up just as their lips met. The act had become so familiar, so natural that Noctis fell into the kiss without hesitation. His hand found the collar of Ignis’ shirt, and he unconsciously drew him closer by it as their mouths moved together.

On the dash, Iggy’s phone suddenly vibrated to life. Noct jumped and, as if suddenly remembering they were still sitting outside of the Citadel, quickly pulled away from Ignis. There was a faint blush lingering on his cheeks as he cast him a shy smile. “Work?”

Ignis sighed and stroked his thumb over the young oyabun’s bottom lip. “Sorry,” he said, mirroring his expression before snatching his phone off the dashboard. Glancing at the screen, he noticed the incoming number was blocked, and so answered with caution when he picked up on the fifth ring.

“Yes?”

“Well, hey there, handsome. Long time, no chat.”

Ignis frowned, glanced at Noct with an expression somewhere between confused and alarmed. He didn’t recognize the woman’s voice, but she spoke with a familiarity that told him him he should remember her. “Who is this?” he asked sharply.

On the other end there was an amused chuckle. “Now I’m just insulted. Thought I would’ve left more of an impression, but I suppose you did seem pretty distracted that night.” The smirk dripping off the end of her words conjured up an image in Ignis’ memory; shadows in a dark room, silver hair, feral eyes. His brows furrowed in sudden realization.

“Highwind,” he said, and Noctis tensed in the seat next to him. “How did you get this number?”

More amusement in the woman’s deep voice. “Let’s just say I’m good at my job. As are you, apparently. Y’know, Gralea’s been a real mess since that little ‘incident’ at Cartanica. Going right for Verstael, that took guts.” A pause, and Ignis could hear her grin. “That was you, wasn’t it?”  

He let his silence answer in his stead. Across from him, Noctis was mouthing what is it? with a mildly panicked expression on his face. Ignis managed a small smile and stroked his lips again.

On the phone, Aranea continued. “I thought as much. I was right about you, you really are a piece of work. I respect that.”

“What do you want, Highwind?”

“To help. Word on the street is, you and your boys are looking for Ardyn.” At the name, Ignis clutched his fingers tighter around the phone against his ear. How that information had gotten around so quickly he didn’t know -- either she was better at her job than she was letting on, or….

She continued, cutting off his train of thought. “I have some information you might find useful. But not over the phone.”

“Where do I need to meet you?”

“Are you always so trusting, or am I just special?” Again, she chuckled. “There’s a place downtown called Ravatogh. Been going there ever since your inconsiderate friends busted up my other favorite joint. Anyway, it’s neutral territory, and the Niffs won’t track me there. Can’t be too careful these days.”

Ignis considered the proposition. There was certainly the risk of a setup, but as Aranea had said before she was a mercenary for hire and owed the Niffs no loyalty beyond her paycheck. If she was willing to hand over Ardyn, Ignis supposed he could make some allowances in her favor. “Fine. I can be there in a couple of hours,” he announced into the phone, and watched as Noct’s face fell.

“Great,” came Aranea’s deadpan reply. Ignis was about to cut the line when her tone suddenly shifted, turning playful, sly. “By the way, who’s the cutie in the car with you?”

He bolted upright in his seat. A prickling sensation arched up the length of his spine, and he flicked his dark gaze around at the scenery beyond the Regalia’s windows. The street and sidewalk were empty, nothing but clipped bushes and a few trees lining edge of the park to his left; that left the Citadel, but there was no way Highwind could have gotten into….

Relax , gorgeous. I told you, I’m good at what I do. Maybe you should bring him along, though, he would make a good cover. It is a nightclub, after all.”

The line went dead. Ignis slowly lowered his phone to his lap, eyes still scanning the front of the Citadel over Noctis’ shoulder, momentarily ignoring the young oyabun’s pleading gaze.

“Iggy, what’s going on? What did she say?”

He thought he saw a shadow moving along the edge of the building near the third floor -- but then the sun shifted and the image disappeared as quickly as a mirage. With a sigh, Ignis turned his attention back to Noct in the seat next to him, frowning as deep blue eyes searched his face. “How would you feel about going out tonight? To a club in the city?”

If he’d expected Noctis to do anything other than perk up immediately, his eyes going wide and lips breaking into an excited grin, he was sorely disappointed. “ Really?! You’re serious?” the nineteen-year old said as he practically jumped into his lap. “We have got to tell Prompto, he’ll be pissed if I go dancing without him!”

Ignis was about to chide him -- this was business, not a party after all -- but a thought occurred to him before he could speak. Perhaps a security detail wouldn’t be a bad idea. “Very well. Tell him to come prepared, though, he’ll be working tonight. I’ll give Gladio a call, as well, and then -- “

“Wait, when you are going to change?”

Change ?” Ignis repeated, raising an eyebrow.

“Uh, yeah? You’re not planning to go to a nightclub in that, are you?” When he didn’t reply, Noctis grinned and leaned up to press another kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Don’t worry. Let me handle everything this time.”

 

-------

 

By the time the Regalia pulled up to the crowded block in front of Club Ravatogh, Gladio was already waiting for them against the side of the building. At first Noctis almost hadn’t recognized him; in place of his usual training sweats or the dark suit he often saw him in, Gladio had gone out of his way to blend in that evening. His shirt was a thin, mesh-like black fabric that clung to the curves of his muscular chest and abs, leaving little to the imagination about the body or the ink he rocked underneath. The collar of it was unbuttoned in an open V to reveal the silver chain he was wearing around his neck. His outfit ended in stylish black slacks and a pair of dark grey dress shoes, which had been polished and were gleaming under the street light.

It was an impressive look, and suddenly Noctis felt his cheeks growing warm as they approached. “I think we underdressed,” he commented when Gladio finally glanced up and noticed them. Amber eyes took them in -- Noct in a loose-fitting black button-up and black pants that hung off his thighs, only to tighten gradually down to his ankles above white high-tops; Ignis in a starch white-and-grey pinstripe collared shirt tucked into dark jeans, a black belt adorned with a skull-shaped buckle bringing the outfit together. He, too, was wearing a thin necklace, a skull pendant, one he’d borrowed from Noct’s surprisingly diverse collection.

“Nah,” Gladio grinned, and clapped a heavy hand on the young oyabun’s shoulder. “You guys look fine. Especially you, Iggy. Nice to see you out of that suit for a change and ready for a little fun.”

“We’re here on business,” he corrected sharply, adjusting his glasses to hide any effects the compliment may have had on him. “Please don’t forget that.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He slung a thick arm around Ignis’ shoulders and turned toward the front entrance. “Let’s get this over with then.”

Noctis gestured for them to wait. He was typing something rapidly into his phone. “Just a sec, Prompto says he’s almost here.”

Prompto?! ” Gladio’s eyes suddenly went wide, his eyebrows nearly hitting his hairline as he came to a shuddering stop. “You guys invited him, too?”

“Problem?” Ignis carefully lifted Gladio’s arm up and off of his shoulders and brushed out the wrinkles he’s left behind on his shirt. “I realize you two don’t exactly get along, but he is Noctis’ friend and I’ll ask you to keep things civil on the job.”

With a harsh clack of teeth on teeth, Gladio snapped his jaw shut. He swallowed, looked as if he wanted to say something, but in that moment a loud greeting from across the street caught their attention. “ Hey, guys! ” Prompto was calling, his mouth opened wide in a cheery smile as he waved to catch their attention.

Even across the distance Noctis could tell his friend had put extra effort into his appearance that night, too. His bright yellow hair had been styled more casually than usually, straightened out and hanging mostly off to one side of his face. His arms were bare despite the cool air, his only top a deep red tank that ended at an angle around his hips. Under those, a pair of loose grey pants that cut off just below the knee, and wide black sneakers tied with silver laces. Noctis had never seen him without the colorful bands he always wore around both wrists, but that night he’d exchanged them for an array of black straps adorned with studs and loops that matched the belt he had hung around his hips.

The cars eventually passed, and he hurried across the street to meet them. “Sorry I’m late, the bus...was…” Prompto trailed off, his bright blue eyes settling on the form of Gladio standing behind the other two. His gaze lingered, flashed over his face and down to his chest, and whatever he’d been saying turned into a string of incoherent mumbles.   

Noct pretended not to notice. He caught Prompto by the arm and tugged him against his side. “Never thought you could clean up so nice,” he grinned, ruffling a hand through his blond locks and finally snapping him out of his trance. Prompto laughed and batted his friend’s hand away.

“Dude, watch the hair!” Ducking out of reach, he produced a comb from one of the deep pockets of his pants and ran it through the strands now popping up at odd angles around his face. As he did, he ran an appreciative look over Noct’s own outfit, then Ignis’ as well, and his smile returned. “You guys look awesome, though. Like, Iggy looks a lot less scary than usual. It’s kinda hot.”

A scoff, then Ignis was turning toward the door. “ Business ,” he repeated, but Noct smirked as he fell into place behind him. Prompto was just starting off after Noctis when a warm hand brushed over his back.

“And how about me?”

Gladio was staring down at him, full lips set in a smile that he was gradually getting to know well. It was the same one he’d seen nearly two dozen times on his phone screen ever since Gladio had sent him that video…. Swallowing, the blonde held his amber gaze for a half-moment before realizing he was waiting for an answer. “You look...really nice,” he finished dumbly, and felt his cheeks begin to burn.

But the bodyguard seemed satisfied with this answer. He left his hand on Prompto’s back as they headed together towards the door. “Was just thinkin’ the same about you, chocobo.”

It was all Prompto could do not to visibly shudder; he leaned back a little into the touch, kept his gaze focused ahead of him to where Ignis and Noct are talking to a man with a clipboard at the door.

“Scientia, Ignis,” the man was repeating, looking incredulous as two more unfamiliar faces joined the pair standing before him. “Huh. Yeah, you guys are on the list. I guess that means you can go on in.”

The man moved to get the door for them, and Prompto’s mouth dropped, clearly impressed. “Wow, Iggy! I had no idea you were famous!”

The brunette cocked an eyebrow as the four stepped through the entrance. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, usually you gotta wait hours to get into a place like this, but you were on the VIP List! It’s pretty much reserved for celebrities and people who know people …. Y’know?”

He let out a sigh. No doubt Aranea was responsible for that, but so long as it got them inside sooner rather than later he supposed he had no complaints. His gut was tight, nerves and suspicions tensing his body, and he wanted to conclude his business and get Noct back to the safety of his apartment as quickly as possible.

Noctis, however, seemed to be of an entirely different opinion. As they opened the main doors and stepped into the club proper, the waves of music and bass came crashing down around them, and Noct bounded ahead. The atmosphere of the room was pure energy -- flashing lights against black walls, bodies moving in organic patterns together around the dance floor, and a crowded bar lining the back wall of the half-floor above. Hanging down from the ceiling were massive red-and-black coiling fixtures, not unlike fiery branches, that were glowing with a strange red light. It gave the club an overall ethereal feeling, no doubt intended to ignite the mind and the body alike.

Near the bar, there were stairs leading up to what appeared to be a second floor, but Ignis couldn’t see beyond the heavy red curtains at the top of the steps to tell what lay beyond.

“Iggy! Come on, we’re getting drinks!” Noctis was shouting at him over the din of the music and the crowd, his voice still small as it reached his ears. He frowned, too far now to reply, and thus had no choice but to follow the younger man up the half-stairs (glowing with red and white lights) to where Gladio and Prompto were already placing orders at the bar.

“Must I remind you again that we’re here on -- “

“Business, we know.” Gladio smirked as he shoved a shot glass into Ignis’ fist. It was cool, filled with clear liquid that smelled at once sweet and dangerous. “This is called ‘blending in,’ it’s something the rest of us do when we’re in public and don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. You should try it sometime.”

Green eyes narrowed. “I thought that’s what the ridiculous clothing was for. No offense, Noct.”

“None taken. Cheers!” Noct grinned and took a gulp of his soda. The two younger members were sharing a single barstool, Prompto half standing to make more room for his friend, but they looked equally excited as they scanned around the room. Gladio, too, was nursing a beer, his gaze moving from the bottle in his hand to the dance floor, then occasionally at Prompto before he realized Ignis was watching him.

“So what now?” Prompto asked, oblivious to the attention. Like Noctis, he was holding a soft drink and tapping his fingers against the glass in time to the music. “What kind of ‘business’ are we up to, anyway?”

Ignis knocked back the shot Gladio had handed him, letting it burn it’s way down his throat before setting the empty glass into the bar counter. “The subtle kind. I’m waiting for contact from an important Niff defector, who claims she has some information that may help us.” In front of him, Prompto’s eyes went round.

“That sounds really dangerous,” he squeaked, but Gladio let out a chuckle.

“That’s why we’re here. If things go south, we get Noct to safety, right?”

“Something like that, yes.” Ignis glanced down as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. Though he hadn’t noticed it vibrate over the thrumming bass, there was a message notification on his front screen. / I’m upstairs. Red Lounge. Come alone.

Just as he’d feared. With a sigh, he turned and put his hand on Noct’s shoulder, leaning in close so that he could be heard over the music. “I’ve got to go to the second floor. Will you be alright alone?”

Blue eyes met his and Noct smiled. “I won’t be alone. I’ll be fine.” He gestured to Prompto and Gladio next to him. Then, without a moment’s hesitation and before Ignis could pull away, he slid a hand up to his cheek and leaned in for a chaste -- but very public -- kiss. “Be careful.”

Ignis’ breath was stuck somewhere in his throat. He could feel the others’ eyes on them, Gladio’s probably wide and blown with shock, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from Noctis’ lips. Despite himself, the corners of his own mouth twitched up, and he nodded. “Of course.”

And then he was turning away, suddenly wishing he hadn’t had that drink, or perhaps that he’d had several more.

Next to Noct, Prompto was grinning into his soda, while Gladio was still trying to pick his jaw up off of the counter. The oyabun faced both of them with a secret smile of his own. “What?” he smirked, and leaned back against the bar.

 

Ignis was skilled at a good deal of things; fighting, killing, cooking, just to name a few. Masking his emotions was another trick he’d learned over the years, and he was glad for it now as, climbing the stairs toward the heavy red curtain of the second floor, he pushed down the heat on his cheeks and switched his focus. Right now, talking to Highwind was his top priority -- dealing with the others’ reactions to his and Noct’s somewhat unconventional relationship could wait.

He pushed the curtain aside with a gloved hand. Beyond was a hallway, dimly lit and lined with evenly spaced doors of different colors. As he stepped into the corridor and past the first door, he noticed a placard etched with gold and black. “ Yellow Lounge, ” it read, which made sense as the door itself was painted in a light honey color. The next was green, and after that teal, orange, blue, so on and so on until finally, at the very end of the hall, he found the room he was looking for. Ignis double checked the message on his phone, then knocked once before stepping forward into the Red Lounge.

There was Aranea, her arms hanging across the back of a red satin chaise, her black dress open in a high slit to reveal one long, pale leg. She barely acknowledged Ignis as he walked into the room and closed the door behind himself. Her attention was focused instead on in the girl in her lap -- a young, slender woman, as dark as Aranea was light, dressed in little more than a thong draped in the back with a black veil. Her full lips were moving over the other’s throat, her breasts bared and pressing against her chest. Pale yellow-green eyes flicked up at the audience, and Aranea grinned.

“Took your time, didn’t you.”

In her lap, the young woman shifted, started to turn back to see who she was talking to, but Highwind squeezed a hand over her breast to recapture her attention. She moaned softly, went back to kissing way over the other woman’s neck.

Ignis cleared his throat, shifted almost awkwardly on his feet. “I was under the impression this was to be a private meeting.”

“Come on,” Aranea smirked, purposefully stroking her fingers over supple flesh once more. “Don’t tell me you never mix business with pleasure?”

There was no reply to that.

Aranea released a dramatic sigh. There was something in her hand -- a small, black packet perhaps, but Ignis couldn’t get a good look --  that she handed to the girl, then was patting her hip and gesturing to the door. “Sorry, sweetie. You know how work is.” The woman answered her with a silent pout, then got to her bare feet and padded toward the door, shooting Ignis a dark look on her way out. He watched her leave, then turned his frown on Highwind.

“That was unprofessional.”

She laughed into the back of her hand, sat up on the chaise and reached for a glass bottle the color of her eyes. “You seriously weren’t affected by that at all, were you? I usually love making men squirm, but you….” Lips still curled in a smirk, she poured a little of the pale golden liquid into a pair of glasses and pushed one across the small table in front of her. There was a chair there, the same red as the half-sofa she was sitting on, and Ignis cautiously took the offered seat and the drink that came with it.

Highwind watched him closely. “Speaking of which, where’s that pretty boyfriend of yours?”

He hoped the glass hid the surprise on his face. “You told me to come alone,” he answered firmly.

“Ah, bad habit. I wanted to get a better look at him, you know. He was cute, if a bit young for you.”

“Enough, Highwind.” Green eyes flashed, hard above flushed cheeks, a strong contrast to the scheme of the walls and furniture around him. “You’re stalling. You know why I’m here, and it isn’t for games.”

“Okay, okay, sheesh,” she said, grinning again, and held up her free hand in defeat. The other held her glass, and was slowly swirling the contents as she watched him. “Information, right? About Ardyn Izunia .” The name rolled off her tongue in such a way that Ignis half-expected her to gag on the aftertaste. “Well. What to do wanna know, handsome?”

 

Prompto took another sip of his drink, watching the people out on the dance floor in longing. He’d been tapping his foot on the base of the stool until Noct had shooed him off, and now was leaning back against the counter between his friend and Gladio, sighing every so often out of exaggerated boredom.

To his left, Gladio snorted. “Finally, someone who hates babysitting duty more than me.”

This earned him a scowl from Noct. “You’re not babysitters, you’re bodyguards .”

“Same difference.” The big guy was already on his third drink, having switched from beer to a deep whisky-cola concoction that had made the hair on the back of Prompto’s neck stand on end from the smell alone. He flashed the oyabun a grin. “Although I guess you can’t say the same about Ignis anymore.”

“Well,” Noct shrugged. “He’s special.”

“Yeah, I gathered that much.” He reached out across Prompto between them to nudge Noct’s shoulder. “When were you planning on clueing us in?”

Again, the nineteen-year old shrugged. “Seemed like a need-to-know basis kinda thing. And…you didn’t need to know.”

Gladio opened his mouth to retort, but they were both suddenly cut off as Prompto jumped into the air and -- quite literally -- squealed. “Oh. Em. Gee! It’s my favorite song!” he explained, turning to tug at the loose sleeve of Noct’s shirt. “Come on, come dance with me!”

“What?” he laughed, swatting his hand away. “Pass. I’m gonna wait for Ignis to get back.” Blue eyes lowered as Prompto affected a pout, and Noct laughed again. “Just go, knock yourself out. Have some fun already.”

Prompto frowned nervously as he drained the contents of his glass. “Are you sure? But I’m not supposed to leave you….”

“I’m fine ,” Noct said, giving him a shove away from the bar. “Hurry, before Ignis catches you.”

Smiling his appreciation, he bounced off to the dance floor alone, leaving Noctis and Gladio behind and staring after him for entirely different reasons. Noct was the first to turn away, signaling for the bartender to bring him another soft drink. “So,” he said, trying to fill the silence. He hadn’t spent much time alone with Gladio since they were both much younger, and between the time gap and Gladio’s work, they hadn’t had much chance to talk one-on-one in a long time. Especially in recent weeks. “I guess you’ve all been pretty busy, huh? How’s your dad doing?”

It took longer than he expected for Gladio to answer. When he finally did, he sounded distant, distracted. “Good, good,” was all he said, and Noct glanced over at him. That hard amber gaze was still locked on the space where Prompto has disappeared into the crowd of moving bodies. He was holding his glass to his lips, but very clearly wasn’t actually drinking.

A smirk began to form in the corner of the oyabun’s mouth. “Cool. And Iris? Is she good, too?”

“Uh-huh. Never better.”

Thought so. “I see. And...Prompto? How’s he?”

“Oh he’s great, he -- huh? Wait, what?” Gladio turned to face him all of a sudden, eyebrow cocked and wearing a frown now that he’d finally rejoined the conversation. “What’s the big idea?”

Noct chuckled, his face splitting into a wide grin. “You should go dance with him,” he said simply, and waved his hand toward the center of the large room.

What? Why would you think I -- ?” But Noct was giving him one of those shiteating grins of his, and Gladio could tell there was no lying his way out of this one. The dark-haired bodyguard huffed out a breath as he looked down into his glass. “Iggy would kill me.”

“I won’t tell him.” Noct reached out, put a hand on his shoulder, and flashed an encouraging smile instead. “What’s one song, right? It’ll be fine. I’d rather sit here alone than next to your mopey ass, anyway.”

“Little princess,” Gladio grinned, shooting a mock punch to his thigh. “Fine, but just one song. And...thanks. Boss.”

Noct watched as his bodyguard tipped back the contents of his liquid courage, got to his feet, and followed after Prompto into the crowd.

That left Noctis sitting at the bar, all by himself. Yet instead of feeling sorry for himself, he took the opportunity to smile into his empty glass and believe that maybe, despite everything that had gone so horribly wrong over the last few weeks, things were finally starting to look up for them all.

Several minutes passed. The bartender still hadn’t come back yet with his new drink, and Noct had lost sight of Prompto and Gladio in the dark shadows of the dance floor, even with his friend’s bright yellow hair. He was staring into the crowd, searching carefully for the two of them when a deep, gentle voice at his side suddenly caught his attention.

“What is a lovely creature like you doing all alone in a place like this?”

He turned quickly to face the source of the question, and was taken aback at the sight that greeted him. A man dressed in a dark grey, vintage three-piece, complete with a gold chain at the middle and a deep purple cravat tucked into the collar of the shirt, was smiling down at him fondly. He had brown hair that fell in waves around his shoulders, adorned with an old-fashioned fedora and a twinkle in his yellow-gold eyes. Handsome, he supposed, in his own way, but something about the familiarity in his expression immediately put Noct on edge.

“Uh, I’m actually not alone,” he stated flatly, and made to turn away in the hopes that ignoring the older man would shake his interest.

It did not. “Ah, that is just my luck. Here I was, hoping you would allow me to buy you a drink.” He swept his fingers in the direction of Noctis’ empty glass, his smile never fading.

What a pain in the ass. With a groan, Noct forced out a polite No, thank you , before getting to his feet. If this creep couldn’t take a hint, he would just have to find somewhere else to sit.

But that voice rumbled in a soft chuckle, and his next words brought the young oyabun to a shuddering halt. “Come now, Noctis. Spare a moment for a lonely old man, wouldn’t you?”

Blue eyes widened in shock. It took a moment for Noct to find his words, and by the time he did he realized he’d already lowered himself back onto his seat. “How?” he started, then shook his head to focus his thoughts. “How do you know me? Who are you?”

Another sweeping wave of those articulate hands, and the man was smiling again. “Who I am is of little consequence, but you are welcome to call me Ardyn, if you like.” Noct didn’t suppose he quite liked anything about this situation, but for now the man seemed harmless, even if he was pulling his own stool a little closer than the younger man considered comfortable. He winked as he continued. “I know a lot about you, oyabun , but don’t be alarmed. I’m not here to blow your cover. I’m a man who deals in information, you see. And I’ve come to offer you some tales that you may find...interesting.”

Noct’s mouth was going dry. With a quick glance to the dance floor -- still no sign of his friends -- he turned back and swallowed down the fear that had lodged in his throat. What would Iggy do in this kind of situation? Play it cool, but keep his distance? Perhaps see what the man had to say? “Information?” Noct repeated. “Like what?”

Was it his imagination, or had the man’s eyes just glinted? “For starters,” Ardyn said, rolling his words off his tongue as if he were reciting the lines of a performance. “I can tell you who is responsible for your father’s death.”

Shit. There was no hiding the way his skin has suddenly flushed, or the emotions now playing in shades of red and shadow across his face. His knuckles went white around his empty glass as he struggled for composure and willed Ignis to please hurry! Yet despite the way his heart had begun to pound in his chest, he was neither able nor willing to walk away now. Not until he heard the full story. “Go on,” he half-growled, and was rewarded with a grin.

“It is quite a long story. How about that drink?” Without waiting for a response, Ardyn gestured to the bartender several rows down. At once, two glasses were set in front of them, and then they were being filled with a cool-looking liquid that glowed in the red-purple of the overhead lights. Throat undeniably parched, Noctis accepted the drink (no one had bothered to check his ID, after all) and took a hesitant sip. It was sweet yet smooth, and flowed over his tongue and throat like a remedy. Almost surprised, Noct took another sip, and another.

Across from him, Ardyn was smiling, evidently pleased. He brought his own drink to his lips and knocked it back in a single, practiced move. “Well, then. Tell me, Noctis, do you know a man by the name of Iedolas Aldercapt?”

The young oyabun nodded cautiously. “Of course. He’s the boss of the Nifilheim family. I’ve heard he’s old and senile, but….”

“Yes, he is quite the fool, to be honest. I suppose he is your organization’s main suspect at the moment, then?”

Noct swallowed, took another sip of his drink. Maybe it was merely psychological, but he felt like the light buzz of alcohol was helping to calm his nerves. “Yeah. Pretty much all of the Niffs are, but he’s at the top of the list.” When Ardyn’s smile widened, Noct narrowed his eyes. “Are you gonna tell me he shouldn’t be?”

“He hated your father,” the man started with an exaggerated shrug. “And like many in this city, he stood to profit greatly from Regis’ murder. But,” -- here he trailed off for a moment, peering into his empty glass and frowning for effect -- “No, he isn’t the one you want.”

“Who then?!” Noctis curled his fingers into his palm and brought his fist down on the bar counter. The noise was drowned out by the music, no one turned to spare him a passing glance.

All the while, Ardyn was growing bolder, smiling as he leaned further in. “Perhaps you wouldn’t think it to look at me,” he said, pinching a fold in the fabric of Noct’s shirt and rubbing it idly between his fingers. “But i knew your father well. We were friends once, a long time ago, long before you were even a spark in his loving eyes. We fell out of touch, though -- his fault not mine -- and it took me many years before I could face him again.” His voice was rougher than before, though his smile was still there, twitching at the corners of his mouth. “ Ahh, I had truly longed for that moment, you know. But to see him for what he’d become, aged and hobbling along with that cane of his, it was...disappointing, to say the least.”

Noctis couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear beyond the rasp of Ardyn’s words and the blood pounding in his own ears. His fist was shaking on the counter. “What are you saying?” he hissed through his teeth, and for the first time Ardyn’s expression changed. Darkened. As he leaned forward, the lights caught his hair in a fiery glow, and his eyes shone out of deep shadows.

“He was admittedly quite shocked to see me, as well. Which I suppose is only fair, since the last time we met he put a bullet in my head.”

Panic gripped Noct’s heart like an icy hand. He wasn’t supposed to be hearing this, wouldn’t listen anymore. All he wanted was to get far away from this man and his wicked smile, to find Ignis and his friends and get home. But when he got to his feet, the world chose that moment to shift sideways and send him spiraling on his heels and down toward a new center of gravity.

Ardyn caught him before he could hit the floor. He’d been waiting, ready, and his arm felt like a vice around Noct’s waist. “What….have you done…?” he choked out. His voice sounded like gravel as it grated through his throat, which was tight enough to make even breathing suddenly difficult.

But his panic hardly phased the older man above him, who tutted softly as if admonishing a child. “Dear Noct,” he crooned. “You’re just as blind in your trust as your father was. Did he never teach you not to accept candy from strangers?”

The drink. Dammit, what in seven hells had he given him?! But it hadn’t been Ardyn that had poured the drink, had it? Vision going fuzzy around the edges, Noctis cast his gaze past the older man’s shoulder, up to the counter where the bartender was leaning over and looking at him with a bored expression. Ardyn followed his line of sight and smiled as he addressed the man.

“Drautos, my friend here seems to have had a little too much to drink. Would you be a dear and call us a taxi, please?”

The bartender’s mouth twisted in a tight grin. “Sure thing, sir.” As he vanished behind the counter and out of Noct’s view, Ardyn made his move. With surprising strength he hoisted Noct up and onto his feet, both of which felt like dead weights beneath him, and began to lead him in a slow stumble toward the exits. Noct tried to scream, tried to call out for his friends or for Ignis, but his mouth wasn’t working any better than the rest of his body. Even his mind was growing hazy, heavy, slow.

Ardyn’s hand on his lower back became a dull point of pressure, and as they passed out of the red doors and into the cold night air, Noctis’ vision went completely black.



Chapter Text

 

Without the pulsing red mood lighting or the thrumming bass of the dance music, Club Ravatogh appeared less a nightclub and more the chaotic aftermath of a teenager’s weekend house party.

Not that Prompto would know what those were like. He’d spent his teen years living under too many different roofs, each home somehow even stricter than the last. Yet even if he’d gotten the chance to go wild, to drink and dance and date like a normal kid, he’d never really had any friends he could have dragged along.

That was probably why Noctis meant so much to him. More than just his best friend, Noct had been his first friend, the first person to see past the tattered boots and lopsided smile and make him feel like he was worth something .

Well, perhaps had been , anyway. Now, though….

He balled his fists atop his knees and bit back the tears that threatened to spill forth at any moment. Gladio was standing behind him, his body tense, utterly silent, as they both listened to Cor rip Ignis to shreds.

Unbelievable! ” the Lion shouted as he slammed his fist down onto the bar counter hard enough to rock the handful of empty glasses strewn along its length. “This is a nightmare! A disaster! Fuck!

Prompto swallowed the bile creeping up his throat. Across from Cor, Ignis was standing stock still, his eyes downcast and unreadable behind his glasses. Every so often, his gloved hand twitched at his side right above the handle of his sheathed dagger, the only sign he was still even in the room with the rest of them.

Cor continued in a rage. “How many times was it again,Scientia? That you begged me to leave Noctis in your care, swore to me that we could trust you to watch over him?” Ignis flinched almost imperceptibly at the accusation, but Prompto caught it, and so did their boss. “And then this happens. Tell me, which of us is the bigger fool, hm? You for thinking you were capable of protecting him, or me for putting the boss’ kid in your useless hands?”

“Enough.” For the first time since Cor had arrived at the club, less than twenty minutes after Noctis had been discovered missing from the bar, Gladio raised his voice. The sudden rumble of it sent a tremor through Prompto’s body, and he hung his head quickly so none of them could read his shame. “None of this was Ignis’ fault. He brought us tonight because he knew he’d have to leave Noct’s side and -- “

Cor thrust his finger toward Gladio and narrowed his eyes. “You’ll get your turn, Amicitia.” As Gladio fell back into an uncomfortable silence, Prompto once again felt a surge of guilt wash over him. All of this was his fault, after all. Noctis was gone because he couldn’t do his job right, couldn’t do anything right. Because instead of working he’d been --

“Explain it to me, please,” came the sound of Cor’s growling voice, slicing through Prompto’s panicked thoughts. “What in seven hells could have been so important that you would risk bringing the underage boss of the Caelum family to a place like this, much less leave him alone at a bar?”

Green eyes, far colder and more distant than he’d seen them before, flashed up. “Aranea Highwind,” Ignis answered, and his words dripped like venom from his lips. “She knew this would happen. It was a trap.”

“Huh, imagine that. An enemy mercenary who doesn’t always do nice things.” Cor turned his attention briefly to a Glaive as he saluted and delivered his report -- the club was now empty of patrons, every inch of the place had been thoroughly searched, nothing and no one had turned up -- then waved him away with a frustrated sigh. “Fuck,” he swore again. “Well, if Highwind was here, she isn’t now. Guess that makes this the second time you’ve let her escape, isn’t that right?”

“And the last.”

“Assuming you get another chance.” Cor moved, edging closer to Ignis despite the violent energy visibly surging just beneath his skin. Most men would be wise to fear the Reaper even under far calmer circumstances, but Prompto had heard enough about Cor Leonis and his reputation. There was a reason, he supposed, they called him “the Immortal.”

“Go on, Scientia,” the older man was half-snarling, baring his teeth. “Share with the rest of the class what was so gods damned important that you were willing to give up Noctis in exchange.”

Not fair, that’s not fair! Prompto wanted to cry, but his voice was lodged too far down his throat to speak. He could only watch in a mixture of fear and humiliation as Ignis’ mouth twitched and his shoulders drooped, as those sharp green eyes stared into nothingness and he spoke with a voice terribly strained.

“...She gave me Ardyn.”

 

---------

 

An hour earlier….

 

The drink was a welcome chill as it filled his throat, and he swallowed it down along with the rest of his nerves. Across from him, Aranea was smiling, patient, her own glass perched between slender, powerful fingers as she watched him partake. “Altissian,” she said once he’d drained the glass, and her voice was like thick wine. “No one does tonic quite like them anymore. They say it’s an ancient tradition, passed down from the stewards of the first ships to sail to port there over a thousand -- “

“Highwind, I asked you a very direct question.” Ignis set his glass onto the table between him and the chaise where Aranea sat, reclined, one long, pale leg very purposefully crossed to show off the slit running dangerously high up the length of her dress. No doubt it was meant to be a distraction, one that lesser men -- and women -- would have likely fallen for at once. Unfortunately for her. Ignis had eyes elsewhere.

“You’re going to have to forgive me,” she said, smirking and leaning back in her seat. “Seems I forgot already. Refresh my memory?”

A soft huff of breath, and Ignis cleared his throat in an attempt to mask his annoyance. “You told me Ardyn joined with Nifelheim not long after you. Yet Verstael made it sound like he’s someone of great importance within the family, far more than a mere thug or hired merc. No offense.” The glint in his eye let Highwind know he did, in fact, intent to offend.

Her response was a tight smile. “Well, not all of us care to suck up to the boss quite like him. It was pretty impressive, actually, how fast he clawed his way to the top. It was almost like he enjoyed stepping on everyone in his way, ratting out the so-called ‘unloyals’ in an insane witch hunt.” For a moment her steel-gold gaze dropped to the floor, her body trembled under a genuine shudder. “Gralea was a bloodbath long before you and your little friends showed up to slit throats, you know.”

Well that was certainly... interesting information. None of their intel had suggested unrest within Niff territory, so if what Highwind was saying was true, it would mean Aldercapt himself had supported the move. Had kept it hidden.

“And now?” he said, reaching up to adjust his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose.

Aranea shrugged. “He’s basically made himself out to be the Emperor’s right hand,” she said, treating Aldercapt’s self-fashioned title with far more sarcasm than was usually allowed in Niff territory. “In fact, I’ve heard the old man refuses to meet with anyone else these days. No one’s allowed up in his keep but Ardyn, been that way for a month, maybe more.”

Interesting indeed. Perhaps more disturbing even than the image of Iedolas Aldercapt so obviously giving himself over like a puppet to his master, was the fact that no one, not even Monica or the Glaives, had caught wind of this. How could a man like Ardyn weasel his way right into the heart of Nifelheim without triggering at least a few alarms?

“What exactly does Ardyn want?”

This time when Aranea brought her glass to the dark red of her lips, Ignis saw her mask go back on along with it. The shift was subtle, but he knew exactly how to read the signs -- her shoulders stiffened, her eyes brightened and her smile became more automatic. The smile of a liar.

“I’m sorry, but that kind of information is way above my paygrade.” She ignored the icy look Ignis was giving her and twirled her glass, now empty, between her fingers. “All I’ve heard are rumors, y’know, that he’s after money, power, the usual bullshit. If you ask me, though,” and her voice dropped to an almost playful shady of husky. “My guess is he’s in it for the goods . Starscourge.”

Ignis raised an eyebrow, finding it hard to follow her train of thought. “You think he’s a user?”

Psh , well yeah,” she grinned. “No way a guy who dressed like that isn’t on some kinda drugs.”

Amidst her fit of laughter, Ignis felt his resolve slipping away. Either he needed to end this conversation, or he was going to end up slicing this infernal woman to bits simply for wasting his time. Perhaps regretfully, his cell phone chose that moment to buzz to life in his shirt pocket. Excusing himself (Highwind didn’t seem to hear him anyway) he drew it out and checked the screen.

It was an incoming call from Gladio.

Ignis let out an audible sigh. He couldn’t have been gone long enough for them to be complaining about boredom yet, had he? The thick-headed bodyguard was just going to have to wait, Ignis decided, and slipped his phone back into his pocket to address Aranea once more.

He was almost surprised to see her silent again, watching him -- no, watching his pocket, the one to which he’d just returned his phone. At the sudden attention, she looked back up and flashed him a smile. “Anything important?”

“Not for the moment, no,” he answered, and narrowed his eyes at her across the table. “But I would ask you to keep this next answer short. Succinct. Where can I find Ardyn Izunia?”

“He….” Again, Aranea looked to his phone almost so quickly he thought it a trick of the light at first. “He’s never far.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” she frowned, her dark lips turning down beautifully in the corners as he took a moment to study Ignis’ face. Something about her expression was different from before, neither playful nor serious, more like...pity? “That he always sticks close to home.”

The answer was hardly what Ignis had expected or wanted to hear, but his frustration was redirected as his phone rang out in the room again . This time, he swiped the screen and greeted Gladio in a half-growl. “This had better be importa -- “

“Iggy, you’d better get down here. Now. It’s Noct, he’s….”

Whatever Gladio said was lost. At once, Ignis’ body was moving, his feet already carrying him swiftly to the door even as he cast his fierce, emerald gaze on his treacherous host. The Dragon was watching him, her mouth set in a deep frown. She may have said I’m sorry , but he could hardly hear her over the panic pounding in his ears. In that moment, he could have killed her, wanted to kill her if only doing so would undo whatever evil she’d helped to bring down upon them that night.

Noctis . That single thought had him turning away from Highwind without another word, and soon he was flying down the hallway and the stairs in the hopes that, whatever had happened, he wasn’t too late.

 

------------

 

Ignis forced his eyes open again. Before him, Cor was pacing like a caged lion between the counter and the half-wall that ran the length of the bar. Prompto and Gladio were on his other side; Ignis stared as if seeing them there for the first time. The blond was bent over on in his stool, hands shaking in his lap with his head hung low; the dark-haired bodyguard standing too rigid at attention at his back. Neither of them were making eye contact.

A growl built up in his throat as his blood began to boil anew.

Fortunately, Cor stepped back into the space between them, cutting off Ignis’ path of attack for now. “So. We’ve got a ghost and a riddle, neither of which amounts to an actual lead.” The Lion’s cold, grey eyes watched the emotion flicker over Ignis’ face for a moment, and then he was turning away from him to round on the other two instead. “Amicitia. Argentum. What the hell might your excuses be?”

“Sir?” Gladio’s voice was strained, but he was a far sight better than Prompto. The blond was fighting back the urge to scream under Cor’s penetrating gaze, certain the captain could already see right through him.

“You were supposed to be watching Noctis. Clearly you weren’t. Why not?”

This time, when Gladio shifted on his feet, Prompto felt his fingers brush purposefully across his back -- a request, a warning. The blonde’s eyes went wide. Oh, no .

“We were -- “

“Dancing!” Prompto cut in, his voice squeaking out of his tight throat. Gladio’s mouth snapped shut as Cor narrowed his eyes. “We were dancing. I-it was all my fault.”

Furious grey eyes flashed up at Gladio, and Prompto felt him nod in confirmation. Against the bar counter, Cor’s fist trembled with rage. “...Do I even need to say it?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. All three of you have done enough. Go home, let us clean up this mess.” He started to leave, waving a hand to round up the remaining Glaives in the room. “And don’t even think about going after him yourselves, you’ll only be in our way.”

The trio stared in sullen silence as Cor and the others disappeared through the exits on the far side of the club. In their wake, the large room felt cavernous, vacuous, devoid of the energy and excitement it had held less than an hour before. The club felt to Prompto like a funeral home.

But whose funeral was it going to be?

Ignis’ gaze fell on him. He could sense it, green emeralds burning a hole into the side of his face, and he shuddered with dread.

“Iggy,” came Gladio’s warning from above, the bodyguard’s voice as pleading as it was a threat.

The brunette took a looming step toward them. “ Dancing? ” he snarled, dark eyes burning behind the lenses of his glasses. “You were dancing ?”

More emotion bubbled up in Prompto’s chest, tight and stinging at the backs of his eyes. Of course Ignis didn’t believe them, why would he? The guilt was written as plain as day on his damn freckled face, and probably all over Gladio’s as well.

They had realized their mistake the minute they had stepped back out onto the dance floor and noticed Noctis missing from the bar, yet there had been no time for anything but shock and action in that moment. But now, facing the full wrath of the Reaper himself, Prompto felt as if his chest were going to split in two. Ignis, of all people, deserved the truth.

“We...were in the bathroom,” he said, the words tumbling out of him like thick tears before Gladio could intervene. “Together.”

In the bathroom ,” Ignis repeated mockingly. “Doing what ?”

This time it was Gladio who answered. He put a hand on Prompto’s shoulder, squeezed reassuringly. “Exactly what you’re imagining, Igs.” Those terrifying eyes raised to meet unwavering amber, and Gladio sighed. “We fucked up, but I won’t regret it.”

Somewhere through the fear and panic and overshadowing guilt, Prompto made a mental note to kiss him later for that one.

Assuming they both survived the next few moments.

...Which was beginning to seem less and less likely.

Ignis’ fingers were twitching above the handle of his knife again, and he was looking between the two of them as if he was trying to decide which one deserved to die first. Prompto swallowed, reached up instinctively to clasp Gladio’s hand on his shoulder.

Several tense moments passed, but still the dagger remained at his side. Ignis was furious, yes, and wanted nothing more than to start separating heads from shoulders, but even in his rage he remained as rational as could be expected. As much as Gladio and Prompto were at fault for abandoning their friend -- to apparently go fuck each other in a public restroom, no less -- killing them would change nothing. And Noctis, if he was still alive, would never forgive him for doing so. Perhaps that, more than anything, stayed his hand.

Well, almost .

The dagger came flying out its sheath in an arc, cutting through the air mere inches from Prompto’s face and sending his life flashing before his eyes, before slamming down into the top of the bar counter next to him. The blade sunk several inches into the hard wood, and Prompto watched with round eyes, unbreathing, as it shuddered in place from the force of the impact.

Ignis turned, set his head in his hands, and sighed.

It took a while for the pounding in Prompto’s chest to still. When it did, and when he was finally able to tear his eyes away from the dagger that he’d been sure would end his life that night, his first instinct was to sink back against the body behind him. Gladio was a solid warmth, a comforting presence to ground him as they both came to terms with the fact that they were -- probably -- going to live.

It was the taller man who spoke first to break the tension. "You alright?" he asked, even his gentlest tone amplified by the deafening silence and loud enough to startle Prompto to attention. The blond nodded on instinct, although he was far from okay by any standards.

"Yeah. Maybe. I don't know," he sighed, tearing his gaze away from Ignis. Terrifying and violent as he had seemed in that moment, it hurt so much to imagine how he must be feeling. How worried he must be.

Gladio’s voice came again, this time closer to his ear. “Do you need a ride home? I can call us a cab if you -- “

“I can’t go home like this,” Prompto groaned. “I-I know what Cor said, that we’d be in the way, but.... Doing nothing is worse, right?”

For a moment, round, amber eyes stared down at him in surprise, maybe even a little awe. Then, slowly, Gladio nodded his head. “Yeah. We lost him, it’s only right that we’re the ones to get him back.” A firm hand squeezed his shoulder and together they turned to face Ignis once again. “What’dya say, Igs? I know for a fact you’re not giving up already, right?”

“Of course not,” he said, his voice a surprisingly even tone despite his earlier outburst. “But I haven’t the slightest idea where Ardyn might have taken him.” Straightening himself up, his pinched two fingers over the bridge of his nose and continued. “Highwind may have had a hand in all this, but I still feel like what she did tell me was at least part of the truth. If only I could decipher her riddle.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that,” Gladio shrugged, “but I do know where we can find a man who might help us. Willingly or otherwise.”

Green eyes blazed and Gladio curled his lips in a grin. Between the two older men, Prompto felt incredibly lost.

“Are you crazy?” Ignis asked, mirroring the bodyguard’s own dark expression. “Or stupid?”

“Neither. At least no more than you are.” In front of Gladio, Prompto caught his breath -- but rather than the anger he expected, Ignis merely gave a sharp laugh.

“I assume you’re referring to the Cartanica?”

“Damn right. I know your handiwork when I see it, and Verstael practically had your name carved into his skull.”

Ignis laughed again, and Prompto suddenly felt his stomach lurch. “At least I had the sense to take an outfit of trained men with me that night. What you’re suggesting is suicide, is it not?”

Suicide ?” The blonde finally cut in as he furrowed his brows, glancing between the two of them in utter disbelief. “Would one of you please tell me what the hell’s going on?”

“Zegnautus,” came Iggy’s quick reply, though his gaze never left Gladio. “The largest tower in the heart of Gralea, and home to none other than Iedolas Aldercapt himself.”

“And…. We’re talking about going there? To talk to him?”

Gladio chuckled and stroked his fingers over the nape of Prompto’s neck. “Something like that. Iggy’s got a special way with people, we’ll find out everything we need to know. Including where this Ardyn bastard took Noct.”

The sound of metal scraping wood filled the air as Ignis got to his feet at the bar. Without a word he yanked his dagger free of the counter, sending splinters flying before sliding the blade back into its sheath. “This will be dangerous. And none of us are particularly dressed for battle. Did you at least bring a change of clothes?”

Gladio shrugged, tested his mobility as he stretched his arms up over his head. While the black mesh was meant to conform to the movements of his muscles, it was tight enough at the shoulders to constrict his sword-arm. And his pants…. Well, those were definitely designed for show rather than practicality. He sighed. “It’ll have to do. There’s no way I can go home and change now. The second I walk in the door my father’s gonna rip me to shreds over all this.”

“Um,” Prompto squeaked, then cleared his throat before trying again. “What about the gym? We’ve both got our uniforms there, and I’ve seen a locker with Ignis’ name on it, too. And we could get weapons….”

For the half-dozenth time that night, Gladio found himself staring at the blonde with a newfound sense of appreciation. His lips curled into a grin before he could stop himself. “Brains and beauty, how’d I get so lucky?”

Ignis’ cough from behind them wiped the blush right off of Prompto’s cheeks. “That’s all well and good,” he said, glaring. “But I believe Prompto here hasn’t formally received weapons training yet, correct? It’s too dangerous taking him into a fight if he can’t hold his own.”

He started to protest, but Gladio’s sigh cut him off. “Shit, Prom, he’s right. Maybe you should -- “

“I know how to use a gun.”

Both Gladio and Ignis froze, exchanging glances before staring down at Prompto on his stool like he’d just sprouted a second head. Under their intense gazes, the blonde shrunk a little. “Well, I can . I promise I won’t be in the way. T-this is as much my fault as anyone’s, and I want to help Noct, too.”

There was a tense silence while the other two debated his fate in the air between them. Prompto swallowed, hoped to the Six that neither bothered to ask for further details, when --

“Fine. It’s settled.” Seemingly having lost the argument, Ignis turned to stride past the others on his way toward the exit, leaving the invitation open for them both to follow. Yet as Prompto got to his feet and started after him, the brunette stopped in his tracks and threw a paralyzing look over his shoulder. “But if either of you get in my way, I will not hesitate to kill you.”

He turned on his heel and continued smoothly toward the doors, leaving Prompto a trembling mess on the stairs. Gladio joined him a moment later, and the blonde sucked in a breath as thick fingers slid down to twine with his own.

“Don’t take him too seriously,” he smiled tightly. “But…. Just to be on the safe side, try not to piss him off anymore tonight.”

“You are preaching to the choir, dude.”

Gladio pressed his lips to his temple, Prompto squeeze his hand in return, and together they turned to follow Ignis outside and into the Regalia. Their next stop would be the training compound. After that, the tower of the enemy himself.

 

********************

 

It was dark, but not so devoid of light that he couldn’t make out the shape of the arched ceiling above him and the solid wall on the far side of the room. There was a lamp, one of those old-fashioned gas types that cast flickering shadows in confusing non-patterns in every direction, and Noctis strained his eyes to get a better look at the source.

No good. His vision was too blurry, moving in and out of focus with more than just the shadows. But why ? He couldn’t remember where he was or how he’d gotten there, or why the hell his whole body ached so much.

Too many long, silent moments passed as he slipped several more times out of full consciousness. Each time he awoke his head pounded anew and he struggled in vain against the overwhelming nausea surging up from his gut.

There were two things he realized over the course of his limited observations. First, that he was bound, his ankles below him and his wrists high up over his head, to something solid behind him that he couldn’t quite make out. The bonds were likely rope, judging from the way they cut painfully into his skin when he tried to move his limbs, but they held as fast as if they were made of concrete, as well.

Second, Noctis realized that he was utterly alone. Aside from the silence of the dark room, broken only by the constant and rhythmic drip, drip of water leaking down from an unseen pipe, Noct hadn’t been able to sense a single living presence anywhere around him. Which was both good and terrifying, because it meant that there was no one else who knew where he was, either.

Well, except whoever had put him there. But aside from vague images of red-purple hair and loud music, Noctis was having trouble recalling much else about the night - or was it day? - before he’d woken up here.

More time passed. Minutes, or possibly hours. Nothing changed in the room; the light continued to flicker, the water continued to drip, drip with incessant sameness. It was infuriating. Despite the pain Noctis began to tug at his bonds, letting the thin rivulets of blood running down from his wrists fuel his desperation. He had to get out, he had to get to Ignis, no matter what it took he couldn’t --

Somewhere along the way he’d found his voice again. It forced its way out of his throat past the fear and bile, began to fill the room with shouts and curses as he struggled to get free. His ears rang with the echoing noise, but he didn’t, wouldn’t stop.

Not until, with a final cry that left his mouth tasting of coppery blood, the door on the far side of the room slammed open and a figure strode purposefully inside.

“Gods, would you stop that awful screaming,” a vaguely familiar voice spoke into the sudden silence. Noctis felt his body go rigid at the sound. “It makes it so hard to concentrate on my work.”

“Who -- ?“ But his throat burned with the effort to form the question, and he let his head hang as the stranger approached.

“Honestly, my plan only requires that you remain alive. Whether I cut out your tongue or not will hardly change things now.” A hand reached up to grasp his chin, and Noct bit back another shuddering cry. The touch was icy, colder than he could have imagined any human could feel against his skin, and it sent an unnatural fear curdling through his blood.

Yellow-gold eyes smiled up at him. “So, Prince . Are you going to be a good boy for me? Or am I going to have to punish you again?”



Chapter Text

 

“Noctis.”

Iggy?

“Noct, I’m here.”

Ignis, I can’t see you! Where are you?!

“Open your eyes, Noct.”

 

A strange warmth enveloped him. The darkness blurred, lifted, revealing familiar emerald pools and a tender smile. Ignis was leaning over him, shoulders and torso bare as far down as Noct dared to look. On his smooth skin, his irezumi seemed to dance in an ethereal light.

“You’re crying,” Ignis observed, and Noct felt another sob rack his body at the sweet sound of that voice he’d missed so much. Though his limbs felt heavy, weak, he shifted closer until he was pulling the other man in, clinging to him through his tears.

I was scared.

“You’re the son of a great man,” came the reply. Ignis turned his face and brushed his lips against the corner of Noctis’ mouth. “You must be stronger than this.”

Ignis...?

“Always weak, far weaker than we expected of you.”

Something was wrong. Those arms moved to surround him as warm lips caressed his face, his mouth, begging entrance, but the fear in the young oyabun’s chest only deepened.

“Show me you can be strong enough for me,” Ignis said, smiling as he drew his tongue over the front of Noct’s teeth. “Let me in.”

... Who are you?

“Who? Why, Noctis, your body knows me. Look. It’s already so eager.”

No , he said, chest tightening until his lungs began to burn. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t cry out even as he felt Ignis’ hands moving over his body, down to his hips to touch the hardness growing fast between his legs. This isn’t right!

“Noctis, my prince. Give yourself to me.”

No…. No…!

He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe and his head was swimming, it was wrong, terribly wrong, it hurt and he --

Noctis sucked in a shuddering, gasping breath. Precious air filled his aching lungs as two hands -- both deathly cold -- drew slowly away from his constricted throat. Before him, Ardyn stood smiling, his yellow-gold eyes alight with a fiery mirth as he surveyed his work.

Purple bruises marred the young man’s slender neck where his fingers had clutched, encircling his throat like a collar. Noct’s eyes were dark, unfocused, and his entire body shivered each time he drew in another painful breath. Ardyn watched him struggle on the brink of consciousness for a long moment, then slowly let his gaze travel down, down his frame to the evidence of the boy’s reaction pressing against the front of his pants.

And he smirked.

“It would seem our beloved prince of the underworld has some rather… untoward hobbies.”

You’re wrong, Noctis wanted to shout, but his stomach chose that moment to lurch into his chest. Still hanging suspended by his wrists in the center of the dark room, he could only whine weakly as he retched again and again at his own feet.

Ardyn picked up the ends of his flowing coat and toed his way around the mess. He tutted, coming around to Noct’s side to wipe the younger man’s chin almost lovingly with a soft, white handkerchief. “Dear prince,” he smiled,  and dropped the dirtied kerchief to the floor without a second thought. “You appear to be in distress.”

Fuck you… !” Noct hissed through the agony burning in his chest. It’s your fault!

“Such language” When Ardyn spoke, his voice was playful, amused, altogether inappropriate for the scene. “And here I am, only trying to help.”

Liar!”

Once again, those yellow eyes were on him, threatening to swallow him up in their intensity. “Your father called me that once, too. But, like you, he simply lacked the ability to see my vision . You Lucians,” he sneered, tightening cruel fingers around Noctis’ jaw and forcing him to hold his gaze. “Always judging, never stopping to consider how the rest of us maggots feel trapped under your boot.”

Noctis felt another surge of nausea at the images his mind conjured up. Impossibly vivid images, as if he were slipping in and out of a dream even as Ardyn spoke.

“Don’t,” he choked out. “Don’t talk like you knew my father. You don’t know anything about us.”

“Naive as ever, boy. Of course I knew your father. And I am trying to help.”

Noct’s face twisted with rage, but Ardyn’s response was merely another casual smile and a sweep of his hand as he took a step back. From out of his coat pocket he withdrew what appeared to be a small, glass tube filled with a blue-green liquid. It look familiar somehow, but Noct was suddenly distracted by another wave of sickness flooding through his entire body, forcing a strained groan through his aching throat.

That ,” came Ardyn’s snide tone over the sound of the younger man’s retching, “Is your body trying to purge itself of my perfect creation. It’s a natural reaction, especially considering what a pure dose you imbibed.” The corners of his mouth twitched at he held up the tube for examination. In the dim light,  it’s contents seemed to glow with a strange luminescence, and a fleeting memory sliced through the fog of Noct’s mind -- the bar, music, a drink from a stranger, then pain, so much pain. Above his bonds, his fists clenched in understanding.

“You drugged me,” he snarled. “ Poisoned me -- !”

“Poison? How you wound me, Noct. Starscourge is much more complex than a mere toxin.”

Eyes suddenly wide, Noctis stared at the man before him in utter disbelief. Starscourge?! Wasn’t that the drug the Niffs had been pushing on the streets for the last decade? Some type of hallucinogen, or so he remembered Ignis trying to explain to him once, an addictive painkiller that came out of Gralea’s underground laboratories. But hadn’t Ardyn just referred to it as his creation?!

His confusion must have been painted plain as day on his face, for suddenly Ardyn was laughing as he held the tube up to his nose, breathed in deep, and hummed. “ Mm . Your silence tells me you’ve heard of it, yes? Well, at least the vile concoction that fool Verstael used to make, anyway. A pity,” Ardyn shrugged. As Noct watched, he dipped the tip of his little finger into the tube of liquid and popped it between his lips. “He never could get the recipe quite right. I suppose I should be thanking that bespectacled friend of yours for saving me the trouble of killing him myself.”

Ignis . Noct felt his chest thud at the sound of that name, as images from his subconscious nightmares threatened to resurface. He shook them off, turned his focus back to the man standing in front of him, dangerous, tangible. “...What does a creep like you gain from drugging me? If it’s money you want, a simple ransom would’ve worked a hell of a lot easier.”

“No, no, it’s never about money for me.” Shaking his head, hardly bothering to contain his smirk, Ardyn once again strode forward to close the distance between them as he continued. “It’s about research, you see. And revenge.”

“Revenge for what ? I’ve never done anything to -- “

“All in good time, Noctis. But first,” he smiled, holding the glass tube up to the younger man’s mouth and tapping it against his bottom lip. “Aren’t you curious about just what it is your body is trying so hard to reject?”

Noct clenched his fists, turned his face away from the bitter scent of the liquid under his nose. “If I said ‘no’ would you actually shut up?”

“Nice try, but unlikely.”

The touch of Ardyn’s fingers brushing over his cheek sent a shiver through him. So cold, Noct shuddered. Colder than ice. He feels like a ghost .

“Death, actually.” Ardyn was watching him closely, a dark smile on his own lips as he traced the edge of Noct’s with the vial. “That is what your body is fighting against right now. It must feel so strange to experience dying without context. Is it painful? Frightening for you?”

“W-what are you -- ?”

“I’ve experienced death myself, more times than you would ever believe.” As if to prove his point, Ardyn brushed his fingers over his own face this time, catching up a lock of dark hair and sweeping it aside to reveal a jagged black scar on his right temple. It was nearly round in the center, with fiery lines jutting out around it, almost like….

“This was where your father, in all his supposed mercy, put a bullet in my head. But even this wasn’t the first time.” To Noct’s utter horror, Ardyn began to slip out of his large overcoat. Beneath, he was wearing a cream shirt under a dark green vest, both of which he tugged down from the shoulder to reveal another scar, bigger, straighter, cutting a line from his collar bone down to disappear under the fabric covering the left side of his chest. “An old lover, I’m afraid, with an affinity for sharp, pointy things. I ended up on the wrong end of a quarrel, and ultimately in a pool of my own blood.”

Noctis swallowed. Suddenly his throat felt very dry, his stomach like lead. What was Ardyn saying? He couldn’t have really died. If he had, he wouldn’t be standing in front of him now, couldn’t be watching him with those piercing eyes.

“For most men who die, like your father, like Verstael,” he went on despite the disbelief on his audience’s face. “Death is simply the end. A terrifying finality, and there is hardly time to stop and smell the funeral flowers. But the human brain is an amazing machine, you see. Even in its final moments, it produces a veritable cocktail of chemicals to silence the screaming, to ease the pain and banish all of one’s fears about the inevitable nothingness beyond.

“The moment of death is truly the greatest euphoria there is. Nothing compares, and I spent years searching for the perfect drug that would replicate that feeling. Alas,” Ardyn smiled, his brows coming together above his eyes as he drew in a breath. “I fell embarrassingly short despite my best efforts. Until, that was, I realized the error was in my process itself. Rather than recreate the near-impossible balance of hormones and chemicals, all I needed to do was find a way to preserve the perfect mixture that the brain had already produced.”

He tapped a finger to the center of Noct’s forehead, shaking the young man out of his trance-like stare for the moment. Wrenching away from the vial against his mouth, he frowned. “That’s insane. You’re insane.”

A shrug. “Perhaps. Maybe I was, at least for thinking I could successfully perform the experiments on myself. Too risky,” he said, shaking his head. “Too much blood. But I found others, some willing, most not, to help me in my research.”

Help you ? By doing what, dying ?”

“Precisely. It took a handful of failures before I finally perfected the extraction process, of course, but once I had it was simply a matter of supply and demand.”

“You…you killed people to make a stupid drug?!” Noctis clenched his teeth. Suddenly, his mouth where the vial had touched him felt like it was on fire. “You’re a fucking monster!”

With a wide grin, Ardyn stepped back in a bow that had his dark hair nearly sweeping the floor. “Now you’ve got the idea.”

“How many?!”

“Oh, now, I’ve lost count over the years,” he said, shrugging his shirt and coat back into place. “Most recently, however, I can give you a very specific number. This particular batch” -- he tapped the tube hard enough against Noctis’ mouth to make his teeth hurt -- “took eight deaths. Each brain, you see, is limited in how much it can produce, and there are always a few failures, of course, but….”

Noct had stopped listening. His heart was pounding again, his eyes wide as he focused on nothing in particular in the space in front of him. Eight. Eight deaths. Eight Glaives. Murdered, decapitated. It couldn’t possibly be…could it? Had Ardyn killed all those men himself -- for this?!

“Noctis.” Ardyn’s gentle voice sliced through his thoughts, and the dreaded glass containing the starscourge drug was once more pressing to his lips. “Let their final gifts strengthen you. Embrace death, learn to control it the way I do.”  

This time, when cruel fingers curled around his chin, Noct struggled against the touch with every ounce of strength he could manage. He shook his head back and forth, clenched his teeth and lips shut against the cool glass until his neck and jaw ached, and then he was fighting through that pain, as well. But for all his efforts, his captor’s determination was far too great. Ardyn pried his mouth open with his ghostly cold fingers, eyes twinkling with dark mirth as he pinched Noct’s tongue in place and shoved the tube nearly into his throat.

A sick dread settled in his gut before the liquid even finished spilling into his mouth. It was sharp, bitter enough to make his eyes sting, and before he could react the starscourge was already running over his tongue and down his throat. Panic set it. Noctis tried to close up, tried to spit it back out before it was too late, but suddenly Ardyn’s palm was moving and his head was slammed back hard against whatever it was he was strapped to.

Noct gasped in pain, and the drug vanished down his throat.

Yellow-gold eyes danced in the light that flickered around them in the otherwise dark room.

“See, that wasn’t so hard.”

 

------------

 

The Regalia flew through empty streets with abandon, past darkened intersections and buildings that crumbled under the weight of too many shadows. Gralea was a ghost town; even the addicts and drunks knew better than to roam alone in Niff territory after midnight.

Gladio had never actually stepped foot into the crippled district himself. His father, of course, had fought alongside Regis and the others years before, back when Iedolas Aldercapt had provoked a nasty war with the Caelum family. At the time Gladio had only been ten, but he’d heard enough to know that the car wreck that had killed Regis’ wife and left then eight-year-old Noctis gravely injured had been no accident. Aldercapt had managed to escape the chopping block by throwing most of his subordinates at Regis’ feet, claiming they had been solely responsible and he himself had had nothing to do with the crime. Then, the oyabun’s heart had been weak, and in the end he’d avoided more bloodshed by letting the Niff boss survive, barely.

Had it been Gladio -- and here, he stopped in his thoughts to glance at Prompto, who was staring out the backseat window in a panic, gripping his hand where their fingers were laced together -- he would have murdered Aldercapt without hesitation.

Which is exactly what he expected Ignis was planning to do that very night.

Sharp, vicious green eyes were focused behind the lenses of his glasses as Ignis drove them through the city. He hadn’t said a word since the three of them had stepped back into the car outside of the Caelum complex, dressed all in black and armed with a veritable armory of “borrowed” weapons. Ignis himself had chosen a second blade, shorter and heavier than his usual one, and had strapped it in place on his right calf just above his boot. Gladio had picked one of the largest katanas in the arsenal, one that Noctis’ grandfather, Lord Mors, was said to have wielded. Despite the long years, the steel was still incredibly sharp.

At Gladio’s side in the backseat of the car, Prompto clutched the fingers of his free hand around the gun he’d chosen for himself. Silver, polished, one of Cor’s personal favorites for its deadly accuracy. Somehow, Gladio was having trouble imagining someone like Prompto knowing how to use one of those things, much less actually being able to gun a real person down should it come to that, but he was smart enough to keep his doubts to himself for now.

Ahead of them, the skeletal Zegnautus Tower loomed ominous and dark against an even blacker sky. The last time Ignis has come to Gralea, he’d been counting on stealth and the element of surprise to get to Verstael. But this time, given the circumstances, he was prepared to forego strategy in lieu of sheer brute force. That’s why this time, instead of leaving the Regalia parked in shadows far away from the actual fight, Ignis was driving directly up to Aldercapt’s front door for a grand entrance.

There were no lights on in the entire building save for the uppermost floor, where a flickering yellow-white glow told them their host would indeed be home to receive them.

“You sure you’re ready for this?” The voice snapped Prompto out of his thoughts, and the blonde jumped in his seat. Gladio was watching him, concern written on his expression as he squeezed their hands tighter together atop the leather seat.

“Y-yeah,” Prompto forced a smile he wasn’t feeling. “For Noct.”

There was a pause, then Gladio nodded. “Right. Just stick close, alright?”

“Alright.”

The Regalia cut over the edge of the curb as Ignis skidded the car to a stop. Zegnautus was right in front of them now, a massive fortress-like building that looked more like it had been bombed out than simply abandoned to the Niffs years ago. Prompto swallowed hard as he stared up at it from his window, then Gladio was tugging him out of the car and hurrying across the street after Ignis.

“Hey, wait up,” he called out, but the brunette merely whipped out his dagger and held a finger to his lips.

Prompto saw them before Gladio. There, at the top of the broken steps leading up to the main entrance, a couple of shadows moving in the dark. One lumbered to its feet and to the edge of the stairs, and for a moment Prompto thought he was going to be sick at the sight of it.

Human, maybe, but so covered in scars and barely-closed wounds that he more closely resembled some kind of monster out of one of his favorite video games. He walked with a limp, and his right arm was missing just below the elbow, leaving a still-freshly bandaged stump in its place. At Prompto’s side, he felt Gladio tense for battle.

And then Ignis laughed. Laughed!

“Come to die a second time, then, have you?” the Reaper called up to the deformed man, who stopped moving long enough to focus in on the speaker. At the sight of Ignis, he yelled in rage, and the second shadow, too, jumped to life behind him. Together they came barreling down the stairs full-speed at Ignis.

“Watch out!” Gladio was in motion before Prompto could register his words. In a panic, the blonde watched as the bodyguard charged forward with his sword already at his side, the steel of it ringing out as he tossed the sheath aside. Ignis, too, was ready, and as the first of the troopers reached them, the two men parted to either side. Twin blades flashed in the starlight, and the thick body of the man fell to the ground, nearly sliced in two.

Ignis was back in action in the breadth of a heartbeat. The other trooper was still hurtling toward them, seemingly unaffected by his companion’s defeat, but Iggy was waiting for him. As his clunking foot left the last step, Ignis dropped to the ground and slid beneath him, his dagger pointed up and aimed directly for his belly. Blood gushed forth and the heavy body toppled to its side, and as Prompto stifled his panicked screams Gladio was already offering Iggy a hand up.

“Show off,” he heard the dark-haired bodyguard say, and Ignis shook his foot where his boot had been splattered in red.

“A means to an end,” was the completely casual reply. Both men turned to Prompto then, each wearing a different mask.

“Prom, come on, let’s go.” Only Gladio bothered to speak to him. By the time the blonde managed to move his legs again, Ignis had already turned away and was climbing up to the front entrance. A firm hand clapped his shoulder as Gladio guided him forward. “Don’t look down.”

He tried, he really did. But as he walked past the lifeless dead bodies of the men that had just been killed, Prompto couldn’t help himself. Blood was everywhere, limbs and disfigured faces twisted in death, organs spilling out and steaming in the cold night air. Blue eyes widened and a shudder ran through him hard enough for Gladio to feel it right in the pit of his stomach.

No one spoke after that. A few more half-crazed Nifelheim thugs stalked the halls of the darkened first floor of the building, but Ignis and Gladio took them out quickly while Prompto watched from behind. They at last discovered the elevators at the far side of the central hall, but, as feared, they were unoperational. Even had the building been with power, the elevator cars themselves lay broken and wrecked at the bottom of the shafts, littered with years of dust and debris in their neglect.

“Guess we’re taking the stairs, then,” Prompto forced a tight laugh -- and instantly snapped his mouth shut at the look Ignis shot him.

“How many floors does this shithole have again?” came Gladio’s grumble as he ran his fingers back through his hair.

“Seventy-two.”

“And we’re going all the way to the top, right?”

“That’s correct.”

Fuck.

Prompto spoke up again, keeping his voice low. “We just passed the stairwell back there.”

Another muttered curse, then Gladio waved his hand in the direction from which they’d just come. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

The stairs were around a corner, behind a door the other two had overlooked labeled “Emergency Exit” in faded black lettering. The metal creaked as Gladio pulled it open, and the trio began their long hike up to the top of the building.

At first, Prompto tried keeping count. At around five flights, his legs were starting to burn and his breath was coming in short pants. At ten flights, he and Gladio were doubled over gasping for air while Ignis watched impatiently, his arms folded over his chest.

“Honestly,” he scolded, shaking his head. “What do you two even do during training, anyway?”

Prompto opened his mouth to speak, but Ignis cut him off with a curt Nevermind, I don’t want to know before they were all moving again. It was slow going, and by the time they reached the top Prompto couldn’t actually feel his legs trembling under him anymore. He glanced at Gladio, who was looking oddly pale and drenched in sweat, then at Ignis. The brunette cleared his throat.

“Are we clear on the plan?”

“I hold ‘m,” Gladio grunted, fingers gripping his knees as he bent over. “You punch.”

“And Prompto?”

The blonde shook his head. “I-I don’t remember talking about any plan, sorry -- “

You guard the exits,” Ignis answered as if it had been obvious. “If Iedolas tries to escape, shoot him.”

Prompto swallowed visibly. “Where?”

“In the foot. In the knee. If he keeps going after that, shoot him in the head for all I care.”

“Y-yes, sir.”

Ignis paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. Before him, the door to the boss of the Nifelheim family’s personal “suite.” Beyond that door, the enemy himself waited. Noctis’ enemy. Whether or not Aldercapt could actually tell them where Noct had been taken, Ignis would not let him live the night. The “Emperor” had signed his death warrant the moment he’d gotten involved with Ardyn Izunia, and the Reaper had finally come to collect.

Light burst into the stairwell as Ignis kicked the door in on its hinges. In one hand he gripped his beloved dagger, with the other he motioned for Gladio and Prompto to follow him, shoulder to shoulder, inside.

The room was wide and lit with bare bulbs hanging from cords strung along each of its walls. Near one far corner, a generator hummed and coughed, filling the air with the putrid scent of petrol fumes despite the numerous broken windows lining the outermost wall. There were pieces of old furniture, some tables and chair missing legs or toppled to the side, and tattered curtains blowing in the winter wind. Graffiti, mostly black and red, covered the peeling wallpaper in strange symbols, gang signs, crude drawings.

But what Ignis noticed the most was the lack of movement, human or otherwise.

“Sheesh, what a dump,” Prompto said, whistling low as he swooped to pick up a scrap of paper on the ground. “Is this really the kind of place a yakuza boss lives?”

“It is certainly in worse condition than I expected,” Ignis agreed. “Gladiolus, do you see that?”

Stepping up beside him, Gladio narrowed his eyes at a thin bar of light coming from down a corridor ahead of them. “Could be worth checking out. Maybe this is just the back yard.”

“Let’s move.”

Ignis crept forward, closer and closer to the light. The hum of the generator seemed to reverberate over the walls, through the air, and he clutched his fingers tighter around the pommel of his blade. Halfway down the hall, he began to pick up a different kind of stench, and the hair on the back of his neck prickled.

Ugh! ” Prompto whispered as he smacked a hand over his nose. “What is that?!”

There was no need to answer. As Ignis approached the door at the end of the hall, his unease grew. Boldly, he turned the knob, steeled his shoulders, and stepped inside.

Gladio froze behind him. Last to enter the room, Prompto took one look up, made a strangled noise in his throat, and turned to throw up against the door.

Against the fall wall of the room, seated atop a chair set into a raised platform like a makeshift throne, was the corpse of Iedolas Aldercapt. His skin, or what was left of it, was the green-grey color of rotting meat, peeled away in a dozen places to reveal thin, greying bones underneath. Where his eyes had once been, nothing but dark, hollow pits remained. His jaw hung slack, his skeletal fingers still in place on either side of the chair’s arms. He wore his usual robes, though the colors were faded and the fabric was coated in dust and flecks of decay.

Gladio stared at the scene in shock, rooted, until the sound of Prompto’s gagging brought him crashing back to reality. For a moment, he was torn between going to his boyfriend’s side and following Ignis as he moved closer and closer to the dead body, but it took only a second to make his choice. He turned his back to the room and was immediately pulling Prompto into his arms, using his own body as a shield from the gruesome sight.

The stink was overwhelming. Even with his glove over his nose and mouth, Ignis was finding it more and more difficult to breathe the closer he got to Aldercapt. How long had the old man been like this? Judging from the state of rot, several weeks had passed at the very least, possibly more. But there were no immediate signs of trauma -- no bullet wounds, no evidence of a blade or blunt force damage. Had he merely died of old age?

“Ignis.” The voice broke through his thoughts, and he glanced at the other two in the room. Gladio was frowning up at him with his arms tight around Prompto’s frame. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”  

“A moment more.” There was something…. Some hint, or clue that he was overlooking, he could sense it. Ignis dragged his gaze down to the dead man’s fingers resting on the chair. The skin had already rotted away, leaving the bones held in place by the remains of tendons and muscle alone. Several rings still hung around the bird-like bones, unpolished and dull, and that’s when he remembered.

He’s basically made himself out to be the Emperor’s right hand, said the vivid voice as if it were coming from within the room. In fact, I’ve heard the old man refuses to meet with anyone else these days. No one’s allowed up in his keep but Ardyn, been that way for a month, maybe more.

Of all the things Highwind had told him in the Red Lounge of Club Ravatogh, he’d thought it difficult to sort through the lies to find the bits of truth buried within. And yet, perhaps her words had not been as misleading as he originally believed. If Ardyn had been the only one in the keep, that would explain why no one -- not even Verstael -- had known their boss was dead. It would also mean that Ardyn himself had been commanding the Nifelheim family in the time since, and that everything, including the death of the Glaives and of Regis, had been his fault.

As he stared at the corpse before him, a dark smile began to spread over Ignis’ lips. To trust Highwind now, after the part she’d played in Noctis’ kidnapping, seemed ill-advised at best, and insane at worst. Yet, if her last riddle to him could be solved, it was possible that she had left him with an essential clue after all.

“Gladiolus, we’re leaving.” Ignis dropped from the platform and began to stride across the room toward the others. “I need you to call Iris, tell her to rerun the search on Izunia.”

“Uh, okay.” In his arms, Prompto shifted to wipe his mouth on the back of his palm. “Does that mean we’re going to my place? Because, uh….”

“No. Ask her to meet us in the city, somewhere inconspicuous. A restaurant ought to do nicely.”

At the mention of the word, Prompto’s stomach gave another lurch, but he batted Gladio’s hand away and shot him a weak smile. The three made for the stairwell again, and as they descended (much easier work than going the other direction), Gladio held his phone to his ear and tried his sister again and again.

Ignis, meanwhile, was already plotting several steps ahead.



Chapter Text

 

The Crow’s Nest was nearly empty, strange for lunch time on the weekend, and the only customers were an old couple at the counter and a trio of quiet, tense-looking men dressed head to toe in black in the booth at the back corner. One of them, a skinny blonde who looked almost out of place with his two older, rougher companions, had already drained a whole pot of coffee by himself. He was going for his sixth cup when, realizing the container was empty, waved over the waitress with a weak smile.

“Y’all ready to order somethin’ other than just coffee, then?” she asked, drawing out her notepad in anticipation and quirking an eyebrow at the mousey blond. He hesitated for a moment, flicked his eyes at the other two, then shrugged.

“Nope. Just the coffee, thanks.”

She didn’t bother hiding the way she rolled her eyes as she shoved her notepad back in her apron pocket and turned back to the kitchen. In her absence, Prompto folded his arms over his stomach and laid his head against the cool linoleum of the table, his eyes falling closed despite the excessive caffeine.

“No rest for the wicked,” Gladio smirked, clapping him on the back. His hand lingered there even after Prompto shot him his darkest look. “Iris’ll be here soon, then we can get moving again.”

“More coffee,” the blonde grumbled as he forced himself upright, leaning only slightly against Gladio’s side as he fought to keep his eyes open. Briefly, he wondered how the other two could possibly still be functioning after such a long, sleepless night -- but then he recalled the way they had also cut down those Niff men back in Gralea without so much as flinching, and he realized they were still worlds apart.

The waitress came back with the second pot of coffee, and the three divided it between each of their mugs in silence. Another ten minutes passed. Gladio had just pulled out his phone again to text Iris for an ETA when the bell above the diner door chimed with a new arrival. A young girl, no older than fifteen, stepped into the diner dressed in a black skirt, a pink-and-black hoodie, and boots that laced halfway up her calves. Her hair was cut short and swept back under a purple Hello Moggy headband, and she had a heavy messenger bag slung over one shoulder.

Iris smiled and waved the waitress away as she turned and made for the back booth, leaving the woman looking mortified to see such a sweet, young girl flop down in the seat next to the three dangerous-looking men and their damn coffee.

“Morning, Iris,” Ignis smiled as the youngest of the Amicitia family slid into the seat next to him. Gladio, too, opened his mouth to greet her, but she glared them both down with her father’s piercing amber gaze.

“How could you let this happen?” she stared, letting her bag drop unceremoniously onto the plastic seat. “Everyone is saying that Noct is in trouble, and that it’s your fault!”

“Keep your voice down,” Gladio winced as he leaned forward against the table. “Did you tell anyone you were coming here?”

Iris continued to pout, but shook her head. “No. Dad would’ve killed me if he knew. He’s so furious, he’s been on the phone with Cor all night.”

With a sigh, Ignis drained the last of his coffee and motioned for Prompto to pass him the pot again. “So the Glaives have had no luck finding Noctis, either.”

“No, not yet.” Trailing off, Iris let her gaze wander over to the thin blonde kid sitting across from her and next to her brother. She was pretty sure she’d never met him before, but something about his face seemed familiar. As she watched him, he flashed her a smile under sleepy blue eyes, his cheeks tinting a light shade of red at the attention.

“Hi,” he offered, and she managed to return the smile before Iggy was speaking to her again.

“We’re doing everything we can to find Noct, too. Any information you were able to dig up could give us the final clue to his whereabouts.”

“Oh, right,” she said, and turned to ruffle through her bag at her side. “So I ran the search again like you asked, only this time I set the parameters for a wider timeline. There still wasn’t much,” -- a file was dropped onto the surface of the diner table, and Iris flipped it open to reveal several printed documents and handwritten notes -- “But I got some hits directly from the Citadel’s database.”

“From the archives?” Gladio asked, brows furrowing together. “What would Ardyn’s name be doing popping up in the Caelum family history?”

Ignis was silent, his own expression tight as he picked up the first sheet in Iris’ file and scanned the words on the page. His voice was low when at last he spoke again. “Because he used to work for them,” he answered, looking up at Gladio as he passed him the paper. The bodyguard took it skeptically, sank back into the booth and held it up for Prompto to read as well.

Construction for workshop approved for billing on May 20th …. This is just an invoice for a building project,” Gladio said flatly, raising an eyebrow across the table. Ignis merely pointed down, indicating that he should keep reading to the end. “ Proposed funding from the blah blah blah… weapons technology, yada yada… Oh.” Amber eyes went round as he skimmed to the bottom of the page. “ Project to be overseen by Weapons Development Leader Cid Sophiar and Research Division Head … Ardyn Izunia.”

Next to him, Prompto’s lips turned into a frown. “That’s his signature there, isn’t it? That’s really him.”

“That one is from about twenty six years ago. I couldn’t find anything more recent,” Iris was saying as she drew a few more sheets out of the file, “But his name came up a few more times in the same kind of documents. I thought it was really strange, you know, because even though these are just really old invoices, someone had encrypted the files in the database. Almost like….”

“Like they were trying to hide his existence,” Ignis finished for her. He scanned a few of the other papers, then nodded as if he’d seen something more between the words. “Iris, your help has once again proven invaluable. You’ve brought us one step closer to Noctis.”

At his words, Iris dropped her hands into her lap and followed them with her gaze. “T-thanks, Iggy. Are you guys leaving again, then?”

Looking at the other two, Ignis gave a short nod that had Prompto chugging back the rest of his coffee as quickly as he could. “Yes. While I don’t yet know where Ardyn is, I think we’ve got a lead on someone who might. Old Cid,” he said in answer to their questioning looks, and tapped a gloved finger on one of the papers he was holding. “Cid’s name appears alongside Ardyn’s in almost every one of these documents. They worked together, at least for a time, which makes him the only person who can fill in these gaps.”

“So, we’re going to Hammerhead again?” Prompto asked, forcing a smile despite the heaviness suddenly weighing down his stomach. The last time they’d headed out of the city on a manhunt, Regis had ended up dead, and the underground world had been plunged into chaos. What if something happened to Noct while they were way out in the middle of Leide?

Evidently Gladio shared his concerns. “There’s a chance we won’t make it back into the city before nightfall,” he warned, giving Ignis a hard look. “You willing to take that risk?”

“We have no other choice.” From his pocket, Ignis slipped a few gil onto the table and gestured to the others to do the same. “Talking to Cid will be the fastest, perhaps the only way to find out where Ardyn is hiding. We should make haste for Hammer -- ”

“Take me with you!”

Gladio choked on a mouthful of coffee as Ignis and Prompto turned to face Iris as one. Her cheeks were pink, but her mouth was set in a determined line as she met their wide-eyed stares. “I want to go, too.”

“Out of the question,” Ignis shook his head, and Gladio nodded in vigorous agreement.

“It’s dangerous out there, piglet. I’m not gonna risk putting you in harm’s way, too.”

“I can take care of myself,” she argued. “I’ve been training with Dad, and he says I’m getting good.”

“I don’t care, you’re not going.”

“But I want to help Noct, too!” She got to her feet and crossed her arms over her chest. “You guys always ask for my help, but never tell me what’s really going on. I’m not just a hacker-for-hire, you know.”

“Iris,” Gladio started. “I get that you’re upset, but -- “

“I’m not upset, I’m just putting my foot down.” With that, she turned to Iggy and met his intense gaze with her own steely one. “And I’m going with you.”

There was nothing any of them, even Ignis the Reaper, could do about it. And so, twenty minutes later he found himself once again behind the wheel of the Regalia with Gladio at his side, and Prompto and Iris challenging each other to a game of King’s Knight in the backseat as they headed out of the city and into the dustbowl of Leide.

 

----------

 

Insomnia fell away behind them, and once more dusty orange-brown plains stretched out for countless miles ahead. They’d crossed the Lucia Bridge just after noon, and Gladio had insisted on Ignis pulling over and giving him the wheel. They had enough time before reaching Hammerhead to take turns catching a little sleep, and of the two of them Ignis had needed a break the most. He’d finally acquiesced, falling into a light sleep within minutes of resting his head against the passenger window.

In the backseat, Prompto and Iris had ended their round of King’s Knight and had traded gaming for a heated discussion about whether chocobos or moogles were the cuter of the two. Iris had just finished listing off an impressive and detailed argument when, leaning up between the two front seats, she tapped her brother on his shoulder.

“Hey, Gladdy. You agree with me, right? Tell Prompto you’re on my side.”

“Wait, that’s not fair,” the blonde laughed. “Two against one is cheating.”

Gladio grinned and shook his head, his eyes flashing up to the rearview mirror as he settled his eyes on Prompto. “Actually, I’m more of a chocobo fan, myself. Sorry, kiddo.”

“Ha! Score!”

“Whaaat?” she pouted, flopping back into the seat as Prompto prodded her in the arm. “You’re seriously the worst brother ever.”

“No hard feelings, right, Iris?” Next to her, Prompto was grinning and holding out his hand in a gesture of peace. She took it, narrowed her eyes, and leaned in closer.

“...I know I’ve seen you somewhere before,” she started. “What did you say your name was again?”

Suddenly, Prompto’s body heat surged an extra ten degrees, reflecting a dark shade of red on freckled cheeks. He hadn’t made the connection until now either, but suddenly he was recalling the way Gladio had mentioned it was his sister who had helped to track down his online identity. His hacker sister . Though he highly doubted she'd actually seen any of his videos, there was still a chance she would recognize him from the websites. Blue eyes glanced at the mirror above the dash and saw Gladio watching him in return with an equally 'oh shit' expression written on his features.

“U-um, it's Prom,” Prompto tried when he realized Iris was still waiting for his reply. "I'm new to the Glaives. Maybe you've seen me around the dojo.”

“Maybe...." But from the way she was chewing her lip while she stared him down, it was obvious she wasn't taking the bait. "You haven't, like, been on TV or anything, have you? Not that I really watch TV, of course."

"Drop it, piglet. We didn't let you come along just to run your mouth the whole trip."

Iris' mood changed immediately. She surged forward in the seat and smacked her hand so hard against the back of Gladio's head that the car swerved nearly off the road. Gladio swore and righted the wheel, but not before shooting his sister a death glare in the mirror. "Knock it off, brat!"

"Both of you knock it off." The sudden commotion had apparently pulled Ignis from his rest, and he now had Gladio pinned to the driver's seat with nothing more than his piercing eyes. "Let's have a little silence until we arrive, hm?"

With a huff, Iris collapsed back into the seat, quickly pulling out her phone and diving back into a solitary game of King's Knight. Gladio, too, fell quiet, only taking his hand off the wheel again long enough to rub his smarting head. Behind him, Prompto was busy trying to stifle his laughs.

It was another half-hour before the lofty flood lamps and road signs of Hammerhead came into view up ahead of them. Gladio gently shook Ignis' shoulder to rouse him again, and Iris pocketed her phone in favor of leaning up between the front seats for a better view.

"It looks so...awesome!" she announced, grinning as she nudged her brother's arm. "Think they've got an arcade here?"

"Nah. But I think I saw an old pinball machine in the corner of the shop. Might still work," Gladio smirked at her. Clearly, there were no hard feelings between the siblings -- to Prompto's great relief -- and as the car pulled up in front of the service-station-slash-general-store, Iris even let Gladio hold the back door open for her.

Ignis stepped out of the Regalia, too, and immediately began to survey the area. The last time they'd visited, it had already been nearing sundown and they'd been exhausted after an afternoon searching for a figurative needle in the haystack of the Duscaean plains. They'd also, he recalled with a grimace, had Noctis safe and sound at their side.

"Howdy, boys. Oh, and -- beg my pardon -- lil' lady." The front doors of the shop swung open and Cindy Aurum stepped out wearing a low-cut red tank top, cut-off jean shorts, and as radiant a smile as ever. "Didn't expect y'all back so soon, but it sure is good t'see ya."

"Heyas, Cindy," Prompto grinned at her, not missing the way Gladio's eyebrow arched on the edge of his vision.

"Miss Aurum," Ignis began as he stepped forward. "I apologize for not phoning ahead, but we're in quite a hurry. We need to speak with your grandfather right away."

"Ooh," she said slowly, disappointment clear. "I was hopin' y'all were gonna let me take a peek under the hood o' yer pretty ride this time. Been thinkin' about 'er since the last time you boys came to visit." She sighed, but her smile bounced back almost instantly. "Anywho, Pawpaw's just out back. Come on in an' get comfy, I'll let him know yer here."

While Ignis was loathe to waste any more time than absolutely necessary, the other three made a beeline for the sofas set up in the back of the shop. It appeared that in addition to a garage, a hotel, and a store, Cid and his granddaughter also ran a quaint cafe. There was a menu posted above a register counter next to the sofas, and a door that (presumably) lead to a kitchen on the other side. As Prompto flopped down onto the slightly musty cushions between Iris and Gladio, his stomach gave a loud rumble at the thought of some food.

"Hey, Iggy. Mind if we get some sandwiches or something? I think I might actually be starving to death here."

Gladio chuckled at his side. They both watched as Ignis chose a spot of wall against which to lean back, then shoot them a dark look. "If you care more about your stomach than saving Noctis, then by all means, be my guest."

Both of their faces fell instantly. Prompto resigned himself to staring down at his knees, while Gladio leaned a little closer to his side and returned Iggy's stare with a frown of his own.

"Well, if it ain't the Witless Wonders," a voice croaked from behind them, breaking the tense silence. They turned as one as Cid "the Saw" strode into the room, white hair tucked messily under a cap and his hands black with grease. He didn't look particularly happy to see them, but then again Ignis didn't think Cid ever looked happy, period. The brunette took a step forward and bowed low in greeting.

"Cid. We've come to ask for your help. There's been an incident and -- "

"Yeah, yeah, I heard all about it from the guys," he said, waving his hand and lowering himself into a worn armchair across from the others. Cindy followed behind him a moment later. "Rumor is, y'all managed to lose Reggie's kid this time. Hell'va week this damn family's had, I'll say."

No one bothered to answer. Prompto balled his hands into tight fists on top of his thighs, fighting back his guilt. Next to him, Gladio made a rough sound in his throat and sank further back into the cushions behind him. Even Ignis seemed to wince at the accusation. Only Iris remained bright eyed, looking from Cid to Cindy and back to her brother as she attempted to fill in the gaps of the story.

After a moment of silence, Cid grunted and started again. "Guess since none of y'all is answerin', the rumors must be true. Which makes me wonder why the hell y'came all the way out here instead o’ stayin' back in the city lookin' fer 'im."

"I.... We may have a lead," Ignis said in a stiff voice. "Noctis was most certainly kidnapped, and we believe the man who's taken him is an old acquaintance of yours. We’ve come to ask for your help to track him down" At this, Cid's eyes narrowed and leaned forward in his chair with renewed interest.

"I ain't got too many 'acquaintances' left in this world, son. Wanna tell me just who it is yer lookin' for?"

From his pocket, Ignis produced the documents Iris had brought them earlier that afternoon, unfolding them before offering them to the old man. "Izunia," he said. "Ardyn Izunia."

Cid took the papers, but didn't bother with so much as a fleeting glance at the words on the front page. His sharp blue eyes were locked on Ignis' face, his expression hard as he tried to guess whether he was joking or simply stupid. "Wanna run that by me again, Scientia?"

Ignis tensed visibly. "Ardyn Izunia. According to those papers, he worked for the Caelum family -- "

"Thirty-odd years ago, yeah. Now," he said, dropping the papers unceremoniously onto an empty chair beside him. "I don' know how y'all got this information, and I ain't gonna waste time askin'. But Izunia's a ghost story. As in, dead . Watched Reggie put a bullet in 'm a long time ago, and there ain't no way a fella comes back from that."

On the sofa, Gladio turned to exchange confused glances with Prompto. Together, they watched Ignis fumbling in a very un-Ignis-like manner for some sort of reply. Ever since the scene at the bar, he'd been insistent that Ardyn was the man they needed to find, and yet....

"Aldercapt is dead," came the suddenly clear reply, and Ignis raised his head to meet Cid's gaze, unfaltering. "We've been to Zegnautus ourselves. We saw his corpse. Someone has been controlling the Niffs in his stead, and every source I have points to Ardyn. Even Verstael referred to him as 'the jester' before I split his face in two."

At the mental image Prompto's stomach gave a different kind of lurch, and he suddenly wondered if he might be sick again. Even Iris shuddered next to him, subtly leaning in against his side.

"Ah, well that's some in'erestin' news." Cid searched Ignis' face for a long moment, until something he saw there had him taking a second look at the discarded papers. "Izunia, huh. Been years since I heard that name. I thought it'd died with him, but if what yer sayin' has any bit o' truth in it...." There was a pause as Cid shook his head. "Reggie's gone now. Don' suppose there's much he can do about an old fool like me yammerin' away all his secrets. Go on, take a seat. Cindy," he turned, waving his granddaughter over. "Get us some drinks, will ya."

"Oh, no, that won't be necessary." Ignis had remained standing, and now held a hand up in protest. "We plan to return to Insomnia tonight, so we really must -- "

A sharp glare from Cid had him snapping his mouth shut at once. "Ya wanna hear this story or not?" he bellowed. "It ain't worth tellin' if it ain't told right. So sit down, shut up, and drink yer goddamn tea."

Any further protests died on their lips. Ignis glanced at the others, then gave a curt nod as he settled -- rather uncomfortably -- in a chair all to himself. No one spoke, not until Cindy came back out of the kitchen carrying a tray of glasses and passed them around. Prompto and Iris took a sip and immediately brightened at the sweet, tangy flavor of the tea, but both Gladio and Ignis seemed reluctant to do more than hold them politely in their laps.

"Now then," Cid said, gulping down half his own glass before speaking up at last. "Y'all must've already figured out that Ardyn used to work for Reggie, startin' right aroun' the time he took over the family business when 'is old man died. But that ain't the beginnin' by a long shot. Ain't no one left alive that knows this tale, 'cept me. Ain't no one old enough."

From over the rim of his drink, Prompto silently agreed. Cid looked to be at least a hundred years old, maybe more, but still as sharp and deadly as he imagined he'd looked in his youth.

"Ardyn was just a kid 'imself when Mors took him in," Cid continued. "A scrappy little runt, left fer dead when a couple o' Glaives went rogue in a bad part o' town. Guess ol' Mors felt sorry fer the brat, said 'e wanted ta make things right by raisin' him himself."

"That's preposterous," Ignis cut in, shaking his head. "There are no records anywhere of Mors Caelum adopting a second child. Regis was his sole heir, there was never any dispute."

"That's because it weren' never official. Ardyn lived with the Caelums, grew up like Reggie's brother, got all the same trainin' and education -- but ol' Mors never saw fit t'give him the family name.

"Y'see, Ardyn had what we called 'bad blood.' Came from a line o' traitors, weren't loyal t'any one family or the other. They'd wronged Reggie's old man in the past, an’ his ol' man before him. The name 'Izunia' -- means weasel , an' that's exactly what those folks were. Now, Mors knew Ardyn was just a kid, maybe even though 'e could change his fate. But he never did trust 'im, not really."

This time, it was Gladio who spoke up in the pause that followed. "So how come Regis never told anyone he had a sort-of-adopted brother? He had to be too young to know about Ardyn's past, right?"

Cid seemed thoughtful for a moment, then, "I think Reggie musta loved Ardyn like real family once. They were close, I remember it. But that Ardyn...." He sighed, took off his cap and ran grease-slicked fingers back through his white hair. "He was never quite right, y'know? Used t’ do strange things, even as a youngin', like breakin' Reggies toys fer no reason at all. When 'e got older, he started on the grown ups, too. Leavin' traps on the stairs, hidin’ all sorts o’ nasty things into folks' shoes -- nails, bits o’ broken glass. He was a damn mischief-maker, never tried denyin' it when he got caught, too. 'T was like he enjoyed the punishment as much as the crime.

"Well, Reggie hated his tricks, an' the more time went on the more he took t'avoiding Ardyn. Seemed everyone'd had enough. While Reggie went off t'proper college, Ardyn was sent away to some boardin' school outside the city."

"Just seems like that would make him even angrier," Prompto observed, shrugging. "Act out more."

With a dark smile, Cid nodded. "Fer a damn chocobo-lookin' punk, yer pretty smart. That's about what happened. Ardyn put a couple o' teachers in the hospital -- and they put him in juvie."

"Prison?" Ignis furrowed his brows. "For how long?"

"Not long enough, if y'ask me. But rules are rules, an' when he was twenty they had to let him go. Mors was dead by then, and Reggie'd just taken over his ol' man's chair when Ardyn came back home."

"So, what? Regis just took him back in, gave him a job? Just like that?"

Cid shrugged, clearly agreeing with Gladio's indignation. "Guess he felt sorry fer him. Ardyn had no where else t'go, and I think Reggie saw 'im as his own responsibility. Maybe he believed Ardyn'd changed, had gotten better after a few years be'ind bars."

"That never works," Prompto said softly. He gave a yawn, barely managing to cover his mouth with the back of his hand, before slumping down against Gladio's shoulder. "Jail just makes guys like him," -- another yawn -- "More cunning."

Cid watched the kid for a moment, then waved his hand at Cindy in a silent request. She nodded, hopped off the sofa, and returned a moment later with several keys. "Here. Same room as last time," she smiled, holding on of them out for Prompto. He reached us sleepily to take it, but Gladio was faster. With a nod and a smile, he began to help Prompto to his feet.

"I'll take care of him," he assured her, squeezing his arm around the blonde's waist. "Iris, you coming, too?"

His sister shook her head. "Nah, it's still early. And I wanna hear this story." Glancing between Ignis and Cid, she added, "If that's alright with you?"

"'Course, ain't much that'll spook an Amicitia, right? Y'all go on now, before y'get drool on my favorite couch."

The two headed for the front of the shop -- and ultimately the hotel around back -- while Ignis turned to their host to resume their conversation. He could feel they were getting close to the truth, to the core of the story that would tell him exactly what he needed to know. "So. After Ardyn returned and Regis took him in, how long before you and he began working together."

"Few months. I was in charge o' weapons development, which was just a fancy term fer blowin' stuff up with bigger 'n better guns. Ardyn, though, he was into somethin' more dangerous."

"More dangerous than big guns?" Iris balked, eyes going wide.

" Pharmacology's what he called it, had Reggie an' us convinced he was makin' medicines. 'Helpin' people,' or so he said. Even got them t' build him a labratory fer all his experiments and whatnot. But it turned out he wasn' making medicine at all."

Ignis scowled. "What a surprise. How did Regis finally find out?"

"The bodies."

Iris stiffened on the sofa. Next to her, Cindy (who had until now been listening in silence) threw a hand up to her mouth as she gasped.

Of them all, only Ignis seemed unphased. "Bodies? Whose?"

"Dunno," he answered with a shrug. "Folks off the streets, maybe, we never ask'd. Turns out Ardyn needed 'specimens' to test out all the drugs he was cookin' up in that lab o' his. But when Reggie caught'im, whoo boy. Thought he was gonna up 'n kill Ardyn on the spot."

"He didn't?"

"Not then, no. Reggie was an ol' softie, right down t'his bones, and he decided givin' Ardyn another chance was the right thing t'do." A dark laugh. "If it's been up ta me, I woulda sent him straight ta hell that night.

"Ardyn lost his lab, o' course, an' Reggie made sure all his research was destroyed. Made him lay low fer a while, least 'til the heat was off on all them people he'd killed. Even in our line o' work, he'd gone too far. Anyway, a few years passed, none o' us saw much of Ardyn, an' we didn't ask. Until, well...."

"Well?"

"There were...noises. Under the Citadel -- y'know, that great monstrosity Reggie had built downtown. Y'see, he always wanted that spot on account o' the ol' subway lines running underneath. Said they'd make fer good escape routes, lots o' dark places t'hide evidence, all that stuff. He tried t'keep the tunnels a secret, bigwigs only -- so when we 'eard the noises from down there, comin' up through the vents at night, we didn't know what ta think."

Ignis was leaning forward in his seat. If what he was thinking was correct, then.... "It was Ardyn."

A nod. "Bingo. He'd set up another lab right under our noses. Was still makin' those weird drugs, an' the noises -- that was the screamin' ." Cid leaned back in his chair and sighed, long and heavy. A shadow of something painful -- a memory, or a vision -- passed in front of his face, and he didn't bother to wipe it away. "Saw it with my own eyes, I did. All those poor, poor people. What he did to 'em, what that damn drug did to 'em. Well, even Reggie couldn' forgive a thing like that."

"...And what made him change his mind?"

"That kid o' his, Noctis. Still just a bun in the oven when it all happened, but Reggie could think o' nothin' else back then. He saw what Ardyn'd done t' all those folks an' knew he couldn't let such a monster live in th' same world as his son. I was there when he executed 'im. I saw the bullet go in his head and never come back out. Don' get much deader than that."

Silence fell in the wake of Cid's story. To Ignis, his suspicions had only been confirmed despite the evidence of Ardyn's death, and the words Aranea Highwind had spoken to him that night in the club came flooding back at once. " He always sticks close to home ," he said quietly, as if to himself, and clenched his fist in his lap. "I know where to find him. I know where Ardyn is keeping Noct."

Across from him, Cid was watching with an appreciative smile. "Then you'd best be ready fer a fight. Follow me on over ta the garage -- I got some weapons that'll be perfect fer huntin' ghosts.

 

Chapter Text

Rain cascaded down in torrents, pounding on the asphalt and turning the back streets of Insomnia's belly into currents of refuse and decay. Above the doors of bars and clubs, neon lights glared sickly-bright even through the storm, but their yellow-orange glow was lost on the empty streets. That night, all of the city appeared to be locked away, asleep or chasing their dragons behind closed doors.

All but one, that was.

The figure moved erratically along the sidewalk, sometimes stopping, sometimes lurching forward with alarming speed. Steps uneven, he would falter, catch himself, move on again. A pattern unbroken by wind or rain or even the catch of heavy boots on broken concrete; he moved in a fever, in a daze.

Yet he was far from lost. He knew these streets well, too well, had memorized the path long ago when he'd first stumbled upon their gift. Magic , they had called it, and he had been brash enough to scoff at the notion. Ah, what a fool he had been, young and invulnerable.

At least until the morning he'd woken up with a dagger in his chest, and found all the stories to be true.

The next alley he limped down was darker than the rest, no hint of glowing shop signs or welcoming lights in windows. No windows at all, in fact, as nearly every inch of the walls had been boarded or bricked shut, the additions hasty, careless, crude. Without knowing the mark - an eye, blue in the center and etched in fiery white lines on dark wood - the entrance to the healer's sanctum was easily missed. Typical of beings like them , the figure thought with a grimace. So greedy, so unwilling to share their art with the world.

So unlike himself.

He burst through the door in a flurry of wind and mist, both of which swept through the narrow genkan to rattle wooden frames and thin paper walls alike. Shutting out the gale required more effort than his body could muster. It followed him through the dimly-lit corridor, through room after empty room until at last the heavy scent of incense hung thick in the air, and the flicker of candlelight cast living shadows on the shoji before him.

With his last remaining strength he pushed the doors open, and fell forward into darkness.

Time passed. How much he couldn't say, nor could he be certain whether he was alive or dead. He merely was , drifting in and out of consciousness as flashes of blue and white consumed his vision. Besides the pain, which throbbed a constant reminder of his mortality behind his feverish eyes, he was aware only of their presence, their touch moving over him like a breath of icy winter. A voice spoke, strange words on a stranger tongue, told him to sleep, to rest, to allow the magic to take hold.

He did.

When at last he awoke -- really, truly awoke, not just blips of lucidity in a prolonged pipe dream -- the first thing he saw was their smile.

"Welcome back," they purred, and Ardyn's lips stretched into a grin.

"Shiva, my dear. I do believe you have outdone yourself."

 

-----

 

Noctis gasped, eyes flying open in a horrible panic.

The room around him was grey, solid, dark with shadows and grime. There were no candles, no unearthly smiles bearing down on him, no blood coating his face or matting his hair. His wrist and ankles remained bound to some unseen post and yet…. The scent of incense was unmistakable.

Had it been a dream? A very tangible, very real dream that left his flesh itching, crawling with the notion that he had somehow been there? Or was it more, something darker? A haunting vision of a soulless mind?

It was that thought as much as the lingering pain in his temple that threatened to turn his stomach in knots for the dozenth time. There was nothing left in his body to expel, so he settled for heaving, coughing, throat convulsing even as the familiar taste of blood filled his mouth.

He was dying, that much he was sure of. While he had lost count of the hours -- or had it been days? Weeks, even? -- his body kept track of its abuse, reminded him constantly of the poison coursing through his veins and the damage it wreaked on him from the inside out. Changing him, but into what he didn’t yet know.

There was only one man who could answer his questions. Yet outside of his oddly lucid dreams Noct couldn’t recall the last time Ardyn had paid a visit to his cell. There had been the sound of his laughter echoing off the dark, ancient walls, but then only silence ever since. A blessing, in a way -- but Noct couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been left here alone to rot.

Wherever here was, anyway. So far from the light of the sun, from his home, from his friends.

So far from Ignis, and the hope of ever seeing him again.

If he closed his eyes, if he shut out the terrible reality that surrounded him for just a moment, he could almost hear it -- his name, soft and reverent, whispered on the lilting tongue of his lover. A fleeting memory, bittersweet now in the wake of what could have been . Throughout his torment, illusions of Ignis had come to him time and again -- always Ignis, always in his moments of despair. He came to comfort him or to silence him, but always to break his heart the moment the vision faded once more.

Noctis’ biggest regret -- besides dying -- was that he’d never gotten the chance to tell Ignis his plan. That he’d made up his mind, and it wasn’t Luna he’d intended to rule alongside, but --

Suddenly a bang , louder than a gunshot, rang out in the empty air, sending Noct’s thoughts scattering and his heart leaping into his throat.

The noise sounded once again in quick succession, the sound like the scraping of metal on metal, and reverberated along the very walls as the door of the chamber shook with some unseen force. This was no hallucination, no trick of the drugs.

Something was coming.

Fear began to outweigh his shock. Tears brimmed in his eyes and he watched, petrified, as the door to his cell was slammed open with the force of a charging behemoth. Smoke flooded the chamber, and Noctis screamed.

 

-------- That morning, just before dawn ---------

 

“Last chance, Iris. I’m not gonna say it again.”

“Good, don’t . ‘Cause I already made up my mind.”

From the driver’s seat, Gladio narrowed his gaze and shot a glare back at his sister via the rearview mirror. “This isn’t like one of your dumb video games, this is work . Real, dangerous work.”

“Emphasis on the danger ,” Prompto chimed in, and instantly regretted it when Iris’ pout turned on him next.

“What? You, too, Prom?” she accused.

In the less than twenty-fours hours since he’d met the youngest of the Amicitia family, Prompto had already realized that there were some things even thicker than blood. What she lacked in size Iris made up for in sheer willpower, and could be every bit as stubborn and hot-headed as her older brother. Even more so, perhaps, which is why she seemed to be winning this argument, too.

“I-I just think it’d be safer if you at least, y’know, waited in the car?”

To his relief (and Gladio’s), the explosion he expected to follow was interrupted by a different voice from the front -- at once calm and yet sharp enough to coax Iris back into her seat. “I’m just as keen to leave the two of you behind as well if you can’t focus.”

Prompto swallowed as Gladio seemed to shrink several inches down behind the wheel. In the much preferable silence that followed, Ignis returned his focus to the papers spread across his lap. Blueprints, mostly, of the layout for the city’s first underground train lines back before the high-speed subways had shut them all down. According to the drawings -- and the information he had gleaned from Cid before setting out that morning -- one of the abandoned stations was located right below the Citadel, and could be accessed from a sealed door on the lowest floor of the building. At last, they knew where they were going.

The question now was: What would they find when they got there?

The rest of the drive back to Insomnia passed in near silence, Ignis lost in his own thoughts and the others too afraid of once again disrupting his concentration. Iris spent much of the time absorbed in her phone, occasionally smiling or tapping away at the screen with practiced speed. Next to her, Prompto alternated between watching the pre-dawn landscape gradually brighten under the rising sun, and trying to catch Gladio’s eyes in the mirror up front. Every once in awhile, a flash of amber would glance up just in time to meet his gaze, and Prompto would feel a smile stretch across his face despite himself.

They reached the Citadel just after dawn. It was the first time any of them had seen the building so empty, devoid of the usual rush of suits outside the main entrance. That morning, the doors were sealed, the entrance hall dark and eerie enough to give Prompto chills as they drove past. Gladio instead took them around to the back of the building, into a garage usually reserved for high-profile guests who preferred not to draw attention.

As promised, before leaving Hammerhead Cid had loaded up the Regalia with all manner of hand-made weaponry: big guns, small guns, guns with knives attached to the barrels; guns that shot shrapnel instead of bullets, and knives that looked like typical blades...but were actually guns. Of the four companions, only Prompto seemed excited about the (in Ignis’ opinion, anyway) unecessary firepower, and so he was the only one to sling a duffel bag of Cid’s going-away presents over his shoulder before they locked the car and left it behind.

It was Ignis’ security code that gave them access to the building, and they headed straight for the floor below.

The corridor was dark save for the haunting green glow of the emergency lights. Prompto knew it was daytime, knew the morning sun was likely already peeking above the outer wall of Insomnia to illuminate the streets, but inside the basement of the Citadel it felt as cold and black as night. It reminded him of being inside Zegnautus, of the fear he’d felt surrounded by the shadows and death of that place, and he shuddered instinctively. To his surprise, it wasn’t Gladio who suddenly reached over to squeeze his hand in comfort, but Iris, her smile brave despite the tension in her grip. Prompto squeezed her hand in return, and wondered how it was possible for one family to be so perfect.

The group didn’t stop moving until Ignis, who’d been leading them using Cid’s blueprints, suddenly came to halt in front of a grated wall and folded the maps into his front pocket.

“This is the entrance,” he announced, much to Gladio’s consternation.

This? But there isn’t even a door.” The large man took a step forward, giving the bars of the grate one loud, firm shake with his fist. “How are we supposed to get through there?”

Prompto heard Iris snickering beside him before she even spoke up. “We could try slamming your thick skull through it, that oughta work.”

“Very funny, pipsqueak.”

Quiet , both of you.”

“Actually, I have an idea.“

Ignis suddenly turned to face Prompto, his eyes first widening, then narrowing in suspicion. “...You do?”

The blonde swallowed down his offense in favor of lowering the heavy duffel bag off his shoulder and onto the floor at his feet. “Yeah, one of the things Cid gave us -- Didn’t you guys notice? No? -- was a crowbar. W-well, it’s a gun with a crowbar attachment. I mean, I don’t really know why you’d need something like that, but -- “

“This it?” As soon as Prompto opened the bag, Gladio had reached in and pulled out the weapon in question. He held it up for examination, then shot Iggy a look . “Gimme a hand.”

It took longer than Ignis would have liked, but after several moments the two men had managed to pry open one corner of the grate. There was just enough room for each of them to squeeze in (Gladio had the hardest time of it), and as Prompto passed through he had the foresight to pull the metal closed behind them. Just in case.

The tunnel laid out before them was pitch black. Iris and Gladio led the way with their phone screens, while Ignis and Prompto (whose cell batteries had long since died) followed close behind and on high alert. Sounds filled the air, a mix of ancient, dripping pipes and their echoing footsteps on the bare concrete floor. Occasionally, the shadow of something small and scurrying would dart out between their feet, causing Iris to force back a shriek and Gladio to nearly drop his phone in surprise.

But there were no other noises, at least not the kind they were hoping for. Ignis frowned, held a hand to his ear and listened into the darkness ahead, but he could find nothing that might lead them closer to Noct. Yet the chill in the air around them was from more than just the ancient walls. They could all feel the presence of something strange, something dangerous, even if they couldn’t hear it. That notion was what kept them trudging forward along the singular path.

And then they stumbled across the laboratory.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t hidden away as they might have expected, but rather sat out in the open; tables connected to cages connected to large, hissing tanks that spanned the length of one whole corridor about half a mile into the tunnel. Recently used, too, judging from the hum of unseen generators and the lights -- bare bulbs, strung together and fastened crudely to the walls -- that illuminated the entire array.

The moment they rounded the corner, Ignis had quickly grabbed Gladio’s shoulder and yanked him back to the shadows that hid them from view. Holding a finger to his tightly pursed lips, he himself peered around the corner, emerald eyes scanning carefully for any signs of movement. But aside from the slow grind of gears and trickle of an eerie green liquid through a network of tubes, the laboratory was deathly silent.

Without words, Ignis gestured for the rest of the group to follow his lead.

No one dared speak as they passed through Ardyn’s lab, though questions burned in the silence. How had he built this monstrosity down here by himself? What exactly was he making, and how much of it was already stored in those tanks? And perhaps most of all, Where was the man of the hour hiding?

Even after passing the laboratory, Ignis couldn't shake the feeling that something had felt off about the whole situation. In Gralea, when he and Nyx had fought their way into Verstael’s lab far beneath the Cartanica, there had been a veritable horde of Niff thugs guarding the place. The Cook himself had been watching over production downstairs, since even the slightest malfunction could cost millions of gil in losses (not to mention the inevitable rolling of heads). If a street gang as unorganized as Niflheim had put so many resources behind their drug factory, why would a cunning man like Ardyn leave so much seemingly to chance?

Somehow, Ignis didn't believe it had anything to do with stupidity, but the remaining implications left his blood running cold.

Another few moments trekking on in silence brought them at last to an open hall. Its high ceilings and raised platforms spoke of an abandoned station, but if there had ever been tracks laid there, they were long buried under dust and debris. Despite the distinct lack of equipment or work spaces in the large hall, it was lit in the same way as the lab had been behind them. Old bulbs and an ancient generator kept the place illuminated, gradually trailing off behind a large door that was sealed from the outside. The sight made Ignis’ chest tighten with something he dared to liken to hope. For what other purpose could a door like that serve but to hold a prisoner?

To hold Noct.

"Hey, Igs, d’ya think that could be…?"

"Perhaps." But already he could feel his pulse quickening, his mind racing with fear and trepidation and the sudden desire to get that bloody door open and -- !

Prompto raced ahead of the group, evidently having come to the same conclusions as Gladio and Ignis, abandoning caution as his excitement took hold. There was a lock on the door, not a typical padlock as there was no place for a key or to input a code. It was simply a heavy metal rod that had been fitted into place around the door’s handle, almost as if it had been… bent? That seemed impossible, and yet he saw no other way for it to be locked or unlocked.

"Hey! Think you can pry this open, big guy?" he asked, voice echoing in the chamber despite his intention to merely whisper. Gladio quickly closed the gap between them and frowned.

"I wanna take that as a compliment, but I really hope you're joking." He paused for a moment, examining the lock, then, "Got anything else useful in that bag of tricks?"

"Not unless Cid threw in a hacksaw or a -- " He froze, eyes going wide. Actually…

Prompto glanced at Ignis, wordlessly asking for permission before, in a voice more confident than he actually felt, he advised them all to take a step back.

Several steps back.

From their new position behind a concrete column, Gladio watched in awe -- and ultimately horror -- as his boyfriend withdrew a dark green cylinder from his duffel bag, dropped a metal ball into the central tube, and heaved the thing onto his shoulder.

"Woah, hey, Prom -- is that a rocket launcher?"

The blonde flashed them a cheeky smile over his shoulder. "…Fire in the hole."

The first blast shook the entire chamber, a wave of aftershock pulsing through the air and dislodging a disconcerting amount of rocks from the ceiling. The force of it threw the blonde off balance, so much so that he flubbed the shot entirely and sent the mini-projectile careening toward the center of the large steel door instead. It exploded against the metal, sending sparks and smoke flying but leaving little more than a dent where it had hit.

Gladio was at his side before he'd even finished loading the second round. "Lean into me," he said, grinning, and wrapped both arms around Prompto’s torso as the blonde positioned the barrel across both of their shoulders. This time when he pulled the trigger, Gladio held him steady and together they hit their mark -- it exploded in a flash of light as the metal blew apart, knocking the entire handle to the floor and leaving the door swinging open on its hinges.

For several moments none of them moved. Beyond the smoke of the blast they couldn’t quite make out the hazy shapes within the room, couldn’t tell light from shadow or even how deep it ran.

But then Ignis heard a voice. A scream .

He was on his feet and pushing his way past Gladio and Prompto faster than the pounding of his heart.

“NOCTIIIIS!”

Through the smoke his legs carried him, numb as they pounded on the hard concrete floor. His only thought was of reaching Noct, of finding him safe and alive -- alive! -- Gods, please let him be alive -- !

Yes! He could see Noct now, his wrists and ankles lashed to the ruins of a broken column in the center of the room, his usually calm, blue eyes a vivid white in his fear. His mouth hung open, and even before Ignis reached him he could see the bruises -- so, so many bruises.

“Noctis!” he shouted again, and the young oyabun seemed to shrink. “Noctis, I’m here!”

“...Iggy…?” There was a strange rasp in his voice that hadn’t been there before, the name leaving his lips in more of a prayer than a question. His eyes focused on the man standing before him as if he were trying to decide if he were... real ? It was a reaction that pained Ignis far more than he could have feared -- but there would be time for sentiment later. Now their priority was getting Noct to safety.

His dagger was in his hand without conscious effort, the blade slicing through the thick ropes that bound his prince’s limbs, and then Noctis was slipping free. Ignis caught him in both arms just as Gladio, Prompto, and Iris raced to his side.

“Oh, no!” came the soft gasp from behind Gladio’s shoulder, where Iris had ducked at the sight of Noctis, pale and bruised and trembling. Prompto surged forward, immediately placing his hands on either side of his friend’s face and smiling through his tears.

"Hey, buddy," he said, voice strained within his tightening throat. "Been looking everywhere for you. Iggy’s been worried sick, we all have."

"Prom…? Is that really you?"

"It’s really all of us, princess." Gladio leaned forward to brush the sweat-matted hair from Noct’s face. "Time you caught a ride home, dontcha think?"

The smile was weak, but it was there. Tears -- of relief, of everything -- burst forth, and Noctis turned his face into Ignis neck as he cried.

Prompto didn't know Iggy could flush so pale so quickly.

"We need to get out of here," he muttered. Gladio set a large hand on his back as he gestured for Ignis to pass Noct to him.

Green eyes darkened, a hint of fever, of possessiveness flashing dangerously across his expression. "Out of the question."

"C’mon, Igs. We need you to navigate us outta here. Let me carry Noct, you focus on the map." Ignis frowned, his heart at once at odds with the otherwise perfectly sound logic. He stared up into Gladio’s unwavering gaze, gauged his strength in one brief but piercing look. Gladio nodded, a solemn oath. "I'll guard him with my life." And Ignis knew he meant every word.

Still, it was so hard to let go.

Noctis clung to him, his eyes going wide when he felt Iggy’s arms slipping away….

Then Gladio was hoisting him up like he weighed nothing and charging after the others back toward the tunnel. None of them slowed down, none of them stopped.

None of them thought to check over their shoulder to see the shadows closing in, or the pair of eyes watching them from out of the darkness, glowing yellow above a crooked smile.

 

---------

 

"Are you still waiting out here?"

Sania Yeagre’s smile was full of sympathy as she returned to the living room to find Ignis much as she had left him; seated on the edge of the sofa, his head buried in his hands. Upon being addressed, he dredged up the energy to lift his face from between his fingers.

"How is he?"

Beyond Sania’s shoulder, the doorway to Noct’s bedroom was cracked open. He could see Noctis sitting on his mattress, staring at nothing and clutching his crumpled t-shirt so tightly in his lap that his knuckles were turning white.

A quiet sigh from the doctor drew his attention halfway back into the present. "He's been through hell, no denying that. Most of his injuries appear to be surface contusions, but I can't do a thorough examination without my equipment." She pulled a card out the front pocket of her denim jacket, offered it to Ignis who accepted it with a twitch of his mouth. "Bring him to my lab tomorrow. I'd like to run some blood tests, just to…be sure."

With the way the lines around her mouth suddenly deepened, it was clear she was holding something back. But she was a doctor, she knew the value of evidence over inklings , and there was no reason to cause undue panic. Her frown faded and she flashed a smile instead. "Tonight, he needs rest. We can talk more in the morning."

"Thank you, Doctor. I'll call you once he’s awake."

"Ah, you'll be staying the night, then?"

Halfway to his feet, Ignis froze. He caught sight of Noctis, still immobile on his bed, and decided that for once propriety could go fuck itself. "I am. I'll keep a close eye on him. Thank you, Doctor."

As intended, those final words ended the conversation and Ignis strode past Sania and into Noct’s bedroom. He didn't bother closing the door. He knew the doctor could see herself out, trusted her to understand his urgency to return to his place at Noct’s side at once.

Ignis knelt in front of his prince and waited a long, tense moment for those distant eyes to at last focus in on him.

"...Hey, Specs."

"Noctis…."

The dark-haired oyabun dropped his gaze to his lap again and forced a tight smile. “...Doc said it was forty-eight hours. Only two days.” He swallowed, shook his head, eyes watering. “It felt like two years .”

“We...I should have gotten there sooner.”

Noct shook his head again, harder this time. “...You came for me, that was enough.”

“But it wasn’t. Noctis -- “ Reaching forward, Ignis laid his hands atop white knuckles, slowly curling his fingers around Noct’s and prying them free of his shirt. When those familiar blue eyes finally met his again, they were filled with tears. Ignis felt his throat tighten as if the hand that had bruised Noctis’ neck was clenched around his own now.  “I should have been there. I never should have taken my eyes off you.”

“Iggy?”

“I promise to never let you out of my sight again, Noctis. I swear my life on it, I -- “

Trembling lips closed the distance in a heartbeat, hitching Ignis’ breath and swallowing down his words. Through his tears Noctis kissed him as if it had indeed been two years since they had lost each other, all his fear and relief and desperation pouring out into the act. And for all his concern -- Noctis should be resting, Noctis needs time to recover -- Ignis found himself unable, unwilling to pull away. As Noct dropped his t-shirt to the floor in favor of twisting his arms around Iggy’s shoulders, the older man got to his knees, his feet, chasing Noctis back onto the bed beneath him.

Neither spoke -- there was no need for words -- as fingers pulled at fabric and clawed at bare skin. Nails raked down Ignis’ back and he sighed his devotion into the side of Noctis’ neck. Hasty palms rubbed over hot flesh, the sounds of their desperate need spilled into the air of the bedroom. Noctis never once released his grip on his lovers’ body, never once uncurled himself from the solid warmth of Iggy’s frame. Even after they had both found release in the space between, he remained firmly attached to lean shoulders and powerful hips alike, as if letting go would mean falling, drowning.

Eventually, Noctis fell asleep in Ignis’ arms while his lover kept watch. After some time his breathing began to slow, the tension in his face and limbs drained away as Ignis kissed his brow, stroked his side. As he thought .

In the morning, he would call Sania again. In the morning, he would have to tell Noctis about Ardyn, about his father and the lie that had nearly cost his own life. In the morning, they would once again face the reality of their roles, their places in society, and conceal their hearts as they had done so many times before.

But it could all wait. If only for one night, Ignis refused to hide his love, refused to waste another thought on what was proper, what was expected of them both. After nearly losing Noct to the underworld, he vowed right then and there to never waste another moment of their time together.

He was Ignis Scientia, the Reaper of Insomnia, and he owed his heart and his loyalty to Noctis Lucis Caelum. Forever.

At last, he began to drift into a hazy sleep with his face buried in soft, black hair. He awoke briefly and only once, to the sound of Noctis slipping off to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

 

Chapter Text

Ignis set his glasses on the edge of the desk and used his other hand to draw Noctis’ chin up to face him. Blue eyes, deep and pleading and filled with too many emotions to put into words, stared back. This was too much, too soon, and Ignis knew it. He could feel the tension seeping from the young oyabun’s very pores. Yet it was Noct himself who had wanted to call the council meeting.

Beyond the doors of what had once been Regis’ office, the executive members of the family were already beginning to gather. Ignis could hear their voices, muffled but near enough to distinguish familiar tones: Weskham, Clarus, Monica. More would be coming soon. Noct’s fingers clenched in the front of his shirt and Ignis could sense the uncertainty there.

“Will you call off the meeting?” His voice was low, private. He was already aware of what Noct’s answer would be, so when he began to shake his head Ignis was ready. “Then you’re going to need to relax before you go out there. Everyone will be watching you for signs of weakness.”

Blue eyes faltered. “ Weakness ,” Noct repeated, and his mouth twitched into a frown.

It had been two days since he’d been rescued from Ardyn’s cell, and in that time the only people he’d seen were Ignis and Dr. Yaegre. He had managed to convince the former that the trembling in his hands and often violent nausea were side effects of his trauma, of the nightmares, and that they would pass with time. The latter had been less easily persuaded, and in the end he’d made her promise to keep the results of his extensive blood tests secret. There was no need for Ignis or anyone else to know about the Starscourge that still haunted his veins, or the way his body seemed to hunger for it day and night and rebelled against him in its need.

Only one thing so far had worked to quiet its call.

“Noct?”

Deep blue eyes, almost violet with shadow, turned to gaze up at Ignis once again. Those thin fingers tightened in his shirt, and Noct smiled. “Help me relax?”

Understanding flashed across Ignis’ features. Without a hint of hesitation he guided Noctis to lean back against the desk, leaving one hand resting atop his prince’s on the dark wood while the other trailed down his chest, his stomach, feeling the warmth of his body even through his dress shirt. When his fingers came to rest just above the zipper of Noct’s slacks, Ignis smiled and leaned in for a surprisingly chaste kiss. “It’s always an honor to serve you, my love,” he said before dropping to his knees.

The sight of those deft, gloved fingers working open his pants, his boxers, drawing his heated flesh out into the cool air nearly made Noct’s head spin. Ignis was so good every time. With his hands, which he used to coax his cock to a satisfying hardness, and with his mouth which surrounded him a moment later, all heat and slick and perfection. So, so good.

Noctis suddenly gripped at the desk for balance.

Shh ,” Ignis purred from below. Noct hadn’t even realized he’d made a sound. He forced his mouth closed even as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Ignis drew the head of his cock back between his lips and sucked gently, lovingly, humming at the taste and warmth of his beloved prince on his tongue. Further, further, swallowing him down until his nose was pressed to the cool metal of Noct’s belt clasp. Above him the oyabun hissed his name.

Outside the privacy of the office, more guests were beginning to arrive. The din if their voices helped to cover the sound of Noct’s low moans, the sound of slick skin sliding between doting lips, but the risk was real. Should anyone dare to open those doors, they would be exposed, caught in the act with nowhere to run. The thought was as terrifying as it was exhilarating, and Ignis found himself working Noct’s flesh harder, faster, willing him toward release as quickly as possible.

Thin fingers found the back of his head, twisted and tangled in short, brown hair as Noctis grew desperate. His hips began to rock off the desk, seeking more heat deep within Ignis’ ever-accommodating throat. And Ignis welcomed him gladly. Every thrust he met with hollowed cheeks and a swirl of his tongue, and emerald eyes watching, unblinking, as his lover fell apart above him.

Noctis was so beautiful in climax: pale skin flushed pink, eyes fluttering closed as his lips parted in awe. It made Ignis want him even more, want even more of him every time. Noct began to spill over in his throat and Ignis held him close, swallowed down his flesh and his seed, not allowing himself to waste a single drop. And when the younger man was finished and had slumped back against the desk, Ignis took his time in moving again. Slowly, carefully he drew his lips away from Noctis’ spent cock, let his tongue slide over every inch once more as he cleaned him thoroughly. When he dipped into the slit at the tip, tasting his lover deeply enough to send shivers down his spine, Noct gasped and hissed into the cooling air.

"I-Iggy, enough."

"Apologies, love," he replied with a self-satisfied smirk. Ignis finished tucking Noct back into his pants before getting to his feet at last. "How do you feel?"

A smile, dreamy and calm, spread across Noct’s lips as he drew his lover closer by his shoulders. "Much better, thanks," came the quiet laugh -- a sound Ignis had very much missed over the last few days -- and kissed the corner of his mouth. "Think they can wait a few minutes while I catch my breath?"

Green eyes flashed as Ignis finished setting his glasses back in place. "They will wait as long as it takes. You are their lord, you make the rules."

For a moment, Noctis didn't speak. Couldn't speak, because those words struck him more deeply than he wanted to admit. There was still so much he had yet to tell Ignis, after all. He'd tried, he’d wanted to, and yet he’d been too afraid that Iggy would try to stop him. Of course he would, he always discouraged him from being reckless, which is exactly why he had decided to make the choice by himself. If Ignis was right that the others were obligated to accept his rule, then he knew what he had to do.

"Hey," he said suddenly, catching Iggy’s attention with a serious tone he rarely used. "Do you love me?"

A stupid question, but he needed to hear him say it.

"Noctis, I love you more than there are stars in the sky. I always have."

"I know." The smile as the oyabun pulled Ignis into a tight hug was one of relief, of resolution.

I hope you forgive me, then.

A moment later, they turned and headed for the doors to the council chamber, Noct with his heart bursting and Ignis with the taste of his lover still fresh on his lips.

 

The board room fell silent when Noctis entered. All eyes turned to him and to the Reaper who once again seemed to be ever at his side, tension filling the quiet in their wake. Noctis moved directly to the large black chair at the head of the table, and Ignis took the space to his immediate right. It was the seat that Clarus Amicitia usually occupied, the seat reserved for the wakagashira , the oyabun’s most trusted advisor. Clarus himself had moved to the center of the table, his eyes dark but saying nothing to those who dared glance his way.

Noctis took a moment to survey the silent room before him. The familiar faces were all there -- his father’s closest friends, the heads of the Glaives and Crownsguard, and even the Nox Fleuret siblings sitting side by side at the far end of the table. By his count, only two were yet missing…

"Ah! S-sorry we're late!" a familiar voice rang out from the other side of the room. The doors were slid open with hurried force, and then Prompto and Gladio came bursting into the genkan . They quickly kicked off their boots and scurried inside, all too acutely aware of the numerous and disapproving gazes that had fallen on them.

At the head of the table, however, Noct merely grinned. "Guys, your seats are up here today." With a sweeping hand he gestured to the two open spaces to his left -- again, the seats once occupied by the other two members of Regis’ retinue, Weskham and Cid (the latter of whom had declined the invitation on account of “bein’ too old fer ghost stories”) . At first Prompto seemed confused, glancing over his shoulder as though he expected Noct was talking to someone else.  

Gladio, however, understood at once. His eyes went round in surprise, then reverence as he stepped past his own father for the first time to take a seat at his lord’s side. Behind him, Prompto followed warily, doing his best to meet the room full of glares with his usual crooked smile.

Once they had taken their places, Noct was ready to begin.

" Non enim dormiunt, ” he said, the powerful words of his family line ringing out in the hall and calling to attention all those loyal to the Caelum name.

Insomnia immortalis! ” came the many responses as one.

Noctis flashed Ignis a smile, turned back to the table and folded his hands in his lap the way he used to see his father do. He took a deep breath. He could do this. They had practiced. “There have been rumors surrounding my disappearance,” he started, keeping his gaze level with the heads around the hall. “I’m here sitting before you today to put those rumors to rest. Yes, I was taken against my will. Yes, I was held prisoner. But the enemy we’re now facing is far more dangerous than we thought.”

Around the room, whispers started. Neighbors turned to exchange glances and hushed words; all but a few, his closest friends included, who continued to look on as if in their tight smiles they could somehow lend him their strength. Noctis nodded and continued over the din.

“The man responsible for my disappearance is the same man who killed my father, and the one who attacked our Glaives.” From near the middle of the table, both Clarus and Nyx fell deathly quiet. At the end, however, Ravus Nox Fleuret’s fist was shaking as his question spilled forth.

“And our men, as well?”

Noctis nodded. “Yeah, them too. He’s also been pulling the strings of the Nilfheim family, and sinking his claws into us without us even knowing it.”

Once again, speculations erupted around the room. Cries of, “ I knew it, the Niffs are behind everything!” and “Aldercapt must pay!” filled the hall from end to end. Only Noctis, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto knew better. They hung their heads in silence, waiting, until at last Noct held up a hand to demand quiet again.

“No,” he said, the sound of his voice silencing the last of the scattered whispers. “Aldercapt is dead. His body is on display at the top of Zegnautus Tower if you don’t believe me.”

It was Cor who spoke up next. As always, his tone was laced with cautious skepticism. “Our intel received no reports that Aldercapt died, nor have we heard any news of a successor.”

A look from Ignis saved him, and Noct smiled his gratitude as the brunette got to his feet. “There was no intel on the matter simply because even the Niffs do not know their master is dead. At least, not the ones we met on our way into the Keep. Most of the thugs we came across were heavily doped with Starscourge, their minds lost to the drug. It would have been an easy task to pull the wool over their eyes, so to speak.”

Cor took his seat again, but couldn’t help voicing the question on everyone’s mind at that moment. “Then who’s been ruling in his place?”

Clenching his fingers around the worn arms of his father’s chair, Noctis felt the name bubble up from his throat like poison. It caused his stomach to turn, the bruises concealed under the collar of his shirt to throb. When he spoke his voice sounded small compared to the pounding of blood in his own ears.

“Ardyn Izunia.”

It was at that moment that the entrance doors to the meeting hall were slammed open, turning the confused murmurs in the room into an angry buzzing. Even Noct bolted up straight in his seat as Ignis moved on instinct to stand in front of his prince, one hand flying to the hilt of his dagger.

A woman strode into the room alone. Her pale blonde hair was pinned up in a short bun, her lips tight, unsmiling, painted a severe red beneath dangerously intelligent blue eyes. Her suit appeared as if it had been made of the same color as her irises, an oddly bright color for someone who looked so grim.

Prompto felt Gladio tense at his side. Curious, he tore his eyes away from the strange woman and turned to face him. “Who is she?” he asked in a whisper.

“She,” Gladio answered, his jaw clenching. “Is Camelia Claustra. Insomnia’s favorite goody-two-shoes DA and the one who swore to put a noose around each of our necks.”

Eyes going wide, Prompto threw his hands up to his throat as he shrank back against the larger man’s side.

“What is the meaning of this, Claustra?!” The voice belonged to none other than Clarus, who had risen to his feet amidst the panic to address the new arrival. “How did you get in here? This is outside of your jurisdiction.”

“Bullshit. Nothing is outside my jurisdiction,” she countered, her tight lips pulling into a smirk that made the hair on Prompto’s arms stand on end. “But calm yourself, Amicitia. I’m not here for you. I was invited .”

“Who the hell invited you?”

“I did.” Weskham stood and walked calmly down the length of the table, coming to a halt in front of Camelia and pressing a kiss to the knuckles of her outstretched hand. A fond smile graced her lips as she bowed her head to him, but then was gone just as quickly.

“Weskham here invited me after getting an inside tip,” she explained, her unsettling eyes settling right on Noctis.

At her side, Weskham nodded his corroboration. “I received a call from Cid a couple of nights ago, and he told me everything. About Aldercapt, about you four boys,” he smiled, nodding to Noct and the others. “And about Ardyn. If his story turns out to be more than just another case of senile dementia, then we’re going to need all the help we can get going into this.”

At the table, Clarus slowly, begrudgingly sank into his seat. Noct exchanged looks with his friends, swallowed back his own misgivings before gesturing to Camelia to take the floor.

She surprised him with a bow of respect. “Thank you, son. Your father was not a brash man. I’m glad to see you following in his footsteps.” She punctuated her meaning with a sharp glare at Clarus, who merely grumbled something at the table and dropped his gaze. “So, Ardyn Izunia. I doubt many of you in this room have heard the name,” she continued to a great deal of shrugging and vacant looks. “There are few in my department who remember him now, either, though I’ve been around long enough to have heard the tales.”

“Don’t look a day over thirty-five,” Weskham smiled over her shoulder.

“Thank you, dear. Be that as it may, I do know Izunia’s name, and the appalling record attached to it that would put this entire gathering combined to shame.” As she neared the table, Camelia drew a single piece of paper from the front pocket of her jacket and began to read through the list she’d prepared. “Robbery. Arson. Three counts of violent crimes. Possession of illegal weapons. And assault with attempt to kill, all before the ripe age of seventeen.” Setting the paper down, she leaned forward against the tabletop and stared directly at Noctis. “All told he is wanted in association with more than fifty unsolved murder cases. Even to you lot that number should strike a nerve. Never in all my years as District Attorney, or even as a beat cop in my younger days, have I seen such a despicable record. I want to see this man brought to justice if it’s the last thing I do.”

Cor, who had been listening intently, folded his hands in front of his chest. “A noble cause, sure. But what does this have to do with us? Why not let the police handle this nut job’s case?”

“Because,” she said, once again holding up the paper and holding it up for all to see. It appeared to be a case report, the ink faded in places beneath a large red stamp that read CLOSED across a blurry photo. “By all accounts, Izunia is dead. Unofficially, of course. No body was ever found so there’s no coroner’s report. But that isn’t unusual with folks involved in the yakuza, as I’m sure you all know well.”

“I...think I have some information that can help you with that.”

Camelia turned her focus back to Noctis, as did everyone else seated at the table. At a reassuring nod from Ignis, Noct stood and addressed the gathering, the words still hard to accept even as he spoke them aloud. “Arydn was an orphan taken in by my grandfather and raised here, in Insomnia, alongside my Da -- my father. But he was a danger, and when my father found out about all the horrible things he’d been doing, he…. He shot him.”

His chest ached with the admission, but there was no denying it any longer. Noct had heard the story from Ignis, and even from Ardyn himself, had seen the vision -- the memory? -- of Ardyn lurching through the streets with a bullet in his head, falling into the arms of a strange healer and then….

“Something brought him back,” Noct continued before anyone could ask. “I don’t understand what it was. Maybe some kind of magic even. All I know is that he found someone named Shiva , and he was healed. The records might say he’s dead, but I know he’s very much alive. And he’s planning something big.”

Noct sat back down, content for the moment to let the chorus of voices around the table take over in his place. He felt suddenly very drained, as if recalling the icy touch of Ardyn’s fingers around his throat had somehow actually pulled the breath from his lungs. Knowing now what he did, knowing the grudge Ardyn born against his father, had only worsened the nagging feeling that he hadn’t so much been rescued as he had been released . But if Ignis or the other shared his concerns, they hadn’t said anything to the effect.

The conversation droned on for another half hour. Mostly it was Camelia fielding fire from around the table, and understandably so. She was, after all, the women who had vowed for ten years to clean the streets of thugs and mobsters, and had personally put away more criminals in her term as DA than the last dozen or so of her predecessors before her. Some of those still behind bars -- or worse -- were friends and family of the very people at that table.

But in the end her arguments were sound, and she made a solemn promise that in exchange for their cooperation, she and the rest of the law enforcement would turn a blind eye to all petty crimes that didn’t involve violence against her citizens. With Weskham acting as an intermediary, and with Noctis’ almost disinterested approval, the deal was sealed. Camelia was given a seat at Weskham’s side, and sank back into it with a smug smile.

Quiet once again descended as everyone waited for the young oyabun to bring the meeting to an official close. But several moments passed without Noctis making his move to leave. He remained seated instead, thinking, hesitating. This was his chance, he knew, and he needed to make it count.

“There’s one more reason I called this meeting,” he said at last into the silence, and forced himself not to meet Ignis’ sudden and questioning gaze. “Many of you were here, in this very room, when my father accepted a proposal made by the Nox Fleurets. A...ceremony. To join our houses and strengthen both of our families.”

He got to his feet, looking down the table at Luna for the first time since the meeting had begun. Her eyes went wide. She glanced to her brother at her side, then across the table so fleetingly that Noct couldn’t be sure whose gaze she had sought. Steadily, she stretched herself up and stood, tall and regal and ready to accept her duty. “...The proposal stands as offered, Lord Noctis. Tradition dictates this honor to the oldest daughter of my House, and so I have awaited your answer with bated breath.”

Spoken like a true queen , Noct thought as he forced a smile. Even he had almost missed the hitch in her voice, the all but silent cry behind her mask of dutiful resolve. But he did catch it, as did he catch the urgent look in Ignis’ gaze as he pleaded with him on the edge of his vision. Noct didn’t dare face him; not now, when to do so would risk him losing his nerve altogether.

This was his choice, and he had fucking practiced .

“Luna, thank you. I understand. My father’s last words to me were,” he continued, addressing everyone in the room once more. “‘Do what’s right for the family.’ I’ve had a lot of time to think about what those words mean. Mrs. Claustra coming here today only helped to remind me of what I already know -- that our families are stronger together than they are apart. A union between the Caelums and Nox Fleurets might be our only hope against what’s out there.”

“Dude…. Dude! ” From his left, Prompto was hissing to win his attention, gesturing wildly in place of raising his voice. Both he and Gladio were looking in shock from Noct to Ignis and back again, but still the young oyabun ignored them all. Amidst scattered and polite applause he made his announcement.

“I’ve decided to accept the offer to join forces with the Nox Fleurets of Tenebrae. But,” he said, and several of the smiling faces around the table faltered. “To hell with tradition! To hell with marriage . Luna, we are the ones in charge now. Not our parents or some musty old dead guys in a crypt. We don’t need to give up our freedom just to obey their rules!”

Noctis strode off the dais, past Prompto and Gladio and the rest of the row of shocked, confused faces staring at him in a mix of awe and fear. He strode past Camelia, whose eyes twinkled with something far more understanding, and Weskham who smiled despite the audacity of it all. Right up to Luna, who was trembling because she dared to hope at his words. Standing before her, Noctis pulled the Ring of the Lucii from his thumb and held it out in offering, his mouth curved in a grin. “A symbol of alliance. As long as your family holds it our Houses will be bound to each other. Go on, take it.”

No one spoke, no one dared. With a barely audible gasp Luna reached out and grasped the ring, staring in bewilderment at how large and heavy it felt in her palm, before quickly gesturing for Ravus to join her in accepting the gift. Carefully, she passed the ring to her brother, then reached back to unclasp the golden moon pendant she always wore around her neck.

“Noctis. T-this….” A small laugh. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting…. A-anyway, this was my great-grandmother’s. It has been in our family for generations, and is as much a symbol of our House as anything. I-if you accept it -- “

“Yep, sounds like a deal to me,” Noct smiled, and pulled Luna into a hug as tears of joy filled her eyes.

Near the head of the table, Ignis sat with his fingers clutching the wood, knuckles white with the force of containing his emotions.

He’d done it. Noctis had called off the marriage. He had found a way to keep his promise without losing himself in the deal. Noctis had done this on his own, had made the choice himself. With his heart pounding in his chest, he watched as Noctis set Luna back on her feet (no one missed the way she smiled across the table at Nyx this time, or the goofy grin he flashed her in return) and turned to face the end of the table again.

“Hey, Specs,” he called, and for a moment Ignis couldn’t be sure he’d heard him correctly. “C’mere.”

Slowly, as if his feet were made of molten led, Ignis stood. He barely noticed the way Prompto was bouncing with excitement, or Gladio’s eyes, wide and round as they watched him move past. He barely noticed the way Clarus’ jaw dropped or Camelia hid her smile into Weskham’s shoulder as he stepped forward into Noct’s waiting arms.

He barely heard the mix of cheers and outrage that rose into the air around them, because the only sound he could hear were the words Noctis spoke just before he pulled him into an answering kiss.

“Rule with me.”



Chapter Text

 

The phone rang just after midnight.

Ignis heard it before Noct, the low vibrations against the nightstand pulling him slowly from a dreamless sleep. Opening his eyes, he focused first on the soft head of black hair tucked into his side, then on the blinking screen of his phone beckoning him from the other side of the bed.  

And he groaned. There was no way to reach it without waking Noctis, something he was loathe to do given how erratic his sleeping patterns had been of late. But wait as he might the caller was persistent. With an apology whispered to the top of his lover’s head, Ignis rolled out from underneath him and got to his feet.

" Hm-mm? " Noct’s groggy question was answered with a gentle pat to his thigh through the blankets as Ignis rounded the bed.

"Go back to sleep, darling. I'm sure it's nothing." A cozy smile passed over Noct’s face, and he was pressing his cheek into the pillow again half a second later. Ignis let his gaze linger on him, not bothering to read the name on the screen before answering the call in a hushed tone. "What is it? This had better be bloody important."

"Aww, look who’s cranky. Did I interrupt something?"

That voice, that smirking tone. Ignis recognized them both instantly as belonging to Nyx Ulric, and couldn't resist a long-suffering sigh as he lowered himself to the edge of the mattress. "Only my beauty sleep," he countered smoothly. "You'd better have a good reason for bothering me in the middle of the night, or so help me i will -- "

"Don't finish that. Really. You scare the shit out of me." On the other end of the line, Nyx sounded as if he'd been swiftly kicked. "Look, sorry to wake you up, but it's orders from the top. The Marshal got a call from some of our new friends in blue, said they found something down at the wall. In some park or something. Cor’s already on his way to meet them."

"That certainly was fast," Ignis said, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Yeah. Claustra doesn't play around. She's already got her boys scouring the streets looking for anything ‘ out of the ordinary. ’"

"That certainly sounds like Ar -- ." Ignis caught himself and risked a look at the sleeping oyabun beside him. Noctis didn't so much as stir. "That sounds like an efficient way to run a task force," he finished instead. Switching gears, he moved across the room to where his suit and gloves were draped over the back of a chair. If Cor was expecting him, then he was already late.

That thought sparked another one. Sudden, uncomfortable. Ignis slipped his arm into one sleeve of his shirt, pressing the phone to his ear. "Ulric. Why did the Marshal ask you to contact me. Why not call himself?"

On the other end there was a silence, and he could almost picture Nyx flinching away from the question. "Oh. He just knows how much I care about you," came the first, hesitant reply. Ignis frowned.

"Do not make me ask again."

This time, there was an audible gulp. "Sorry. Yeah. Well, it's not like he, y’know, tells me anything or…anything. But, if I had to guess." Nyx paused, apparently hoping for some divine intervention in that moment -- though as usual, the Astrals were silent. "I'd guess it has a lot to do with that stunt you and the Boss pulled at the meeting today."

Of course it did. By stunt , Nyx meant the kiss that he and Noctis had shared in the council hall, when the young oyabun had called off his own arranged marriage and instead claimed Ignis for all to see. It had been brash, it had been impulsive, and yet, the moment it happened, Ignis had felt nothing but relief. It had meant freedom, in a sense. No longer would they have to hide their love like some wicked secret, eating away at them both.

And yet…. There it was again, that tightness in his chest that he had once likened to fear, uncertainty, but now knew was simply rage. Why had there been a need to hide their feelings in the first place? Why had they wasted so much time, when they could have found their way into each other’s arms so much sooner? No. It wasn't Noctis, or even his own heart, to blame. It was the others who were wrong.

And he would make certain they knew that before the end.

The phone pressed to his ear made a sound -- Nyx, no doubt, clearing his throat against the tension -- and Ignis snapped back to the moment. He frowned, shirt still hanging from one shoulder and fingers clenched tight enough into his palms to leave marks. With a sigh, he pushed his anger to the back of his mind, instead choosing to focus on the moment and the task at hand. "I see. Thank you. Send me the route, I'll pick you up shortly."

"Right, got it. Hey, Iggy? Give the kid a kiss for me."

It took the better part of his willpower not to launch his phone at the wall.

 

----------

 

The ride was mercifully short. Though Nyx tried his best to get Ignis talking (mostly about Noct and what a yakuza boss was like in bed), the Glaive fell silent after a few well-placed threats and they continued toward the rendezvous point in silence. From time to time, Ignis checked his phone for a reply from Gladio, who he had texted just before leaving Noct’s. Whatever he was doing -- and Ignis honestly did not want to know -- he was apparently too busy to even read his messages. Which meant the only distraction he would have against Cor would be…

He glanced to his right to see Nyx had popped in a pair of headphones and was riffing air guitar in the passenger seat. Great. Just wonderful.

This was already turning into a very long night.

Tonberry Fields was three and a half acres of urban parkland, a man-made oasis of green surrounded by concrete and steel. There was a pond, a playground, and a variety of oddly-charming statues in the shape of the round, knife-wielding creatures for which the park took its name. At one end of the park, a commercial intersection that was much livelier in the daylight; at the other, the looming presence of the city’s outer wall.

Ignis brought the Regalia to a stop at the edge of a ring of police cars and flashing lights.

"We're here," he announced just as Nyx finally tucked his headphones back into his jacket. Together, they stepped out into the cool night.

It was…a strange feeling, to say the least, walking voluntarily into a crowd of law enforcement. But either the officers had been warned to expect them, or they were too preoccupied to bother with a couple of grim-faced suits passing by and looking every bit like they were meant to be there. Not once were they stopped,

Cor Leonis was standing next to two rather conspicuous-looking men who, like him, were dressed in dark but casual clothing rather than PD uniforms. The shorter (and rounder) of the two was fiddling with the large camera hanging from a strap over his shoulder. The other, tall, slim, and obnoxiously blonde (which said a lot as Ignis had recently been spending a lot of time around Prompto) was talking animatedly at the Marshal, his hands flying as he spoke.

As Ignis and Nyx approached, Cor’s attention quickly fell away from the blonde man and onto them instead. With a frown he stepped forward into their path. “Took you long enough,” he said in lieu of a proper greeting. “Is it just the two of you?”

Ignis nodded. “I tried to reach Gladiolus, but he was...unavailable.”

For just a moment, when Cor’s eyes landed on him, the ice in his gaze was palpable. Cold enough to freeze Ignis in his tracks. “ Hm ,” was all the response he received, then the Marshal was sweeping his hand toward the two strangers. “Ulric, Scientia. This is the forensic team that’s been assigned to the case.”

“Handpicked by the lovely Lady Claustra herself,” said the taller of the two men as he stepped forward and proffered his hand. Nyx shook it, Ignis did not. “Name’s Ghiranze, full-time Casanova, part-time forensic detective. But you ,” he said, grinning directly at the dark-haired Glaive. “You can call me Dino.”

Uh , thanks?” Nyx looked around uncomfortably, clearly regretting giving the man his hand now that he was having trouble pulling it back.

The second, more portly of the two waved his hand vaguely in the air from behind his partner, eyes still glued to his camera. “Vyv Doldon,” was all he said by way of introduction, and Ignis found that he instantly disliked the both of them.

But, as Cor quickly reminded him, the five were there to work, not to make friends. “I think it’s time you showed us the bodies,” he said, looking pointedly at Dino, and the blonde shrugged. He released Nyx’s hand at last (the Glaive immediately tucked it in his pocket) and gestured for the others to followed him as he turned deeper into the park.

“Right this way, gentlemen. Hope you brought your strongest stomachs.”

Dino briefed them as they walked. According to his story, it was a couple of kids who had stumbled on the scene by accident. They’d been playing at the edge of the park near the wall when one of them had climbed inside the entrance to an oversized drainpipe, one of many that ran outside the city and down to the Crestholm. Except this pipe had been filled with a gut-wrenching stench and, as the curious children discovered upon further exploration, a countless mass of mangled, rotting corpses. Enough of them, Dino said, to have dammed up the pipe.

The thought made Ignis’ jaw clench, yet he couldn’t resist asking the question that had been burning on his mind. “What makes you think Izunia is connected?” But the only response he received was a dark, pointed look flung over the tall blonde’s shoulder.

The entrance to the crime scene was already bustling with activity when they got there. Several flood lights had been positioned around the pipe, and figures in white plastic suits carried stretchers -- also covered in white tarp -- one by one out into the tense night. Dino led their party closer, waving a hand at a passing technician to bring her and her burden to a halt. “Just a second, doll, my friends here want a peek.”

“Sir. Are...you sure?” the woman asked warily, her eyes a nervous brown above her surgical mask. “Fine, but make it quick.” As Dino covered his mouth with one jewelled hand, Vyv stepped closer and readied his camera. Cor leaned in, the others following his lead -- but the moment the corner of the tarp came back he and Nyx promptly retreated. Only Ignis stared on, mind reeling at the sight laid out in macabre reality before him.

This was no mere murder, of that he was instantly certain. The pale, ghostly eyes that stared up from the stretcher had been blown permanently wide with fear, the lips once parted, now peeling back across darkened teeth. But more than the horrific facade, Ignis’ attention was drawn to the intricate patterns of thin, black lines tracing over every inch of bare skin he could see. No, not over -- under the skin. Veins, some deep, others pushing hard and thick against the surface, all of them as black and dark as ink.

He had seen something similar, though much less pronounced, and only once in his twenty-five years. He remembered it vividly. Then, the man had been poisoned with a combination of deadly herbs and mercurial toxins, causing his blood to congeal even as it pumped traitorously through his body. Ignis himself had watched with young, terrified eyes as death, swift and painful, had come within seconds.   

But this. This was different. The person laid out before him now hadn't died quickly, though it appeared to have been painful if the open-mouthed scream was any clue. The veins were not expanded with clotted blood, nor did they appear to have burst anywhere from internal pressure. They were intact, simply… changed . Darkened, possessed, as if something had creeped into their blood slowly and taken hold from within.

The flash of a camera snapping brought Ignis back to the moment, back to the chill air of the park and the night that surrounded him. At his side, Vyv was nearly on top of the body as he captured shot after shot of the eyes, the branch-like patterns of black beneath the skin. "This is so sick ," he grinned from behind his lens, his bright mood in stark contrast to the sombering scene around them.

"Are they all like this?" Ignis asked, meaning the other cadavers found in the pipe.

Dino shrugged. "Hard to find a good photographer with the guts to stomach this kinda work who isn't a little batshit."

"...The bodies, Ghiranze."

"How should I know? I mean, if they worked out a bit…."

Ignis fought the urge to snatch Dino up by his tie and string him from the nearest tree. "In the pipe! The bodies in the pipe!"

"Oh, well, yeah. You mean the black stuff, right? They're all the same, every single one we've pulled out so far. No idea what it is, not yet." As he spoke, the woman carrying the stretcher excused herself and began to move away, continuing on to load the evidence into a black truck. Even after she left, Ignis could see feel those dead, inhuman eyes on him, making his skin itch with unease. "So, anyway, now you see what’s got the DA all in a fuss. This whole thing reeks of your old pal."

It was not Ignis, but Cor who spoke up in the lull. "From what we've heard, this does follow Izunia’s pattern. Multiple homicides, inexplicable circumstances. Almost as if the victims had been -- "

"Experiments," Nyx supplied. The Marshal considered for a moment before nodding his agreement.

"So. What is our next course of action? How do we find him?"

“You leave that part to us .” For the first time since Ignis and Nyx had arrived, Vyv dropped his camera to his side and turned his dark, perceptive eyes on them. “Reading clues is our job, and we’re good at it.”

“The absolute best,” Dino agreed.

“Let us worry about where he’s going to strike next. Your job is to find out how he’s killing, and how to stop him.”

Ignis stared at the man as the meaning of the words washed over him, his eyes unfocusing until he was looking past the stained t-shirt, the greasy ponytail, the condescending smile. Past Vyv to the black truck where bodies were still being loaded one by one, to where he could still feel those cold, unseeing eyes on him. There was something there, something just beneath surface and on the tip of his tongue. Something he knew he should be seeing but couldn’t. A clue, or a warning, he wasn’t sure which.

The not knowing unsettled him to the core.

 

------

 

The stark, hygienic white of Dr. Yaegre’s office made Noctis anxious.

As many times as he had come to see her in the last few days, he didn't think he would ever get used to the plain walls, the linoleum floor, the too-bright lights. Or, for that matter, the smell. It smelled like a hospital, solvents and powders that failed to masked the odor of blood and death. Being here made his skin crawl, his stomach twist in uncomfortable knots.

Of course, those were symptoms he'd been feeling even without the addition of an appointment with Sania. His body was failing little by little each day, that much he could no longer deny. And while he'd managed to hide the bulk of his pain from Ignis (it helped that having something else to focus on, like sex, numbed him to most of it, however temporary), there was no way to hide it from himself.

Even as he yanked his sleeve down his arm, over the square piece of gauze covering the point where Dr. Yaegre had drawn his blood, he could still feel them beneath his skin -- his veins, thick, pulsing, screaming. His hands were the worst. Where his veins rose to the surface they were black, black as the moonless night sky, and darkening day by day.

The door opened and Sania stepped quietly into the room. She said nothing as Noct tugged his sleeves down over his wrists and tucked his hands into the pocket of his hoodie. "Good news," she said, settling into her chair across from her patient. "You're not dead yet."

Noct's wry laugh was nothing less than she'd expected. Lately he'd been humorless, withdrawn, a far cry from the curious boy she'd treated in the years after Lady Aulea's death. In part, she knew the blame fell to the pressure of his sudden elevation within the Caelum family, as well as the aftermath of his recent kidnapping. But she also suspected part of it lay with him, and whatever vices he'd been turning to when the stress got to be too much.

"Noctis. I need to you be honest with me. Are you taking drugs?" Direct as ever. A trait that, in her field, could mean the difference between life or death. Most patients found it unnerving. Noctis respected her candor.

Usually, anyway. This time, however, she watched as several emotions flashed over his face at once. " What? No, Doc, I -- Why would you think something like that?" Nervous, scared, desperate. She catalogued his reactions and moved on.

"Because your blood contains high traces of a chemical very similar to that mess they make in Gralea. At first I didn't believe it, wanted to chalk it up to a one-time thing -- boys will be boys, and all that."

"I didn't...."

" Then you asked me to keep the results quiet, which I did, thank you very much . But I'm not going to lie, that made me very suspicious. I've done some digging...." From out of a drawer in her desk, Sania withdrew a small notebook. She flipped it open and set it in front of Noctis. "'Addicts of Starscourge experience nausea, restlessness, abdominal pains and headaches during the early stages of drug use'," she read from the notebook. "Don't these sound familiar?"

Noct tried to speak up, to tell her she was wrong, but she cut him off quickly. "'Prolonged use affects each addict differently, but common symptoms include paranoia, nightmares, physical tremors and in some cases, death .'"

The last word rolled off her tongue with such heaviness that the air around them seemed to vibrate in the wake of it. Neither spoke for a time after that. Sania folded up her notebook and slipped it back into her desk, then leaned back and crossed her arms to wait. Clearly, Noctis was expected to break the silence first, but he felt like his tongue had turned to led in his mouth. Prolonged use. What the doctor was talking about was addiction, but Noctis had only been exposed to Ardyn's special blend of Starscourge for two days in that tunnel. Since he'd been pulled out of there, he hadn't taken anything, voluntarily or not.

"There...shouldn't be any left," he said after a moment, as much to himself as to her. "I thought it'd be out of my system by now."

A frown from across the desk as Sania's suspicions were all but confirmed. "Noct, there's no use in lying to me. Your blood tells the true story whether you admit to it or not. Since the first night I tested you, the traces of Starscourge have only increased. At this rate, I'd have to guess you were injecting at least twice a day, maybe more."

Blue eyes, round and fearful, shot up at her. " What? But I haven't.... Not since Ardyn --"

At the mere mention of the name, his gut twisted painfully, wrenching him out of the moment with a sharp cry. He doubled over in the chair, and if it weren't for Sania's quick thinking with a trash bin, he would have vomited all over her linoleum floor. As it was, most of it made it into the metal can, and all that was damaged was his pride.

"Now then," the doctor said, lips pursed as she regarded her patient up close. "You gonna tell me about those marks on your hand, or am I going to have to force it out of you?"

There was no way of knowing just how serious she or her threat were, and having her so close, peering at him with her too-wise eyes, made his stomach churn again. He swallowed, tasting bile, and slowly held out his hand for her to take a look.

The lines were even worse than they had been that morning. Noct had woken to find Ignis already gone -- a note by the bedside had told him it was work -- and for that he'd been eternally grateful. Had Iggy seen him with his skin green and pallid, his fingers shaking as he examined the black, pulsing veins beneath.... Nothing would have calmed him down after that.

As it was, Dr. Yaegre seemed to be struggling with her own composure. All her years as a doctor to the often bloody and violent criminal underworld of Insomnia, she had never seen anything quite like this. She spent several minutes simply observing, turning, touching Noctis' hands, scanning her mental catalogue of symptoms for anything that would explain what she was seeing. But in the end she came up empty. A sigh, then she released his fingers in favor of brushing away the terrified tears from his cheeks.

"We will figure this out, Noct. We just need to find you someone who's seen this before."

~~~~~~~~

The truck pulled up in front of his apartment right on schedule. It was an older model, dark green with the paint chipping in places, but it still ran and that’s why Gladio said his father hung onto it. Clarus Amicitia had bought himself a newer car, one a little less conspicuous for his work, which meant that he sometimes allowed Gladio to borrow the truck. Only sometimes, of course, and only ever for things like taking Iris to school functions or running errands for their mother. Taking his secret boyfriend on dates did not fall under proper use of vehicle privileges.

But Gladio smiled as he reached across the seat and threw the door open wide. Prompto wasted no time in climbing up into the cab, dumping his bag to the floor between his sneakers, and swiftly meeting the other’s mouth for a kiss. “Nice ride, cowboy,” he grinned against familiar lips.

Gladio pulled back with a laugh. “Don’t knock it. It beats the bus.” Throwing the truck into gear, he reversed out of the narrow parking lot and back out onto the main road. “So. You ready for all the pizza and beer you can shove into your face?”

“What kinda question is that?” Prompto flashed him a grin. “‘Course I am.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” As soon as he’d gotten the truck up to fourth, Gladio took his hand off the gearshift and set it instead on top of Prompto’s leg, loving the way the blonde shivered ever so slightly at the touch.

“A-actually,” he said, quick to curl his fingers around the ones on his thigh. “I know it’s out of the way, but do you think we could make a quick stop first? There’s something I promised to drop off today….”

Keeping his eyes on the road as much as possible, Gladio glanced sidelong at Prompto -- who had leaned forward to dig around in the bag at his feet -- then at the clock on the radio. It was still early, plenty of time for a pitstop before the noon rush hit the restaurants. “Sure, babe. Where’re we going?”

“Thanks.” Prompto squeezed his fingers a little tighter in his lap, then, “It’s not far. Turn left up there.”

They chatted as they drove. Mostly about Prompto’s new video games, and the new book series Gladio was getting into. Every once in awhile, the blonde would direct him to turn left or right, or point out something eye-catching on the side of the road before whipping out his phone for a picture. Both of them, of course, avoiding any topics involving work, family, or most of all, Ignis and Noctis.

They each had their opinions, of course, on Noct’s decision to out his relationship with Iggy (mostly regarding the details of how and when ), but it was a case upon which they had already agreed to disagree. With their own relationship still so under wraps, it had seemed better just to avoid the conversation altogether.

“We almost there, chocobo?”

Gladio’s attention had shifted back to their surroundings, gradually growing less and less familiar the further they drove. His mental map of the city told them they had made their way out of the greater downtown area and were already in what was technically part of the Gralea district. It was a part he’d never seen before, but if the graffiti-covered buildings and broken windows were any indication, it wasn’t much better than the rest.

What the hell kind of errands did Prompto have to run in a place like this?

“Yep, just up there on the right. The place with the sign out front.” A red brick building, slightly more upkept than the ones around it but still weathered and cracking at the edges, was where Gladio finally pulled to a stop. He put the truck in park, but before he could kill the engine Prompto was grabbing his bag and hopping out of his seat. “I’ll be right back!” he called, as if he thought Gladio would risk letting him go alone.

The purr of the truck’s engine died just as Prompto jumped the front steps two at a time and went flying through the front door. Gladio leisurely stepped out of the driver’s side (careful to lock it behind him) and shielded his eyes from the sun as he took in the building before him. It was tall, at least eight stories, and some of the windows appeared to show toys or stuffed animals on the other side of thick glass. Weird , he thought, until he caught sight of the plaque on the wall and everything fell into place.

Pryna’s Home for Wayward Children’ it declared in worn brass lettering. An orphanage. Gladio recalled, as he walked up the steps to the front door that had been left ajar, that Prompto had once mentioned the fact that he’d grown up in foster homes. He hadn’t thought much about it then, not wanting to linger on the details and risk making Prompto uncomfortable. But now he wondered just how much of that story he was missing.

“Prom?” he called cautiously, cracking open the door to peek inside. There wasn’t much to see in the dim hallway other than Prompto standing in the middle of it, smiling as he chatted with an old woman. She was clasping his hands excitedly, her loose bun bobbing behind her as she nodded.

“It’s wonderful to see you, child. I’ve been so worried.”

It wasn’t that Gladio meant to eavesdrop, exactly. They just… hadn’t noticed him standing in the entrance yet.

“Sorry I couldn’t make it last week. I got a new job and it’s...kinda crazy,” Prompto was saying, his cheeks going a little pink at the understatement written there. “Which reminds me. Where’s Tally? I got something for --”

“Prompto!”

As Gladio watched, a young boy with short, messy brown hair and a grin that took up at least half of his face came charging down the hallway. Under his arm he held a large, green stuffed cactuar toy, one which he somehow managed not to drop as he launched himself forward and tackled the blonde onto his ass.

“I missed you! Where were you last week, you were supposed to come!” The kid unburied his face from Prompto’s shirt and grinned down at him. “I got my games all ready and everything, but…. Hey. Who’s that guy?”

Prompto dropped his head back onto the floor, his gaze falling down (up?) to see Gladio standing frozen near the entrance. “Oh,” was all he said, face a telling shade of red, as the old woman bowed her head in hasty greeting.

“Sorry, sir,” she said, quickly moving forward to shoo the boy from Prompto’s lap so he could get to his feet. “I didn’t realize anyone was --”

“He’s with me, Maria. Gladio, I guess….meet my family.” His blue eyes faltered for just a moment before he swept his hand toward the others in the room. Gladio felt his stomach drop at the nervous way he chewed his lip when he spoke. Was he embarrassed? Ashamed? But then he was taking a step closer and reaching out to put a hand on Gladio’s shoulder. “Guys, this is Gladio. He’s my -- “

“Boyfriend.”

“-- friend. Oh!” The blonde flushed even darker, heating up enough to melt his way right through the floor. Smiling, Gladio took his hand off his shoulder and held it between them instead.

“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Maria and… Sorry, kiddo, I didn’t catch your name.”

The boy eyed him skeptically for a moment longer, his cactuar doll clutched tight to his chest. Finally, having properly sized him up, he stepped forward and held two fingers up to his head like horns. “I’m Talcott! Let got of my big brother or face my Thousand Needle Attack!”

“Oh, no,” Gladio grinned. Playing along, he snatched a very flustered Prompto up in both of his arms and stuck his tongue out at the boy in front of him. “Do your worst, kid.”

Pew pew pew PEW! ” Talcott’s hands flew like lightning in front of him, his cactuar doll swinging wildly as he imitated the monster’s assault. With a groan, Gladio threw a hand to his chest, letting Prompto go as he pretended to stumble back against the wall.

Oohh… Got me…. I never stood a chance.”

In an instant Prompto was on him, caught halfway between surprise and laughter. Over the sounds of Talcott’s victory cries behind them ( “Yeah! I took down a behemoth! Did you see, Maria, did you see?”) , he tugged at his boyfriend’s dead weight against the wall. “What are you doing?” he smiled, voice a whisper.

“I have a kid sister, I’m a pro at this stuff.” Gladio accepted Prompto’s hand as he pushed himself back up. Together, they turned in time to see Talcott shoulder the cactuar and begin racing back down the hall with it bobbing behind him.

“Forgive him, he’s a very energetic child,” Maria said as she favored each of them with a smile. “And he loves Prompto so much. It’s the highlight of his week when you come to visit.”

“You know I miss him, too.” Suddenly squeezing Gladio’s hand tighter, Prompto sighed. “Sorry to disappoint again, but I’m not here to stay. I’ve -- we’ve got plans today.”

Awww!” Rushing back down the hall, Talcott let his doll drop to the ground as he put on his best pout. “But you just got here. Aren’t you gonna play Justice Monsters with me? I leveled up my character and everything….”

“Heeey, buddy, don’t make that face, okay? I brought you somethin’!” At this, Prompto slung his pack off his shoulder and reached into the front pocket, withdrawing two envelopes. One was blank, the other was addressed to the kid.

“What is it?” Talcott asked, frowning as he shook the envelope next to his ear.

“Open it and see.” With a wink, Prompto instead turned to Maria and handed her the second envelope. Her face lit up in surprise, and though she started to refuse the blonde pushed it into her hands anyway. “It’s the least I can do,” was all he said as tears wet the corners of the woman’s eyes.

“Oh, cool! Cactuar trading cards! I didn’t even know they made these!”

“Pretty neat, huh? Take care of ‘em and they might be worth something one day.” He reached down to ruffle his fingers through the kid’s hair. “I gotta go now. Be good for Maria, promise?”

“Yeah. I promise.” Talcott’s excitement at the gift was short lived. As he looked up at Prompto -- and surprisingly, to Gladio next to him -- he frowned again. “Are you coming back soon?”

“‘Course, buddy. Soon as I can.” There was a hitch in Prompto’s voice, a sadness and an apology there, that shook Gladio right out of his complacency and into action.  

“Y’know,” the dark-haired guard said, somehow managing to smirk at both of them at once. “When I was Talcott’s age, my favorite food was pizza. You like pizza, kid?”

“Yeah!”

“Gladio…?”

“We’ve got room for one more in the truck, then, if it’s alright with Miss Maria?”

Prompto’s eyes were wide in disbelief, but Gladio swept past them to meet the old woman’s approving gaze.

“Certainly. As long as he’s back by curfew, I don’t see why not.”

Awesome! I’ll go get my money, be right back!” As Talcott took off back down the hall, with Maria at his heels reminding him to grab a jacket, Prompto squeezed Gladio’s hand.

“Are you…?”

“Sure? Why wouldn’t I be?” His smile told Prompto everything he needed to know. Maybe they’d have to postpone their date, but some things were simply more important. Chest tight, Prompto balanced himself up on his toes to press a swift kiss to the corner of his boyfriend’s mouth.

“Thank you.”

 

Takka’s Pizza Stop was packed by the time they finally arrived a little before one. There was a short wait before they could be seated, so Gladio and Prompto sat together on the bench while Talcott wandered back to the pinball machine they’d seen at the entrance. Keeping one eye on the kid, Prompto kept the other on Gladio as he scooted right up against his thigh.

Hey, cowboy ,” he said, entirely suggestively despite the crowd around them. On instinct, Gladio turned into the contact and snaked a hand around the blonde’s waist.

“Hey, sexy.”

“That was a real nice thing you did back there. No one else would have done that for me.” He smiled, lowered his gaze before glancing over to where Talcott was banging away excitedly at the machine. “Or for him.”

“He’s a cute kid.” Gladio’s shrug may have been noncommittal, but the questions that had stayed with him since they’d left the orphanage still burned on his mind. Hugging Prompto a little closer, he risked one of the safer ones. “So how long have you know Talcott, anyway?”

Prompto considered for a moment. “He was about three when they brought him to Pryna’s. I was...between homes and ended up looking after him a lot. That was seven years ago.” He smiled again. “He thinks of me like his big brother, I guess.”

Resisting the urge to ask what Prompto meant by between homes , Gladio kept the focus on Talcott as he probed further. “You said ‘they’ brought him in. You mean his parents?”

A slow, careful shake of his head. “No. Talcott’s parents died. Addicts, just like everyone else’s. Gralea,” he started, smile fading at the thought. “Is not a nice place to raise kids.”

Gladio swallowed. He felt like there was something there, just beyond Prompto’s careful phrasing and gentle voice, that spoke volumes about the life he’d once led. So many things began to fall into place then that he found himself winded by the force of it -- Prompto’s tiny apartment on the wrong side of town, his impressive skills with a gun, his eagerness to join up with the yakuza, and even his Quicksilver business. It all pointed to a life that Gladio had, until now, been too blind to see.

Prompto was from Gralea. He’d probably watched his parents die of Starscourge, and had learned to fend for himself on gang-infested streets. To look at him, Gladio would have never believed such a thing possible but….

“Amicitia? Party of three? Your table is ready.”

Smile returning as quickly as if it had never left, Prompto glanced up at the waiter and nodded. “Grab our seats, will ya? I’ll go get Tally.” He jumped off the bench and headed toward the pinball machine, leaving Gladio feeling dazed and weightless as he slowly pushed himself to his feet.   

 

Chapter Text

The shower had been running steadily for the last twenty minutes. Ignis could still hear the water hammering against the tiles, and the telltale clatter of soaps and hair products that told him Noctis would be a while yet.

And that was probably just as well. The young oyabun had seemed in a sour mood since the moment he’d arrived home that evening, complaining only fleetingly about another long day of meetings and headaches before withdrawing to his room alone. For several heartbeats Ignis had, of course, considered following him, but in the end he recognized Noct’s need for space and chose to honor that instead. When he was ready, he would come to talk, and Ignis would be there to listen.

In the meantime, he had work to do.

The open file was spread out across the surface of the coffee table in a horrific display. Photos, printed on thick, glossy paper, detailed the autopsies of a half dozen of the bodies Dino and his crime lab had found in the park. They’d been cut open, their entrails examined, and Vyv had made sure to get all the gory details in vivid hi-res.

Ignis skimmed over the images of ash-pale skin streaked with black, the hollow eyes and mouths twisted in pain, and reached instead for the written report of the autopsies. He’d read it once before, sitting in the car in the parking lot outside the labs. But he’d been rushed, and still felt that there was something in the report that he was missing. A clue, a hint, something that would help him to connect the pieces of the puzzle back to Ardyn. Something that would tell him how these people had died.

The report started with a list of the victims’ names, ethnicities, and ages, approximated in cases where their identities couldn’t be confirmed due to inadequate records. Even in review, nothing in the list struck Ignis as particularly helpful. None of the names were familiar, and despite the relatively young ages of each the victims there was little else to draw a pattern between them. Random , perhaps, though that, too, seemed unlikely. If Ignis was certain about anything in all this, it was that Izunia had a plan.

He moved on past the names to the results of the autopsies themselves. As expected, there were no internal signs of contusions of blunt force trauma. No signs of an attack or any type of weapon used. Even the organs appeared in normal, working condition, save for the inky black color of the blood which still eluded explanation. It had been tested for every kind of poison and toxin known to man, but the results were...inconclusive at best. Though the charts and graphs showing various chemical levels in the blood made little sense to Ignis, he took note of several places Dino had circled by hand in a red marker. The circles indicated chemicals with names like cortisol , corticotropin , and even longer, less-easily pronounced ones, all of which appeared to be abnormally high. Yet even Dino had been stumped: ‘ Naturally-occurring hormones, not killers’ he had scribbled at the bottom of the page, in a note Ignis had previously overlooked. ‘ Suspected cause linked to Starscourge use, detected in all victims.’

Starscourge. So, maybe there was a pattern after all.

Ignis turned to one of the photos again. It was of a young woman, not unlike the one he’d seen being carted off that night in the park. She was pretty, or probably had been before her horrific death, with short, dark hair and full lips. Hardly the face he would have pegged for a junkie, although he knew addicts came in all shapes and forms, and he wondered briefly how someone like her had ended up tangled in Gralea’s twisted web of vices.

Regardless, her story had ended like all the others. Ardyn had found an easy victim in her, killed her, dumped her body. The information led Ignis no closer to the truth he sought.

Long moments passed while he poured over the files on the sofa, lost so deeply in his own thoughts that he didn’t even notice when the sounds of water from down the hall finally ceased. Nor did he notice the bathroom door creak open several minutes later, or the soft padding of bare feet atop the carpet. Not, at least, until Noctis appeared in the hallway, fully dressed despite his sopping wet hair, with a familiar smile playing on his lips.

“Do you really have to do that right now?”

The sudden voice caught Ignis by surprise. He looked up at the same time he threw the photo face-down onto the table, and sucked in a breath at the sight. “Noctis?”

His lover wore all black. In itself, that was hardly unusual - nearly all of the clothes he’d picked out for himself were devoid of anything more colorful than the occasional game or comic logo - but his outfit seemed...excessive. His apartment was comfortably warm, yet he wore a long-sleeve hoodie that was at least three sizes too large for his lean frame. His sleep pants, also black, pooled around his ankles, and on his hands….

“Are those my gloves ?” Ignis asked suddenly, a hint of panic rising in his voice.

Mm . Yeah. I didn’t think you’d mind if I just tried ‘em on.” Noctis shrugged, still smirking, as he brought one leather-clad hand to his face. “Plus a few other things.”

“Please, you don’t understand. Those are…. They’re for work.”

They belong to the Reaper .

But his prince wasn’t listening. He drew two fingers over the curve of his cheek, down to the corner of his mouth where he was beginning to smile even wider. “And I’m asking you to forget about work for once and do me instead.”

Ignis snapped his mouth shut. Hastily, not tearing his gaze from Noctis, he shuffled the crime lab photos back into the folder and shoved it across the surface of the table just in time. Noct traced his bottom lip with one finger, humming at the sensation of the supple leather as he strode forward. Despite the oversized clothing, his body moved lithely beneath the fabric, his hips swaying a purposeful, tempting rhythm that threatened to paralyze Ignis under their spell.

They also sent red flags up in the depths of his mind. Noct’s mood had been shifting with alarming speed over the last few days, from brash and reckless, to irritable, and then insatiable. Ignis had hoped the mood swings would subside with time, but they only seemed to be growing more and more unpredictable. A point which was proven further as Noctis kneeled into the cushions of the sofa and frowned.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” He set one gloved hand on Ignis’ thigh, the other on his chest, pressing him back against the couch even as he closed in.

“Like what, love?”

“Like you’re scared of me.” Deep blue eyes zeroed in on his face, seemed to darken as they drank in the sight of him. “Or angry.”

“Never, Noctis. I could never be angry with you.” Still tempering his movements, Ignis combed his fingers back through damp locks. His prince melted under the touch, blushing and sighing so easily that it made Iggy’s head spin. “Come here, love.”

The kiss was slow at first, with Ignis guiding Noct’s mouth in to meet his own and keeping him steady with a hand on the back of his neck. A tongue flicked out, seeking entrance, but Ignis merely hushed him, eased him down into his lap and urged the tension out of trembling shoulders. At once Noctis seemed to go limp, slotted easily against his chest as he legs fell to either side of his hips, but the calm didn’t last. Within seconds he was surging again, trying desperately to deepen the kiss while he ground his erection into Iggy’s stomach.

“Please, please ,” came his voice, both strained and terribly weak. “I need this.”

“Noct?”

One gloved palm found Ignis’ wrist, squeezed around it hard enough to catch his breath in his throat. Noct drew his hand between their bodies until both of their fingers were pressed against the hardness trapped beneath his clothes. “ Please ,” he begged again.

“Of course.” Ignis swallowed as his lover’s free hand slipped under the hem of his shirt and began to stroke over bare skin. The leather was familiar, cool and smooth and perhaps under different circumstances it could have even been arousing, but -- “If you take off the gloves, I’ll do whatever you ask.”

Above his lap, Noct suddenly froze. There was a look of panic written on his face as he pulled both of his hands back. “No.”

“Noctis, please. Those are not toys, they are not meant for games. I’ll buy you another pair of --“

“No!”

The hand Ignis had reached out was slapped away, hard , and then Noctis was shoving him back into the cushions as he pinned his thighs down with his own. “Why are you making this so difficult ?”

His breath left him in a gasp - halfway between a curse and Noctis’ name - only to be swallowed up by the lips once again crashing into his. He felt, and heard, the front of his shirt being pulled open, several buttons flying off to strike the lamp, the coffee table, and then those too-familiar gloves were on his skin again. He felt sick.

“Noct - stop this, stop .” Around the tongue in his mouth, the words sounded garbled, strange. His own fingers struggled for purchase on Noct’s shoulders, chest, hips, anywhere , and he pushed with terrifying strength. Noct was lifted out of his lap. The sofa tremored as he landed against the arm at the far end of it, and for a nightmarish moment he didn’t move.

Then, slowly, he sunk down into the cushions and buried his face in his hands.

Ignis was kneeling next to him before he realized he was moving. “Noctis, I’m sorry, I-I didn’t mean to --”

“‘S my fault.” A quiet sob. “I fucked up.”

“You didn’t, you --”

Go away .”

Any words he could have said turned to ash on Ignis’ tongue. Guilt, and concern, burned through him like wildfire, made his skin prickle and his fists clench at his side. He had overreacted. True, Noct was hardly in control of his emotions, but how could such a thing be expected after all that had happened to him? He deserved patience, understanding. He deserved help.

As gently as he could, Ignis curled his fingers around each of Noct’s palms. “Please, look at me,” he soothed as he uncovered his face. Deep, blue eyes filled with tears - the sight was almost expected. But the trail of dark blood trickling from his nose to his parted lips, less so. Ignis stiffened. “Noctis. You’re hurt.”

“Wha-? ‘M fine,” the oyabun frowned, dabbing the back of his hand to his nose without thinking. When he pulled back, Iggy’s glove was stained an inky red. “O-oh, shit.”

“It’s fine, forget it. Lean back, chin up, there we go.” Helping him into position against the back of the sofa, he brushed his fingers over Noct’ brow, carrying a few strands of hair out of his eyes in the process. Their gazes met, and he forced a thin smile. “I’ll get you some tissues. Wait here a moment.”

Noct looked as if he wanted to say something, but in the end could only manage to nod his head. Then he watched as Ignis turned and strode down the hallway to the bathroom, taking the warmth of the room with him in his wake.

 

He couldn’t have been gone more than a couple of minutes. He’d gathered up some tissues, soaked a small towel in warm water for Noct’s eyes, and hurried back to the living room as quickly as he could. Still, he somehow felt a surge of relief to see his prince still sitting in place on the sofa when he returned.

It took him several steps before he actually realized what was wrong.

Noct had, in the course of those couple of minutes, apparently found Dino’s folder. The file lay once again open on the surface of the table, and Noct was holding a photo up in front of him with one trembling hand. Ignis’ heart stilled as suddenly if it had been pierced with ice. Noct wasn’t meant to see those. He wasn’t meant to know about such --

The young prince lifted his other hand up to the photo, and Ignis stopped breathing altogether.

Without the glove to hide them, the black lines beneath Noct’s skin looked identical to the marks on the bodies pulled from the pipe. Violent, angry streaks that pulsed visibly even from across the room, thick with the same poison that had killed so many others. No , came a terrified voice in the back of his skull. It cannot be! And yet, all at once the pieces fell into place. Noctis’ capture. The tunnels beneath the Citadel. The laboratory, grinding and steaming with use. The mood swings, the secrecy, the desperation in those beautiful eyes.

The towel fell from Ignis’ hand and before he could even finish calling his prince’s name, he was rushing to his side. Snatching his trembling hand up between his own as hot tears fell down his cheeks. “How long?” he cried. “ How long?”

Noctis stared at him. His own eyes were wide with fear, haunted by the images he’d seen of a death that could be his own. And in a quiet, distant voice, he confirmed Ignis’ worst fears. “It was Ardyn.”

Each moment moved in stop-motion. One second Ignis was kneeling, the next he was standing. His eyes were locked on Noctis, and his phone was in his hand. The first number he dialed was the only one he could think of, and while he waited for the voice on the other end he counted the passage of time by his own thundering heartbeats.

Finally, an answer. “Hey, Igs. Thought you were takin’ the night off?”

“Gladio.” His voice sounded unnaturally calm, as if it belonged to someone else. “ Help me .”

There was a pause. A shuffling sound. Gladio came through louder, clearer. Stronger. “What do you need?”

“Call everyone. Call the Marshal. Call your father. Call the fucking DA.”

“What should I tell them?”

“To meet us at the hospital. Noctis is in danger.”

~~~~

Shadows, everywhere shadows. He hid his face behind his hands, pressed himself further back against the side of the grimey dumpster, but still he couldn’t escape them. That was why he had to keep running.

A sound startled him upright. From somewhere nearby he could hear voices, shouting, the words indistinct but the anger behind them crystal clear. Troopers, and they were growing closer with terrifying speed. If he moved, they would see him. If he stayed put, they would catch him. He had only one choice.

Beneath him, his tattered, faded sneakers pounded against the pavement as he took off from his hiding place. Around the corner, a sharp left, then a right again. If he didn’t know where he was, he reasoned, neither could they. So he ran on, deeper and deeper into the dark maze-like alleys of the broken city, until his lungs burned and his feet had gone numb. Never stopping because he knew once he was caught, they would take him back there . Back to the labs, back to the cells, where he would never be allowed to see the sun again.  

Inside his chest, his heart beat a panicked rhythm against the cage of his ribs.

He should have known the shadows would betray him. It was out of their deceptive darkness that the hands came, first clutching and tearing at his clothes, and then at his very skin. He struggled against them, fought to break free, but there were too many. Cruel fingers found his wrists, his face, his neck, squeezed until his vision went white --

-- room, familiar and yet everything felt wrong. The lights were too bright, the table beneath him cold, unyielding as his body was strapped in place. The faces, too, were dark, mere silhouettes against the stark backdrop. He couldn’t make out the features, even when one of them drew close enough to slide the needle into his arm. ‘Quiet, child,’ the faceless voice crooned. ‘It will all be over soon.’ When he opened his mouth to scream, as that came out was --

 

Ringing. Muffled, but persistent, at last pulling Prompto out of his dream with a gasp.

He bolted up from where he must have fallen asleep, stretched out across the old sofa in his bedroom. Despite the chill in the air, he was sweating - he could feel it on his forehead and on the back of his neck - and his heart seemed to be racing a mile a minute. Below, his stomach felt like it had twisted into a massive knot with some dread he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

Dammit ,” Prom groaned. His voice was the only other sound in the room besides the insistent ringing of his cell phone from...somewhere. Searching for it proved the perfect distraction, though it didn’t take long to drag it out from under the sweatshirt he’d balled up to use as a pillow. He fumbled it only once, caught it in his other hand, and quickly read the name on the screen: Gladdy.

It was a miracle his voice didn’t crack when he finally answered. “Hey, babe! Sorry, I guess I fell asleep, what’s --?”

“Prom, how soon can you meet me outside?”

The blond blinked, both in surprise and confusion. Had he forgotten something important? A date, or another meeting? “Uhh, five minutes maybe? Why?”

“It’s Noct,” Gladio’s voice said grimly on the other end. “Make it two minutes, I’ll explain on the way.” The line went quiet, and Prompto felt the unease in his stomach turn to bile in his throat.

 

Chapter Text

The truck rumbled along at a steady, unerring pace. Behind the wheel, Gladio looked tired, haggard, the lines of his face more drawn than Prompto had seen them before. He watched the road ahead in a tense silence, thoughts wandering, no doubt, to Noctis and the damnably vague details they had been told of his condition. Sick , Ignis had said, followed by the name that struck fear right through both of their chests. It was Ardyn.

Prompto understood the strain behind his boyfriend’s eyes. He felt it, too. Noct was his boss, yes, but more than that he was his friend . Losing him once had been devastating. They'd fought to find him, to pull him free from Izunia’s grasp, only to feel that same terrible not knowing as before. What if, after everything they'd done, after all Noct had suffered and survived - what if in the end, they lost him anyway?

He must have let out a noise somewhere in the tightness of his throat, because instantly he felt Gladio’s hand reaching out for him. Warm fingers settled on his thigh, breaking through his dark thoughts and scattering his nerves. Prompto glanced up to meet familiar amber. "Hey," Gladio said, more emotions playing on his lips than Prom could count. "How ya holdin’ up?"

"Oh, y’know." He let his weak smile answer for him and wrapped his own fingers around the ones on his leg. Squeezed until he felt at least some of the tension drain out of him.

Gladio turned back to the road. "Not much further now," he announced, meaning Sania Yaegre’s private clinic a few blocks from the Citadel. "We’ll be there soon."

"I hope we make it in time."

Prompto’s words were faint, spoken half to himself, and yet they were powerful enough to have Gladio swallowing back a sudden lump in his throat.

"Don't give up on him." He sensed the blond’s gaze on the side of his face, and he forced a grin. "Noct’s still fighting. So should we."

 


 

Cor was waiting for them outside when the truck finally pulled into an empty parking lot behind a row of buildings. Gladio killed the engine, joined up with Prompto in front of the cab, and together they made their way toward the Marshal’s figure stationed at the back entrance.

"How is he?" were the first words out of Gladio’s mouth when Cor’s gaze settled on him from out of the shadows. It was decidedly unfriendly.

"You’re late. Follow me."

"Hey. I asked you a question, sir ."

Halfway through the door, Cor glanced over his shoulder, his eyes even darker than the night. Prompto expected him to snap at the words, and at the belligerent tone attached to them, but Cor surprised them both with a sigh. "It's bad. Dr. Yaegre’s with him now, I’ll take you to his room."

Whatever Gladio could have said, whatever he might have thought in that moment, he kept to himself. Instead, he nodded once, then fell silent as he and Prompto followed the Marshal inside.

The clinic wasn't large, nor was it well lit, but the atmosphere somehow suited a relatively reputable establishment of the yakuza underworld. Prompto had yet to meet Sania Yaegre in the flesh. He found himself wondering, as they made their way through the halls,  just what kind of woman she had to be in order to work her art tirelessly in a world of criminals and death.

Fearless , apparently. That was the first word that came to mind as they rounded the next corner to see Clarus, Monica, Dustin, and Ignis all being stared down by a short, young woman with her hair in pigtails and her hands firmly planted on her hips. "The answer is still no , gentlemen," she said in a tone that threatened to put every one of them in their place. "I didn't earn this lab coat simply by looking cute. I earned it through the trust of my patients, and I am not about to break that golden rule for you lot ."

While Clarus turned to face his son and Ignis’ face paled in frustration, Prompto looked past the doctor’s shoulder and into the room beyond. Like the rest of the building, it was narrow and dimly-lit, though nearly everything from the walls to the floor to the bed in the center were a crisp, hygienic white. The bed was where Prompto’s gaze was drawn, to the much darker figure of Noctis propped up on a mountain of pillows behind him. He appeared to be sleeping, but it was a restless sleep if anything - his face was twisted as if in pain, his eyes squeezed shut against even the low lights and his chest rising and falling in labored breaths.

Prompto followed the sight lower, where what he saw stilled his heart. Noct’s arms, left mostly bare by the plain medical gown he wore, were nearly swallowed up in black. From his wrists to his elbows, thick lines like ink traced up each and every vein, some continuing on to disappear beneath white cotton sleeves. His hands were worse - the veins along the backs pulsed with shadows, darkening his skin right to the tips of his fingers, which were such an inky-purple it looked as if he'd dipped them in tar.

It wasn't until Gladio placed a hand on his shoulder that Prompto realized he'd been holding his breath.

"Your professionalism is appreciated, doctor, " came a voice in the silence, dark and lilting and one which could only belong to Ignis. A very pissed off Ignis. "But that man in there is the head of the Caelum family, and this is hardly the time for keeping secrets."

"I don't care if he's one of the damned Six. He is my patient and I will protect his confidentiality."

"He could die if you don't tell us what you know!"

" As if I would let him!"

“I advise you,” Ignis continued, nearly snarling. “Not to test me. One way or another, I will get the information I need.”

Mr. Scientia, you are one more threat away from --”

"It's Starscourge."

As one, the figures in the hallway turned to face Prompto. It took him several heartbeats to realize that the hollow voice that had spoken had been his own, and that the half-dozen pairs of eyes on him were surprised, expectant. Even Gladio behind him had gone utterly still.

The sudden attention had the blond fumbling for words, but by the time he opened his mouth both Ignis and Sania were already rounding on him.

"How...could you know that?” the doctor was saying, her eyes calculating as she sized him up.

Next to her, Ignis was less readable. "What you’re suggesting," he began, slow and dangerous, “Is that a drug did this to Noctis? That’s absurd.”

Sania was still watching Prompto when she frowned. “Actually….”

“Starscourge has been on the streets for years. I think we would know if it did that to the people who used it.” Cor gestured to the dim room behind them, to where Noct lay against the pillows, his breath labored and his skin tainted an inky black. “We appreciate that you’re trying to help, Argentum, but let Dr. Yaegre --”

“No.” Holding a hand up to effectively silence the Marshal, Sania shook her head. “No, I want to hear what he has to say. How did you know he was taking Starscourge?” Her eyebrows furrowed, and Prompto felt every bit like a specimen under a microscope beneath her gaze.

“Because, um, I’ve seen it before,” he answered, ignoring Ignis’ suddenly wide-eyed expression.

“Seen it? You saw Noctis using?”

“N-no, I don’t think -- I mean, I’ve seen that before, the hands thing. His blood is changing. That’s what….” Prompto swallowed. Almost subconsciously, he gripped his right wrist in the fingers of his left hand and squeezed. “That’s what happened to the other subjects.”

It was Gladio’s turn to step in. He laid a heavy hand on the blond’s shoulder as his eyes flitted around the room. “‘Subjects?’ You mean, like in some kind of experiment? With people?”

Prompto looked up at him, dropped his gaze quickly to the floor, and nodded.

Different hands reached for him. Gripped him tightly as Ignis stared into the depths of his eyes, searching for...something. Truth. Hope. Meaning.

“Please,” he said, voice unsteady. “Do you know how to help him?”

There was nowhere to run. Ignis had him pinned under that desperate, emerald gaze, the plea of a man not accustomed to helplessness. But the concern on his face said it all. For Noct, I’ll do whatever it takes. Anything. And Prompto believed him. This was something he trusted to no one but Ignis, because no one else would be willing to make the sacrifice. No one else loved Noctis so fiercely.

“Yeah. I do.” The blond’s wrist throbbed, and he squeezed it until he could feel the bones grinding together. “He’s gonna have to die.”

 

 


 

It’s always freezing inside the lab, but he feels it now more acutely than ever. The cold seeps through the steel walls, coils around his bare feet and makes him shiver constantly. His body, too, is growing thinner, Always shaking, always seeking warmth.

In this room there are no windows. Only plain grey walls to match the plain grey floor to match his plain grey smock. One door and it’s always locked, except for the few times a day the technicians come to check on him. He loves and hates when they come. Loves it because for those brief moments held down in their arms, he isn’t alone.

Hates it because he hates the needles they stick into him, one after another, until his arms are covered in dark, painful bruises and his eyes are stinging with tears.

When they leave again, the cold comes back.

And that’s how he waits.

 

Someone is screaming. He can’t see them - hadn’t even realized there were others on the same floor - but their voice is loud enough to echo off the walls in his own cell. Piercing and agonized. Whoever they are, they must be in pain.

A door slams, open or shut he isn’t sure, and more voices fill the hall. Prompto begins to panic. They scream as if they’re dying, and maybe they are. But why? Is it the medicine Father gives them? Did they React?

Footsteps rush past his door and the screaming gets louder, louder, and then further away. They’re taking the person somewhere - will Father heal them?

Prompto hopes so. This would be a terrible place to die.

 

He misses his room. He misses the quiet, the calm. This place is much worse, and even though he isn’t alone anymore, he wishes he could be.

Next to him, a young girl is crying, silently in her unshakable fear. Prompto understands. He’s afraid, too, but he doesn’t want to cry. Father will be angry if he cries.

But the straps on his wrists are terribly tight. The technicians ignore his pleas to loosen them, are too busy adjusting the other subjects on their own slabs to notice him. Prompto can’t tell how many there are - it’s difficult to look around with the tight leather stretched across his forehead - but he guesses at least a dozen, maybe more. Young, like him, and frightened.

Then Father appears.

It’s been a long time since Prompto has seen him, not since that first night he was carried in off the streets and set at his feet, a timid, mousey thing. Father had been so kind to him then - but now.

Now he strolls past without a second glance. Prompto yearns for him, wants to reach out for him and shout, “Father, I’m here, it’s me!” Yet his voice dies somewhere in his throat. Why should Father look at him? Who could ever be expected to love a failure?

That’s why they’re here, isn’t it? Because they failed? He’d heard the technicians whispering about it as they’d carried him down to the labs. ‘Must be immune, hasn’t Reacted yet, the Chief will want to examine this one too,’ they’d said, and Prompto had felt his heart sink.

He’s always been a failure.

Even his own parents hadn’t wanted him.

Father is different, though, he has to be. Father won’t throw him out. Not if he does a good job. Not if he can force his body to React to the Starscourge like the others.

 

How many hours have passed? He’s still strapped to the slab, but one by one the others in the room have been…’removed.’ That’s what they’re calling it when the screaming starts. When the black lines begin to appear on a child’s skin, and their eyes roll back in the throes of death.

One by one, they’ve begun to fall.

Prompto doesn’t understand what is happening to them. Is this a Reaction? The word is whispered here and there, but it’s different from what he expected. Far different.

Prompto doesn’t want to React.

He fights back tears every time more of the green, glowing liquid is pumped into his neck, praying to the gods he no longer believes in to keep him safe. To keep the Starscourge from winning.

 

The others are all gone.

Only he is left now.

 

Father seems pleased. He says Prompto is special, that his blood holds some sort of key. But he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t care. All he knows about his blood is that it’s sick now, full of chemicals that make him dizzy, confused. He sometimes thinks he hears voices that aren’t really there, or sees shapes moving on the edge of his vision that vanish when he whirls to look.

Maybe he’s going crazy. Maybe he’s already too far gone.

 

There are things he’s beginning to forget about the world outside of the lab.

The color of the sky. The taste of his favorite ice cream. His parents’ faces.

If he ever gets out of here, he wants to find them.

 

Running. He has to keep running.

Despite his aching lungs and the protest of weakened muscles, he pushes on, knowing that the second he stops they will catch him. Heavy footsteps and shouting seem to echo down the entire length of the hallway, around every corner and through the very walls. Prompto isn’t familiar with this part of the lab, but the bright, red ‘EXIT’ signs guide him towards freedom.

There are two guards at the front doors. Large, hulking men with dull eyes and necks like tree trunks. Their hands are large enough to crush Prompto’s body in an instant, but luckily he’s faster than them. Before the first one can even finish turning around, the skinny, half-naked blond is skidding betwen his legs and out the front door.

The sun nearly blinds him.

Prompto stumbles into a dark alley and loses himself in the maze of the streets of Gralea.

 

He’s free, but he isn’t. Forced into hiding, he suffers the effects of the Starscourge alone, and in silence. It pulses in his blood, makes him sick, nauseous, even delirious at times. He has terrible dreams in which his body betrays him, begins to React, to change - no longer human, but something monstrous. A demon, or a beast, or some combination of the two, black and soulless as the night.

When he wakes up, he considers (briefly) going back to the lab. Pleading with Father to help him, to make him better again.

But the impulse always passes, and he moves on, seeking a new hiding place where the nightmares can’t find him for a while.

 

It’s become too much. The demons have caught up with him, and his blood is no longer able to fight back. Now a dark, poisonous black, his veins throb and squirm beneath his skin as if filled with a life all their own.

Escape bought him his freedom, but in the end it seems he’s already too late to save himself.

It’s Prompto’s darkest hour. In the empty alleyway, he stares down at the lines in his wrists and imagines dragging the edge of a razor over them. Imagines the veins sliced open, ink-black blood spilling out onto the concrete at his feet. He imagines watching the poison flow out of him, all of the bad memories leaving his body until he’s light, so light, weightless almost. And peaceful.

He smiles as the razor slips from his fingers. The sound of it clattering to the ground is the last thing he hears.

 

He remembers...barking. A dog. White. Bright lights and then….

An old woman is standing over him. One of her wrinkled hands obscures her face, but her eyes are wet with unshed tears. Prompto watches as she turns, calls out - funny, there’s no sound. This must be part of the dying process, he thinks.

Then several hands are holding him, lifting him - weightless, his head rolls back - and carrying him inside a building. It’s large, dirty, built of bricks and shuttered windows. A sign on the door catches his eye - “Pryna’s Home for Wayward Children.” It means little to him in that moment.

He’s tired.

He wants to rest.

Sleep is so comforting without the demons to haunt his dreams.

 

 


 

The others were in the hallway. He could still hear their hushed voices just outside the door, arguing, discussing. Planning . Not that the decision was up to them, of course, nor did they have any right to talk about Noctis as if….

As if he were already gone.

“Iggy?”

Ignis felt ice against his cheek. Noct’s fingers were cold to the touch - deathly cold, as if the poison in his blood was stealing the very life from his veins. Still, he reached up to press them in closer, eyes falling on the worn, too-pale face of his beloved prince. “Did they wake you? If they’re too loud, I can send them away.”

Noct smiled, or at least attempted to, as he moved his hand further back along Ignis’ jaw. “Nah. I’m fine.”

Something caught in Ignis’ throat, but he forced his voice out around it. “ Fine is a curious word coming from a man in a hospital bed.” The attempt at humor fell short without Ignis’ usual droll behind it, and he dropped his gaze instead to the hand Noct still held in his lap. So dark, so alien. The veins pulsing as they carried death throughout his body. Images - of wide, horrified eyes staring up out of a hollow face, of pain twisting blackened limbs - flooded his mind, bitter reminders of the fate Noctis now faced should they fail him.

Tears stung behind Ignis’ eyes, and he slipped off his glasses to rub his knuckles into them.

“I’m gonna die.” Noct’s voice seemed far away, too small to have come from right beside him. “That’s what everyone is talking about. Out there.”

He gestured to the door, his hand swinging weakly through the air until Ignis caught it once more in his. “Noctis, you….”

But what could he say? He had never lied to Noct, could never lie to him, especially not when he of all people deserved to know the truth. With a sigh, he adapted Sania’s tone as he delivered Noct’s prognosis, steeling his own heart as the words came cold, clinical from his lips.

“According to Prompto, yes. There is no cure, no way to reverse the drug. It’s feeding on your life, and the only way to stop it is to cut off its source of energy. There is only one course of action left to us.” He took a deep breath, his lungs ached, his chest felt too tight. “Death is inevitable.”

“Oh.” Noct fell silent, but his hand in Ignis’ squeezed hard. “That...sucks.”

“Noctis, listen to me.” Green eyes flashed and suddenly Ignis was on him, surrounding him, arms and fingers and lips pulling him close in the warmth of his vow. “Whatever happens, whatever must be done, know that I will fight for you. I won’t let anyone take you away from me ever again.”

“Ignis —“

“I will claw my way through the Beyond and back to find you, to bring you home. Noctis, I swear my life on it. I won’t - I can’t - lose you.”

The young oyabun’s tears were warm despite the chill of his skin. In answer, he could only hug Ignis closer, cling to him as their lips met as if to banish his fears. Again and again, chaste but desperate, stolen kisses on what remained of their borrowed time.

Chapter Text

The temperature outside had dropped considerably since they first arrived at the clinic. Yet despite the cold, Gladio opened the front door to find Prompto sitting alone on the steps, arms bare without a jacket and knees tucked up to his chest. His left hand was wrapped around the bands covering his right wrist, while in his fingers he pinched a thin, white cigarette.

It’s acrid smoke greeted Gladio the moment he stepped out of the building.

“So this is where you ran off to.”

Blond hair fell into Prompto’s face as he turned over his shoulder. “Oh. Yeah, sorry. I needed a minute alone.”

Knowing better than to expect an invitation, Gladio lowered himself down onto the step beside him and slipped an arm around his upper body. Prompto blushed, but leaned into the embrace even as he flicked a half-centimeter of ash to the ground.

Gladio nodded his chin toward the cigarette. “Didn’t know you smoked.”

“This? I don’t. I mean, I used to, sometimes.” He shrugged and his voice shrank even more. “I don’t know why, I guess it just…. It helps. Y’know, with the - with this.

Keeping the burning end of the cigarette pointed away from him, he raised his arm to tap the tip of his thumb to his temple. With the memories. With the visions. Gladio wasn’t sure which one he meant - perhaps he meant both - but he thought, in a way, he understood. What Prompto had gone through, the horrors he’d seen, were like scars on his mind, and he would never be able to forget them.

“I get it. Just never realized you carried them on you.”

Prompto chuckled at that, dryly but it was a start. “Nah, I bummed this one off of Monica. You’d be surprised what she keeps in that massive purse of hers.”

“That thing is legendary.” It was Gladio’s turn to chuckle. He offered his boyfriend a smile as he shifted around him, giving Prompto space to sink down against his chest, and folded him in his arms. For several long moments, neither of them spoke. The cigarette slowly burned down, and gradually Prompto’s body ceased it’s shivering. Warmth spread in the form of a subtle red tinting his cheeks beneath his freckles, deeper and deeper the more he sank back against that solid frame.

Safety. Security. Gladio practically radiated both, until even without the need for words his personal darkness was retreating, his breathing growing easier, steadier. He even smiled as he felt lips brush over the top of his hair, Gladio’s way of checking in without disturbing the silence.

But Prompto was ready to talk. He’d kept quiet about this for far too long. “Thanks,” he started, receiving a curious hum against the top of his head in response. “For not freaking out in there.”

“Do I look like the ‘freak out’ type to you?”

A short laugh. “No. But I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had. That was...a lot to take in at once. And I should have told you about it sooner.”

There was a pause while Gladio considered his next words. “If it were me, I wouldn’t have said anything, either.”

Blue eyes turned up to him.

“Trust takes a long time to build, Prom. You probably understand that better than anyone. What you opened up about in there - that took a lot of courage. More than I would have had,” he admitted as the corner of his mouth curved up in a smile.

Gazing up at him from his arms, Prompto’s face was a mask of bewilderment. Several heartbeats passed before he was able to laugh off his surprise long enough to speak. “I must be crazy,” he grinned, “Because it sounded like you just said I was braver than you?

“I did. You are.”

Briefly, Prompto looked as if he were going to laugh again. The corners of his eyes crinkled and his lips twitched, while the beginnings of something bubbled up in the back of his throat. But then tears were forming where Gladio had expected mirth, and what came out at last wasn’t a laugh but a dry sob. Prompto squeezed his wrist tighter, knuckles going white as he tried to will away the jagged scars that marked him forever as the failure he was.

Gladio pulled him closer. Rubbed his hands over his back and pressed kisses to his hair, but he felt almost as lost as Prompto in that moment. How could he possibly help him? What could he - or anyone - do to silence the demons of his past? His whole life, he’d been raised to fight enemies made of flesh and blood, to do what was necessary to protect the family he served. But memories couldn’t be killed. Ghosts couldn’t be threatened. Scars couldn’t be healed.

So what good was all his strength?

He held Prompto against his chest for a long while, until gradually his shoulders relaxed and the cigarette between his fingers had burned down to a nub. The blond pulled away reluctantly, cast a nervous, red-rimmed look up at Gladio before taking a final drag of the smoke. He coughed once, then tossed the butt to the ground. “I’m sorry. Thanks for the hug.”

“Anytime, babe. You, uh, got a little….” With a weak smile, Gladio reached up to brush the wetness from one freckled cheek. Instantly, Prompto leaned into the touch. Kept going as he climbed into the larger man’s lap and curled his fingers in the front of his jacket. Screwed his eyes shut again as he kissed him, hesitant at first, then growing bolder, deeper as Gladio returned the act. Within seconds, thick fingers were sliding back through yellow hair, and Gladio’s mind was swimming with the mix of emotions and heady smoke.

Maybe this was how he was meant to help.

He had just slipped a hand under the back of Prompto’s vest when the chime above the front door rang. Of fucking course . Mere seconds away from snapping the neck of whoever had decided to interrupt them this time, Gladio growled and turned toward the door.

And froze.

Clarus’ mouth was a thin, white line as he stared down at his son. His eyes, cold amber, narrowed, and he moved his gaze over both Gladio and Prompto in a slow arc. Under it, they both seemed to shrink, waiting in tense silence for whatever was to come next.

He cleared his throat.

“You’ve been summoned.”

One heartbeat. Two. Very slowly, like prey being hunted, Prompto unfurled himself from Gladio’s lap and retreated to the step below. Clarus turned his full attention on his son, instead.

Stiff, mechanically, Gladio forced his voice out. “Summoned?” he repeated, tone an odd pitch between too high and too flat.

“By the oyabun . And Scientia.”

“Oh.” Another pause; no one moved expect Prompto, trembling as he ducked a little further behind his boyfriend’s shoulder. “Thank you. For delivering the message. Sir.”

“I didn’t know you were here. Either of you,” Clarus continued as another figure appeared behind him in the doorway. Cor. He, too, looked down at Gladio and Prompto as if he found them to be a disappointment. “Noctis asked for only the three of you, and sent the rest of us back to the Citadel. We were on our way out.”

There was a brief moment where Clarus looked as if he wanted to say something more. His gaze fell once more on Prompto, on the pale fingers curled in his son’s jacket, and then on Gladio’s expression, hard and resolute. He opened his mouth again once, evidently thought better of it, and strode past them off the porch and into the dark parking lot before either of them could react.

Behind him, Cor followed without a word.

Last out of the door, and in sharp contrast to the first two, came Dustin and Monica. Their eyes were grim, but the half-smiles they offered made the air a little more breathable as they passed. Monica in particular let her gaze linger, intuition telling her everything she needed to know in the span of a few seconds. And she winked.

“Careful, boys.” Stepping off the porch, she ground the tip of her heel into the still-smouldering butt of the cigarette at their feet. “That’s how fires start.”

 


 

It was the soothing rhythm of Ignis’ breathing that finally lulled him to sleep.

Noct hadn’t meant to close his eyes, of course. Time was precious, running out as quickly as the blood beating thick and black in his veins. But his body was so tired, and whatever painkillers Dr. Yeagre had given him made his head feel fuzzy, light. Sleep dragged him down before he could even muster the will to fight.

Yet it was a restless sleep. His thoughts followed him into the darkness, uneasy and questioning. Thoughts of Ignis, of Prompto and Gladio. Thoughts of his father and the inevitable death that was coming for him, as well. And images, too, of the faces he’d seen in Ignis’ photos, all twisted in pain and hauntingly familiar.

Caught somewhere between wakefulness and nightmare, Noct shivered, shrank in on himself. Fate loomed and it frightened him. Starscourge - what Ardyn had called a gift as he’d pumped it into his neck - warring for control over his body, and Noct knew without a doubt that he was losing. If it didn’t kill him, it would change him - destroy his humanity and leave him as broken, as mad as the man who’d done this to him in the first place.

In his misery, the nightmares closed in. Darkness, a feeling of unease, of fear growing in the pit of his stomach. He was running, from what he couldn’t see, but it was that unknown that terrified him. Running, running, faster, his body was growing weak; where was Ignis? Where was anyone? He’d never felt so incredibly alone.

Even through his dream, he was aware he was crying.

But then suddenly, out of the singular blackness of his dark thoughts came a light. Small at first, bright as flame as yet somehow frigid as it grew closer, closer. Blue, icy, fringed with a white glimmer like powdered snow. Noct felt his lungs freeze in his chest, his breath like ice as it stilled to a stop.

Was this... death?  

No, no it was different. Something unearthly and yet, at the same time, incredibly real. Was he still dreaming? Was his body still laying in the bed of the clinic, wrapped in Ignis’ arms, or was he here , in this nothingness, watching as the light shifted and took on form?

A woman? Not quite. The being seemed to exist as if on the edge of his vision, in fleeting patterns of blue and crystal. Curved, yet also androgynous in a way that suggested they weren’t quite human. When Noctis tried to focus on the ethereal form, the figure shifted again, became more earthly; feminine, with long black hair and skin as pale as snow.

Confused, Noct tried to struggle out of their way - yet realized with a start that his limbs were as frozen as the breath caught in his throat.

“Fear not, mortal child,” the being spoke to him, and their voice was calming, gentle. Oddly familiar. “We bring you tidings of hope.”

Who are you?

"A friend, perhaps. That is up to you. We knew that you were in pain, and we were sent to help."

Noct’s head spun. Where had he heard that voice before? And why was he so loathe to trust it?

“Seek us out. If you remember the way.”  

The way? To what? I don’t --

But of course he knew. He had seen something like this before, hadn’t he? Ardyn had shown it to him in his memories. The flooded alley, the neon lights. Windows broken, boarded in neglect, and a mark, unique and unforgettable; the eye . Blue in the center and etched of fiery white lines on dark wood. The mark of their kind .

Terror gripped him. The same terror he'd felt when he realized Ardyn’s memories were his memories, that he'd been shown a powerful, dreadful secret. An immortal secret.

You’re...Shiva.

The being almost smiled.

“No time now to rest, child. Find us. Receive the gift that awaits."

 

Air flooded his lungs. Noct woke up gasping, inky-black fingers gripping the sheets as he struggled to catch his breath. Within his chest, his lungs still burned, still ached as if Shiva’s ice had infected him. As if they had left behind a reminder of what he now had to do.

Ignis was slowly moving to life at his side. It seemed that he, too, had fallen into an unexpected sleep, his senses now awakening as Noct shifted beneath him. Then, gradually, realization struck, and he sat up straight in a panic. “Noctis?” Green eyes looked up, focused on the young oyabun whose chest rose and fell rapidly with each gasping breath. "Noct, what is it?"

A shake of his head, hesitant but unmistakable. "N-nothing. Um. Iggy?"

"Yes. Yes, I'm here."

"Get the others. I think...I know where we have to go."

Chapter Text

 

The story of how the Scientia’s came to serve the Caelum Family dated back as far back as Ignis’ great-grandfathers.

It was a story he’d heard often growing up on the edge of the Tenebrae district. A story of how Insomnia’s streets were once rampant with yet-unorganized crime. Of how Mors Lucis Caelum, then but a child, had fought to protect the innocents living in the center of a bitter turf war. And of how Arlentus Scientia, mistaken for a spy, had found himself and his three children at the end of a Nox Fleuret rapier.

Mors had arrived just in time to stop the execution. He’d made a deal that day, offering up a valuable part of his own clan’s territory in order that their lives be spared. A noble sacrifice, and one which would never be forgotten.

From that day onward, Tenebrae’s borders were expanded; but in exchange, the Caelum Family gained a surprisingly powerful ally. The Scientia’s were wealthy, and had ties both in the political and academic spheres of Insomnia’s elite. Arlentus’ children - including Ignis’ grandmother - were gleaned as well-educated advisors for Mors himself, and came to serve him well as his influence grew.

The tradition had continued down through the generations. Ignis himself had been only ten years old when he was sent to work in the Caelum estate. That day would forever linger in his memory, because it was the day that set his life on an unstoppable path; it was the day he first met Noctis.

Though he hated to admit it now, Ignis hadn’t thought very highly of the young, dark-haired ohji from the start. At only five years old, he was a shy, skittish boy who spent most of the time clinging to his father’s sleeve and staring around with wide, frightened eyes. To Ignis, who had been raised in a highly disciplined home, Noctis struck him as overly-coddled. Spoiled, even. Was this child not someday meant to be the leader of the most powerful yakuza family in Insomnia? Ignis thought he certainly didn’t look the part.

Regardless, when Regis had smiled and asked him to watch over and keep Noctis safe, Ignis had found himself unable to refuse.

As it turned out, the role of ‘advisor’ to a five-year-old involved very little actual work, and required him to see the younger boy very rarely. More often than not, Noctis stayed at home with his mother or his other caretakers, and so Ignis was free to see to his own training. In the mornings, he practiced hand-to-hand (and eventually weapons) combat in the dojo with the Glaives. In the afternoons, he was tutored in a variety of subjects, including law, politics, psychology, and history as it pertained to the goings-on of Insomnia’s underworld. And at last, in the evenings, he returned to his home halfway across the city where he cooked, cleaned, and cared for his younger cousins.

Growing up hadn’t been easy for Ignis. His schedule was busy; he had little time for himself or hobbies outside of his work. And while he always strove to excel at each of his tasks, a hollowness began to form inside of him. It grew larger, deeper as the months turned to years; a loneliness he could neither understand nor shake, but which slowly hardened him to the monotony over time.

Unbeknownst to him, however, he wasn’t alone in this feeling of emptiness.

Noctis, like a sheltered prince up in his high tower, felt it, too, and longed for a friend to call his own. Being the son of a yakuza lord made him a target for dangerous enemies, and Regis was loathe to take any risks with either his wife or his only child. For their protection, they were kept under constant surveillance, and rarely left the walls and fences of the compound.

Yet Noct grew to be a curious child. By the time he was eight, he had learned to push the limits of his father’s rules, and wandered wherever and whenever he was allowed. One of his favorite places quickly became the Glaives’ dojo , where from the upper tiers he would watch the men train, wide-eyed and impressionable.

It was on just such an afternoon, when Iggy was practicing kicks and Noctis was leaning over the railing above the sparring floor (with his bodyguard Cor at his back), that everything changed.

Ignis’ partner that day was a headstrong recruit only a few years his senior, a young man with fiery red hair by the name of Tredd Furia. From a low ranking yakuza family, he had quickly made a name for himself as one of the most anticipated of the upcoming Glaives, impressing the teachers both with his physical skill and his ruthlessness. In each he was second only to Ignis himself, and as such their rivalry had been no secret. While Ignis saw in Tredd a tool, a drive to better himself, Tredd had a hard time seeing past Ignis’ shadow.

Their bout was fierce. At last, and almost without effort, the brunette landed a combination assault which left Tredd flat on his back on the tatami , and the teacher called the match. Ignis didn’t gloat when he helped the older recruit to his feet, nor did he comment on the scowl he received in return. The two young men bowed to one another, as per custom. But before either could break for the lockers the doors to the dojo were slamming open and Noctis, in his eager excitement, bounded into the room.

“Iggy!” he cried, eyes practically glittering as he grabbed for the sleeve of his ‘advisor’s’ robe. “That was so cool! You were like, flying through the air and stuff! How’d you do that, anyway? Can you teach me? Are you gonna be a Glaive someday? I wanna be a Glaive, too!”

Behind him, Cor Leonis suppressed a smile. “Noct, give your friend some room to breathe, please.” Ignis wasn’t sure how he felt about being called the young ohji’s ‘friend,’ but he refrained from comment as Cor coaxed Noctis away. “He’s right, though, Scientia. That was an impressive fight. You’ve come a long way in a short time.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ignis replied with a mechanical bow.

“There’s rumor that Regis is considering you for early induction. I can see why.”

Now there was something worthy of breaking through Ignis’ stoic mask. His eyes blinked open wide, and he looked once again every bit of his thirteen years. “Sir? Do you mean -- ?”

“The sakazuki, yes. You’re a bit young, but Regis has never much been one for sticking to tradition.” Steely eyes glinted with a hint of something - pride, amusement - and then Cor was tapping Noct’s shoulder to go. “We’ll be sure to tell him how ‘cool’ you looked today, right, little prince?”

“Yeah!” With a shy smile, Noct waved goodbye to Ignis, then turned to follow his bodyguard back outside.

Ignis was still reeling from the news. The sakazuki had a powerful history in the Caelum family. It was an initiation ritual reserved for those the oyabun deemed of exceptional worth within his clan. He and the initiate would sit at a table in an otherwise empty room, and share a single cup of sake in silence. Though simple, the act was a symbolic exchange to represent a bond, and the blood that was vowed to be spilled in the name of loyalty. An invitation was, Ignis knew, the highest honor a new recruit could receive.

Without his noticing, his teacher and Tredd had already left the sparring room. He picked up his gear and headed toward the lockers in a daze of surprise and trepidation. Was Lord Caelum seriously considering initiating him so young? Most of the Glaives took their vows at eighteen, a full five years older than him. In fact, he’d only heard of one exception to the rule in the family’s past: Cor Leonis, who’d had the honor to sip from Regis’ cup when he was only fifteen.

Lost in thought, Ignis began to strip out of his robes. Unlike the other trainees, who balled them up or tossed them into bags to wrinkle, he’d always made a habit of folding all of his clothes carefully before packing them away. So much of a habit that even with his mind still wandering, he was sure to lay the cloth out carefully and straighten the sleeves before tucking them into the folds.

It was then, while his back was turned to the room and his focus narrowed, that the attack came.

There were three of them: Sonitus was the first to hit, striking out and catching Ignis in the side of his face. His glasses flew across the room. As he slumped to his knees in surprise and pain, he heard the frames crack under a heavy boot: Axis, another of Tredd’s lackeys. Which could only mean….

“Not such a tough guy in your underwear, are you?” Furia himself stepped out of the shadows of the corner, cracking his knuckles as he flashed a grin. Unlike his friends, he still wore the white sparring robes of the dojo , though the sleeves had been rolled up in a telling threat. “Or maybe I should call you ‘boy,’ hm? Wouldn’t want your ego getting anymore inflated.”

“Tredd, what are you doing?” It hurt to speak. Ignis tasted blood, and his vision refused to focus on the faces of his attackers. “Where’s Drautos?”

Sensei had some...important errands to run."

Sonitus grinned. "Promised to look the other way while we knocked you down a few pegs.”

"Shut it, dumbass."

This was madness. The other two were closing on him, their hands cruel as they hefted him up and slammed him back-first against the lockers. Bare, his chest rose and fell in rapid breaths - not in panic now, but at the anger suddenly surging through his veins. “You’re a coward. All of you are! Come at me in a fair fight, if you think you stand a chance.” Across from him, Tredd’s nose crinkled in rage, but Ignis wasn’t through. “What are you going to do, then? Insult me? Hit me?”

“You’d like that, you little freak,” Axis spit from his right.

Sonitus chuckled, his voice rough. “When we’re done with you, you won’t be gettin’ back up so easily.”

There was a flash of steel in the light, and Tredd reached out to accept the dagger from his friend’s hand. He palmed it, weighed it, smiled as he pressed the tip to his thumb and drew blood. “Sometimes I think you forget where you are, Scientia. This isn’t the playground, and it isn’t a prep school. You’re in the underworld ,” he grinned darkly, and cut a thin, shallow line of fire from the hollow of Ignis’ throat to his exposed chest. “It’s dog-eat-dog out here. We see a little pup like you getting too cozy with the master, we gotta cut you down to size.”

Woof, woof .”

The young men on either side of him laughed, but Tredd shut them up with a snap of his fingers. “On the bench. Hold him down.”

Wait--! Stop, what are you--?! Ignis was forced to his knees on the cold floor as his right arm was tugged roughly out in front of him and laid across the bench. Though he struggled, his strength proved no match for the weight of the bodies pressing down on him. And then with a laugh, Axis slammed his knuckles into the back of Ignis’ hand. He cried out in pain, his fingers going still atop the wood - and giving the dagger perfect access.

“One for each of us,” came Tredd’s mocking tone as he closed in. “And maybe a few extras just for fun.”

Ignis hissed with anger. He watched, eyes swimming with hateful tears, as the flat of the blade tapped across each of his fingers in turn. Where to start? It seemed to sing, and he struggled one last time in vain against cruel hands.

But just as Tredd made his decision, raising the dagger to strike, an unexpected voice called out in the silence. Small, yet not without power, and sudden enough to still even Furia’s hand. “Let go of him!”

As one, they turned to the source of the cry. Noctis stood in the doorway of the locker rooms, alone (where was Cor?) and tiny against the backlit frame. But despite their advantages in age and numbers, he reared up as tall as an eight-year-old could and puffed out his chest at the older boys. “I said, let go! Or I’ll have every Glaive in Insomnia here in about five seconds.”

Tredd exchanged looks with his friends. A tense moment passed where they seemed to consider calling the young ohji’s bluff. But then, whether out of fear of the Glaives or fear of Noct’s father, the hands on Ignis’ body began to pull away. Something was muttered under a breath, Tredd nodded to the back door, and the three of them took off through it as if they’d been caught by Regis himself.

Or, Ignis thought, eyes wide as he drew his arm back and stared at Noctis across the room, by Mors. For in that moment, small but fierce in his courage, Noct very much embodied the role of his heroic grandfather. Ignis was reminded of the stories upon which he’d been raised, and the tension in his chest was instantly replaced with wonder.

“You okay, Iggy?” Noct was chewing his lip, still hanging in the door frame as the fight drained out of him.

“Yes.” Swallowing, Ignis cautiously got to his feet. His hand throbbed, a dark bruise already forming where it had been bludgeoned, but the rest of him was mercifully intact. “Yes, I’m fine. Thanks to you, Noct.”

More lip chewing. The ohji shuffled on his feet. “Um. You’re welcome.”

Ignis approached him. All of his training, all of his protocols on rank and deference and propriety flew right out the window. None of that mattered, because it felt far more natural to kneel down and pull Noctis into a hug instead; arms wound tight around him, face buried in the dark black of his t-shirt, Ignis hugged Noct as if his very life depended on never being separated from him again.

“You saved me,” he said, and felt Noct shrug even as small arms wove around him in return.

“I didn’t want them to hurt you.”

“No one else would have done that. It was very brave.”

“Actually,” Noct swallowed. “I was really scared.”

“So was I.”

“Iggy?” Noct pulled back, just far enough to catch the way the light glinted off the tears in Ignis’ eyes. He’d never seen them so close, and without the lenses of his glasses to obscure their intensity; and he thought they looked like jewels.

Ignis smiled. “When I swear my vows, I want to swear them to you . I wish to be at your service forever, Highness.”

The blush that colored Noct’s face was telling. His gaze dropped to the floor in the space between them, but nothing could repress the smile that stretched across his face as wide and as bright as on Solstice morning. “Forever? Like, my friend?”

“Of course.”

He giggled, and with it the last of the tension in the room dissipated. Noct threw himself into another hug that had Ignis struggling for balance, but it only served to lighten the older boy’s mood as he, too, fell into laughter.

At last, Ignis pried himself away to finish dressing, and the two walked out of the dojo hand in hand. Cor was waiting out front, and seemed surprised to see that Noctis was not alone. But if he noticed anything else out of the ordinary, he said nothing.

It was only later, when Ignis bowed his head before Regis and made his bold request, that Cor dared to show his smile.

The sakazuki was held on the next new moon. Dressed in traditional kimono of black and gold - the colors of the Caelum house - Ignis and Noctis sat across from each other at a small table in an otherwise empty room. Atop the chabudai was a tokkuri - an earthenware bottle, and a timeless heirloom - and a single wide-brimmed cup.

Ignis poured from the bottle himself (the sake had been replaced with Noct’s favorite apple juice for the occasion) and handed the cup to the young ohji. Noctis managed not to laugh too much as he took a long, slurping sip, then passed it back to Iggy as his father had instructed him to do.

And as Ignis drank, he felt pride well up in his chest. Pride at fulfilling his family’s legacy. Pride in the Caelum name, which in this act he vowed to fight for, bleed for if necessary. Pride in pledging himself, body, heart, and soul, to Noctis, who had earned his loyalty - and undying friendship - with a simple act of selfless courage.

Just as Noctis had saved his life, Ignis vowed to do to the same. In order to protect Noct from all the dangers of the underworld, he vowed to become stronger. To become ruthless, a hunter - a reaper - collecting the heads of any and all who would attempt to do his prince harm. For Noctis, he would risk everything to gain everything. For Noctis.

For Noctis.


 

Noctis was barely breathing.

The Regalia squealed to a stop on a dark, unassuming street on the border of the Gralea district. All around, the shops seemed abandoned, forgotten save for the occasional flicker of neon lights above empty doorways. There were no other signs of life.

But Ignis wasn’t concerned with any of that; he cared only that they had arrived at the right place. Together with Prompto and Gladio, he lifted Noctis from the backseat and settled his too-light, too-frail body in his arms. “Is this is? Noct, open your eyes. Which way do we go?”

The young oyabun groaned. It was cold, getting colder, and he curled towards more of Ignis’ warmth. “The alley. Look for the eye.”

Behind them, Prompto and Gladio exchanged nervous looks. They’d been told little about the details, save for that Noct had seen a vision and that Ignis was hellbent on driving him across the city to chase it before time ran out. But Noct was growing weaker by the second. If this turned out to be nothing more than the hallucinations of the drug that was stealing his life….

“We’re moving, keep up!” Ignis’ sharp voice snapped them out of their silent distress. Gladio grabbed Prompto’s hand, and together they raced down the alley after their friends.

Eye. Eye. White, with blue in the center. Noctis had described it to him in the car, yet Ignis still wasn’t entirely sure what he should be looking for. A sign? A carving? Would it be large, or as small as a needle in a haystack? And would there still be anyone waiting for them on the other side? Minutes stretched and panic thudded in his heart as he scoured each and every wall for something, anything , to help.

Eventually, a deep voice rang out in the midst of the search. “Hey, Iggy! This it?”

Green eyes flashed and Ignis whirled on his heels. A few feet behind him, Gladio was standing in front of a boarded up door, peering closely at what appeared to be a worn etching in the dark wood. Circular, the lines scratched hastily and long ago. As Ignis approached, he realized he could make out a hint of faded blue paint in the center - an iris, and surrounding it in geometric arcs was the rest of the eye.

This was it. They’d arrived.

Prompto knocked on the door. Soft at first, then louder after a few tense moments of silence. He raised his fist to strike a third time when, at last, they heard distinct movement from the other side, and jumped back as one as the door (boards and all) flew open and outward.

“It’s about damn time,” a voice greeted them. Full, red lips, pale skin like the color of snow, black hair pulled back in an intricate braid, the figure stepped to the edge of the doorframe and smiled. The being’s eyes were closed, but Ignis and the others got the distinct feeling that they were still being seen, being watched . Particularly Noctis’ whose breathing had grown labored, desperate, on the cusp of succumbing to the poison in his veins.

The figure nodded. “He’s almost gone. Bring him inside.”

The being turned, walking into what appeared to be a dimly-lit hallway and beckoning the men to follow. Ignis stepped forward, faltered, hugged Noctis tight against him and raised his gaze. “Can…. Can we trust you?” he asked, voice strained with the need for hope, for faith. For a miracle.

A pause. When the figure glanced back again, they were still smiling, but there was a shadow there, too. A darkness. A playfulness. “Trust? No . But what other choice do you have?”

Ignis grit his teeth. Looked down at Noctis slipping away even as he held him close. And before he could change his mind, he plunged forward into the strange home, Gladio and Prompto on his heels just as the door slammed shut behind them.

Chapter Text

 

 

Noctis weighed next to nothing in his arms. That, perhaps more than anything, was what worried him.

Faint, waning, slipping away a little more with each breath.

His fingers - dark, unnatural - twitched against the front of Ignis’ shirt, too weak to cling to him but desperate to try. No sound passed his lips, though they were parted as if in a plea, and strained where the color of his skin had gone icy black.

How much further?

Ignis didn’t dare speak the question that plagued his every step. They’d been following their host through the impossibly large building for far too long, over aged wood floors and past countless, secret rooms behind painted shoji . Nothing about the place made sense; not the layout, or the endless space it seemed to occupy within a building that had, from the outside, appeared no bigger than a slum. Neither did the style, the smell, the very feel of the wood underfoot, all of which suggested an age long past.

Ancient, worn, yet somehow timeless; a place not connected to anywhere, or anywhen.

It made Ignis’ skin crawl.

Their host was just ahead, the long, black layers of their kimono dancing over the wood as their feet moved with practiced confidence. Left, right, twisting through the dim, narrow hallways while the minutes dragged on and on. Closer to their goal, or perhaps further away from it. Ignis couldn't be sure which. Was this a game? A test? Did Noctis’ life not hang in the balance, dependant upon this being who had spoken to him in a fevered dream?

None of it made sense, and yet here he was - here they all were - betting their last hope on an illusionist in a trick house. And his heart was sinking faster with every step.

"Are we there yet?"

Surprisingly, the voice came not from Ignis, but from Prompto behind him. Even without glancing back, he could sense the trepidation in the blond’s words, but also the urgency in them. "I'm worried about Noct."

We all are .

Ahead of them, the dark, lithe figure came to a halt. Their sleeves swept in a graceful arc as they bowed low, and gestured wordlessly to a small room immediately to their left. Had it been Prompto's words, or a coincidence? Again, Ignis was unsure; and again he was left with an unsettling feeling in his gut as he strode past their smiling host to carry his prince inside.

"Where the hell are we?" This time it was Gladio who gave voice to the question at the forefront of all of their minds. A washitsu , seemed to be the simple answer, designed in the same traditional, old-age style as the rest of the home, Yet, somehow the air here felt less oppressive. The floor was tatami , soft underfoot and creaking as Ignis moved toward the center. There, a low table, made of polished, darkened wood and inlaid with gold script (that, too, was old - he couldn't read the characters) sat as if it had been prepared just for them. In fact, there were exactly three cushions laid out around it - one for each of the guests, assuming Noct was to go….

"On the table, yes. Carefully. He is fragile."

Their host had yet to open their eyes, but Ignis could feel he was being watched. Full, ruby lips spread into a smile, and they pointed to the table in question as if the instructions had been somehow unclear.

Ignis’ own eyes narrowed.

Suspicion aside, the unconscious oyabun was laid out on the table as comfortably as the three of them could manage. Ignis took the seat closest to him, where he could keep watch on every shivering breath that passed through Noct’s lips (even those had grown darker since their arrival, he was certain of it.) Their host was the last to sit, settling down onto the tatami at the head of the table and folding their legs beneath them. The room fell silent. Then, gently:

"Tea?"

Ignis dropped all semblance of propriety on the spot. "Noctis is dying! We haven't come here for games or tea parties, we're here to help him! "

"Please," Prompto added. "Noct thinks you're his last hope."

" Ah. You. You are the one who opened his mind to us," came the slow, careful response. Almost as frustrating as their complete lack of urgency was their accent, which Ignis was certain he'd heard before, but couldn't place. "It is fortuitous that you should be by his side, young Argentum."

Prompto opened his mouth. Shut it again. Sat back on his calves and stared bewildered as he tried to figure out how - and why - they knew his name.

Ignis commandeered the silence once more. "Can you, or can you not, help him?"

“We can.”

Relief, as well as a new sense of unease, settled over them all. Their host’s voice seemed to echo in the air of the room, foreboding and somehow ancient, otherworldly even, and hinting at more behind the deceptively simple words.

“But?” Gladio voiced for the rest of them.  

“He is nearing the precipice. Even now he struggles to remain in this plane.”

More riddles, more games. Against the table next to Noctis’ shoulder, Ignis’ fingers curled into a fist. “Whatever is happening to him, he’s losing. Tell us what must be done.”

“He must accept the gift . Perhaps we can guide him to it, but not from here.” That oddly serene face, eyes still closed and lips wearing a mysterious smile, rounded on him. Spoke to him, through him, in a way that chilled Ignis to the core. “First, he must pass from this life.”

“That’s it .” Snatching his arm back from around Prompto’s shoulders, Gladio started to his feet. “We’re outta here. No way we came this far for some nutjob to let Noct die anyway!”

“Gladio, quiet.” Ignis held his hand out to halt him, although his eyes remained fixed on their host’s expression. Something...was there. A message hidden beneath the cryptic words. He thought, perhaps, he understood. “You don’t mean to let him die. You mean to kill him.”

There was a dangerous edge to their ruby smile. “To let him die would mean giving him over to the Scourge, and losing his soul so completely that it could never be brought back.”

Brought...back?

“His life must be taken before that happens. It is the only way for him to accept the gift he has been offered.”

Again, Gladio started to his feet, Prompto’s hands on him the only barrier between his wrath and their host’s throat. "You must be crazy if you think we're gonna let you lay a finger on him,"

"No. Not us," they answered. Ignis could feel that unseeing gaze prickling, burning right through his skin, peeling back the flesh and leaving him bare before the moment. "Death alone is not enough. To find his way back, he will need a connection to this plane. One strong and unfaltering."

...Me.

“Iggy?”

Though weak, the sudden wavering of Noct’s voice was unmistakable. Ignis turned to him, green eyes filled with fear, with helplessness, in time to see him smile. In time to watch a single tear roll down his prince’s cheek, black as the blood in his veins.

“Iggy, it’s okay,” he said, words like delicate air. “It’s okay. Trust Shiva.”

“No, Noctis, I--”

“It has to be you.”

Their host - Shiva - spoke in the tense silence that followed. “The boy is right. He is destined to die on this table. How it comes to pass depends on the courage of one.”

A dark sleeve passed into Ignis’ field of vision. Swept down past his hip, until, though the being never touched him, a dagger was held out to him. His dagger. There was no mistake. It’s intricate handle glinted under the dim light, the blade shone like cool steel. His dagger. An extension of himself. One that had served at his side for so long, had taken countless lives in the name of the Caelum oath. And which, that night, would take one more.

His dagger was offered, and numbly Ignis reached out to receive it.

Across the table, Prompto and Gladio had gone utterly still. “Iggy, no….”

“Igs, what’re you doing, snap out of it!”

But his hand was steady as he moved it over Noctis’ chest. The hands of a Reaper, made for a singular purpose: to deliver death, and ruin. Hands made to kill both in vengeance...and in mercy.

Deep, blue eyes ignored the blade dragging through the air above him as Noct nodded.

“It’s okay.”

“Noctis.” Tears stung at the backs of his eyes, the only sign of the tremendous terror Ignis usually masked so well. In his fingers, his dagger felt at once familiar and foreign, and cold as ice. Yet it moved with a purpose all its own. The tip pressed to the front of the white hospital gown still draped over Noctis’ body, caught on the cotton as it traced a line down his sternum. Two, three, four…. Counting down with surgical accuracy to the gap between his fourth and fifth rib bone, then over a fraction to the left. “Noct...this is madness.”

Black-tipped fingers trembled against his cheek. Noctis was having trouble holding them there, and the effort was straining him fast. “ Specs .” All else had faded to the periphery: Gladio, holding Prompto as horror drained the color from his face; Shiva, whose eyes had opened at last, and pulsed with a haunting red light as they watched. No. Nothing else mattered. All he could see was Noctis, that beautiful gaze pulling him in, so full of trust, so full of peace; those lips, inky black like death yet curved up to regard him with gentle smile. “I’m not scared.”  

His own tears were hot and bitter as they pooled in his eyes. “I will find you, Noctis. Wherever you go, I will seek you out.”

“I know.”

“I will follow you. Into death and beyond.”

A weak laugh, barely a whisper. “Just. Wait here for me. Promise?”

“Noctis, I….”

“I love you.”

Noctis.

The deed was sealed with a kiss. Ignis fell into his lover, lips and dagger alike, and as they met Noctis gasped his name. No more than a breath - his last - and quickly captured. Ignis kissed him to the sound of gurgling blood, dark and rotting, spilling up from Noct’s chest and out from between their joined mouths. He kissed him to the sound of screaming - Prompto’s - as he twisted the dagger and felt his lover twitch, shiver, go limp.

He kissed him long after the light had gone out of those beautiful eyes, and black tears dried on pale cheeks.

For had he stopped, he would have driven the dagger next right into his own aching heart.

 


 

"Iggy. Iggyyy!"

The voice carried through the corridor, echoing off the stone walls, the marble floors, the arched ceiling of the East Wing corridor. Footsteps, too, belonging to the young ohji as he raced forward, hands outstretched and face split in a smile.

Hastily, Ignis bowed an apology to the Marshal. Though Leonis seemed less than impressed, the debriefing about the Coernix job was going to have to wait. Noctis was the son of the boss; and everyone knew he always came first.

Especially with Ignis.  

"Iggy, Iggy!"

The younger boy skidded to a halt in front of him with an accompanying squeal of sneakers on tile. His momentum carried him forward, off balance, into a fall - if not for Ignis’ quick thinking, and the arms that flew out to catch him in a hug.

Noctis practically beamed up at him. "Iggy, I came as soon as I heard you were back! What took so long?"

“The...assignment,” he answered carefully. “Turned out to be more complicated than we’d anticipated.”

“Assignment?” There was that familiar look in his eyes, the mischievous one that meant he’d been sticking his nose in places no twelve-year-old belonged again. “You mean infiltrating the Coernix headquarters to go after the boss of the Dualhorn gang?”

“How did you-?” He risked a glance over his shoulder, where the Marshals’ back was just disappearing from view around the curve of the corridor. Back to Noct, where his eyes narrowed and a tired sigh escaped his lips. “You’ve been talking with Nyx again, haven’t you?”

A grin was his only answer. “I bet it’s so cool, going on missions with the Glaives. Did you have to fight any bad guys?”

Bad guys. Interesting choice of words, Ignis thought, coming from a yakuza prince. But of course Noct was still a child, and his father kept him relatively sheltered from the truth of their existence. Ignis understood. He recalled the scene that morning: blood on the walls, the ceiling, corpses dragging into the hallway; the flames as they roared to life, consuming the building and the evidence as one.

Again, he chose his next words carefully. “It wasn’t much of a fight,” he said, and favored Noctis with an indulgent smile.

“Yeah, I bet. Hey, Iggy?” The younger boy tugged on his hand, gaze falling somewhere into empty space between them. “Do you think I’ll ever be strong enough to join the Glaives?”

“Noct?”

“You know, ‘cause I wanna go on missions and stuff.” Sneakers shuffled on marble tiles. “With you.”

Ignis tried not to picture it. Tried not to smirk as he imagined Noct, all lanky limbs and unruly hair beneath an oversized uniform, practically drowning in the fabric as it pooled around his feet. It was an adorable vision, to be sure, but hardly one that would strike fear into their enemies’ hearts. “Sorry, Highness. But I don’t think you’ll be allowed to join the Glaives. You’ll be in command of them one day.”

The look he was given then made it very difficult indeed not to laugh. ”I know that. But….”

“But?”

“But what if you get hurt out there? Who’s going to protect you if I’m not around?”

A pause. “Protect...me?”

“Yeah. From the bad stuff.”

“Noct.” Slowly, still smiling, he lowered himself to one knee in front of his ohji , making it his turn to look up into the younger boy’s eyes. “I’m the one sworn to protect you . When I train, and when I fight, it’s all to keep you safe, do you understand?”

A careful nod.

“If a knight needs his king to defend him in battle, he isn’t a very good knight, is he?”

This time, albeit dejectedly, Noct shook his head.

“So let me be your knight, and I promise to always come back to the castle in one piece. Deal?”

Noct’s pout twitched in a half-smirk. “Deal - on one condition.”

“...You really have been spending too much time with Nyx.”

“You gotta tell me the stories. Like, all about your exciting missions, and what it’s like to take out the bad guys!” Stepping back from Ignis’ hold, he pretended to shoulder some kind of gun and spun around making sound effects with this mouth. “Da-da-da-da! Boom! Game over!”

Ignis couldn’t help but shake his head. How could a boy like Noctis, the only son of the city’s most influential crime family and the heir to the underworld, still remain so innocent? Even as he raced around the corridor, blasting invisible enemies with his pretend space-laser weapon, he seemed so out of place amidst the atmosphere of the Citadel. Dark hallways, heavy air, a foundation built on bones and blood money; trained killers, their hands stained with the deaths of countless obstacles in the constant climb to the top.

He looked down at his own hands. Through his gloves, he could feel the blood still caked and crackling against his skin. Knew that these hands had ended more lives in the four years since he’d sworn the oath than some Glaives could boast in an entire career. And suddenly, inexplicably, he felt an overwhelming sense of loss.

Unworthy.

Unclean.

“Noctis?” The sounds of playing stopped. Large, blue eyes turned to him once more, still smiling despite the heavy tone in his friend’s voice.

“Yeah?”

No. No stories. They would never speak of this again. So long as he stood by Noct’s side, he had sworn to protect, and that also meant keeping him safe from the truth. His prince had the most pure heart of anyone he had ever known, and he would die before he allowed him to be corrupted by the cruelty of the world outside his windows.

“I’m certain the Marshal won’t mind if I’m a little late to our meeting. Would you like to show me that new game your father got you for Solstice?”

Blue eyes flashed wide. “R-really? You wanna see it?”

“I’d love to.”

“Yesss! It’s gonna be awesome!” Before he could react, Noctis was grabbing him around the wrist, half-dragging him down the hallway on the way back to his room. “I’ll let you be Player 1, okay?”

I swear it. No pain will ever come to you, Noctis.

“Okay, Iggy?”

No blood shall ever taint your hands.

“Ah, I think I’d rather just watch you play, if that’s alright.” Ahead of him, the ohji shrugged, but continued to pull him along undeterred.

“Suit yourself. But I was totally gonna let you win.”

Chapter Text

He felt cold, and yet he felt nothing at all.

Where was he? How had he gotten here? All around him, emptiness; neither light nor dark, but merely devoid . Was he alone? Where was Iggy? And Prom, and Gladio?

Where was Dad?

“Hello?”

Hello.

Hel…lo.…

The echo of his own voice? Why did it sound so...far away?

The sound disappeared just as quickly as it had come, and in the wake of it, deafening silence. So loud it hurt his ears, made him want to throw his hands up to cover them from the pressure, the panic. But Noct found that he couldn’t move his arms.

He is here.

“Wh…? Who said that?” Eyes flying open wide, he tried to turn, to get a good look around him. “Is someone there?”

Ah. She told us he would come.

Yes, She did.

“Hey! Where are you guys? Gladio, is that you?”

He speaks. He knows we are near.

“Woah, hey, come on, you’re freaking me out!”

Then answer him.

Noct thought he might be running, though it was difficult to be sure; there was nowhere to run to - nowhere to run from - in this...place. “Please. If I’m dreaming, let me wake up!” He imagined his room, his bed, safe and warm under the blankets. A hand to hold. Ignis? Why would Ignis be in his bed? “Please just let me go.”

Child. Do not be afraid. You have been sent here to receive our gift.

Gift? That booming voice seemed to draw closer, thrumming inside his very skull. “What the hell are you talking about?”

He is not ready.

He is. He will understand in time.

Do not underestimate him. Will you make the same mistakes as Ifrit?

Ifrit was a fool!

Noct was screaming. The voices were loud, so loud, rattling his teeth as their vehemence grew. Why? Why couldn’t he wake up?!

Ah. We have frightened him. I told you, he does not understand. She did not tell him.

It matters not. He is strong enough to receive my gift.

I see. Your hubris will be your undoing, Bahamut.

There was a different sound, not unlike laughter, but Noct could sense the pity in it. Fainter, weaker, drifting away in this place that was somewhere and nowhere at once. And with it, the rumbling pressure bearing down on his skull faded, too. Dissipated like the crackle of thunder after a summer storm.

Whatever it was, it had left.

But one voice yet remained, quieter now, speaking only for him. Child , it said, and Noct could feel it close enough to leave him chilled to the core. It is time.

“...ct.”

His head snapped up. That sounded almost like….

“Noctis. If...you can hear me….”

“...Iggy?”

Do not be afraid.

IGGY?!”

The air thrummed. Buzzed with a powerful surge of energy that seemed to surround him. It filled his senses, threatened to block out the only voice he was so desperate to hear.

“Come back…. Come back to me….”

“Iggy, Iggy, Iggy please! Where are you?!”

“...oc...tis. I ...ve you….”

“IGGYYY!”


 

 

The door closed quietly. Gladio swayed, found his balance; stepped away from the shoji before he could go crashing back down through it. This...was a nightmare.

Everything had gone wrong. They’d brought Noctis here to save his life, and yet with his own eyes Gladio had been forced to watch him die. His oyabun , his friend, murdered . By Ardyn, by the poison in his veins, by this Shiva freak, and, in the end, by Ignis. He couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t accept it , and yet the evidence had been all too clear.

Noct’s body, unmoving on the table; Ignis’ dagger drenched in dark blood, a monument of death jutting out from his chest; the Reaper himself, eyes white with fear as the life slipped out of the man he’d sworn to protect.

No. They had all sworn to protect Noctis. And they had all of them failed.

Against his chest, Prompto’s let out a ragged sob. A prayer, maybe, or a curse. Or both. Gladio knew the blond well enough to understand what he was thinking. Prompto would blame himself; would argue that he’d been the one to put this stupid idea into Noct’s head, that he never should have opened his mouth in the first place.

While Gladio didn’t agree, he also couldn’t find the words in that moment to comfort him. Shock, and loss, gripped them both. Left them clinging to each other in the hallway outside of Noct’s deathbed, uncertain and utterly without hope.

 

Inside the room, the very air spoke of death.

Ignis remained on his knees beside the table where Noctis lay. Hands shaking, his fingers stroked mechanically through soft hair; over and over, as if he’d forgotten how to stop, how to breathe, how to think.

Noctis. Noctis.

Dead .

His fault.

It couldn’t be real. The blood-stained, tainted blade of his dagger on the floor couldn't possibly be real. He twisted his fingers in the oyabun ’s hair, held him close as he sobbed into the side of his neck. Impossible. How had it cometo this?  

“Reaper.”

The name strung him, sharp as a blade through his own chest. Without turning, he could once again sense their eyes on him - the one Noctis had called Shiva, and in whom he had said to trust. Who had lied, deceived him into taking his lover’s life. They were the monster; they were the cause of all of this.

Anger flared up within his aching bones, only to burn out of him just as quickly.

Shiva called to him again. “Reaper, he searches for you.”

“…Who? Noctis?”

“Yes. Even now, he is lost, and afraid.”

Tears burned at his eyes, and this time he let them fall. “Noctis…. I’m so sorry.”

Behind him, the barely audible sound of cloth sweeping tatami. Shiva stood, their eyes open and seemingly fixed on empty space as they approached. One hand, pale, delicate, reached out for Ignis. The other rose into the air above their head. “He searches for you,” they repeated, though this time their voice was...changed. Deeper, almost an echo of itself, as if two mouths were speaking in perfect sync. “You must call to him.”

“Call...to him?” Ignis hugged tighter to Noctis beneath him. He didn’t understand - what good could words do now? He was dead, he was gone, and nothing was going to change that….

“You must! Do not fail him now!”

Green eyes widened, still not understanding but feverish with the faintest inklings of hope. Call to him. Call him back.

“...Noc...tis?” A whisper. His lips trembled. “Noctis, if...if you can hear me, I….”

Foolish, useless, he’s dead and you’ve killed him!

“Noctis, please! Come back! Come back to me!”

Above his head, the bulb inside the shaded lamp began to surge, its coils humming with energy. Yet Ignis noticed nothing over the sound of his own desperation.

“Noctis!” Shaking, he sobbed into the blood-soaked gown covering his oyabun’s chest. “ I LOVE YOU!”  

Several things happened then in the span of a single heartbeat. The bulb overhead surged full to bursting and shattered, drenching the room in darkness even as tiny crystals of glass rained down below. The table - at which Ignis still kneeled and where Noct lay unmoving - jumped . Only a few centimeters off the floor, but it landed as heavily as if something had been slammed into the surface of it.

Finally, there was a gasp. Neither from Ignis or Shiva behind him, but from within his arms. Faint, but familiar. It couldn’t be….

The door was flung open. Prompto and Gladio rushed inside as light flooded the room, and Ignis dared against hope to risk a glance.

He’d been clutching Noct’s body tight to his chest; tighter than he’d intended, but he drew back then in a mixture of awe and disbelief. Focused his tear-filled gaze on the face there, and found Noctis watching him in return, those brilliant, blue eyes blinking rapidly. Surprised, shocked, disoriented - but most importantly, alive.

“...Iggy?”

He might have screamed. He might have sobbed out a prayer of thanks, of relief, as he threw his arms around his prince. Impossible. How?!  

More arms closed around them both - Gladio and Prompto - but he hardly cared. In that moment, in the miracle of Noctis’ return, Ignis knew nothing but the warmth and strength of the body he clung to.


 

"Uh, you sure about this, dude?"

"I'm fine, guys, really. I can walk."

"Noct…."

Their incredulity was perfectly understandable, even if little else about the situation was. Again, Gladio and Ignis exchanged nervous looks in silence. Prompto, taking a step back, gave Noct some room at the edge of the table. But all of them held their breaths.

Despite having been carried into the den barely conscious, the young oyabun was determined to make his way back out on his own two feet. Carefully, avoiding the shattered glass of the light bulb below him, he set his toes on the yielding surface of the tatami. Next, the balls of his feet, testing out his weight, and finally onto his heels as he pushed himself up off the table.

And there he stood, perfectly balanced, legs strong and back straight, a picture of health.

Ignis felt the air leave his lungs in a rush. “I can’t believe it….”

The words, spoken to himself, were reflected in the others’ equally stupefied expressions. Even Prompto was at a loss for words, eyes wide in reverent amazement as he drank in the sight of what, for lack of a a better word, amounted to a miracle.

Slowly, Ignis approached. He could feel Noctis’ gaze following him - wary? - but his own focus was on the oyabun’s hands. Hands that had, only an hour before, been stained an inky black with poisoned blood, but which were now clear and strong. That same blood still colored Noct’s hospital gown, a dark pool around the hole in the fabric just above his heart. It was there that Ignis’ attention swept next.

“Iggy?”

“How do you feel, Noctis?” Even as he voiced the question, his fingers parted the tear in the cloth.

“Fine. Really good, actually.”

“Incredible….” Beneath his fingertips, perfectly smooth skin; not even a scar or a blemish where steel had pierced him. Ignis had felt it himself, hadn’t he? The way the dagger had sunk into the hollow of Noct’s chest, the way the life had bleed out of him. He’d felt that - it had been real - and yet….

“Iggy, can we go now? I kind of, um, want some pants.” Those deep blue eyes blinked up at him, and Noct subtly tugged at the hem of his gown in. It took a few heartbeats for Ignis to catch up with the moment, to realize what Noctis was telling him and to recognize the lightness in his tone. Despite everything he didn’t - couldn’t - yet understand, when their eyes met Ignis knew that somehow, things were going to be alright.

He sighed as a tired smile crept across his face. “Of course. Let’s go home, Noct.”

Gladio took the keys to the Regalia, and Prompto along with him as he made to start up the car. Despite Noct’s insistence that he was fine, Ignis hung back with him, ready to lead him out by the waist as soon as he’d finished saying goodbye to their host.

In keeping with the air of unsettling mystery, Shiva had remained silent since Noctis’ miraculous return from the dead. Their eyes were closed once more, and ruby red lips curved in a smile which held far too many secrets; but as Noct turned to speak, it was clear that unseeing gaze followed him close.

“Um. I don’t know how to thank you,” he started. “For helping me. For helping all of us.”

“We may not deserve your gratitude yet, young prince.”

Noct dropped his eyes to the floor. Furrowed his brows as if in thought for several long heartbeats. When he spoke again, Ignis sensed his words were somehow heavier than he let on. “There was something...you didn’t tell me. What was it?”

A pause. “That all things come at a cost. Go now, you are needed on your throne. Go. We will meet again.”

There was no more time for questions. Ignis found himself leading Noct into the hallway before he realized their feet were moving, The shoji drew closed at their backs, and with only a few twists of the corridor they were back out on the street, blinking up into a midday sun.

How long had they…?

No, ignis shook his head. It was irrelevant. Only one thing mattered now, and that was getting Noctis someplace safe.

Gladio was already behind the wheel when they reached the car. Ignis ushered Noct into the backseat between Prompto and himself, and kept his sharp eyes on the road ahead of them as they began to pull off.

“Where’re we headin’ first, boss?”

“Dr. Yaegre’s place. We need to be sure Noctis is completely well,” he added in response to the glare he was being shot. “A full medical check is the only way to be sure the Starscourge is out of your system.”

“I’m fine , Iggy, I already told you that.”

“You were not fine a few hours ago, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Noctis rolled his eyes. “Gladio, head to the Citadel. We’ll call Sania there if we have to, but Shiva was right.” A hand on Ignis’ thigh stilled his protests. “They need us. This fight isn’t over.”

The others exchanged solemn looks. Though he was loathe to admit it, Ignis knew in his heart that Noctis was right; knew what awaited them and that this was no time to be selfish. With a sigh, he settled back into the leather of the seat, and let the rumbling of the Regalia carry them across town.

Next to him and in silence, Noct kept his gaze focused on the road ahead. Watching, yet seeing nothing as his mind drifted far from the scene; back to nothing, back to darkness, where a voice whispered in echoes inside his head.

Well spoken, young prince.

Take me to Him.  


 

Luna was the first to come rushing down the steps of the Citadel. She threw her arms around Noctis (who thankfully had found one of Gladio’s jackets in the trunk; one big enough to swim in as well as cover his exposed backside) and sobbed into his neck. Her brother, Ravus, was there as well, along with Cor, Weskham, Monica, and most of the Glaives. Word, it seemed, traveled fast - or at least Ignis’ text messages had - but Noctis found he was grateful for the warm, if unexpected, reception.

"We were so worried," Luna was saying, clinging to his shoulders as if unsure how to let go. "Ravvie and I came as soon as we heard you'd been taken to the hospital. They said that it was bad. I thought….” Her voice broke as Noct hugged her close.

“I’m still standing, aren’t I?”

“Of course.” A sniffle, and a weak smile. “It’s just that, well. After what happened with your father…. And with all the murders that keep happening around the city, I feared the worst."

"Murders?" Ignis repeated the word from where he stood at Noct’s side, but his eyebrows lifted, and his gaze with them. Just in time to catch sight of the Marshal approaching from beyond Luna’s shoulder.

Cor’s expression was drawn thin - a mixture of relief at seeing Noct alive and well, and the grim frown he always wore when Ignis was about to be put to work.

"Yes, murders. And welcome back, Noctis," he added almost as an afterthought, offering a hand to his oyabun. "I was afraid I'd lost another Caelum on my watch."

"No, sir. Just…needed a day off."

"Hm. Be that as it may, you all missed quite the spectacle while you were gone. More bodies turned up, lots of them, and this time in broad daylight. I'm sure it won't take much imagination to figure out who’s behind their deaths."

Noct and Prompto cringed in unison. "Ardyn."

"Our favorite ghost. His latest victims were found this morning outside of a shopping mall in the Tenebrae district. He isn't hiding anymore. In fact, it's almost like he's-"

"Trying to draw us out."

A pause, followed by a solemn nod, and a silence only Gladio seemed willing to break.

"Well, I say we take him up on that offer. You got any idea where he's going next?"

For the briefest moment when Cor’s gaze met his, there was a spark of… something. Anger? Distrust? Whatever it was, it flickered quickly and went out. “My men are already looking into it. We sent Ulric out with a team to meet Detective Ghiranze a few hours ago.”

“Nyx? Is he safe?” Luna asked, her brows knitting together in concern.

“Are any of us?”

The Marshal’s grim delivery was met with tension and an awkward shuffling of feet. Ignis was reminded of hollow faces, of corpses pulled from drain pipes; haunting photographs of headless Glaives; a bridge, a headline, and a dead symbol of the underworld strung up like a puppet on display. He clenched his fist at his side.

No. There had been enough death already.

“The safest place is right here. Izunia is merely setting traps; he will reveal himself only when he’s ready, and on his terms. Trying to smoke him out is a waste of time - and of good men.” He cast a sidelong glance at Luna, who nodded in agreement. “We must draw him to us. Cor, call the Glaives back. Station them on guard around the Citadel’s perimeter.”

“Scientia, you -“ The Marshal stopped. Looked from his oyabun to the burning green eyes of the Reaper at his side, and tightened his lips. “ Sir.”

“If anything so much as bloody sneezes , we need to know about it. The objective is not to engage, but to protect our own.”

“That means Luna and Ravus, too,” Noct added in an equally commanding tone. “We can't risk any of our allies getting hurt again. Understood?”

Cor answered, quick to straighten his back in a low bow. “Of course.”

“Good. Luna?”

At the sound of her name, she lifted her head and smiled proudly. “Yes, Noctis?”

“You and Ravus should take one of the rooms here at the Citadel. At least until we know it’s safe to move around the city.”

“With all due respect,” came a voice he knew well. Ravus Nox Fleuret descended to the base of the steps as he spoke, his frown as tight as his gait. “I’ll be returning to Tenebrae immediately. I needn’t remind you of the danger my own people suffered the last time your Glaives went out on a wild goose chase. But I would feel relieved knowing my sister is in your care.”

“Got it. We’ll keep her safe, you have my word.”

“Thank you. Then, by your leave.”

With a bow towards Noctis and a swift kiss to Luna’s cheek, he made for his car (sleek, expensive; one intended to turn heads in typical Nox Fleuret fashion) with three of his own guards following close behind. Together they piled in quickly, and within seconds were peeling away from the curb to make their way back across the city. Eager, it seemed, to reach Tenebrae before nightfall.

Noct sympathized with his urgency. But before he could dismiss the rest of his men, he had one last thing to take care of.

“Prom, Gladio,” he called, and his friends were instantly at his side. “There’s plenty of room here for you, too. I’d feel better knowing you were both safe. Besides,” he added playfully. “After everything we’ve been through, you deserve a night off.”

“You can say that again. Thanks, boss.”

“Yeah, thanks, Noct. I feel like I could crash right--” Prompto stretched his jaw wide in a yawn. “--here.”

The plan was settled. Cor and Monica made quick work of recalling the Glaives, while Dustin went to prepare several rooms of the oyabun and his guests. While the Citadel functioned mostly as an office building (save for the basement floors, where a majority of the actual business took place), Noct’s father had always had a knack for diplomacy. Before his wife’s passing, they had together designed and decorated a number of rooms suitable for guests of what Aulea called “notable notoriety.” One of the rooms, the Sylleblossom Suite, had been frequented in years past by Sylva Nox Fleuret, and so the honor of staying there was passed down to Luna for the night.

Though it had fallen out of use since Sylva’s death, Dustin made sure the sheets and covers on the bed were fresh, and even dusted off an old photo of Luna’s mother he’d found in a drawer. The moment she saw it, she clutched the photo to her breast and thanked him repeatedly.

The room Gladio and Prompto were given was smaller, yet neither of them had any reason to complain. The bed was large enough for them both (Dustin, none the wiser, had actually offered to bring in a spare cot), and the view from the window overlooked the whole of Insomnia. Prompto was drawn to the balcony with his camera while Gladio helped to move some old storage boxes into a closet.

Noct and Ignis chose to forego the last of the spare guest rooms, and instead took up a private lounge that Regis himself had used when business kept him away from home. There was a bed in the corner, not long out of use, and shelves of books and binders and filing boxes. A portrait hung on the wall above the single desk there - Mors, Noct’s grandfather, dressed immaculately in black and gold, the Ring of the Lucii perched on his finger.

Noct found himself staring at the portrait for a long time. His eyes followed the features of his grandfather’s face, all bold, pronounced edges and a stern frown, until he thought he could recognize the fire behind them. Until he could see not only Mor’s will in those steel blue eyes, but his father’s as well.

Father….

...

You miss him.  

...

“Noct?” The voice called to him from the adjacent bathroom, where Ignis emerged suddenly in nothing but his blood-soaked slacks and spectacles, hair still damp. “Do you have something to sleep in? I’m afraid I lacked the forethought to bring a change of clothes.”

The young oyabun hid his preoccupation behind a laugh. Tore his eyes from the painting above the desk, and turned his full focus on Iggy’s half-dressed state. “Does it really matter?”

It most certainly didn’t. Ignis set his glasses on the desk, shed the last of his clothing to hang unfolded over the back of the chair. Noct at least had the manners to add Gladio’s jacket to the pile before dropping his stained hospital gown to the floor beside it. Good riddance , he smirked, and climbed into bed into waiting arms.

“Dr. Yaegre will come to see you first thing in the morning,” that warm voice breathed against the top of his head. “I spoke with her while you were seeing the others to their rooms. You didn’t think I’d forgotten, had you?”

His look must have given him away. With a yawn, Noct sank down against the planes of Ignis’ chest. “You never do. Do I at least get to sleep in?”

“She’ll be here at nine o’clock, sharp.” From the curve of his lips, it was clear Ignis intended for that answer to suffice. He pressed a kiss to Noct’s brow, one arm tightening around his waist protectively - possessively - before he reached over to switch off the bedside lamp. “Get some rest.”

Outside the lone window of the room, the city of Insomnia lived up to its name long into the night. The sounds of the ever-present traffic drifted up from below, countless people bustling about even in the hours after dark. Tires, dogs. In the distance, a siren wailed.

Ignis had spent many restless nights listening to this lullaby of the city. Nights alone, laying in his empty bed in an apartment that had always felt too large for him. So many years. Back then, the sounds of the world outside had helped him sleep. Now….

Now they left his mind buzzing. Echoed the thoughts he’d tucked away, pushed to the shadows in the name of duty, but which he could no longer keep from flooding back to the forefront.

The dagger is cool between his fingers. It weighs in them, familiar, an extension of himself. Like him, it is a perfect instrument of death.

Ignis swallowed in the dark, and tugged Noct closer.

Blood, thick and black, coursing over pale skin. Pulse waning. A cry silenced forever .

Noct’s cry.

No. No, he refused to go down that path a second time. What happened in that room, on the being called Shiva’s table, was not something the mortal mind was meant to grasp. Death, rebirth. A trick of the psyche, or had it all been as real as it felt?

Perhaps he would never know. Perhaps none of them would ever truly understand what had transpired that day.

Perhaps...that was for the best.

“Iggy?”

He realized he’d been holding Noctis too tight against his chest, and flushed. "Ah. I'm sorry, I--"

"Can't sleep?"

"…You, either?" Against him, he felt Noct shake his head. Soft black locks tickled his skin, left him smiling despite the weight tugging at his heart. “You ought to be resting. You need to recover your strength.”

“I feel like I’ve been asleep for a long time, Iggy. Too long.” Noct shifted then, hips brushing against his lover’s on his way up his body. “And now I’m wide awake.”

The energy, the intention behind his hidden smile was unmistakable, and yet Ignis found himself torn. The first kiss was tender, a tentative peck of lips to the corner of his mouth, but the second was more insistent. Ignis halted Noct with a look before he could go in for a third. “We shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Noctis, you’ve—”

“Never felt better, Specs.” He rolled down against him, the growing interest between his legs emphasizing his point. “Tomorrow everything could change again. I don’t want to waste anymore time.”

A sigh, and Ignis’ resolve crumbled another step. “As tempting as the idea sounds….”

The idea alone wasn’t the only temptation, of course. There was also Noct’s body, warm and very real pressed against him, and his fingers - he hadnt noticed when they’d slipped between his legs, but there they were, stroking a line of fire up the length of one thigh.

Highness .”

“I could hear you, y’know. In the darkness.” Blue eyes, a dark and deep as the night sky, drew him in. Noctis’ eyes , more beautiful than anything Ignis had ever known, and his favorite place to lose himself. “I heard you calling out to me, and I followed you back. You kept your promise to find me.”

“In the darkness….” What was it like? No. That question was dangerous; he’d spent too many years in the service of Death, and he found that he wasn’t interested in looking too deeply within. “How did you know it was me?” he asked instead.

Noct laughed, quietly in the space between them, as the heel of his palm caressed Ignis’ cock to life. “Like it could have been anyone else?”

Noctis, I…. .”

The oyabun answered him with a kiss, and this time there was no resistance. Ignis melted back into the pillow, his arms coming up to circle around Noct’s shoulders, his back, pulling him in. Holding him like the most precious treasure in the world. Their bodies fit together easily, perfect enough to take his breath away when he felt Noct nestle down between his legs, nudging his thighs apart with the weight of his hips. Each kiss brought them closer, closer, until Ignis could feel every powerful beat of Noctis’ heart echoed within his own chest.

It was nearly too much. Emotion flooded him, left him quaking and clinging to every part of Noctis he could wrap himself around. Tighter, tighter , their cocks as they slid together in the space between the only focal point to ground to. Their breaths falling into sync as their bodies moved as one. So perfect; so close to losing this.

Ignis hadn’t intended to cry, yet the tears filled his eyes too quickly to blink them away. Rolled down his cheeks as hot and cathartic as the way Noct writhed against him. Tears of loss, tears of hope, and tears of promise.

I love you , he sighed against parted lips. “ Noctis. I love you so much it hurts.”

“I know. I know.”

His next breath left him in a sob. Pleasure tightened in his gut, and his fingers in jet black locks. More tears - Noct’s this time - ran down his cheeks to collect on the pillow below, yet neither of them wanted to stop. Couldn’t stop, no more than they could let go of the other in their need for solace, for home .

Come what may, in that moment Ignis had everything; and he knew he would gladly fight - die if necessary - that Noctis would never again be taken away.  

Chapter Text


“Bit early to be seein’ your ugly mug back here again. What happened, you miss me?”

Libertus saw the swing coming before Nyx even hurled it, and dodged just as easily with a well-timed backstep. Shot a grin as cocky as it was lopsided - but he’d miscalculated his victory. As usual, he’d failed to notice the foot swiping towards his ankle until too late, and it was already being lurched out from under him.

A strong arm caught him around the waist. Spun him with dizzying speed to tumble instead against his friend’s broad, very solid chest. And as he blinked up into steel grey eyes, he saw Nyx smile.

“You were saying?”

Ugh .” Libertus pushed off brusquely, for once grateful for the shadows of night that hid his burning cheeks. “I hate when you do that.”

“No you don’t.” Another flash of white teeth, then Nyx was gesturing to the group of Glaives stationed around the post. It was a small neighborhood, cozy and quiet in the early hours before dawn; the houses on the block were all asleep, no lights except for the yellow-white glow of street lamps overhead. Hardly the place one might guess served as a border between Caelum and Nox Fleuret territory, with a history of carnage matched only by that of Gralea across town.

Libertus muttered something under his breath. Straightened his jacket more forcefully than necessary, and turned to follow his captain’s gaze. “So are you gonna tell me what you’re really doing here? Your team’s supposed to be with the stiffs up by the strip mall.”

Beside him, Nyx frowned. “We got orders to pull back. All of us, to the Citadel.”

Pull back? ” Incredulity spread across the older Glaive’s face as fast as if he’d been slapped. “What for? We just got here. Who the hell gave the order?”

The others had begun to close in, and Nyx barked at them to bring the vans around. “Who do you think? It was Scientia.”

“He’s back? Does that mean the boss’ kid…?”

“Dunno. The Marshal wasn't exactly in the mood to chat. Here,” he said, pressing a set of keys into Libertus’ palm. “Take my car, make sure these idiots find their way back in one piece, yeah?”

Dark brows knit over narrowed eyes. “Wait, you’re not comin’? I thought the order was for all of us?”

“Yeah, well. Luche’s not answering his phone. I gotta go check on his team in person.”

“Nyx, buddy, come on,” he groaned. “That dumbass probably just left it on silent again, or back at the compound. They’ll get the message sooner or later.”

But his friend was already turning away, one hand on the blade strapped to his leg, the other flashing Libertus a thumbs up. “What kinda captain would I be if I left my men behind? Go on, I’ll catch up later with the rest of ‘em.”

“Whatever. Try not to fuck it up, you got people waitin’ for you.”

A smirk, sharp and familiar. “Dude. I’m worth the -”

The wait. Yeah, yeah. Heard it a million times.” Libertus’ smile faltered, his palm hovering over the worn leather of Nyx’s jacket. When he brought it down, it was fast - just a pat to the shoulder, never lingering. “...Be careful. See ya downtown, hero.”

Then he was moving too, taking charge of the Glaives not already piled into the vehicles that would carry them back to the Caelum compound. Shouting orders to pick up the pace, to get them back home sometime before sunrise or he would personally see to it they’d have 16-hour training days for a week.

Had he allowed himself a glance back, both at the shrinking neighborhood and at his best friend, he would have seen as Nyx disappeared into the shadows for the last time.

 

“Come on. Pick up, numbnuts. Shit. ” Nyx swore again at the screen of his phone. Considered, briefly, throwing it off the side of the bridge where Luche and his men were supposed to be stationed on lookout. But chucking it wouldn’t have helped matters, and he figured it’d probably be tough to snag Lady Lunafreya’s number a second time. So he jammed the phone back into his jacket pocket and continued to the opposite side of the banks.

The assignment hadn’t been a difficult one, for fuck’s sake. ‘ Stay here, keep watch, report anything suspicious.’ The two may not have always seen eye to eye, but Nyx knew Luche was fiercely loyal to his work. That he wouldn’t abandon an order unless he had good reason. Even if Libertus was right about his phone - however unlikely - Luche would have found some way to get a message through.

Unless something had happened.

Nyx found himself tightening his grip on the hilt of his dagger as he walked.

Very quickly, however, he realized his one-man search party was turning up nothing fast, and he was starting to regret sending the vans ahead. Getting a ride now would mean backtracking to the strip mall where Detective Ghiranze’s unit had the crime scene staked out; it would be a long trip empty-handed, but what were his other options? He’d done all he could here.

Well, almost. Probably a waste of time at this point, but Nyx was nothing if not stubborn. He held his phone in his palm as he swiped to call. Let it ring twice, three times, then sighed up at the night sky to give him strength - the strength to refrain from kicking Luche’s ass the second he saw him again.

Nyx was about to give up. Lowered his phone ready to kill the screen when something caught his ear. Not a ringtone...not exactly; but whatever the sound was, it seemed to be keeping pace with the outgoing call from the phone in his hand. He stilled his breath, and listened.

There . There it was again, getting closer as his feet moved across the pavement. But not across the bridge this time - to the side of it where a set of worn, metal brackets served as utility steps down to the narrow river. Over the clang of his boots, he could hear the steady vibrations - yes, he was almost certain they were from a cell phone - getting closer, closer. Nyx’s feet landed in the soft mud of the banks, and then he was running.

The bridge was old, just tall enough for the average person, with the concrete chipping away in too many places to count. Beneath the span, the river was barely a trickle between two concrete slabs which arched up to hold the thing in place. Already, Nyx could make out the shapes in the shadows there; bodies , at least a half dozen of them, twisted and piled together in a macabre display. Limbs stuck out at odd angles, rigid, broken as if they'd been chewed up, spit out. But their faces - even through the panic forcing bile into his throat, Nyx recognized them.

Axis.

Pruvia.

Sonitus.  

They were dead. This couldn't be happening.

"Fuck. Fuck ," he swore, fumbling with numb fingers at the screen of his phone as he ran forward. He had to call…someone. Get help. Anyone…. He didn't even look as his hands worked on autopilot.

"How the fuck-- ... Pelna! " Nyx came to a sliding halt at the edge the seemingly unnatural darkness under the bridge. There, just behind the mass of broken bodies, he could see…movement, and the unmistakable face of his friend watching him in silent horror. His eyes, always so full of laughter, were wide and fevered, and his mouth stretched open in shock - or something else.

Nyx faltered. His instinct urged him to rush forward and get Pelna the fuck out of there, yet logic told him it was a trap. And there was that… whatever it was , wriggling on top of his body. Like a living shadow, though that couldn't be possible. Was it a person? An animal?

Didn't matter. Nyx was going to fucking destroy it .

He had his dagger palmed before he was even aware he'd started moving. Into the darkness as a strange chill seeped in through his jacket, his skin, right down to his bones, but still he didn't stop. Charging forward until he was close enough to strike. First with a kick that had his boot colliding into solid weight, hard enough to send the thing flying backwards and into a concrete wall. His second attack was just as well-aimed - steel flashed, ripped through what may have been a cloak, black and oily, and stuck deep into the flesh beneath.

A terrible cry - something decidedly not human, too deep and rumbling - rang out as Nyx left his dagger buried to the hilt, and skidded to his knees beside his fallen friend.

"Pelna! Shit, come on!" It was hard to get his arms around him when he felt so stiff. Nyx strained, lifted, pulled, but Pelna’s body was heavier than he remembered. Dead weight in his grip, and unable to help.

Through it all, Pelna struggled to make a single sound in the back of his throat. Trembling, face drawn taut, he beckoned Nyx closer with nothing but his unfocused eyes. "Cap…tain."

"I'm here, man. Gonna get you out."

"Too late...." Those eyes began to darken. The whites swallowed up as inky blackness flooded in to overtake them. " Run. "

Pelna…. No…. But there was no time to mourn. Already, Nyx could hear scratching, shrieking as the thing behind him righted itself, scrambled up in defense, or to fight. He turned to face it just as it whirled on him. Regretted, instantly, not listening to Pelna's dying words as he took in the sight.

It was a man, or at least it had been. Yellow eyes peered out from a hollow darkness, as black as the ichor that had consumed his friend; pale skin of a face flickered here and there, the flesh worn, cracking like paint as more of the ink oozed out of him. The cowl he had flung open melded into the organic shadows, which seemed to grow and stretch and breathe even as Nyx watched them. And at last, when those deathly eyes locked on him, he felt his blood run cold.

" Gods... ," he whispered. But the prayer was too late. His own dagger hummed as it came flying back through the space between them to sink in his shoulder, not deep but enough to stagger him. His boot caught on the edge of a tattered black jacket - one of the Glaives’ uniforms - and he lost his footing. Flailed out his good arm for balance, still unable to tear his gaze away from the monster that now advanced.

" The gods won't save you now, " it hissed, almost playfully in a voice that could hardly be said to belong to one mouth alone. " They have long since abandoned this place. "

The fuck--?

"What are you?!" Nyx choked out instead. The cold was becoming unbearable, forcing the breath from his chest and causing his legs to quake beneath him. And all the while, those shadows kept closing in from all around. Faster than he could keep up. "What the FUCK ARE YOU? "

A hand reached out. Strong despite the way the flesh hung from the bone in taters, corpse-like yet very much alive. The smell that washed over him was putrid, foul, but he found it impossible to run, to flinch away. Even as the thing touched him. Even as skeletal fingers caressed his cheek, his neck, curled in the fabric of his shirt, he remained paralyzed with fear.

That’s when it grinned.

" Why, I am that which you seek, " Ardyn said mockingly. " I am death. "

Nyx failed to scream. The shadows were too fast, too dense as they swarmed in, coiling like icy tendrils around his arms, his legs, his throat. Slipping in past his lips and the bile that tried to escape at the smell, the taste of it. He could feel, despite how his skin had gone numb, the coldness seeping into his body from within, and he didn't have to see Pelna and the others to know what fate awaited him at the end of this.

He only wished, as the blackness clouded his vision completely, that he'd told Luna he was sorry.

 


 

He hadn’t set foot in his father’s office for what felt like ages.

In reality, it had only been the better part of two weeks. Two weeks since Regis had gone missing, only to turn up dead, strung from the bridge outside Insomnia like some kind of marionette. Two weeks since Noctis had heard his voice, had spoken with him for what would be the last time. And in those two weeks, so much had happened - so much had changed - that walking into the darkness of the oppressive office was like stepping back into the past. Noct could almost, if he closed his eyes, see his father’s stern gaze, hear the scratching of his pen across the hardwood surface of the desk, just as if he were still sitting there.

As if he were still alive.

Behind him, Ignis waited patiently for his nerves to settle. He understood, perhaps even better than Noctis himself did, the significance of coming here now, while Ardyn still rampaged through the city. A ghost come back from the father’s past, intent on destroying the legacy that had fallen into the hands of the son.

Slowly, Noctis moved forward into the room. Ignored the light switch on the wall in favor of running his fingers along the cold edge of the desk instead. Made his way around to the far side where the dark, leather chair creaked under his touch. Ignis followed dutifully behind him.

“He would have wanted you to sit there,” he offered, his voice sharp in the otherwise deathly silent office. “It's your birthright, after all.”

“Yeah. Feels more like my burden.” Nevertheless, Noctis drew the chair back from the desk and lowered himself into it. Spun around experimentally before coming to a stop face-to-face with Iggy. “I've been wondering, y’know. Why didn't Dad ever tell me I had an uncle? Why did he bury Ardyn and all the rest of his secrets if he planned for me to run this family one day?”

A sigh escaped his lips. That was no small question, and while Ignis knew he wasn't necessarily being asked to have an answer, he felt Noctis was owed something anyway. “I expect,” he said as he leaned his hip against the side of the desk and folded his arms. “That your father planned to bring everything to light when you were older. I also expect the possibility of his estranged brother coming back from the dead was one that had not quite crossed his mind.”

Noctis scoffed. “You think?”

“There were a great many things your father tried to protect you from, Noctis. I'm as guilty of it as him - we all are. But you're no longer a child, and the truth can no longer be kept from you.” Ignis faltered. Checked the door and the empty hallway beyond, before continuing in a more private tone. “If we are going to put an end to this, there can be no more secrets.”

Noct knew, in the part of his brain responsible for logic and reason, that Ignis was referring to the business . To the side of his father he'd only seen in fleeting glimpses through the cracks of doors usually left closed. To the work he and Gladio and Cor did on their missions, the ones that left them scrubbing blood out from under their nails for days. He knew this, and yet it didn't stop his heart from thudding hard once, twice against his ribs. Couldn't keep him from sinking back a little further into the chair as if he could shield himself from being probed too deep.

“What...kind of secrets?” he asked, hoping his voice was steadier than it sounded to his own ears.

If Ignis noticed his reluctance, he said nothing. Merely tightened his grip around his own arms, and around the irezumi Noct knew colored his skin beneath the suit. “Anything. Everything you want to know.” He forced a smiled. “You asked me to stand by you in this, and I intend to do so openly from this moment forward.”

“I’m pretty sure my exact words were ‘ rule with me ,’” Noct clarified.

“I haven’t forgotten.”

“Good.” The tension was seeping from the oyabun’s chest, leaving him more relaxed now that he was pretty certain he wasn’t the one under the microscope. He leaned back in the chair, kicked his feet up onto the desk the way he had once seen his father do, and gestured for Iggy to have a seat next to his sneakers. “Okay, so first question. Why the tattoos?”

Ignis did his best not to flinch visibly. He should have known Noct, direct as ever, wouldn’t pull his punches, and yet a promise was a promise. This was why he’d brought Noctis here, after all, so soon in the aftermath of nearly losing him. Secrets were barriers; he needed Noctis to understand that.

“Very well.” He cleared his throat, pretending not to notice the look of surprise he was being given. “The first piece was done when I was fourteen. I had just returned from a particularly brutal interrogation, still training alongside Cor and your father. It had come to their attention that one of the Glaives - a captain - was involved in a conspiracy to reroute large amounts of Caelum funds. He was evidently planning to buy Niflheim drugs with Regis’ money, and then sell them within our territory."

“That sounds...bad. Who was it?"

“Titus Drautos."

"Your old sparring instructor?"

"The same." A memory passed like shadows across Ignis’ face - pain, or regret - and he let his gaze wander toward the wall beyond Noct’s shoulder. "Your father was furious. More so than I had ever seen him, but not because of the money. It was the family name he wanted to protect. To him, drugs were an evil far beneath even a crime syndicate. Regis ordered Cor to kill Drautos on the spot for his betrayal, but…I asked for the honor of doing it myself."

"Igs…."

"He was the first of many,” Ignis admitted with a fleeting smile. “Every single one of these tattoos represents blood that I have spilled by my own hands in the name of this family. Each one represents my choices, and the sins with which I’ve had to learn to live."

His voice fell flat in the quiet office. Noctis knew the horrible truth now, though perhaps not all of it. Ignis had left out one crucial detail: that the designs of the tattoos had been chosen not by him, but by the artist who engraved them on his skin. The old woman had looked into the blacks of his eyes and seen the ferocity of death staring back. The monsters she’d carved in his flesh - the demons, the beasts, the gruesome Reaper on his back - they were all him .

"Well. Gladio has tattoos," came Noct’s carefully chosen words in the silence that followed. "So does Clarus, and Cor. I mean, we’re yazuka, right? We’re kinda the bad guys." He stopped before he could finish that train of thought. Chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment - a moment that, at least to Ignis, dragged on for far too long. Then, “Can I ask another question?”

“Of course.”

“My father’s ring, the Ring of the Lucii. How did you get it back?”

That time, Ignis did hesitate. “...From a man named Verstael Besithia. He was wearing it when we raided his drug lab in Gralea. I took it from him, along with--” He paused, sighed, continued. “Along with several of his fingers, before finally slicing his skull open and burning the entire place to the ground. He died a less than honorable death.”

Noctis’ reaction was subtle. Perhaps more than the confession itself, the clinical tone in which it had been delivered was what left him speechless, silent, deep in thought.

“And so now you know,” Ignis finished, letting his arms fall to his sides. “That is the reality I’ve tried for many years to protect you from, Noctis. Would that I still had that choice. But you’re the head of this family now, and you need to understand the sort of weapons you have at your disposal.”

Weapons .” Limbs heavy, moving slowly, Noct reached to the far side of the desk to switch on the lamp there. Fluorescent light cast them both into sharp contrast - Ignis, with his hard frown and lenses cutting jagged shadows across his cheeks, and Noctis, eyes bright from behind the dark veil of his hair. “You say that like you’re some kind of tool.”

“Because I was trained to be. In the right hands…,” he trailed off, gently curling his fingers around Noct’s wrist atop the desk.

The young oyabun could have flinched away. He could have broken Ignis at his most vulnerable, right there in his father’s office, because he was the only person in the world with enough power to do so. Ignis knew it, and still he met Noct’s gaze without fear.

Trust me , his eyes urged. Trust me as I trust you.  

“Iggy. You said no more secrets.” Another pause, more tense silence. Noctis’ pulse beat faster, braver beneath Ignis’ touch. “Then...I need your help.”

“Anything.”

“What do you know about the name ‘ Bahamut’ ?”

 


 

Luna had always liked the open air of the gardens. Noct remembered a time when they were both younger, when Sylva had brought her children to stay at the Citadel, that he’d first taken Luna to see the flowers. He remembered how her eyes had grown wide and her smile bright, and the sweetness of her voice as she whispered that it was just like home.

She had always felt safe there, and so it was no surprise to find her in the gardens that morning. too, seated on a bench as the sun kissed the pages of her book. A perfect picture of serenity, broken only by the sound of the wrought-iron doors as Noctis entered.

She smiled when she caught sight of him. Folded down the corner of the page she'd been reading and set the book on the seat behind her. "Good morning, Noctis," she said brightly, getting to her feet. "How are you feeling today?

"Hey, Luna. Better, I guess." The young oyabun forced a smile as he drew closer. "Mind if join you?"

"Do I ever?"

They fit together comfortably on the bench, side by side just like they had when they were kids. With a smile, Luna took one of Noct's hands between hers. Held it between their laps, her radiant energy somehow warming him despite the unease that gripped his gut.

"So," she offered after silence had fallen between them long enough. "What brings you up here this morning? Were you looking for some peace and quiet?"

A shrug. Unconsciously, his fingers tangled with Luna's and he felt her squeeze them in return. "Something like that, I guess. Actually I was looking for you. There's something I need to talk to you about."

"Oh? ...Is it about what I said to Gladio and Prompto last night?" Though Luna was hardly one to flush, her eyes grew rounder, almost worried as she spoke. "Because if I offended you, I didn't intend --"

"Uh, no. No, I didn't even know you talked." He shook his head. In fact, he hadn’t even seen Prom and Gladio since the day before, and assumed they were still upstairs in the room Dustin had prepared for them even now. Rarely was Noct up before his friends, but...well, he could imagine several reasons why the two of them might need the extra few hours of sleep. "It's not about them at all."

Relief spread visibly across flawless skin. "Oh, good. I mean, those two are wonderful, but I wasn't sure how far I could trust them not to tell you.... Um . Nevermind. What is it you wanted to discuss?"

He could have laughed at the impressive array of emotions playing out across her face, but luckily, Ignis had trained him to have some degree of tact. So instead, he leaned closer and laid his free hand overtop hers as his tone grew more serious. "I need to ask you about ancient Solheim. Ignis studied it years ago, but he...wanted a second opinion. He suggested I come to you, since it's kinda, y'know, your thing."

"Well, that was very kind of him. I don't know if I can be of much help, but I do remember the stories my mother used to tell us before she passed." Luna shifted on the bench, crossing her legs so that she could better face Noctis beside her. "What is it you wanted to know?"

He swallowed. Ignored the way his palms were sweating and met her gaze as steadily as he could. "Do you know anything about Bahamut?"

"Bahamut.... Yes, that name does sound familiar." Pensive, Luna retracted one hand to brush a strand of loose blonde back behind her ear. "I've definitely heard it before."

"That's exactly what Iggy said. The name sounds like Old Solheim, but that was as far as he got." Noct didn't, of course, mention the way Ignis' skin had paled, or the look of confusion, almost fear that had clouded his eyes before he'd claimed not to trust his own memory. "Any chance you can figure it out?"

"Just a moment." Reaching into the front of her blouse, Luna withdrew her phone and typed something into what appeared to be a translation app. "If the name really is Old Solheim, this should give us some idea as to what it means. Ah, yes, here it is. ' ...derived from the root baha- , or cosmic , and -amut , meaning dragon.'"

"'Cosmic Dragon?' What's that supposed to mean?"

Luna slid her phone back into place. "This might surprise you, but the ancient people of Eos worshipped some of the same gods as our religions, though their names have changed over time. Six of them, in fact, were adapted directly into the modern Cosmogony. Ages ago, the stories of the Astrals were revered as more than just a collection of myths." Oblivious to the color draining from Noct's cheeks, she reached back to retrieve the book she'd been reading earlier. The title read, in scrawling font, Understanding the Light of the Cosmos.

"Don't look at me like that," she laughed, mistaking Noct's expression for one of distaste. "I know not everyone is interested in religion these days, but I find it fascinating. Our culture is deeply ingrained in the morals it shares, and it keeps us connected with the people who came before us. Look, here it is."

She read from the passage, her voice slowly fading as the words weighed heavier and heavier on Noctis' mind.

"' ...and it is in the eyes of the Draconian that we are judged for our actions in this world. For He watches over everything from the Beyond, destroying the Unworthy with his blade of dragon bone. Astrologia, 3:12, Book of the Cosmos.' ” The book was closed again, tucked into her lap. “It sounds to me like Bahamut may have been the Solheim name for the one we call the Draconian."

The Draconian. The Astral.

The God.

“Noctis? Are you alright?” Luna was staring at him, concern written in her large blue eyes and fingers once again squeezing around his palm. “You look pale.”

There had to be some mistake. Noctis could still feel its presence, could almost still hear its thundering voice hammering in his skull. The thing that had brought him back. The thing that had been called Bahamut, and whose vehemence and rage filled him with constant dread. But...it wasn’t a god. That was insane, laughable even. And he must have been laughing, because he sensed Luna start to recoil from his touch….

“Noct?”

“The other five.” His eyes stung with terror and madness. But he just...needed to be sure. “Who are they?”

“I don’t recall exactly. I believe there was a Titan - that’s the Archean - and Ramuh, who we call the Fulgarian, but….” Her smile faded. “Noctis, why are you cry--”

Ifrit . Was there also one named Ifrit?”

“...Yes. I think that was the name for the Infernian. Noct, I don’t understand what any of this has to do with --”

At once, the doors of the Garden burst open, and the sound of iron slamming into the walls was enough to jar both Luna and Noct out of the moment. They turned in startled unison to see Weskham and Monica, followed by several nervous Glaives, being led into the quiet sanctuary by a very powerful - very angry - District Attorney.

Camelia Claustra swung her hand and Weskham halted instantly. He turned, shot a glare at the others to do the same, and to give her space to approach Noctis alone.

“Uh, w-what’s going on here?” the oyabun stammered as he hastily wiped tears from his cheeks. Despite his obvious shock, he attempted to put on the brave face he thought his father might have worn in a similar situation, and moved to shield Luna as Camelia neared them both.

Her eyes were fire and ice at the same time. “ Mr. Caelum, I am here for answers and I want them now.

“A-answers? What kind of--”

“Why were your men ordered to leave their posts last night? Ulric and the others were assigned as additional protection to Detective Ghiranze’s unit,” she clarified in the face of his apparent confusion. “But Dino tells me they all received orders to pull back to your compound within an hour of arriving. That was not part of our deal.”

Past her shoulder, and uncharacteristically at a loss for words, Monica and Weskham merely shrugged. Noct was on his own. “Uh, look, Camelia --”

Ms. Claustra.

“Um, okay…Ms. Claustra. With all due respect, you have no idea what the hell you’re dealing with.” He could tell, the instant the words left his mouth, that they were probably poorly chosen. Camelia’s eyes darkened another shade of contempt while he searched for a recovery. “What I mean is, Ardyn isn’t just a homicidal maniac. He’s more dangerous than that, and putting those men out there last night was reckless.”

“What’s reckless is making me your enemy, Caelum .” She reached into the front of her suit jacket, as crimson as the tight lines of her lips, and withdrew a business card. Pressed it into Noctis’ chest until he got the hint and took it himself. “Next time you feel like a little change of plans, try calling me first. I will not risk the lives of upstanding police officers because of the negligence of criminals.”

Criminals . Her last word seemed to hang in the air, a heavy reminder of what Noct - of what all of them - were in the eyes of the outside world. Even as Camelia turned, her plum red pumps pounding across the stone path, each step seemed to echo inside Noct’s skull.

Thud.

Thud.

Then, louder - CRASHBANG.

Blue eyes flew open wide. That one definitely hadn’t been in his head, he was sure of it. Not with the way the glass panels of the garden’s roof were still rattling, or how everyone else in the room had gone terribly still. Beside him, Luna was looking around wildly, trying to find the source of what had sounded horrifying close to an explosion.

“Noct! It came from outside!”

“Noctis!” Weskham rushed forward, face drawn tight and his monocle swinging uselessly from his vest pocket. “We need to go.”

More cries went up from the hallway. “The front steps!”

“Quickly, get your weapons!”

“She’s here!”

A quick exchange with Camelia confirmed that she was as concerned as the rest of them. Noct groaned, then he was taking off before Weskham or Monica could stop him. Out of the garden and toward the West wing, sliding to a stop in front of the main stairwell long enough for for Luna to catch up. Together, they raced down the next three flights to where Ignis, Prompto, and Gladio were waiting with the remainder of the Crownsguard, all of them at the ready. Beyond their grim faces, the portico that overlooked the building’s steps, and the large plume of black smoke rising into the air from below.

Just what the hell was going on?!

“It’s Highwind,” Ignis announced with a snarl. He hadn’t even needed to pull his eyes away from the doors to recognize Noctis’ presence. “Say the word, Noct, and I’ll gladly take care of her myself.”

“Wait, hang on. Does anyone know what she wants?”

“Does it matter? She’s armed and clearly aggressive -- Noct, stay back!” Cor put a hand on his shoulder - one which he quickly shrugged off in favor of pushing past the front line. Out through the large glass doors and right up to the edge of the steps, where he could make out the silhouette of Aranea Highwind against the smoke billowing out around her. There was a large chunk of stone missing at her feet, the reason all too apparent as she lowered the rocket launcher she’d been shouldering to the ground and affected a bow.

“Morning, prince.”

Noct clenched his teeth. “What the hell did you do to my building?!”

A shrug, as casual as if she hadn’t just blown a hole in his front steps with a bazooka. “Seemed like the fastest way to get your attention.”

“You could have knocked!”

“Whatever.” Already, the others were rushing out to join him on the portico. Ignis, ever at his right side, with Cor taking aim with his handgun to his left. Aranea swept her eyes across the faces of the gathering crowd like they bored her. “Look, relax . I’m just here to bring you a present.”

In the space of a few seconds, the black mass that Noctis had mistaken for shadows and smoke was being lifted up and over her shoulder. Beside him, the other two men stiffened, but it wasn’t until he heard Luna’s grief-stricken wail that he realized what he was looking at.

It was a person.

It was Nyx.  

Chapter Text

An anxious hush had fallen over the crowd above the steps of the Citadel. A dozen faces stared out in unison at the scene of destruction that lay at their feet, speechless and immobile. The silence surrounding them was broken only by the occasional clatter of rubble onto the ruined stone stairs; small shards of the rock face which had been blasted apart by Highwind’s interpretation of a house call, only to come tumbling back down out of the smoke. Beyond, the civilians who hadn't scattered at the blast were watching the scene unfold, frozen by horror in place.

And then there was Nyx.

At first, Noct hadn’t been sure the shadowy weight Aranea carried on her shoulder in place of her bazooka was even human. But a second look had revealed dangling limbs, the tattered (yet not beyond recognition) jacket of a Glaive uniform; and skin that, to the prince’s sickening horror, appeared to be stained an inky black from the veins beneath.

Starscourge? How…?  

But he already knew the answer to that, as did Ignis beside him. It was the question that was the problem.

“Noctis, we must not trust her. She speaks nothing but deceit.” To the young oyabun’s right, Ignis remained a constant reassurance on the edge of his peripheral vision. Poised, sights fixed on Highwind, he was making less-than-subtle movements with his hand above the hilt of his dagger. ”Twice now I have let her slip through my grasp, and twice now she has betrayed us. She gave you to Izunia at Ravatogh. Now she delivers more death to our doorstep.”

“He's right,” Cor hissed at Noct’s back, followed by the click of a revolver as its hammer was set. “I've got a clear shot. On your orders.”

“Do it, Noct. Let us end this here.”

Yet still he hesitated. How many seconds passed, he couldn't say. Only that as he stared down at Aranea, and at Nyx draped over her arms, he felt nothing but fear. Not of her, but of the greater danger he knew was out there; the monster that even then gripped him as if Ardyn’s fist were actually squeezing around his throat, trapping his breath, paralyzing his voice.

Noctis, give the order.”

“Noctis!”

“No!”

A different cry, belonging neither to himself nor the voices in his ear, rang out from the top of the steps. A blur of white flew past him, and Noct was shocked to see that it was Luna who first charged out from the ranks. Her dress billowed behind her, tears streamed down her cheeks, but she showed no fear, no hesitation as she ran straight for Nyx.

Even Aranea seemed caught off-guard. “Who are--?”

“Please, let me see him! Is he breathing?”

“I think so, but--”

“Give him here!” Ignoring the massive gun barrel and the bewildered look in the mercenary’s eyes, Luna cradled Nyx’s weight as she helped Aranea lower him into her lap. Brushed aside locks of matted hair to free his face, and sobbed again at the darkness she found there. Shadows, blacker than night and just below the surface, pulsing as if with his weakened heart. “Doctor....” Her lips trembled, her eyes brimmed with fresh tears as she turned in her grief. “Noctis! Call a doctor!

At last, he was shaken from his stupor. The vice-like grip on his throat loosened, pulled free at the sound of Luna’s voice, and suddenly he found he could move again. Suddenly he was seeing the scene for what it was: an emergency, a man who needed help. “Y-yeah. Doctor Yaegre, um. Dustin?”

From behind him, a hasty right away, sir as his father’s trusted assistant bowed, phone already moving to his ear.

The next voice was less patient. “Noctis, what about Highwind?”

What about her?

Noctis, you cannot--”

More bodies rushed past, this time moving back into the Citadel or simply scrambling out of the way. Luna was in front of the procession, followed closely by Aranea as the two women supported Nyx’s weight between them. Steel-grey eyes met Noct’s for a brief moment - long enough to offer up a silent apology - before the Dragoon was gone, out of sight into the shadows of the halls beyond.

Into his halls.

Realization clenched in Noct’s chest. Friend or foe, Aranea Highwind was undeniably dangerous, and he had just allowed her to walk right through the front gates.

Cor’s fury was...understandable. “Are you out of your mind?” he snapped, sheathing his gun but keeping his hand visibly poised above its handle. “Either you give the order to shoot, or you give the order to stand down. You do not do nothing. Indecision is what will bring this family to its knees.”   

Then he, too, was stalking away before Noctis had the chance to reply. Words stuck like thick gum to the roof of his mouth, refused to allow him defend himself. Maybe, he thought, Cor was right. Maybe they should have shot first, asked questions later. Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Ignis still stood beside him, and while he wore a sour expression of his own, Noctis was sure that the second Highwind stepped out of line, she’d have to contend with at least one of his daggers.

He trusted Ignis - fiercely - and maybe that would have to be enough.

So without another word, Noctis strode through the arched entrance of the Citadel after their guest, his faithful Reaper on his heels.


 

Prompto pulled the door shut behind him as gently as he could. Winced as the latch clicked obscenely loud into place, and wondered if there was even a good way to close a door in a situation like this.

Probably not. There was nothing good about a good man on his deathbed, surrounded by tears and guilt and regret. Even Libertus had been crying in there, not bothering to hide the wet stains streaming down his cheeks, or the drops that fell onto Nyx’s chest. The doctor had tried to persuade both him and Luna to give her space, to get some rest in a room down the hall, but they wouldn’t hear it. In the end, even Sania Yaegre had been no match for their combined grief.

But Prompto and Noctis were different. As concerned as they were for Nyx, that did not excuse them from their duties, which at that particular moment were all the more pressing. A meeting had been called to address the latest attack on the family, as well as to decide, inevitably, the fate of the mercenary who had brought them the news. Already, the others would be gathering in the great hall in anticipation. Noct, of course, would be expected at once - and yet Prompto could hardly fault him for dragging his feet.

“Hey,” he started. Stopped short when he saw his friend lingering at the door to the sick room, head hung. “Noct, buddy. You did what you could. Let the doc handle it from here.”

“It’s Starscourge, Prom. The same thing Ardyn did to me.” The oyabun glanced up, his deep eyes filled with something more than just sadness. “There’s nothing Sania can do for him.”

He...he knew that. Of course he did, he’d seen the black death pulsing through Nyx’s veins the same as all of them had. And yet, short of taking him to Shiva, where his life was no less endangered than in the bed in that room, what could they do? They couldn’t risk leaving the Citadel now.

“You just gotta leave it to Luna. I doubt she’ll give up on him that easy. She’ll figure something out.” Prompto offered a smile, and a reassuring hand on Noct’s shoulder. But even that felt superficial in the face of the monsters they were up against. He’d always been good at lightening the mood, at playing the clown when the darkness got to be too much. But this time, when his own fake smiles fell flat and his voice wavered with uncertainty, how was he supposed to comfort his best friend?

“This is all my fault,” Noct sighed, and Prompto’s heart broke completely for him.

There were tears in his eyes when he surged forward. Wrapped his arms around Noct and held him tight, tight as he could, if only to compress the ache in his own chest. Neither spoke for a long moment. Gradually, the tension drained from Noct’s back, his shoulders, until he slumped forward against Prompto and sobbed. Clung just as tightly to him, fingers twisting in the fabric of his shirt as if nothing else could keep him upright. And they stayed that way, holding each other back against the dark, for as long as they could; until the chill of the hallway left them shivering, and Noctis’ tears had nearly dried on his cheeks.

Prompto wiped them away all the same.

“...Come on. We can still make this right.” His hand found Noct’s at his side, squeezed once, hard. “Together.”

 

They found both Gladio and Ignis waiting for them outside the meeting hall. Neither asked about the delay, or the redness around Noct’s eyes. Neither judged, merely nodded their heads as they opened the doors, and together the four strode in to face the rest of the family.

Chaos, it seemed, had not waited so patiently.

Thirteen - that’s how many we’ve lost now, in case you’ve not been paying attention.” That voice belonged to Clarus, a dangerous mix of judge, jury, and executioner. He was standing at the far end of the table, his words addressing the other members in the room, but his eyes were fixed on one figure in particular. “Good men, good women - slaughtered. And who has been at the center of it all from the beginning? This killer disguised as a sellsword.”

Murmurs went up around the room, both in agreement and also at the sudden - and overdue - arrival of the Caelum boss. Noctis merely ignored them for the moment; made his way in silence toward the chair at the end of the table, neither commenting nor interrupting the discussion in progress. Clarus watched him, pointedly ignored Gladio, and continued.

“As I was saying…. These past two weeks we have allowed these direct attacks on our family, without retribution. How long are we--”

“Without retribution?” Aranea herself stood against the wall behind an empty seat - Nyx’s - arms folded over her dark jacket. “So what do you call that raid on Cartanica then? Burnt the whole damn building to the ground, lit up the sky in Gralea for miles.”

Cor shook his head. “That wasn't us.”

“Yes, actually. It was.” Ignis had yet to take his seat at Noct’s side, instead choosing to remain standing in similar fashion to their guest of honor. And, like her, he kept his back straight and his eyes burning. “But while I thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of slitting Besithia’s throat, our target is not Niflheim. It never really was.”

“Monica.” No sooner had the name left Noct’s mouth than Agent Elshett was getting to her feet, bowing her head in his direction. “What do we know so far about the attacks last night?”

“Sir. Of the three teams dispatched last night, Libertus’ group is the only one fully accounted for. The rest of Nyx Ulric’s men returned on the same vans, but we haven’t been able to contact Luche Lazarus or anyone else assigned with him.”

“Because they’re dead,” Highwind cut in from the other side of the room, and earned herself a wave of dark looks in response.

Frowning herself, Monica turned back to Noctis and resumed her report. “We have no evidence to confirm or deny that claim. But given the condition in which our captain was returned to us, the probability is...high.”

“Too bad Nyx can’t tell us what happened out there,” Gladio sighed. Beside him, Prompto let his gaze drift to the handful of empty seats at the table, and closed his eyes in silence.

Naturally, the peace didn’t last. Aranea was too impatient for things like sympathy or pity, and in the lull she stepped forward to claim the floor. “Look, I get it. You have good reason not to trust me, but I’m telling you I know what happened - your guys, they’re dead . Rotting corpses under a bridge, no magic ‘coming-back-to-life’ pill for them.” She made a point to level her gaze directly at Noctis for that last comment. “But if you don’t believe me, I’d be happy to take you right to the pile of bodies.”

Enough , Highwind.” This time, it was not one of Noct’s people who spoke up, but Camelia. Eyes sharp and lips drawn tight, she cut an imposing figure without having to rise from her seat. “I’ve got a docket on my desk right now thick enough to put you behind bars for several lifetimes. So I advise you to consider your words very carefully before answering.”

“...Answering what ?”

Noctis took the opening that had been handed to him. “Answering this. How did you know where to find Nyx?”

For a moment, she actually seemed to turn the question over in her head. Looked between Claustra and the young boss of the Caelum family as if realizing they had her trapped, and the mask of confidence she had worn from the start visibly faltered.

Yet only for a moment. “Like I said,” she shrugged at last. “I was in the area.”

Wrong answer. All around the table, voices erupted in outrage - none more striking, however, than the deathly calm chill with which Ignis addressed her from Noct’s side. “Convenient, don’t you think? How at every murder, every disappearance, you turn up, blending into the fringes of the shadows. You may not be the one pulling the strings, Highwind, but your hands are no cleaner than those of your puppet master.”

“‘ Puppet Master’ ?” she snarled. “If you mean Izunia, then you’re sicker than I thought.”

“Does he pay better than the Niffs? Or perhaps you’re getting something more out of the deal.”

“Brave words from the dog who licks his owner’s cock .”

The dagger was in Ignis’ hand faster than anyone had seen him move. It flew across the room, flashing steel in the light, and hit the wall next to Aranea’s head with a deafening thunk . The blade sunk several inches into the wood. Vibrated with the force of the impact, the handle left trembling as a single, thick drop of blood ran down the curve of her pale cheek.

Silence fell like warm death over the table. Even Aranea herself seemed at an uncharacteristic loss of words, standing unmoving, unbreathing as she was. Her eyes, rounder now than they had been mere seconds earlier, remained fixed on Ignis, and Ignis alone.

He replaced his gloved hand smoothly at his side, and looked to Noctis for permission to continue. “Now then. Answers, Highwind. We will not ask you a third time.”

And as much as he would have relished the chance to slice the infernal woman open just for the fun of it, he was decidedly pleased when she responded with an almost imperceptible nod of her head.

“...Point taken. I’ll talk, Scientia, but let’s get one thing straight. I do not work for that psychopath - not anymore.” She let out a long breath. Cast a dark glance at the dagger buried in the wall beside her and edged several steps away. “I found your man out there because I was tracking Izunia. I’ve been tracking him, actually, for a few days now.”

“Why?” Noct asked, and Aranea’s hesitation was palpable in the distance between them.

“Because,” she started. Faltered. Sighed again. “Because he killed two of my own. My two best men, been with me for years. The only ones I trusted with my back. Izunia murdered them the same way as your boys, and he won’t stop there.”

“So you wanted revenge?”

“Yeah, it’s personal, okay? Biggs and Wedge are... were like family. They didn’t deserve to die like that.”

“If you were there this morning, when our Glaives were attacked,” Clarus frowned, speaking up again at last. “Why didn’t you stop him?”

Aranea did something then that no one - certainly not Noctis - would have expected from a fearless, seasoned warrior like her.

She shuddered.

“Because what I saw out there was...wasn’t something I could fight. It’s not something anyone can fight, okay? So you’re all better off throwing in the towel while you’re ahead.”

Noct turned to Ignis just as sharp eyebrows drew together in a knot. A silent conversation passed between them, more words than could be spoken in the span of a few heartbeats, until finally the young oyabun dared to ask the question on all of their lips.

“...What did you see?”

Her steel-grey eyes flashed, then fell to the table. “It was Death.”


 

In all the years he had served the Caelum family, through all the blood he had spilled and souls he had claimed in the name of honor, Ignis the Reaper had never once doubted his place. Where he went, shadows followed; hopelessness and fear, the tools that had served him as readily as his blades, strongest in the moments before he took a life. His victims always knew that to see him meant to see the approach their own inevitable end.

He had always thought himself an efficient servant of Death, and he had embraced his gifts.

Yet the last seventy-two hours had changed everything. All Ignis thought he knew about the darkness he served had been stripped away, laid bare for him to question, to analyze. He had watched as death nearly claimed the one life that was most precious to him. Had felt it’s cruel grip around his own wrists, driving the dagger deeper into Noctis’ heart. Had seen it defeated - nay , undone , as his prince had been brought back from a place that should have been final.

And now, with Aranea Highwind’s words echoing in his skull, he had also learned that Death was incarnate.

‘A monster,’ she had said. ‘Or some kind of demon. Like a thing that was once human, twisted beyond recognition. He moved like a shadow. Those men didn't stand a chance, he was too fast and…and then he consumed them. I-I don't know what he took, so don't ask me, but…. Whatever he put back in them. It was…black like ink. Unnatural.’

Starscourge?

Or something worse?

“Either of you guys hungry?”

In the armchair across from Noctis’ desk, Prompto was suddenly watching them with an anxious smile. He’d thrown his legs off to one side of the chair, but was sitting up now as if keeping still for long was becoming physically impossible. “Cause I could go for some chips or something right now. Noct? Buddy? …No?”

A sigh as Noctis, lifting his head from his hands, shot Prompto the most sympathetic look he could muster. “Nah. I'm fine. Thanks.”

Bright blue eyes shifted almost apprehensively to Ignis next. “How about you, Iggy? You look like you could use a snack break.”

“Prompto, I cannot even begin to fathom what might have given you an idea like that.”

“Oh. Just me, then.” He muttered something else, too soft under his breath to catch, and slumped back down in the armchair. Kicked his boots against the leather where his feet dangled over the side, and stretched his arms back behind his head. Then he turned again to prop himself up on one elbow, tapping his fingers absently on the cushion as he continued to stare in the direction of the office door.

Ignis finally snapped. “Are you bored?” he asked cooly, mouth set in a tight frown. “Or simply incapable of being quiet for more than two minutes?”

“Specs, be nice.”

“No, s-sorry. I’m just...I’m worried about Gladio.” This time when Prompto glanced to the door, his expression was easier to read: concern, mixed with a hint of guilt. “What do you think Clarus is saying to him?”

Behind his desk, Noct shrugged. “Dunno. Dad stuff, probably? Look, he’ll be here soon, you can ask him then.”

“Y-yeah.”

Ignis watched the two of them closely as silence once again blanketed the room. Incredible, he thought, how much the darkness had changed them both as well these last two weeks. The circles under Prompto’s eyes, for instance, spoke volumes more than his light-hearted words let on. And Noctis…. Since the death of his father, he had grown so far, so fast. Older, more troubled. Ignis saw the tension in the veins on the backs of his hands, and in the stiffness of his neck and shoulders where he carried the burdens of his post. Where he doubted himself.

Indecision is what will bring this family to its knees.

But Cor was wrong. Noctis was a leader, and he judged with a compassionate heart. They had witnessed his mercy that day on the steps of the Citadel, not his weakness. And while his hesitation to take a life would, undoubtedly, be frowned upon by other members of the family, it was that very same quality which Ignis admired in him.

More than admired. Ignis loved Noct for his humanity, fierce and true. He had worked his whole life to protect the young oyabun from the horrors of the underworld into which he had been born. And now, more than ever before, he knew he would go to any lengths to keep Noctis safe in the dark.

His gloved hands slid effortlessly into place on either side of Noct’s neck. At first, he felt the muscles there tense - surprised, perhaps, or simply mindful of Prompto’s presence in the room. But Ignis’ intentions were pure. Mostly. He set to work without words, letting his fingers glide over the dark fabric of Noctis’ shirt, squeezing here, pressing there. Kneading out the knots he found with practiced efficiency, until the oyabun at last began to relax into his touch.

Soft sighs, and Noct’s eyes fell closed. His lips parted. Ignis could feel the heat of his skin rising up through his clothing, warming his palms as well as his face. Even Prompto had given up on the door in favor of watching them instead.

“...Specs.” His voice wavered.

“Yes, Highness?”

“Lower.”

“Of course.”

Noct hummed as those gloves fingers traveled down his back, along the ridge of his spine. Knowing, as no other hands did, where to apply the most pressure and where to tread gently, careful of the scars beneath the fabric. Ignis’ touch was perfectly distracting, and as it moved lower Noctis allowed himself to lean forward onto his elbows on the desk. “Mm. Right there.

It was in that moment, while Ignis was admiring the curves of Noct’s back stretched out before him and Prompto was fidgeting with his phone, trying to look distracted, that the door burst open at last.

Sharp green flickered up briefly in greeting. “Ah. Good of you to finally join us. Anything important we should know about?”

“Just some family stuff.” Gladio hadn't bothered knocking. Nor did he seem bothered by the intimate scene unfolding at the desk as he strode into the room, mouth set in a hard line. “Sorry I'm late. This seat taken?”

The question had been directed at Prompto. The blond looked up into familiar amber eyes, swallowed, and scrambled to pull his legs back into the chair. There was just enough room for Gladio to settle down half-on, half-off the arm, and despite the edge in his smile he gave Prom’s knee a reassuring pat. Later, he mouthed, and turned to face the other two.

“I suppose this means our little meeting can get underway now. Noctis?”

Mm?

Ignis’ smile was indulgent as his hands traveled back up the length of his oyabun’s back. He leaned forward, careful to temper his weight, until his lips were nearly brushing the rim of Noct’s ear. “Highness, if you would?”

Slowly, as if chasing Ignis’ touch, Noct drew himself up in his chair. Smiled at the hand that lingered on his shoulder, then at Gladio and Prompto on the other side of the desk. “Thanks, Specs. I needed that.”

“I know.”

“So, boss,” Gladio said, with a subtle curl of his lips. “You heard what Highwind had to say. Assuming anyone’s willing to believe her...what’s our next move?”

“Izunia.” The name hung heavy in the air, and with it the mood shifted once again. Noctis felt Ignis’ grip on him tighten, a welcome distraction from the familiar itch that had started in his veins. “I don’t know how much of Aranea’s story is true, but I do know that she’s not far off. Ardyn...isn’t human. Not entirely.”

He didn’t even have to close his eyes to recall the icy cold touch of cruel fingers around his neck, or the stench of Ardyn’s breath so close to his. The visions he’d seen, too - a shadowy figure stumbling in the dark; blood, so much blood, then darkness that swallowed everything. And at the end of it all awaited a...voice.

Yes. You are close to the answer, child.  

“Not yet….”

“Noct?”

That voice had been closer, more now , and he sucked in a breath to clear his thoughts. “Not yet. We can’t fight him yet, he’s too strong.”

“And he’s got the advantage of hiding in shadows,” Gladio agreed. “It was hard enough to track him down the first time. We’d just be following breadcrumbs - and walking right into a trap.”

Prompto wrung his fingers in the hem of his sweatshirt. “But if we don’t stop him, he’ll keep killing innocent people out there. Staying in the Citadel is the same as letting him win.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Ardyn is after revenge, and he won’t stop until he manages to draw me out. To him, killing is just a way to send us a message. We can’t just do nothing .” Since that morning, Noct had replayed Cor’s words to him over and over in his mind. Though harsh, they were also right. Now was not the time for indecision.

“So we bring him to us, instead.” From his back, Ignis shifted until he was leaning his hip against the edge of the desk. Lifted one hand up to his chin in thought, and seemed to stare into nothingness for a long moment. “...We get his attention. Bait of some kind, if you will.”

Noct blanched. “You don’t mean me?”

“Certainly not,” came the reply, and those steel eyes flashed. “On my life, I would not risk letting him near you ever again. I simply meant finding something of...less value to force his hand.”

“What about his machine?” It was Prompto again, who had tucked himself into the corner of the chair nearest to Gladio, and was now chewing absently on his thumbnail. “You know, that weird thing we found down in the tunnels? All the pipes and barrels and--”

“His laboratory?”

“Where he was keeping me?”

“Those tunnels run right under the Citadel,” Gladio said, turning to Prompto in surprise. “Blowing them up would smoke him out from anywhere in the city. That’s genius.”  

The blond, cheeks flushing, smiled.

Ignis, however, was less convinced. “While that may be true, those lines run directly under this building. Damaging the tunnels would destabilize the foundations, perhaps even destroy the Citadel’s entire structure and the surrounding streets.”

“Then we destroy the Citadel.”

What?”

Three sets of eyes turned on Noctis as if he’d suddenly sprouted a pair of extra heads. Yet the oyabun ignored them in favor of reaching for the photographs that decorated the desk - his father’s desk. One of them in particular; a picture of Regis, younger, his hair more black than grey, standing next to Clarus and holding his infant son in his arms. In the background, the rising heights of the Citadel cut an imposing shadow across the sky. A symbol of progress, of business ventures and development at the heart of Insomnia. Yet it also served a darker purpose, too.

“My father built this place on lies,” Noct frowned at the photograph. “The crime, the family secrets. Ardyn . Maybe tearing it down is how we set things right.”

“Noct, you realize how crazy that sounds, don’t you? You’re talking about demolishing your own castle.”

“Gladio’s right, dude. What about everyone who works here?”

Noct shrugged. “We still have the compound. And enough funds in my dad’s old bank accounts to build again, somewhere new. We can start over. Right, Iggy?”

Though he had fallen silent, Ignis’ mouth curved up tellingly at the ends. “Indeed. I see you read those files I left for you, after all.”

“Right. So, are we in?” Around the room, Noct watched his closest friends exchange looks. Prompto, apprehensive but trusting. Gladio, skeptical, reserved. Ignis, less readable and yet of the three, he was the first to give his solemn nod of agreement.

“We’re with you, Noctis. Now and always.”

“Good.” Noct placed his hand atop Ignis’ on the desk, and smiled. “Let’s blow it the fuck up, then.”

Chapter Text

Her pen tapped against the paper to the beat of no particular rhythm. Slow, then faster, the tempo changing with her mood as she skimmed over the phrasing of the document. Legal jargon, mostly, that Noct hadn’t even pretended to understand. But though it had been drawn up in a rush, he trusted that Ignis had left nothing to chance.

Finally, Camelia Claustra set her pen aside, and steepled her fingers above her desk instead. “Well, Mr. Caelum. In all my years as District Attorney of this fine city, I can safely say I have never once seen the leader of a criminal organization applying for a permit.”

Noctis couldn’t resist a smile at that. “Well, we were planning to just set the bombs and figure it out later, but we thought we’d take a shot at not being the bad guys this time.”

“Interesting.” Her expression remained guarded, but there was no mistaking the amusement that shone in her bright eyes. “You know, blowing up the largest building in Insomnia is going to turn some heads. Not the kind of heads either of us wants attention from right now, I should think.”

“To be honest, Ms. Claustra, that’s exactly what I want. If the whole city is watching, that means Ardyn will be, too. It’s our chance to draw him out.”

“Bold, Caelum. Very bold. And possibly insane. I would expect nothing less from your father’s son.”

If she’d been hoping to make him flinch, it didn’t work. Noct merely smiled wider and recalled the advice Ignis had given him in the car out front. Confidence, Noctis. Read all the cards, and play her own hand against her if you can. “Insane? You might be right. But I can’t help noticing you haven’t said ‘no’ yet.”

Now Camelia’s mouth really did curve up at the corners. “Astute of you, indeed. That’s because I’m not going to say no. I’ve got friends in the right places, I’ll push this permit through for you by the end of the week.”

“That...was surprisingly easy.”

She quickly waved off his suspicion, along with his unspoken question. “There’s no catch, Noctis, so don’t look at me like that. Cooperating with you is in my best interests as well. You see, Izunia’s long list of crimes puts him within my jurisdiction, and considering what we’re up against…. Let’s just say I’d rather it weren’t the lives of upstanding police officers on the line.”

“Happy to let us do all the dirty work,” Noctis chuckled down at his hands folded in his lap. “Why am I not surprised?”

A shrug, and he sensed rather than saw the DA get to her feet behind her desk. “Precisely. Your hands are already dirty, and I won’t lose any sleep over it.” Her smile was civil, professional even as she extended her hand to him in offer. Noct took it, met her sharp gaze, shook once both to seal their bargain and to bring a succinct end to the conversation. He’d gotten what he’d come for, after all. It was time to get back to his family.

“Well, Ms. Claustra. I guess this is where I thank you for your help.” Noct’s own smile as he stood was less practiced than hers, but the bow he managed just fine. “You’ll let us know about the permit, then?”

“Of course.”

“Great. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Though she declined to show him out of her office in person, she made certain to get in a few last parting words before he reached the door. “Oh, and Noctis? I know how much that murderous pet of yours likes his pretty car, but please ask him not to park it right across the street next time. I’d prefer to avoid any nasty scandals before the elections, you understand.”

 

To Noct’s great relief, Ignis was already waiting for him in the lobby on the first floor. Hair combed back, his suit as impeccable as ever under a black wool coat, he looked every bit the role he had chosen for the occasion: specifically a driver, attending to a young, wealthy socialite dropping by on campaign funding business. No one would have suspected that the mild-mannered man with the Tenebraen accent was actually one of Insomnia’s most wanted criminals - nor that either of them had been bold enough to walk right through the DA’s front gates.

The thought left Noct grinning as he approached. Wider still when the sound of his boots on the marble floor caught Ignis’ attention right on cue.

“Ah, finished already, sir?” he asked, tone unassuming and yet Noctis could read the curiosity there.

“Yep, and all ready to head home. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Even as Ignis helped him into his jacket, Noct could sense that piercing gaze on him. Proud, maybe even a little impressed, it stayed with him as Ignis followed his lead out of the building and down the steps to the Regalia. Watched him close as the back door opened, and he slipped inside with a coy smile. Flashed in the rearview mirror until they were far enough out of sight that Noctis could climb up between the seats and drop the act entirely.

“You could’ve waited for me in the car, y’know,” he laughed, loosening the tie that hung uncomfortably around his neck.

Ignis reached over to help without taking his eyes off the road ahead. “And risk letting you out of my sights again? I think knot. ” The last word came on the cusp of a smile as he smoothly slid the ends of Noct’s necktie apart. If he caught blue eyes rolling, he pretended not to notice. “So. How did Claustra take the news of our plan?”

“Good. She was pretty happy about it, actually.”

“I suppose she sees some means to her own end by helping us. But an ally is an ally, and we need all those we can get.”

“You said it, Specs.” With his tie off and the vibrations of the car humming around him, Noctis allowed himself to sink deeper into the passenger seat. Tipped his head back and let his mind drift to the warmth of Ignis’ gloved palm resting atop his thigh. “How much further to the Citadel?”

“Shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes. Are you tired? You should rest while you can, Highness.”

‘Tired’ was a bit of an understatement, Noct thought with a yawn. Neither of them had slept much the night before. There had been permits to draft up and meetings upon meetings to detail his plans to the others, and by the time either of them had thought to take a break it was already nearly dawn. For someone who appreciated sleep as much as Noctis, it was a downright tragedy.

But he had a talent for napping wherever the notion took him. Ignis, on the other hand…. “What about you?” he asked, and curled his fingers around the ones on his leg. “You didn’t sleep last night either.”

“Come, now, Noctis. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“I know I don’t need to.” When he squeezed that familiar hand, he watched as a smile spread across Ignis’ lips, and mirrored the expression himself. “Wake me up before we get home?”

“Of course, my love.”

Noct closed his eyes, drifting off to the steady rocking of the Regalia and Ignis’ fingers twined with his.

 

It looms up ahead, a jagged monument that rises to split the sky in two. The shape is familiar to him, and yet the facade of the building is cloaked in shadows. Black, writhing. This is not the Citadel his father designed. It has been corrupted.

Still, his feet carry him up the steps he’s climbed so many times before. In through the front doors where the statues of the foyer lie in ruin and rubble to greet him. Everything is wrong; everything is broken, destroyed, and somehow he knows it’s his fault. The truth is in the very walls, which darken and recoil as he draws near, their creaking movements not unlike the screams of the damned.

The floors move, too. Carry him into the not-quite-familiar bowels of the Citadel until he’s standing before a door he’s seen too many times to count. Dark, heavy shoji , decorated with patterns long since faded, beckon him inside. Yet when he opens them, the room beyond is not the simple washitsu he’s expecting.

It’s a throne room.

A crumbling staircase leads to a dias, upon which is set a marble throne. Empty, tattered by time and disuse. It...waits for him…?

‘Noctis.’

He’s moving again, forward and up the battered steps. Closer now, he can see something rests across the arms of the throne. Silver, glistening. A...sword…?

‘Noctis. It is time.’

There’s blood. So much blood, drenching the blade, the handle, dripping down to stain the cushions of the seat below. It’s red, dark red and swirling darker by the second, until it’s nearly black as ink. Pulsing along the steel as if it were alive. It is alive, he thinks, and it’s hungry.

His stomach churns. He wants to run.

‘Noctis!’

The voice is a scream in his ear and he turns - turns away from the Starscourge to come instead face to face with his father. But it isn’t Regis, not anymore. White eyes stare out from a pale, hollow face; his mouth stretches open wide and tied around his neck is the thick, blood-stained rope that--

 

“--tis, look at me.”

The oyabun came to with a shuddering intake of breath. He was still in the car, though it had stopped moving, and hovering above him in the seat was one very frozen, very concerned Ignis. Green eyes were watching him close behind sharp lenses. “...Are you awake?”

“Y-yeah. Yeah, I’m up.” Even to Noctis’ ears, his own voice sounded distant, hazy. Slowly, not without effort, he forced his tensed muscles to relax, and drew his hand away from the necktie looped around his throat. Something lingered on the edge of his vision - something frightening, like a nightmare - but already his grip on it was slipping away. Instead, a cold emptiness filled his gut in its place.

“Noct….”

“Sorry. Just a bad dream, it’s nothing.” Ignis continued to watch him for a long moment - how badly had he been crying out in his sleep? - until at last, with a wave of his hand, Noct persuaded him he was fine enough to sit up on his own. Minus, of course, a few kinks in his neck where he’d slumped down against the door and window. “Maybe a nap wasn’t the best idea,” he half-groaned, half-laughed, reaching up to rub the junction of his shoulder.

“You called out for your father,” Ignis frowned. “And...you seemed to be in pain.”

A shrug. “Can’t remember it now. Where are we, anyway? Why’d we stop?”

But the question was unnecessary. Noct saw it at the same time as Ignis opened his mouth to answer, and though he couldn’t explain why, a terrible chill ran through his veins.

“We’ve arrived at the Citadel,” he heard against the backdrop of the shadow looming up ahead of them. “We’re home.”


 

Tired faces moved past them. Workers, mostly, carrying boxes, furniture, paintings down the steps of the building and into a fleet of nondescript vans out front. Clearing out the valuables that Monica or Dustin had likely deemed worth of saving before the rest of the building came down. It was...surreal, in a way, to walk through the front doors knowing the fate to which he himself had condemned his father’s legacy.

Ruin...and rubble .

Would Regis have tried to stop him? Would he have approved?

Why not ask him?

“Noctis, are you alright?” He hadn’t even realized he’d stopped moving. Ignis backpedaled to his side in the corridor, and draped a comforting arm around both his shoulders. “I know this must be overwhelming. But remember you do not bear the burden alone.”

“Y-yeah…. Thanks, Iggy. I know that.”

“Come,” he smiled, and despite the activity bustling past them in the hallway, he leaned down to press his lips to Noctis’ temple. “There’s something I want to show you. I had it prepared while you in the meeting.”

Together they ascended to the upper floors of the Citadel, where the walls had already been stripped of the antique tapestries, the portraits, the decor from ages past. Noctis thought he knew where Ignis might be leading him. After all, he’d spent years running through these halls as a kid, trying to peek behind doors his father had kept locked. But there was one room in particular that held a special place in his heart; a room he hadn’t seen in more than ten years, but which his memory recalled easily and in surprising detail.

It was the room in which Ignis had first pledged himself to Noctis’ service. An unconventional sakazuki ceremony, to be sure, and yet so was everything else about their relationship. Noctis wouldn’t trade what they shared for anything.

“After you, Highness.” Ignis stood at the door to the simply-decorated tatami room, holding it open in invitation. Noct smiled. Brushed past his shoulder and felt a rush of anticipation when he heard it slide shut behind them both.

“It’s a little smaller than I remember.”

“You’ve grown. More than you know, Noctis.” Gloved fingers came to rest on the small of his back, moved up slowly, purposefully. Guided him with gentle intent toward the black lacquer table set on a raised mat in the center of the room. On either side of it, two cushions, also black and embroidered with the crest of the Caelum clan: the ornate skull crested by a halo above and an eagle below. For some reason, the heirlooms had yet to be moved onto the trucks, but Noctis couldn’t understand why.

“Iggy, what are we really doing here?”

“I thought we might make one last memory in this room, while we still can.” Ignis gestured for him to take a seat at the left side of the table, then moved to a corner where a small closet blended in with the cherry paneling. Opening it revealed a tray, upon which sat two wine glasses and a dark unopened bottle.

“Is that--?”

“From the private cellars, yes. I’m told it’s quite an exquisite blend. Would you drink with me, Highness?”

As if he would ever refuse. Silently, he watched Ignis uncork the bottle and pour a generous amount into each glass. The wine was a deep crimson, swirling with shadows and light as their rims met in the center of the table.

“To you, Noctis. Never have I been more proud to stand at your side than I am on this day.”

“Iggy….”

“Sometimes, the most difficult decisions turn out to be the right ones. Sometimes endings are merely new beginnings in disguise. You’ve taught all of us that, Noctis. May your hands - and your heart - continue to shape the future of this family.” His eyes shone in a rich contrast to the color of the wine as he held his glass up in toast. “May you continue to shape my future, as well.”

Noctis’ chest was growing as tight as his cheeks were warm. Across from him, Ignis was still staring, still smiling, unhurried while the weight of his words settled in the air. There was something there, a message that Noct almost thought he understood. Coming back to this room, where their childhood friendship had been molded into an unbreakable bond so long ago, was in and of itself significant. Then there was the wine, the look in Ignis’ eyes….

Non enim dormiunt.”

“... Insomnia immortalis ,” he concluded clumsily and after a long pause. But it did the trick. Ignis’ smile grew wider, and his gloved hand found Noctis’ above the table. When he tipped back his glass, the young oyabun followed suit, swallowing down what he could despite the sour taste.

More than a decade had passed since they’d sat across from one another at this very chabudai , just two nervous, excited young boys. Back then, Regis had replaced the traditional sake with apple juice for the occasion, and Ignis had poured first into the single, shallow bowl they shared. With a bow of his head, he’d passed it to Noctis to slurp up the contents. The ohji had focused hard on refilling the bowl without spilling a drop, and the process had been repeated in reverse. A yakuza ritual, symbolic and ancient, carried out as best an eight-year-old could.

But this time was different, Ignis made sure of it. Instead of juice, they shared wine, deep crimson like blood. In place of a shallow bowl, they used their mouths. Ignis moved first, surging across the table to press his lips to Noctis’, a few precious droplets of the drink carried between them by his tongue. Noct opened to accept both readily. Moaned as more familiar tastes filled him, and reached out to pull Ignis close.

They abandoned their glasses, the table, eventually the cushions, too, as Noct climbed instead into Ignis’ lap. His legs fell to either side of lean hips, his arms wound around shoulders that carried so many burdens - as much weight as his own, perhaps even more. Shoulders which, beneath the fabric of his dress shirt, contained the reminders of his past, of his sins. Sins of the one they all called the Reaper, though to Noctis he would only ever be Iggy, Iggy….

Iggy, ” he sighed, breath hot against even hotter lips. The plea in his tone was understood, reciprocated as familiar arms wound tight around his lower back, pulling their hips flush. Already Noct could feel Ignis’ desire straining against the front of his slacks, could sense the desperation in the way those hands roamed over his body, hot even through the gloves and their clothes. And instantly, he knew he needed them to be so much hotter.

Ignis didn't stop him when he reached back to curl fingers around his right wrist, nor when he brought their hands together between them. Only a shadow of hesitation passed over his eyes when Noct released the clasp of his glove, but still he allowed it, still he watched the dark leather slide away. Noct placed his lips against the bare tips of his fingers and Ignis shuddered, the effort of his restraint more than palpable in the thick air.

But his resolve broke the second those soft lips parted, and a red tongue dragged his fingers into the cavern of that mouth. “ H-Highness , please, don't….”

Noctis had no intention of stopping. Not now, not after so brief a taste. There was so much more he wanted from Ignis and he thought - no, he knew - Ignis would give it to him. So he kept their eyes locked in command while he worked to wet his fingers, sliding his tongue purposefully up and down each long digit. Trusted Iggy to understand his unspoken demands, even as he rolled his hips down to emphasize them.

Noct….”

“Specs, it feels right. Please.”

Those slick fingers slipped from his lips as he spoke, yet they didn't go wasted. Ignis knew - of course he knew - right where to put them; slid them easily into the back of Noctis’ pants, under the fabric of his boxers to trace the valley between the mounds of his ass. His eyes simmered, torn between focusing on Noct’s unyielding gaze and watching the way his body moved, the way his skin flushed at the slightest touch. The way his lips, wet and glistening, parted for him when he leaned forward to kiss them again.

To Noctis, the sensation of fingers pushing into him wasn't entirely new. Ignis had touched him like this before, after all, just never with such earnest intent. Never so deeply, one slick digit sliding in up to the first knuckle and still going, opening him up to take more, so much more. By the time Ignis was hooking a second finger inside the rim of his hole, Noct had abandoned control in favor of focusing on the heat of it, the stretch of it, and the bursts of pleasure that licked like flames up his spine.

But the angle was limiting, and too quickly those perfect fingers were drawing back out of him. “I’m going to undress you,” Ignis breathed against his mouth. “Will you lie back for me?” Noct did as he was asked, stretching out as Ignis placed his own suit jacket beneath his hips. Chewed his lip in anticipation while intimately familiar fingers worked open his belt, his buttons, guided the fabric of his dark pants down and off completely. The boxers he wore followed, and Ignis took the opportunity to touch every inch of exposed skin. With his hands, with his mouth, stroking and kissing his way up Noct’s thighs, teasing him as he expertly avoided the throbbing length of his cock. That, after all, was not his target.

While he lavished little nips and sucks to the curve of Noct’s hip, his hands focused on gently spreading apart pale legs atop the tatami . Where cool air touched, hot fingers quickly followed, drew surprised gasps from the young oyabun’s throat when they found their way back inside him. And Ignis smiled. “You are so beautiful like this, Highness.”

Another gasp, sharper this time, and Noct’s eyes screwed shut.

“Had I expected,” he continued to hum, gaze never leaving his prince’s face even as he reached for one of the abandoned wine glasses. “I would have come better prepared.”

“I-Iggy, what…?”

“This may feel a touch cold.” The words left his mouth just as a few drops of wine spilled over the rim of the glass, splashing against the heated flesh beneath Noct’s cock. He jumped, his back arching off the jacket, and it was only Ignis’ weight on his lower body that kept him from squirming away completely. Yet very rapidly, his whines turned to low, shuddering moans, tumbling from his throat in time with the fingers fucking into him.

Ignis worked him open at a cautious pace. Noctis was distracted with kisses, with praise, with soft murmurs against his skin as his body was gradually stretched - and his patience alongside it. More and more, until by the time the third finger had found its way into his ass, the oyabun was near tears and tugging at Ignis’ clothes to speed things up.

“E-enough,” he gasped, just as Ignis brushed against something sensitive inside. “Iggy, please. Just d-do it already.”

Sharp lips stretched wide in adoration. “My apologies. I merely worried about causing you pain.” While he spoke, Ignis worked open the buttons of his own shirt, hastily as his own patience began to wear thin. “Are you certain you’re ready for this?”

Despite the heat in his cheeks and the combination of pleasure and wine swimming in his head, the glare Noct managed in response was fairly convincing. “Are you questioning my orders, Specs?”

Never .” There was a clink - Ignis’ belt hitting the floor - and then a rustle of fabric as he drew himself out of his pants. Noct started to move, started to reach for the heat of his cock so that he might wrap his lips around it as Ignis had so many times done for him, but a gentle hand on his chest stilled him. Emerald pools simmered; Ignis glowed. “Allow me to serve you, Highness. That is my greatest pleasure.”

He wet his palm to slick himself. Folded Noctis’ knees together and pressed them aside to the tatami floor. Groaned aloud at the sensation of warm skin against the underside of his cock as he dragged it over Noct’s entrance, allowing the head to catch at the rim.

One more plea from the body beneath him, however, had him pushing forward into tight, wet heat. Only a few inches at first, letting Noct adjust to the size, the weight, then further the more his muscles relaxed. Deeper and deeper, both of them closing their eyes against the sensations: Ignis against the pressure, still so tight and squeezing around him like a vice; and Noctis against the overwhelming notion of being filled , being split open in ways he'd only ever imagined.

Noct .” Ignis’ voice above him was mostly air, yet still cautious with concern. “Am I…hurting you?”

The question rolled over him slowly, the words permeating the thick haze that surrounded his mind syllable by syllable. Hurting...? There was a small flicker of pain, yes, as his body adjusted to the new sensations, but it wasn't necessarily bad. More than the strain of his muscles was the pleasure that radiated through his limbs because of it, wave after wave caressing his skin like a gentle fire. Different somehow than when he and Ignis had done this before, their positions reversed. Sweeter in a way, and he was already craving more.

“Please. Please,” he moaned, hips rocking down to take in more delicious heat. “Iggy…don't stop.”

His request was as good as a command. Though slow, Ignis’ movements picked up in earnest, his cock drawing out of Noct’s body only to drive into him again even deeper. Bare fingers tightened their hold on his hip, his thigh, and Ignis bowed his head to lose himself in it. Faster, faster, each time pulling gasps and cries from Noct’s throat that only served to spur him on.

But it was not his own pleasure he chased. Soon Noctis began to feel it, an unfamiliar spark of contact that started low in his gut, pulsing in time with Ignis’ cock pushing into his walls. His eyes widened, his breath hitched. It happened again and his fingernails dug hard enough into the tatami to pull it apart.

“I-Iggy--!”

No response, at least not with words. He felt Ignis position himself closer as his movements narrowed, became more deliberate, each time raking against that spot inside him that was blurring his vision. Intentional and drawn out, just like the fingers that began to stroke along the length of the oyabun’s own cock. Ignis encircled him at the base, glided up to the head and paused just above his leaking slit. Back down again on the next thrust, the dual sensations enough to send Noctis reeling.

A third time was all it took. His orgasm hit him in a flash of white, sent his muscles tensing as his cock erupted onto the jacket below, thick and white. But there was no time to recover. As Noct sucked in a shuddering breath, Ignis rolled him onto his back and sank down once more between his thighs. Kissed him as their bodies pressed flushed, Noct’s muscles no longer offering any resistance.

Their hearts pounded in sync, their hands fumbled for a hold, for anything , as Ignis swallowed down Noct’s cries. Around them, the scents of wine and sex and desperation drove them on, until Noct’s body burned and his cock was throbbing to full hardness again. Until, with Ignis’ tongue in his mouth and fingers squeezing around him tight, he came for a second time, too breathless even to scream.

The rest was a blur. He was aware of strong arms around him, of the floor slipping away. Ignis’ warmth returned, though this time it was at his back, beneath him, against the side of his neck. The emptiness he’d felt for those few, shifting moments was filled once more as he was settled down fully into that familiar lap. And all the while Ignis fucked up into him, he continued to hold him close, hold him safe ; serving him both in heart and in duty, as he always had, and always would.  


 

Silence. Unsettling, depthless silence, like staring into a void and seeing nothing but oblivion within. Darkness was everywhere. No light, no sound. And most importantly, no soul.

That was what surrounded them now, here in the crypt-like ruins of the abandoned subway lines. Cor had delved beneath the Citadel before, more years ago now than he cared to remember. Long before these tunnels had been sealed off, and Regis had condemned them to rot, rumors had run rampant among the ranks. Rumors of noises coming up through the vents, of ghosts whose anguished screams left the night shift trembling. But there were no sounds, there never had been. Only great, empty nothingness...and silence.

The tunnels hadn’t changed much in the last two decades. Still dark, still rotting, the columns that arched up to the ceiling disappearing into shadow and stains. The air still smelled of old grease and rusted steel, and in the maddening quiet he could almost imagine the ancient screech of wheels against rail.

Or maybe that was simply Monica clearing her throat. “Captain Leonis, sir.” She’d had come to a halt some paces behind him, her face illuminated by the screen of the device she held up to it. “According to the schematics, these tunnels should have opened up by now. Either I'm reading the map wrong, or the paths have shifted.”

He adjusted the heavy supply pack on his shoulder. Several more paces behind, the handful of Glaives they’d chosen for the mission had stopped as well, talking together in hushed voices while they waited for further orders. Cor ignored them. “Those maps are old, but they’re accurate. The problem is that this room has been changed, and recently. Take a closer look at that wall over there.”

As one, a half dozen headlamps swung around to illuminate the direction Cor was pointing. Light fell across solid concrete, appearing somehow less weathered than the darker walls on either side of it. New, or at least newer than the rest of the corridors they’d passed so far. And hastily finished, too, if the clear marks left by tools on the surface were any indication.

Regardless, they were getting close.

“Follow me.”

One by one, Cor led the party in a tight line along the length of the wall. Monica’s maps had placed them in the center of a wide chamber, one that had likely housed maintenance equipment for broken railcars. It followed, then, that the rest of the space still existed somewhere on the other side of the barrier. Why, though, had the wall been built? And who had built it? Was it intended to keep something out, or something in ? Yet while he mulled over the questions, Cor could reach no other conclusion than that they simply had to keep moving forward to find out.

And move forward they did. For ages, it seemed, until at long last they stumbled across a narrow opening split purposefully into the concrete. A sound, more real than the distant cry of ghost trains and louder than the Glaives’ footsteps, hummed through the air, and Cor halted. Signaled to the others to dim their headlamps, and crept into the passage expecting the rest to trail behind.

Surprisingly, there was light on the far side. Brighter as he drew nearer to the end of the wall. That sound grew louder, too. It was mechanical, steady. A dull hum like the whirring of a large machine, though it had been years since the city had fed electricity here. Cor had no doubts now that they’d found what they’d come searching for.

With caution the party filed out of the narrow passage and into the chamber that served as Izunia’s laboratory. The humming sound vibrated the very stone beneath their feet, its source visible now as the massive generators that occupied the center of the room. Around those were tables, large ones covered with pipes and tubes and motors that pumped a sickly green liquid through it all.

Perhaps even worse than the noise was the smell. Even Cor felt compelled to hold a hand over his nose as, certain there was no movement in the room other than the automated machinery, he zipped open his pack and headed further inside.

“Spread out,” came Monica’s hushed, urgent tone at his back. “Hit the columns and any weak points in the surrounding structures. Work fast, we’re on the clock.”

The supplies they’d brought with them were mostly explosives. Lightweight, compact, but according to Cid (who’d sold them the damn things) ‘ packed a real wallop. ’ Enough, he’d said, to bring down the whole block if they wanted. Luckily, their target was a single laboratory - the extra firepower was merely intended to liven up the show.

Not that Cor particularly approved of Noctis’ grand plans, of course. Destroying the Citadel, the very symbol of the Caelum legacy, seemed too high a price to pay in order to draw their enemy out of hiding. Assuming, of course, that Izunia even noticed, or cared. If he was any bit as stubborn as Noctis - who had refused to listen to any council other than Ignis’ on the matter - or even Regis before him, then they were likely forfeiting their best stronghold in what would amount to a disastrous failure.

Ever the pessimist , Clarus had once chided him. And yet, Cor couldn’t ever recall having been wrong.

Nevertheless, he finished rigging the last of his explosives to the base of the central pillar and stood back to survey his work. All the wires were in place, all the lights that indicated communication with the remote detonator in his bag were flashing properly. A quick glance at the others told him they were all wrapping up, as well. Finally, the mission was nearly over; they’d be back topside in time to oversee the remaining valuables loaded safely onto the trucks, and would return to the compound for a briefing from their boss.

With any luck, that was.

“Team, report.”

Monica was the first to stand, her own pack hanging from her shoulder as she brushed a coating of dirt from her knees. “All done here, sir. Tobias?”

“One sec -- got it,” came a different voice in answer. The Glaive in question cut the tape he’d been using and passed the knife to the man beside him. “Finished. What’s next, Captain?”   

“Next, we clean up, and start getting the hell out...of….” But Cor trailed off. His words faltered, failed altogether, though his dark gaze remained fixed on the Glaive now holding the knife.

He’d watched the man reach out to accept it, not a moment before, and yet…. It was hard to explain. It was as if his hand had frozen in place, suddenly paralyzed, his fingers seizing up tight around the handle. Clenching harder, harder still until the knuckles went stark white.…

...And the veins beneath his skin began to fill up with black.

Adrenaline surged like wildfire in the back of Cor’s skull.

“Get back!” he roared above the suddenly deafening silence of the corridor. Monica heard him, but the power of his voice seemed to be absorbed into the air, muffled by some thick fog that swept in to surround them. No one else was fast enough. They watched, wide-eyed, as their companion twitched, fell, and was finally consumed by death as black as ink.

It was then that the shadows on the pillars began to move.

They burst out across the floor, an explosion of darkness right underneath their feet. Traveled up the walls on all sides, blanketed the entire ceiling until they were swallowing up the room itself. Cor saw the shadows dance around them and felt, for perhaps the first time in his life, powerless against a force he could not hope to comprehend.

Captain!

Darkness, darkness and Death everywhere.

“Sir! We have to move!”

He was grabbed then - the fingers closing around his wrist were warmer than the icy chill that ran in place of his blood - and jerked away from the scene. Half-led, half-dragged through the shadowy terror swirling around them in the direction of the narrow passage back. Nearby, their men screamed. Cries rang out as one by one the headlamps the Glaives had worn were snuffed out.

What in the name of the Six was happening?!

Suddenly, as if in answer, the very walls began to vibrate with the sound of distorted laughter. A voice that sounded like two mouths moving in sync addressed him from the void.

“Yoou wanttedd myy attenntion, didd you nnott?” it/they said, amused. At his back, Cor heard Monica scream. “Welll, herre I amm. Luckkilyy forr you, I nnever sstrayy farr ffromm homme.”

Impossible. It couldn’t be!

It was. Cor knew it at once, knew suddenly what Highwind’s words had been trying to warn; that they were up against no mere man, but a monster - a demon - and there would be no escaping him. These tunnels would be their graves.

But, Cor snarled, they could also be Izunia’s tomb.

“…C-Captain?!”

Monica’s voice faded far too quickly, a trick of the air or of his mind, he didn't know. Around them, the Glaives were no longer screaming, but as Izunia’s inhuman presence in the space grew so did the chill that permeated everything. Icy cold began to envelope Cor’s legs, his arms, his chest, working in tandem with fear to hinder his every step. Yet still he pushed forward, inching ever closer to the source of the shadowy void, and to the voice inside it. That voice that had steadily grown in volume as well as in pitch the nearer he approached. Maniacal laughter; and through it, Cor could hardly think, hardly breathe.

CAPTAIN!

His foot found the pack on the ground first, long before his eyes in the rapidly failing light. His fingers ached as he reached for it, too cold and too numb to get a strong grip on the burlap strap, but he scooped it up all the same. Felt Monica’s presence beside him once again, a single hope in the hollow dark, and turned to follower her away. Away from Izunia’s madness in the moment before it could consume him. She tugged at his arm, and then together they were running.

“There! Up ahead”

“Faster!”

Into the opening of the passage; more darkness, more shadow. Izunia followed.

…There would be no escape.

Cor’s chest thudded. The Citadel. Their grave, another’s tomb. It was now or never.

No escape….

He sent a silent prayer to the Astrals that everyone had gotten out of the building in time. And as the cold seeped through his jacket, turned his veins to ice, he shouted, “The other side! Get down!”

“What?” Monica’s eyes were twin points of light. “Stop? Are you cra--”

She saw the detonator in his hand too late. There was barely enough time to scream, not before he was pushing her out of the passage and behind him, shielding her with his own body above. Cor didn’t hesitate. Slammed his palm down on the trigger button and braced against the concrete, his own voice roaring as loud as the flames that exploded all around.


 

Gloved fingers moved swiftly to fasten the buttons of Noctis’ shirt. Starting at the bottom, Ignis made his way up to the crisp edges of his starched collar, smoothed away the invisible wrinkles there and hummed in satisfaction at the result. Noctis looked impeccable in a suit, he thought, not for the first time that evening. And, more importantly, it also served well to hide any marks left behind on soft skin by overzealous teeth.

Mostly , anyway.

Blue eyes lifted to watch him work, half-lidded in shyness, or perhaps something else. “Thanks, Specs,” the oyabun said, and Ignis saw the corners of his mouth twitch. “I’m, um, sorry about your jacket.”

He curved his own kiss-darkened lips up in turn. “Don’t be. I’m not.” Another pause between them as he slid his hands down to rest on either side of Noctis’ hips. “How are you feeling?”

“Y-yeah, good. Really good.”

“Are you certain it wasn’t too much? I admit, I got carried away with--”

Two fingers pressed to his lips, shutting him up as effectively as the smile that suddenly graced Noctis’ flushed features. “No. No, it was perfect. You’re perfect, Iggy. And...thank you.” Noct leaned forward to replace the heat of his fingertips with his own mouth. A kiss, chaste and purposeful, meant to expel all doubts like a light pushing back the shadows.

Even after it finished, that very same light continued to gleam in the depths of the oyabun’s eyes. “So. Any idea what time it is?”

“...Late enough,” Ignis smiled. “I suspect the trucks have all just about gone now.”

“Guess we should probably go soon, too, huh?”

“They’ll be expecting you at the compound when the meeting starts.”

“Expecting us, ” Noct clarified. His fingers gently traced the line of Ignis’ jaw down to the hollow of his neck. “Remember?”

He bowed his head. Hugged his arms around Noctis as the younger man stepped into them, and brought their foreheads together in the space between. “ Us ,” he repeated, and his voice broke almost imperceptibly with pride.

Over it, somewhere in the distance, a sound like the rumbling of thunder.

Noct’s warmth inched away. “...Did you hear that?”

He had. Green eyes narrowed behind sharp lenses. “The trucks?” Ignis ventured, still listening close. “Or a sudden storm?”

“I don’t know. Iggy, maybe we should--”

The edge in Noct’s tone was cut short by a deafening creak of metal, and the floor beneath them shuddered violently. Wood cracked apart, the paneling splintered and flew off the walls, and while Ignis desperately hugged his prince tighter against him, the entire room lurched out of place.

“Iggy?! What the hell is--?!”

“Highness, we must--!”

Iggy!”

But the Reaper stood rigid, realization twisting like a cold knife in his gut. The bombs. Cor. Something must have gone wrong and --

-- and now the building was coming down around them.

They were going to be buried alive.

Chapter Text

Ignis Scientia was well acquainted with fear.

He had learned long ago how to read it in the faces of the men he was sent to kill. Knew it intimately in the twitch of a muscle, or in the black depths of a dilated pupil. Could smell it on the skin like perspiration, cold and desperate as it spread, as it festered. Fear, he’d found, was often what defined one’s final moments.

And yet, in experienced hands, it could also be a powerful weapon for survival. Fear presented the mind with startling clarity, an ability to see the world without confusion, without hesitation. In starker contrast, minus the greys that blurred between the lines of danger and death. Time itself seemed to slow, enough that decisions could be made in the space of a heartbeat. Fear was, in a sense, hope.

That hope was now Ignis’ only chance to save them. All around, the Citadel was crumbling, collapsing away under their very feet. The whys and the hows were irrelevant; questions that could be answered later, once he knew Noctis was safe. In that moment, surrounded by snapping wood and debris, fear helped to focus Ignis’ mind on what was truly important.

“Highness, stay close!” he shouted above the roar of the groaning building. Up ahead, he could already see the walls of the corridor beginning to cave, dark cracks appearing where the weight of the floors above buckled them inward. Taking the path was a risk, one which behind the dirtied lenses of his glasses Ignis was rapidly calculating. Ten paces, fifteen seconds, we could make it.

His fingers grabbed for Noct’s wrist. Together, they hurtled forward as more stone crumbled and fell, as the walls lost their struggle and the hallway closed in at their backs.

“Faster!”

The crash of stone on marble drowned out his cry. Still, he held Noct fast, thinking of nothing else but reaching the end of the corridor. More crashing, more groaning; the ceiling splintered as the hall gave way, and Ignis just managed to drag his prince out of the path of destruction in time. Behind them, nothing was left but a wall of rubble.

Yet there was no time to catch their breath. One look at Noctis - eyes wide, round, glossy in panic - told him that they needed to keep moving. If they stopped, this would be their grave. They had to keep running, keep going down , and Ignis used his fear to force his legs into motion again.

“I-Iggy, I--,” Noct said, words leaving him in shallow pants. “I c-can’t.”

“You must .” His hand found his prince’s shirt, pulled him up. “If you cannot, I will do it for you.”

I will not lose you again.

Tears, frightened and desperate, pooled in the corners of Noct’s eyes. Clung to his lashes like a kiss, not quite falling and yet he didn’t brush them away. Instead, though his shoulders trembled, he forced them back, nodded once in solemn understanding. Had there been more time, Ignis might have felt pride swell at the sight of him, so brave in the face of overwhelming terror: and yet, that too would have to wait.

“The gardens,” he answered instead, and together they made for the Citadel’s winding central stairs.

Down, down: floor by floor they descended into the belly of the beast, dogged by constant peril as the upper levels failed, fell. Down further still, their feet flying on the steps toward what they could only hope was escape - through the glass walls of the gardens, to the open air and the streets below. A small chance, but it was all they had.

Then, suddenly, Noctis came to an unexpected and jarring halt.

Ignis was snagged, too, as the oyabun’s heels dug hard into the steps. He stumbled, faltered, and Noct’s wrist slipped out of his grip even as he whirled to face him. “Don’t stop!” he yelled over the creak and crack of stone. “We must keep moving!”

“Wait.” Dark eyebrows drew together. His eyes, an oddly red hue that Ignis wasn’t sure had anything to do with the lights, were moving rapidly: back and forth as if searching for something that only he could see. “Up ahead, tread carefully. ...Where?”

“Noctis?”

The younger man snapped out of whatever reverie had gripped him. Swallowed hard, eyes settling once again on Ignis in front of him. “Let’s keep going. But be careful.” The warning, if that’s what it was, followed them down to the next flight, where very quickly the meaning became clear. Several of the steps, large chunks of carved stone, had been completely broken away by the collapse of a supporting wall. In their place, a massive gap and a more-than sixty-foot drop straight down to the rubble below. Had Ignis been running, he might not have been able to catch his footing in time….

Over his shoulder, he cast Noctis a wary glance. How on Eos had he….? But it wasn’t important, at least not in that moment. Grateful for the oyabun’s insight, he positioned one foot at the edge of the break, and held his arms out behind him.

Noctis stalled. “Quickly, Highness!” he urged, voice strained with effort and the noise around them. Another half-second, another crash from upstairs. Blue eyes flashed in panic; Noct bit down on his lip and stepped carefully into Ignis’ waiting hold. “On three! One, two--”

In unison, they counted three! and Noct timed his jump well. The added force of the throw was enough to propel him over the gap, and he landed safely, if gracelessly, on the other side. Immediately he was up again, and holding out his hands for Ignis to join him.

The stone crumbled beneath Ignis’ sole as his weight pushed away from it. Not enough to drop him, but his jump lost momentum, and his carefully calculated trajectory was suddenly slipping out of his reach. Noctis saw the shock in his eyes in time to scream, in time to lunge toward the precipice and grab for the fingers falling through the air.

Their hands met. Noct dropped to his knees as Ignis’ weight pulled him down. Gripped tight at the edge of cracked stone and flesh alike, determined to somehow, someway, keep them both from tumbling off. Ignis heard a pop and felt a searing blast of fire from his left shoulder, but fear drove him on. Ignoring the pain, he swung his other arm up to the step, grabbed ahold of jagged stone, and allowed Noctis to help carry him up over the edge.

Iggy, fuck!” Panic strained the oyabun’s voice high and thin. “You almost-! I mean, you could’ve-! Are you okay?!”

“I’m fine.” His shoulder, of course, disagreed, as did his left arm which now hung useless at his side. Dislocated, most likely. Yet, while painful, it was not life-threatening. He could deal with it later. After all, arm or no arm, he was still able to run.

And run they did. Down to the next floor, where the gardens awaited on the far side of the East Wing, if only they could reach it in time. Several of the corridors, they discovered, were already blocked off, some of them destroyed completely by cave-ins and debris. Others were crumbling and snapping, waiting for the chance to fall. Since the bombs went off below, as far as Ignis could figure, half of the Citadel had already been compromised: the West Wing was closest to where the labs would have been, directly above the initial blasts, and had suffered the most damage. But, just as he and the others had predicted, the explosions had rocked the entire foundation of the building. What was left was only standing on borrowed time. Their only hope was to make it to the gardens before the rest of the upper floors came down.

At least, that had been Ignis’ plan, only half-concocted and driven by fear for his prince’s safety. The second they reached the doors of the gardens, however, and took in the sight of glass walls shattered, flowers crushed under blocks of stone and mortar, crackling flames licking at the ground, he knew he had failed.

It was too late. This place would serve for no better of an escape than jumping from the heights of the room where they’d started.

Strangely numb, Ignis turned to Noctis beside him, and saw the same fear reflected in those wavering blue eyes.

“Highness, I--”

He was going to say something - I’m sorry, this is my fault - but the words were lost before they’d even formed in his mind. Behind them, the corridor echoed, rocked with a thunderous explosion of pressure - too much weight at last buckling the remaining supports - and both Ignis and Noct were knocked off their feet by the blast.

This is our end .

Ignis found his lover’s hand with his own good one. Held fast as together they scrambled forward, crawling on elbows and knees across the shaking ground beneath them. Everything rumbled and then they were falling, plummeting through the sky along with the flowers and glass and flame. Dust and debris rained down around them and in his fear, Ignis saw with a singular, perfect clarity.

He saw Noctis.

He saw bright blue eyes, wide and terrified.

He saw perfect lips - the ones he’d spent a lifetime adoring, and yet had only tasted for what seemed a fleeting dream.

He saw anger, too . His own, directed at a world which had tried again and again to take his beloved from him. To rip Noctis right from his arms - if not by marriage, than by death twice over - and it made him furious .

The pain in his shoulder was nothing - nothing compared to the fear of doing nothing to keep Noct safe - as he wrapped his arms tight around that lean frame. The panicked voice screaming in his ear was nothing compared to the one screaming in his head, the one that told him to protect his prince - his king - at all costs. His own limbs surrounded Noctis, embraced him like a cocoon, and with a smile he tucked his chin into jet black locks.

“I love you. Always.”

He wasn't sure if Noctis ever heard him. Gravity brought the garden, and them in it crashing, down to the streets below. The last thing he remembered were fingers digging into the front of his shirt just before his back collided with broken pavement.

 


 

Eventually, he was forced to admit what everyone else in the truck already knew: they weren’t getting any closer on four wheels.

From only a few blocks away, Gladio, Prompto, Iris and Talcott had watched in silence as the Citadel come down like a house of cards. Starting from the West Wing, floor after floor had collapsed and the building crumpled in on itself, a massively unstoppable force. And yet they'd continued to drive closer anyway, knowing they could do nothing to help.

That, more than anything, had Gladio slamming his palm against the steering wheel in frustration as they skidded to a halt. Up ahead, the road was blocked by debris and dust; behind, police sirens wailed in approach. There was nowhere left to go, and despite their best efforts, they were already too late.

“…Dammit!”

“Gladio.” Prompto’s voice from the passenger’s seat was small, strained. “We can't take the kids in there. It's too dangerous.”

What he meant, of course, though he left it to be read between the lines, was that he intended for the two of them to go. Right into the freshly-demolished ruins of the Citadel, where the dust had yet to settle and flames danced between debris. Going in there would be nothing short of suicide - and for what? To dig dead bodies out of the rubble?

His voice was tinged with more anger than he intended when he replied. “Look around. We’re too late for a damn rescue mission. ...Did you get ahold of Noct?”

Blue eyes swam with sadness as Prompto stared out at the ruins. “No. He never read my texts.”

Dammit. ” Gladio slammed the steering wheel again. “Fuck!”

“We can search. We gotta try.”

“Iris.” Her head lifted, and quickly rubbed away the tears on her cheeks. “You got through to Dad?”

“Y-yeah. Noct never made it to the compound. Iggy, either.”

Again, he scanned the view ahead. Let out a low breath before throwing off his seatbelt and tossing his sister the keys to the ignition. “Tell Dad we’re here, and to send backup. Stay in the truck with Talcott. If anything happens--”

“G-Gladdy….”

If anything happens, ” he continued, eyes as stern as Clarus’ when he turned to her. “Get the hell out of here. I mean it.”

Carefully, she nodded, more tears starting to fall down her cheeks. As Gladio opened the door to the heat and noise outside, she shifted to take his place, and Prompto set Talcott on the seat beside her.  

“Stay with Iris, okay? You’ll be safe here.”

“Prom, don’t leave!”

“I’ve got to help my friends. You understand, right?” Sniffling, Talcott’s head bobbed in hesitant agreement. “Good. I’ll be back soon. We all will.”

“Wait, Gladdy!” Iris reached through the window, tugged at her brother’s sleeve until at last he halted. “I...I know you’re a stupid jerk, but I still love you. Be careful.”

“Look after Talcott.” Then he was running off. Prompto cast one last look back at the truck, his heart torn between going forward and staying behind. Two pairs of eyes were watching him, both scared and wet with tears. In them, he saw reflected his own regret, and his broken promise to Maria to keep Tally safe.

But Noctis needed him more, he could feel that, too. And so tearing his gaze away from the kids, he tore off after Gladio into the haze of smoke and flame.

 


 

……

………

“…nis. Iggy, please . Get up.”

He knew that voice. It was heavy and sweet like a honeyed dream, so familiar as it called out to him, and Ignis smiled to hear it. Noctis, he answered in his heart. I'm here.

But where exactly ‘here’ was, he couldn't say. It felt calm, and warm, and if he listened carefully he could almost hear music in the distance; something ethereal, soothing, yet he was unable to put his finger on the sound. Noct’s voice, more than anything, kept pulling him back.

And when Ignis opened his eyes to greet him, the beauty of the sight stole his breath away. Noct hovered above him amidst glowing clouds, his dark hair a contrast to the light that seemed to surround them both from every direction. His face, so soft and so pale, glistened in that same light; and when Noct smiled, his eyes smiled with him. “ Ignis, ” his voice sighed, then again. “ Oh, Ignis.”

Was this...death? The Citadel, the fall from the gardens…he remembered all of it like a far away dream. In the moment, the end had felt inevitable, and he’d prepared himself for that - but what surprised him now was the peace he suddenly felt .

All his life, Ignis had known that men like him - men who killed, who enjoyed killing - didn’t get a ‘happily ever after.’ They didn’t get peace in the Beyond, because that was reserved for more pure, untainted souls. Souls like Noct’s. So...why would he be here, too? Had the fall killed them both, despite his attempts to keep him safe?

No. No, that didn’t feel right, either. This wasn’t the afterlife, nor was it death. This was Insomnia , he recognized that now in the distant sirens he’d mistaken for song. As his focus cleared, he realized, too, that the clouds he’d imagined were actually dust settling in the aftermath of the collapsing structure; glowing in the light of the flames that licked at broken rubble, and reflecting in the tears that streamed down Noctis’ cheeks.

Which meant...Noctis was alive. He was safe.

Laughter, almost crazed in the wake of his delirium, bubbled up from his chest, and with it at last came the pain. Sharp and from seemingly everywhere at once, tensing his muscles as white-hot agony seared across his eyes. Pain in his shoulder, in his chest, in his back, even in his legs and yet still he laughed, laughed with delight because Noctis was safe! The oyabun trembled as he reached out to touch him. Clasped bloody hands around Ignis’ wrist, but it was clear the stains that darkened his fingers were not his own. Again, relief surged through Ignis like balm to his wounds.

“Iggy, you…! You idiot!” Noctis was still crying, more and more tears tumbling down his cheeks to land on the chest of the body beneath him. “Why did you do that? Why the hell did you do that?!”

“Because I promised to keep you safe, Highness.” He tasted blood when he spoke. It didn’t matter.

“So what! I told you to stop! I didn’t want-! I don’t want this!”

“Noctis.”

“No, it isn’t fair! I’m sick of everyone getting hurt for me!” Blue eyes screwed shut, and for a long moment Noct could do nothing but sob and scream into his bloody fists. Ignis wanted to help him, wanted to hold him, to kiss him, but his body refused to follow his commands. “... What am I supposed to do without you?!”

“I’m right here.”

Noct looked at him, and there was so much fear in his eyes that Ignis almost regret the words even as they left his lips. He’d seen that look before. It was the same one Noct had worn upon seeing his father’s dead body on the front page of the Galdin Daily. The same loss, the same emptiness. It was the fear of being abandoned, and this time it was directed at him .

“I...Iggy. Don’t . Don’t you dare.”

From somewhere on the edge of his focus, Ignis heard a different voice call out.

“...Noctis, I’m sorry.”

More shouting, footsteps scrambling over debris.

No, stay with me…! That’s an order!”

I love you.

“Shit! Noct, get back, give him space.”

“No!”

Move!”

That voice. It belonged to...Gladio? But how…? Amber eyes suddenly filled the space where Noct had been only moments before, and panic replaced Ignis’ sense of calm. No! Noctis! He shuddered, more pain cutting through his thoughts and making his vision blur. Noctis!!

“We can’t move him like this. How the fuck did-? No, forget it. Prompto!”

“C-coming!” Sneakers pounded across stone, and like a flash of lightning the blond was suddenly there, too. “Oh, gods. I-Iggy? W-w-what happened to…?

“Get something for his arm. Can you tie a tourniquet?”

Ignis watched, body going numb, as Prompto nodded. Reached down for the hem of his shirt and began to tear at the fabric, muttering desperately under his breath. “ Fuck, fuck, this is bad.”

“Cool it, babe.” The two exchanged a look - Prompto’s lips trembled, Gladio’s eyes darkened - and the blond fell silent as he returned to his work. Gladio, on the other hand, raised his voice to address all of them at once. “We need to get a doctor. Iggy needs an ambulance, are you listening, Noct?”

No answer. He growled and tried again. “Hey, princess! You hear me?! Call an ambulance or else Iggy’s gonna--”

“...He’s here.”   

Gladio turned then, and beyond his shoulder Ignis could see Noct silhouetted against the backdrop of flames. He was searching again, looking inward as if listening for a voice that only he could hear. Just as he had back on the steps while the Citadel had crashed down around them. And all at once, Ignis understood who was speaking.

Bahamut .

And that meant the one he spoke of was….

“Ardyn,” the Reaper hissed, breathing the name like a curse on his bloodied lips.

But Noctis shook his head. Something passed over his expression - even Gladio and Prompto tensed at the sight of it - and as ink-like shadows began to creep up over the broken edges of the ruins around them, he whispered, “Ardyn is dead. It’s Ifrit.”

A laugh like a razor blade sliced through the crackle of embers and sirens in the air. From out of the encroaching darkness stepped a figure, swathed in tattered, ancient robes, with hair the color of burnt umber and black veins pulsing under too-pale skin. Ardyn Izunia stood before them wearing a smile unfit for the scene, his yellow eyes passing over them one by one until, at last, they settled on Noctis alone.

“Well, hello, dear prince,” he half-sang, and swept off his hat in a low bow. “I must applaud your daring efforts to call me here tonight. As a reward for your sacrifice, I shall grant you the prize you seek - my undivided attention.”



Chapter Text

"As a reward for your sacrifice, I shall grant you the prize you seek - my undivided attention." 

 

Fear. Absolute, paralyzing terror gripped Noctis from head to toe. Before him stood Ardyn - or, at least, what was left of him now. A demonic figure out of his worst nightmares, gruesome and dangerous, lines of black seething beneath his skin like living shadows. Death incarnate.

At Noct’s back, Ignis lay dying. His Ignis, who had leapt with him from the top of his crumbling empire to keep him safe. Who had risked everything for so long just to remain at his side. Ignis, without whom he didn't think he knew how to go on. 

And then there was the fear that resided within him, barely contained in the mortal shell of his body. Bahamut . The terrifying power of a god threatening to rend him in two.

In that moment, in the handful of heartbeats that seemed to echo in the wake of Ardyn's challenge, fear gripped the young oyabun utterly. Fear of death. Fear of loss. Fear of failure after coming so far. Fear of letting down those who had sacrificed everything for this one final chance. 

Nyx. 

Dad. 

Iggy….

Fear swallowed him, dragged him down into the blackness of itself until there was nowhere left to run. 

It was from out of this fear that Noctis found a new kind of strength. He found rage .

You ,” he growled, turning the daggers of his gaze on Ardyn above him. “All of this is your fault!”

That twisted smile didn’t falter. Perched atop the rubble, Ardyn merely gazed down at Noctis - and at his three friends behind him - with amusement dancing in the yellow rings of his eyes. “My fault? Why, you act as if I’ve done something wrong.” As he spoke, Ardyn began his descent down from the ridge of the ruins. 

“I told you before,” he continued, boots crunching over glass and broken stone. “All I’ve done, I’ve done for your benefit.” 

“Bullshit! You hurt my family. You killed my father! You tried to kill me, and for what? Your sick drugs?”

Black lips peeled back to reveal far too many teeth. “Ah, but in dying, were you not set free?”

Suddenly, a pain like the shooting of a thousand stars seized Noct’s brain. Fire licked over his skull, behind his eyes, flaring to life for one long, agonizing moment. He opened his mouth, tried to scream, yet even over the deafening pain he recognized the voice that passed from his lips was not his own. 

It is over, Ifrit.” 

Ardyn stopped in his tracks, his grin widening. “Ah. My old friend. I had nearly given up expecting you. It’s good to see you don’t always disappoint.”

“Fool. That corpse you wear will not last much longer. Time is scarce.”

“Oh? But I’m still very much alive, you see. We both are. All of those delicious souls are good for the...well...the soul, I suppose.” He made a sound like laughter, only far more unnerving. “Of course, we’re delighted to see you’ve taken a shine to the new vessel we prepared for you. Does this mean you’ve at last begun to see things our way?”

“The others have already joined Leviathan. Our time to pass into myth has come. It is futile to fight our destiny.”

Then, as quickly as it had started, the pain ceased. Noctis crumpled to his knees in the rubble. Air filled his lungs as a gasping breath, and the world spun dangerously back into focus. 

Was...was this the true power of an Astral? Was the lingering energy that tickled up his spine the remnants of where Bahamut had tugged at his strings? He felt sick, dizzy in the aftermath, and his anger only amplified because of it. 

“Never...do that again,” he hissed. “I am not your fucking puppet.” 

There was no answer, at least not from any voices inside his head. Bahamut had fallen remarkably silent in the wake of his outburst - though his presence, Noctis could feel, was now closer than ever. 

It was instead Ardyn who chose to answer, his figure towering over Noctis against a backdrop of smoke and flame. Looking up, the oyabun stared hard into those cold, yellow eyes, and found nothing but contempt reflected back in them. 

“Puppet?” he oozed. “You wound me, Noctis. After everything I’ve tried to teach you, you still choose to see this gift - this miracle - as a childish game?”

“I didn’t want any of this!”

“You think I did?” The kick came at him too fast to react. Ardyn’s boot collided with his side, caught him in the rib cage hard and sent him sprawling to the ground. “Do you think I asked for your family’s mercy after they slaughtered my parents? Or for the bullet your father shot into my skull when he decided I was no longer worthy of his name?” 

The world was still reeling when rough fingers clenched around a fistful of Noct’s hair and jerked him to his feet. Shakily, he met Ardyn’s lifeless gaze, smelled not for the first time the stench of death that clung to him like a veil, and his stomach lurched. 

“Ask me again, boy , how it felt to die. How terrifying and beautiful it felt to experience true freedom from the pain of existence. From the limitations of mortality.” Ardyn’s face split - quite literally - in a wicked grin, and with the hand not holding Noctis in place he withdrew a small knife from his robes. “If once was not enough, I will gladly show you one more time. I trust that you will come to understand this gift you have been given.” 

This time, Noctis felt no fear when the knife drove into his gut. 

He felt only the stinging disappointment of knowing that he - that they all - had lost. 

 


 

It had happened too quickly. One second, he’d been wiping blood from Ignis’ forehead, and the next he was running toward the source of the screams. 

That source, it turned out, was Prompto. He’d been watching when Noctis fell, but Gladio saw only the body of his friend on the ground and the murderous monster standing over him. It didn’t matter how Ardyn had done it. 

He was going to rip him apart. 

Fury propelled him forward, over the rubble and through the blackened smoke. At his back, Prompto shouted at him to stop, to stay back, but this was no time for caution. Gladio had spent his life serving the Caelum family. He was supposed to protect them, dammit! And after losing Noctis once, the thought of failing him again was a reality he couldn’t accept. 

He closed in on Ardyn fast. Broken stone shifted beneath his feet as he ran, lunged, tore his fingers into the shadows gathered around that tattered cloak. Gladio thought, for a brief moment, that he’d got him, that his hands had found Ardyn’s bones and that he was going to carry him down to the ground beneath him. 

But then the shadows shifted. Cold blackness slipped like ink from out of his grip, spun and twisted away from him until the rubble was the only thing left to break his fall. 

He hit it. Hard. Righted himself despite the pain, and turned to find Ardyn already sweeping back across the shadows toward him, bloody knife raised and eyes bright with intent. “ Fucking coward! ” he shouted as he threw himself across Noct’s still body at his side. 

He waited for the strike. Expected it at his back, maybe the neck if Ardyn was feeling merciful. But it didn’t come. Instead, there was a sound like hissing air, and a brush of cold wind as his attacker pulled up short. 

“Get back! Leave them alone!” Prompto appeared from behind the swirl of shadows, Gladio could see him now. Between his shaking hands, a silver dagger flashed once, arced, came to rest in front of him as if he were brandishing a spear. Where had he found…? 

No. Questions could wait. Gladio sprung quickly into action, aiming for Ardyn while his back was turned. This time, his fingers found the edge of tattered cloth, and despite the icy chill that seeped into his skin, he refused to let go. Ardyn’s yellow gaze, brighter now with renewed anger, centered on him - yet still Gladio held fast. 

“Prom!”

It was as good a command as he could manage, but the message got through. Prompto struck next, slashing out with the dagger once again to tear through shadow and flesh alike. A stench rose up in time with Ardyn’s hissing cry, a stench like decay and brimstone, carried by the scattering of shadows from the touch of the blade. 

It was hardly a crushing blow. And yet, from the way Ardyn suddenly broke away from them, leaving nothing but a scrap of rotten cloth dangling from Gladio’s fingers, it was clear that they stood a chance. The monster might have been immortal, but the man could still be defeated. 

And luck, it seemed, was finally back on their side.

“N...Noctis? Noct!” Prompto cried, tossing the dagger aside (its silver blade was white with unnatural frost where it had struck true) as he rushed towards his fallen friend. Gladio, too, knelt down at Noct’s side, keeping one eye out for the enemy even while he watched the miracle unfolding before him. 

Their oyabun was awake. Alive , despite the dark stains of blood where Ardyn’s knife had wounded him. He blinked deep blue eyes slowly, looking first at Prompto, then at Gladio, then around him as if not quite understanding where they were. 

“Wh...where’s Iggy?” were the first words out of his mouth. “Is he okay?”

Prompto didn’t have an answer for that. Neither, of course, did Gladio, but Noct wasn’t interested in waiting for one. He pushed himself to his feet, surprisingly steady, and faced the direction the shadows had retreated. 

“...I know,” he continued after a moment, to no one and nothing in particular. “That’s what I intend to do.”

Gladio caught Prompto’s concern out of the corner of his eye. “Hey, Noct? Now might be a good time to get the fuck out of here. Before that thing comes back, yeah?”

The young oyabun didn’t reply. Didn’t react, almost as if he hadn’t heard Gladio at all.  

“Noct?”

“Go.” 

Beside him, Prompto sniffed back a sob. “We’re not leaving you!” 

“Go,” Noct repeated. “Save Iggy. Please. Leave Adagium to me.”

Ada…? None of this was making sense. Not the fucking wreck of the Citadel, or the fact that Ignis lay broken and bleeding in the ruins. Not the godsdamned monster that was trying to kill them all, or the way Noctis seemed to keep bouncing back from death like some kind of god himself. Gladio spat a curse to the ground. Sometimes, it was better not to understand. Better not to question the world when it was going to shit. He’d been trained to serve, to protect and follow orders, and that was precisely what he intended to do. 

Without looking back, he grabbed Prompto by the front of his jacket and began leading him away. Despite his struggling, despite his shouts of No, no we can't leave him, he'll die! Despite the fear and anger gnawing at his own gut, Gladio marched on, dragging Prom behind him. 

Noctis was no longer their mission. Ignis was, and he desperately needed their help.    

 


 

Noctis could hear other voices in his head now. Some were new, some were familiar. Some may not have been real at all, yet he heard them just the same. 

They'd joined him there , in the empty room. 

After Ardyn’s knife had twisted deep in his gut, Noct remembered little else. Pain, regret, grief - these had swallowed him up in the blackness of finality, a wave that had dragged him under until he could feel or think no more. There was no macabre burst of euphoria, as Ardyn had once described to him. There had been only...nothingness.

And then, out of that nowhere, them. 

Shiva, he recalled, as full lips - once dark red, now a pale, deathly blue - leaned in from out of the darkness. They had appeared to him before, the last time he had teetered on the precipice of death. And once before that, even, in the memories Ardyn had spilled into his unwilling mind. Why it was Shiva, and not Ignis, who had come to him in his final moments, Noctis didn’t know. But to see them, with their icy black eyes open in a haunting display, filled him with dread. Set his heart racing, his limbs tingling with adrenalin, and that’s when he understood. 

He wasn’t dead.  

By some miracle - or, more likely in his case, divine meddling - Ardyn’s blade must have missed its mark. 

But…. No, that wasn’t right, either. The knife had sunk deep and true. Noctis could still feel the hole where he’d been pierced, and his shirt was still stained with dark blood. He had very clearly felt the chill of death around him, within him, stealing his last breath. Which meant….

He had died, at least in a sense. Like he’d died that day on Shiva’s table, except that had been Ignis’ blade in his chest. Was this so different? Was it so hard to believe that he could be brought back again, and again, and again, just like Ardyn? Didn’t that make him... immortal?

Didn’t that make him a god? 

“At last, you understand,” Shiva’s voice whispered into the darkness surrounding them both. “The Draconian’s power is your power. His divinity is yours, as well. Just as he uses your physical form to walk Eos once more, so do you use his life force to sustain yourself.”

“I…? Wait.” Noctis shook his head. Or, well, he thought about shaking his head, and the form that he inhabited in the darkness did the same. “Are you saying I’m alive...because of Bahamut ?”

“Yes. And also no.”

Blue lips curved in a smile that was equal parts sadness and pity, and in that, too, there was a riddle. In the end, Shiva’s answer told him nothing. How could it possibly be both? Unless….

“Ardyn. I saw him. The real him,” Noct said softly. Once again, he recalled the sight of blackened veins, skeletal fingers. Twin yellow points swallowed up in hollow eyes. “He told me that my father shot him, and that you were the one who brought him back to life. Only you didn’t, did you? You put Ifrit inside his head, let him believe it was a miracle, but you didn’t truly save him. He died that night.”

“That is correct.” 

“Which means you didn’t save me, either. I’m not…. I never came back after Iggy….” 

He realized he was shaking. Right down to his core, he was shaking. Everything, all of it, had been a lie. From the moment Starscourge had poisoned his body, he’d been condemned to an inescapable death, and to a false hope. He was nothing more now than a corpse being made to dance by a god pulling invisible strings. Like Ardyn. Like the poor woman through whose mouth the goddess Shiva now spoke.

As if reading his thoughts, they bowed their head. “Much has been kept from you, child. Such is our nature, and the nature of all gods. Humans were not meant to question the stars upon which their fates have been woven. And yet, by design, it is the very nature of humans to resist this truth. 

“More and more, your kind turn their backs on the heavens. The faith of the people is waning, and so, too, does our time left in this plane. There are those of us--” Shiva’s voice faltered suddenly, their eyes fell closed in a stolen moment of emotion. “...There were those who could not accept such an end. Thus, while some elected to simply pass out of being, some chose to return here to Eos, to walk once more upon this land that the glory of the Astrals might be restored.”

When Noct laughed, the sound was bitter. “Let me guess. Ifrit?” 

“Indeed, though he was not alone.”

“No kidding. You obviously helped him. Are there any more of you crazy gods running around I should know about?”

Shiva’s lips pressed together in a tight line. “Ifrit must be stopped at all costs,” they continued without answering. “The longer he remains on Eos, trapped within mortal constraints, the weaker he grows. Soon, he will lose control completely, until he can no longer exist outside of the body he wears. He will cease to be one of us - he will become Adagium.”

  A demon, corrected that sickeningly familiar voice in Noct’s head. He swore, and threw his hands up to cover his ears that he might shut Bahamut out. 

Adagium is one who is neither human nor god, but a twisted corruption of both.

“S...stop….” 

We ask much of you, boy. But should you wish to see your world saved, you must do this. You must help me defeat Ifrit.

He thought, for a brief instant in the swirling blackness around him, that another figure stood at Shiva’s side. A tall warrior in armor pierced with a hundred swords. Its helm was shaped like the head of a fierce dragon, and from out of the maw gazed a pair of eyes - solemn, unblinking. Watching him as if in judgement. Noctis shuddered, and the image was gone. 

“They call you back. The time has come.” Now Shiva, too, was fading into shadow. They drew close, ghost-like lips pressing against Noct’s brow in an icy kiss. To him, and him alone, their voice whispered a final message. “ Save Ifrit. Please.”

And then Shiva was gone, leaving Noctis shivering, trembling, falling alone through the darkness of uncertainty. 

Destroy a demon. 

Save the world. 

Sure. How hard could it be? What did he have left to be afraid of? 

After all, he was already dead. 

 

Chapter Text

Ardyn had vanished, but Noct knew he hadn't gone far. He couldn't have. Not when the prize he sought was so close within his reach. 

Keen blue eyes scanned the shadows of the rubble. Distantly, Noct thought he could hear the approach of sirens - emergency responders, Claustra's forces finally arriving on the scene of the Citadel’s preemptive collapse - but he pushed them to the back of his mind. Gladio and Prompto would take care of Ignis. He would survive. Noct had to believe that, because otherwise what was the point of saving the world? For Ignis, he would fight. For Ignis, he would find a way to stop Ifrit. What other choice did he have?

Movement out of the corner of his eye caught Noct’s attention. Shadows oozing through the rubble with a will all their own. They gathered in on themselves, pulsed into a more distinguishable, vaguely human shape. Ardyn . As much of him as was left, anyway. Yellow eyes feverishly bright in the blackness that coalesced around him, shadows as dark as the lines running beneath his bone white skin. For perhaps the first time, he was not smiling at Noctis, but rather regarding him with a scowl, a look of disdain that said he planned to end this here, now. 

At least that made two of them.

Noct took a step forward. Hands open, weaponless against his enemy, he walked with a strange calmness over the stretch of broken stone. "Izunia. If you’re still in there, I need you to listen to me. I understand everything now." 

The voice that answered him was decidedly not Ardyn’s, at least not anymore. Merely a poor attempt to hold together an illusion that was threatening to fall apart. "Is that so? You say you understand, and yet you continue to stand in my way. After all I've done for you, Noctis…." 

"No. You’re the one who’s wrong. You've been lied to. ...!” The sudden pain that shot through his skull wasn’t unexpected. He clenched his fists against it anyway, fighting back Bahamut’s searing presence as he raised his voice over the pain. “They've been deceiving you since the beginning!"

"Who, pray tell?"

"All of them! Ifrit, Bahamut, even Shiva. They're not helping you, they're using you !" 

Yellow eyes flickered as Ardyn withdrew into his cocoon of shadow. His face shifted, dulled as if he were looking inward, listening for some answer only he could hear. And then, to Noct’s frustration, he smiled. "Of course. You are still so confused, boy. You understand nothing at all, just as you have ungraciously refused your divine gift. I, on the other hand, have embraced the power the gods have bestowed upon me. I have become one of them, while you…. You remain weak." 

It was futile. Ifrit was still in there, of course, still whispering his lies. If Noct was going to win this, he had to find a way to tear the two minds apart. "Take a look at yourself, Ardyn. Look at the monster you’ve become because of them. You're losing this game." 

Ardyn hesitated. Thin fingers, the skin barely clinging to bones, rose slowly into the air, and Ardyn saw - really saw - for perhaps the first time through the illusion. His eyebrows furrowed together above scourge-dark eyes. 

"Don't you get it yet?” Noct pressed on. “You died! That night my father shot you, you didn't come back. Neither of us did! We're just toys to them!" 

Noctis. You play with fire. 

"Shut up, shut up! Ardyn! You know I'm right. Look at yourself and see through Ifrit's deception. He never intended to help you. He's using your strength to spread fear and death, because he's afraid of it himself!" 

A sound like the hissing of steam filled the air. The shadows that surrounded Ardyn began to coil, to wrap around him, tighter and tighter until he was crying out. Those unliving hands flew to cover his face, his ears, clawing at his own cracked skin as terrified shrieks flew from his throat. "Stop! Stop, no more! Release me! THIS IS YOUR FAULT, DRACONIAN. YOU HAVE FILLED THIS BOY WITH FALLACIES IN ORDER TO TRICK ME." 

Noctis threw his own hands to his ears as the booming voice shook the very rubble. Bahamut, too, stirred in response, a searing pressure building quickly. "Don't even think about it!" Noct shouted against the force. 

I must answer him. 

"DON'T! I got this!" Digging his heels into the ground, Noctis reached out towards the demonic blackness gathering around the body in front of him. "Ardyn, you have to let go. Cut Ifrit loose!" 

Pain twisted Ardyn's face, yet there was real fear there, too. Perhaps, somewhere in what was left of him, he heard those words and understood them. Perhaps he tried to listen. But it was too late, and the shadows were too powerful. They drove into him, in through his nose and the corners of his eyes, into his mouth opened in a final, silent scream. Demonic energy poured into him like poisonous gas, twisting him even more than Starscourge ever could have. 

For a frightening moment, the light in his eyes was snuffed out by Ifrit's darkness. And then, with a pained gasp of air, they were both back. 

No, Noct corrected himself. That wasn’t quite right. Ardyn was gone. Ifrit and his shadows were gone. Before Noctis now stood Adagium, neither human nor god, living nor dead. Black eyes like night peered out of a hallowed face. The edges of his robes dripped with dark, foul-smelling decay as he took a first hesitant step. And another, and another, quickly finding his balance in his dreadful new form. 

He raised one skeletal hand up into the moonlight, and as the skin there began to crumble away entirely, he laughed like nothing of this world. 

It is too late. He has changed. 

Adagium's eyes appeared to roll inside their sockets until they centered, at last, on Noctis. The gaze sent icy tremors racing up the young oyabun's spine. "Ssomethiinngg to ssay, boyy?" he hissed. 

Run. 

"Sh...shut up." 

You cannot defeat him now. 

"I told you before. I got this." Noctis did not run. He stood his ground, even as Adagium slunk nearer, once again gathering shadows to him like minions out of the underworld. They flowed ahead of him, trailed behind him, swirled all around to block out the moonlight, the sirens, the city altogether. In the middle of it all the monster approached, and Noctis waited to meet him head on. 

"You aare a fool nnot to feear meee." 

"I could say the same thing." It was hard to speak, to breathe as the overwhelming stench closed in. Yet despite the terror pounding in his chest and the pain stinging his eyes, Noctis stood tall. "I'm not the one who should fear death. You are." 

Once more, horrible laughter ripped through the air. Adagium reached out, cold bones squeezing around Noct's throat like a vice. Ever tighter, as that twisted smile stretched wide. "Fearrr death, you ssay? I think nnot. I am Deathhh." 

Noctis couldn't breathe. His eyes shut against the pressure, and he tried to remind himself that there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to fear because he was already dead. Try as they might, the monsters could no longer hurt him. 

But he could still hurt them. 

Adagium’s free hand moved, reaching into the depths of shadows for a knife Noctis knew well. That same knife whose sting remained deep in the young oyabun’s memory. Adagium clacked bony fingers around the hilt, and that was Noct's chance. 

It took every ounce of strength in his limbs to rip away. As he threw his weight backwards, he felt the bones cinched around his neck begin to lose their grip, the rotting ligaments between them stretching and pulling apart until they tore completely. Adagium cried out, more in surprise than pain, but it left Noctis enough space to lunge for the weapon behind him. 

He'd seen it the moment he'd come back from the darkness. With Shiva's words still ringing in his ears, he'd caught sight of it, a glint of silver amidst the ruins. A dagger. Ignis' dagger. He didn't know or care how it had gotten there, only that it was his only hope. 

He lunged for it now, and just as Adagium whipped around again he swept it off the dusty ground. Grasped it between his fingers like a prayer, convinced that wherever he was, Ignis was alive. Ignis was fighting beside him. His dagger weighed with the souls of countless lives it had already claimed, but now, in Noctis' grasp, it would do the opposite. 

It would set a tortured soul free. 

Anger split Adagium's face. Starscourge, black as ink and with a life of its own, oozed from every orafice as he approached, his rage seething visibly in the lines that moved and shifted on his face. In the blacks of his eyes, Noctis saw pure hatred. 

"Youu will payy forrr thattt, boy," 

The shadows formed a wall behind him as he flew into the attack, dragging the tatters of his robes through the dust in his fury. But he never saw the dagger. Not even when Noctis lifted it up and allowed Adagium's own force to drive it right into his throat. Not even as black blood bubbled up and out around the wound there, hissing with an anger of its own. He couldn't see, because somewhere deep within the mind of the monster, the tired, broken man had at last begun to fight back. 

" Auugh!! " The rasping, bubbling scream was pure rage. Adagium reared back, lifting his one remaining hand to his wounded neck as the dagger clattered to the ground. More dark blood spilled out. The blacks of his eyes began to clear. 

Now!! Noctis shouted into the void, and all at once powerful light swelled up to possess him. Blue light, this time, still overwhelming in its force, but somehow without pain, without fear. This, he thought as he felt Bahamut surge through him, is more like dying. 

In his right hand, a sword of blue light shimmered to life. Out of his shoulders, his back, his legs, a hundred ancient blades extended like the wings of a beast. Bahamut moved him as easily as if they shared one mind, one existence, and in that moment Noctis knew how it truly felt to wield the power of the gods. The Sword of the Draconian lifted above Adagium, high up into the darkness of night. Came crashing down again with ferocious justice to strike asunder the shadows behind which the demon tried to hide. 

Bahamut’s blade struck Adagium from skull to breast, and as blue light crackled through him like a surge of electricity, the monster was split in twain. An image of Ifrit - twisted horns crowned in dark flame - appeared for a brief moment to writhe in the pain of defeat. And then the light dispersed with a deafening crack, leaving what remained of the body of Ardyn Izunia to fall, motionless, to the cold ground. 

Noctis, too, stumbled back. The Draconian’s strength drained out of him, vanishing along with the light and the two Astrals back into the Beyond. Suddenly, his own body felt incredibly weak. Like a puppet with no strings left to hold him up.  

He crumpled forward, and rough stone rose up to meet him. Through bleary eyes, he watched the last of the shadows retreat to the edges of night. 

The scene fell oddly quiet. Peaceful, even, despite the battle that had waged between the gods on its stage. Fire crackled distantly. Smoke parted and moonlight trickled down to bathe Noct in a calming glow.

It was a peace that came only before the end. The real end, one from which he would not be coming back this time. As Noctis watched, the last of Ifrit's life force was drained from Ardyn mere inches away. His eyes dulled. His tattered skin greyed. Years of decay consumed him in the death of the illusion, and at last Ardyn became nothing more than dust carried away by the wind. 

The young, tired oyabun couldn't help but laugh, though the effort was hard. Ardyn was defeated. Ifrit was defeated. Eos was, at least for now, spared the darkness their combined power had threatened to bring to all corners of the world. Somehow, he had won. And yet here he lay, knowing that despite everything he would not get to see the sun rise on the horizon ever again. 

Tears streamed from his eyes. 

So long as Ignis survived, it would be worth the sacrifice.

 


 

….

…….

...Everything was white. Sterile, white, and so bright that it burned. Where…? 

Something dark swept across his vision. A hand? He tried to turn to see who or what was there, but he found it impossible to move. Something held him in place. 

"Whe…" He cleared his throat, and attempted again to speak through the taste of blood and dust. "Where am I?" 

"Holy smokes, you're awake?" 

The voice was terribly unfamiliar, coming from nearby and far away at once. "Who… What are you?" 

There was a silence. He could hear movement, thought he almost caught a shadow moving across the expanse of white. And then, all of a sudden, there was a face. A young woman with dark eyes and a white surgical mask across her nose and mouth. Her hair was pulled back and tucked under a band, upon which three letters were written in red print. 

E.M.T. 

Ignis might have laughed if he had the ability. Now he could more easily make out the shape of the ceiling of the vehicle overhead, the vents and the wires that hung down like tendrils to keep him alive. He could feel the straps holding him in place on the stretcher, and the IVs trapped under his skin. This was not Hell, nor was it the hopeless void of the Beyond. This was an ambulance. Which meant… 

"Hey, easy there. Don't try to move, alright?" the woman said, sympathy apparent in her tight smile. "You had a really nasty fall. Not sure how you made it, but you're pretty banged up. Try to stay still and let us take care of you." 

There was nothing he could argue there. His limbs wouldn't obey no matter how he tried to command them. Not that it mattered. His body might have survived the collapse of the Citadel, but his spirit was still back there among the rubble and ruins. 

It was still with Noctis. 

Through the fog of dull, distant pain and the concoction of drugs swimming through his system, Ignis tried to remember what had happened in the aftermath of the fall. Noct had been there among the ruins, he recalled his own relief at seeing him safe. Gladio and Prompto had been there as well, but they were hazier, and Ignis couldn’t remember why they’d come…. Beyond that, almost nothing. Fire, smoke, something in the shadows that he could almost picture. Something almost resembling a face, but….

That, too, slipped away like the tide from his shore. His head grew fuzzier by the second, heavy with the chemicals the IV was continuously feeding into him. Was this it, then? Was there nothing more he could do for Noct and the others? The thought brought a tormented laugh to his lips. Was the Reaper’s final hour destined to be spent in bonds, when it should be on the battlefield at his prince’s side? 

“Curse you,” he laughed, not knowing or caring if in fact he spoke aloud, or if anyone heard him but the gods. “All of you! This was your fight, why did you insist on dragging him into it?”

Perhaps it was the drugs. Perhaps in the face of it all, he was finally losing his mind. But Ignis thought, over the sounds of the ambulance, that he heard a voice answer in return.

...Because he was strong. 

“Of course Noctis is strong! He’s stronger than any of you.”

That may be true.

“Then help him!” Ignis cried. Fear gripped his mind, filled his senses with blues and reds and the sounds of sirens. “Save him, or I swear on my soul that I will destroy every last one of you!”

A deep silence, followed by laughter like the crashing of waves upon the sea. You dare to threaten the gods? 

Pain flared through Ignis’ body. Every nerve crackled with it, and in the distance he heard the frantic beeping of a machine in time with his own pounding heart. “Yes!”

For the sake of this...boy?

“For Noctis,” he snarled through clenched, bloody teeth. “I will burn your fucking heavens to the ground.”

Then, as a tempest of laughter rose up around him to block out the light, a mask was pressed over his face, and Ignis knew no more.  

 

Chapter Text

“Noctis. Noctis! Come down from there before you hurt yourself.” 

Footsteps on marble, a familiar uneven gait. Step, clickstep. Step, clickstep. Noctis poked his head out from behind the tapestry where he’d been hiding. Normally, they would have sent Ignis to look for him, or Cor if he was really in trouble. But this time, it was his father who had come in person. 

There was no use in hiding any longer. Cautiously, taking care not to step too far over the ledge of the awning, he took a seat in the open where Regis could see him. “Um. Hi, Dad.” 

Down below, a pair of stern eyes was watching him. Regis was still dressed for his meeting - a black suit emblazoned with the crest of the family, his greying hair slicked back, and his cane, the silver head of it glinting from between his folded hands. On one of them sat the Ring of the Lucii, intimidating and fierce as the man himself. “I asked you once to come down. I will not repeat myself.”

“Yes, sir.” At ten, Noctis was limber enough to clamber down the balustrade with ease. Yet now, he found himself taking his time, putting one foot beneath the other in an attempt to prolong the inevitable. Where was Iggy? He never got in trouble when Iggy came for him. Noct had even convinced him to climb up to his secret hiding place once or twice. With Iggy, he probably could have gotten away with anything. 

And maybe, he grimaced, that was precisely why he wasn’t here. 

“Noctis.” 

His father’s voice echoed in the silence, the only other sound his own sneakers as he dropped the last few feet to the ground. “Come over here, please.” 

Again, he took his time shuffling his feet, and did not lift his gaze even when he came to a stop at Regis’ feet. “Sorry, sir. I won’t do it again.”

“Do what, son?” 

“Hide up there.” 

Grey eyes softened just a touch, and Regis leaned forward onto his cane. “And just what were you hiding from, exactly?” 

“The…the Marilith.” 

Noctis didn’t expect his father to understand. Only one other person knew about the monster that haunted his dreams in the dark of night. Had haunted him since the car accident, that night his mother had been taken from him. Iggy was the only one Noct had trusted with the secret, and the reason why he came here, to this place, where no one else could find him. 

Except Regis had, and now the frightening monsters of his nightmares were going to come to light. Or, at least, so he feared.

“Oh,” was all his father said for a long time. He scanned the high walls of the portrait room in silence, almost as if searching for something among the shadows that clung to the ceiling. “Then you found a good hiding place, it seems. No Mariliths in here.”  

Noct was speechless. His father sounded serious - there was no humor or anger in his tone now. And...he was smiling. Noctis couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen him smile. 

“Dad? Do you believe me?” 

“Yes, son. Of course I do.” A heavy, comforting hand found his shoulder, and squeezed. “I’ve seen it, too, you know. Many times since that night. It’s not always the same monster for me, and sometimes it isn’t even a monster at all. But it’s there all the same, waiting to torment me for not being able to save her.” 

Something that felt suspiciously like tears began to sting in the corners of Noct’s eyes. “You mean Mom?” 

“Yes. When was the last time you saw her?” 

He thought for a moment. “You mean in my dreams? Um, it’s been a while….” 

“Do you think, “ Regis continued, and all traces of sternness were gone now. “Perhaps the Marilith is the reason she hasn’t visited you? That perhaps she’s hiding from it, as well?’ 

The thought had not, in fact, occurred to Noctis until then, but somehow it made perfect sense. The Marilith was like a frightening sentinel keeping them apart. So long as the monster was loose, neither he nor his mother would ever feel safe again. “I have to fight it,” Noctis said suddenly, in as resolute a tone as a ten year old could manage. “Someone has to stop it.” 

“How brave of you, son.” 

“I can’t hide from it anymore.”

“I agree.” 

“But, Dad? How am I supposed to beat it?” His shoulders trembled as he recalled the terrifying vision from his nightmares, the massive snake-like beast with piercing eyes and a mouthful of jagged teeth. Sharp claws and fangs that could rip a boy like him to shreds. The thought alone left him quaking. “I...I’m not strong enough.” 

Regis did not answer right away. Instead, the hand that lingered on Noct’s shoulder lifted into the air, and with a simple gesture summoned another face into the room. 

Noct’s eyes went wide. Had Ignis been cowering the whole time just outside the door, listening to their conversation? Why hadn’t he joined them sooner? But Noct didn’t have to hear the answer from Iggy’s mouth to understand the reason - his posture said it all. Shoulders hung, eyes fixed on the floor, Ignis was a perfect picture of guilt as he took his place at Regis’ side. The boss’ informant. A snitch

The young ohji ’s stomach twisted into knots that were equal parts anger and hurt. “What’s going on?”

“I...I’m sorry, Noctis. I just thought,” the older boy began, still avoiding his gaze. “I thought it would be best if you talked to your father about these things. If you were to get hurt climbing around up there, I….” 

“You did the right thing, Ignis. I thank you for looking so closely after my son.” When Regis turned back to him, there was no longer a smile on his face. “Noctis. Do not think badly of your friend. He cares for you a great deal, you know.”

“Yeah, but he-!”

“Wants to protect you. As do I.” Though it was difficult, Regis set his cane on the tiles and slowly, careful of his bad knee, lowered himself to Noctis’ eye level. “Would you allow the two of us to help you? Together, I have a feeling we can scare this Marilith of yours away for good.” 

Noctis eyed both his father and his so-called friend, who was still looking miserably down at his own feet. “You...really want to help me?”

Regis nodded. Behind him, Ignis took the opening that was offered and followed suit. “I swore an oath to serve you, Noctis. Let me help you.”

“Okay,” the young ohji answered carefully, not taking his eyes off of Ignis. “But you have to promise to keep my other hiding spots a secret.” 

Regis turned to regard him in surprise, as Ignis’ face flushed a telling shade of pink. 

That evening, they chose an open spot in the garden. There was a bench for Regis, and two cushions set on the path for the boys. Noctis had charged them each with the task of bringing a weapon with which to fight the Marilith. He himself brought a toy gun that launched sponge darts instead of bullets. Regis had brought a letter opener in the shape of a small sword, sharp enough along one edge to cut paper and, he argued, probably giant snake skin, too. Ignis, who had recently taken up cooking lessons with the Citadel kitchen staff, had brought a large wooden rolling pin. One, he said, which was hard enough to crack the teeth of any beast foolish enough to chomp down on it. 

  The three of them sat together with their weapons at the ready, while Noct summoned his courage to face the monsters. He was scared, of course - who wouldn’t be when every rustle of leaves around them sounded like a snake coiling to attack? Yet he fought the urge to run, to hide, by placing his trust instead in the strength of others. 

Regis reached down to take his hand. Ignis did the same on the other side, and together they shouted at the empty night until their fear turned to laughter. Until the entire garden rang out with the joy of it. That night, Noctis learned an important lesson about facing his fears. He learned that while it needed to be done, he need not face them alone. So long as he had Ignis. So long as he had his father. 

 


 

Regis stood before him now like a vision out of his memory. His hair was darker than the last time they’d met, that final, fateful day in his office. His leg, too, appeared as strong as the rest of him, and he had no need of a cane as he strode forward, arms open wide. 

It didn’t matter than Noctis didn’t understand. It didn’t matter that the relief flooding through him was tinged with sadness. It didn’t matter, because when he threw himself into his father’s embrace, he was a child again, safe and warm and no longer afraid. 

“My son,” Regis sighed, pulling him in close. “I have missed you so.” 

Noct choked on the tears welling up behind his eyes. “Dad! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Whatever for, son?” 

“Your Citadel.” His voice, muffled by the familiar scent of his father’s suit, trembled with emotion. “It’s all because of me. I ruined everything. Our family...there’s nothing left.” 

Regis gently lifted him to stand on his own feet. “I’m proud of you, Noctis. I’m so proud of you. You faced your monsters. You stood tall.” 

“Dad….” 

“Empires can be rebuilt, so long as there is hope. Remember that, son.”

He wiped his eyes to find that he was grown again. Except instead of ragged, dusty clothes, he wore an impeccable suit of black, emblazoned on the lapel with the crest of the Caelum family. The spitting image of his father so many years ago. And upon his left hand, sitting as if it had always belonged there, was the Ring of the Lucii, its stone gleaming bright with power. 

“I don’t...understand.” Noctis looked up, shaking his head. “Dad, I can’t lead the family anymore. It’s too late, I’ve already…. I’ve already lost everything.”

It was a strange reaction, he thought, to see his father smile at that. And yet Regis did smile, just as he cast his gaze toward the darkness beyond Noct’s shoulder. ”What is death…,” he began.

“But a new beginning, child?” 

Noctis recognized that voice. Ever elusive, ever spinning riddles. Shiva . Here, at the end of things, what could they possibly want from him now? Noctis turned, steeling himself. Yet he stopped short then the face that greeted him was like nothing he could have ever imagined.

They were...well, beautiful hardly seemed to do them justice. Translucent skin the color of the Northern Sea, eyes as bright and glistening as glaciers. Hair that seemed to have been frozen in elegant, flowing waves and powdered with freshly fallen snow. A figure that was not quite human, yet effeminate all the same as they glided toward him. 

Noct swallowed. 

“After all you have seen, young one, are you still so surprised by our true form?” 

“Um.” He considered the question carefully. “Kinda?” 

Shiva smiled, their blue lips glittering with an eerie light. “Be that as it may, there is no longer any need for deception. In defeating the demon Adagium, you have also set Ifrit free. Our beloved Ifrit who for so long was lost to us. Thank you, Noctis. You have earned our eternal gratitude.” 

Huh. The gratitude of the gods. Or at least Shiva’s gratitude, at any rate. Noctis knew he should probably be more humbled, but there was too much that still didn’t make sense, and he had too many questions. Yet even if he knew - even if Shiva told him why Ardyn had been chosen, or if there were others like Ifrit who still lingered in the world - would any of it matter? Could it change the fact that he was here, trapped in the Beyond while Ignis, while his friends lived on without him? He doubted it. And for that, the gratitude of any number of gods meant exactly nothing. 

”Yeah, uh. You’re welcome, I guess,” he shrugged. “For what it’s worth, thanks. For giving me a little more time up there, you know?”

“There is much you yet wish to say, child.”

“It...doesn’t matter.”

“Does it not?” Shiva moved closer to him, their hands stretching out as if to touch him. Icy cold fingers passed within a hair’s breadth of his cheek, his chin in a near caress, guiding his eyes up to meet theirs. “One question. Ask, and we shall answer the truth.”

“Really? Uh, okay. If you insist.” He swallowed, shivered as cold air settled around him, and tiny flecks of snow began to kiss his skin. ”Yeah. So I guess...I want to know what happens next. What am I supposed to do from here? Is this... it , or is there, like, I don’t know, an afterlife? Do I get to visit the real world, kinda like a ghost or something, and haunt everyone, or--”

“We said one question, child. But, we must admit, you are unusually perceptive.” Smiling again, Shiva brought their hands together in front of Noctis, pressing them close until a faint light began to glow there. A sound, like the distant cracking of an iceberg beneath the waves, followed, and more light spilled out in brilliant beams of blue and pure white. Brighter, louder, until Noct was forced to shield his eyes from the overwhelming power of it.

Then, all at once, the noise and light and rumbling ceased. He lowered his hand cautiously to see Shiva - not as a goddess, but once again in the form of a dark-haired woman with a mysterious smile. In their palms, they held what appeared to be the shard of a breathtakingly beautiful crystal.

“What happens next, Noctis, is up to you. The Astrals are leaving this world, passing into myth as our stars have decreed. But we have asked a great deal of you, and of those you love. One of them….” Their smile twitched at the edges, perhaps in amusement, perhaps annoyed. “Few humans have ever dared to challenge the might of the gods so boldly. Even Leviathan could not ignore the ferocity of his love.”

“...Ignis?”

“Death is but a new beginning. Ifrit learned this, as have we all. Now it is time for you to do the same.” 

The crystal pulsed with a soft light as Noct clasped it between his own hands. A rhythmic glow, not unlike the beating of a heart in iridescent waves. It was neither heavy nor fragile, but it felt surprisingly warm to the touch, and terribly significant. “What is this…?” 

“Our final gift to you.” When he looked up again, it was in time to watch a single, icy tear roll down Shiva’s pale cheek. “Thank you, Noctis. Thank you for saving Ifrit.” 

Then they were fading, slipping back into the ether of the Beyond. 

Or, wait . No. It was Noctis who was moving, being pulled backwards by some invisible force. He tried to cry out, to call for his father. But Regis merely watched him go with a mysterious smile. A smile that slowly faded to black - and eventually, nothing at all. 

 


 

"Check over there! Do another sweep!" 

Voices rang out, small and insignificant in the face of the destruction. Smoke rose in billowing pillars, catching the flashing red lights of the emergency crews and glowing like some hellish warzone. It only added to the air of panic, of urgency they all felt in the aftermath. Survivors digging through rubble, searching for signs of their dead. 

Prompto was beyond overwhelmed. He wiped at another layer of dust that had settled on his cheeks. Ignored the blood stains on his sleeve - not his, but that was hardly a comfort - and resumed the task he'd been given with as much focus as he could spare. Check the rubble, move the rubble, listen. Check, move, listen. 

The mission was being led by Libertus, who'd showed up with a van full of Glaives long before the police or fire rescue teams. They'd piled out in formation, he'd barked out some orders, and they'd wasted no time getting to work. Gladio, like them, had taken to task with an odd sort of detachment, as if he knew just how to lock away his emotions whenever they became inconvenient. 

Prompto, on the other hand, was a mess. Check the rubble, move the rubble, listen, he repeated over and over to himself, a mantra to cling to when the tears refused to stop. Check, move. Please be here, Noct. He still couldn't understand how they'd lost sight of him. Helping Ignis to the ambulance, they'd taken their eyes off Noct for only a few minutes. At least, to Prompto it had felt like only a few minutes. There'd been so much blood, so much happening around him, it had been hard to tell if time was even moving at all. 

Check, move, listen. 

So Noct was missing. Ardyn was missing. Ignis was barely hanging on to life in an ambulance halfway across the city by now. And all he could do to help anyone was dig pebble by pebble through this mountain of disaster. 

Check, he sobbed. Move . Liste-- 

Prompto froze, stone in hand. 

Was he imagining things? He was almost certain he'd heard a voice just now, but…? 

"…lp! …re…here!" 

" Ohmigod. G-Gladio…. Gladio!" By himself, there was no way he could get to the voice quick enough. Chunk by chunk he dug through the pile of broken stone and ash, ignoring the way it tore at his fingers. "Gladio, help me!" 

A warm body arrived at his side. Even through the dust covering his face, Gladio's eyes shone with a determined light. "I've got you. Ready? Lift!" 

More of the Glaives joined them. Beneath the rubble, the sound of the trapped voice grew louder, clearer. Whoever it was, they were digging up from the other side, as well, moving inch by inch closer to the surface, to freedom. 

Prompto tossed a cement block aside, and in its place a hand emerged. Bloodied, bruised, but very much alive. "Thank fuck!" Monica Elshett gasped from the other side. "I've got the Marshal! He's in bad shape." 

"Hang on, Chief!” Libertus and his Glaives moved in with trained efficiency, giving Prompto just enough space to stagger out of their way in time. The first body pulled from the ruins was that of Cor Leonis, unconscious and with one arm hanging at an odd angle, but alive. Monica followed quickly, helping to lift the Marshal to safety before collapsing to the ground herself. 

They were okay. They were both going to be okay. Maybe that meant Noct would be okay, too.

Against the odds, Prompto dared to hope.

It was in this hope that he finally heard a new sound - barking . It was distant, faint, yet also strangely close, as if it were echoing all around him at once. He lifted his head in wonder. Why the hell would there be a dog in a place like this? Was it with the fire crew? Unlikely as it seemed, the sound was already growing clearer, more focused. More familiar. “Do...do you hear that?” he asked Gladio quietly, trying not to lose the sound over the commotion of the sirens. 

Beside him, Gladio strained for a moment, listening. “Hear what?” 

“That dog.”

“Dog? What dog?” 

“It’s coming from over there!” Suddenly excited, he grabbed Gladio’s wrist and began to tug him in the direction of the source. It was so loud now, there was no mistaking it. “I think it’s found something. C’mon!”

Scrambling through the ruins, they chased the sound past pillars of smoke and smouldering embers. Over rock and rubble to the heart of where the Citadel once stood. 

Where Noctis was now picking himself up off of the dusty ground as if he’d been there all along. Whole, only a little dizzy, and, miraculously, unscathed. 

Gladio rubbed the dust from his eyes in disbelief. Yeah, that was Noct alright. There were so many questions he would eventually need answers to, but for now, he allowed himself to be swept up in relief. 

“Fucking hell , you gave us a scare!” he laughed. Then he smiled. Then the tears started falling, and he and Prompto clung with their arms around Noctis until they no longer remembered how to let go. 

“Guys,” their oyabun said after a long while, and his own emotions had been gathered into proper words. “Am I…? Is this real ?” 

Prompto took the question in stride. “Yeah, dude. You’re here.”

“How’s...?” 

But Noct couldn’t bring himself to finish the question, to say the name that dangled on the tip of his tongue. If he’d come back to this world by the grace of a goddess, only to find that Ignis was no longer in it, he felt his heart might break in a way that no amount of divine magic could ever heal.

His friends exchanged meaningful looks. Prompto, smiling, held Noct’s hands between his own, while Gladio took the liberty of answering the question they both knew he wanted to ask. 

“You’d better go talk to him about that in person. Dr. Yaegre’s looking after him, but you’ll be the first one he wants to see when he wakes up.” 

 


 

The hospital was utterly quiet. Moonlight shone in through the curtains, casting the rooms, the halls, everything in a sterile, peaceful shade of blue-white. 

It made for a stark contrast to the rest of the night, and even Noctis had trouble believing any of it had really happened. Mere hours ago - though it felt like years now - he’d been running through the Citadel as the floor crumbled beneath his feet. He’d been falling, and then fighting a demonic god. He’d died - or rather, he’d been dead, just hadn’t known it - and was then given a second chance to finally set his life right. 

That’s why he was here, sitting next to a bed in Sania’s clinic instead of at home, or in a meeting to discuss the future of the Caelum family. Work, he knew, could wait. What was truly important to him was the future he wanted to make with the man he loved. 

With Ignis , he smiled, and brushed his thumb across scarred, bloodied knuckles. Ignis still slept, his face relaxed now that the drugs were kicking in. Dr. Yaegre had said he would need physical therapy, probably months or even years of it to strengthen his back. He would face challenges, obstacles as his body healed, but it would heal in time. And Noctis planned to be by his side through every step of the journey, so that Ignis might remain at his for the rest of their lives.

However long that happened to be. 

Noct was aware of a faint pulsing in his breast pocket. Drawing the crystal out with his free hand, he took a moment to admire the way the moonlight caught in the heart of it, a gentle, icy glow. This had been Shiva’s final gift to him, an apology of sorts, and he understood now the importance of their last words. Death is a new beginning. The boy he had once been was gone, along with his hesitations, his indecisions, his fears. Noctis was at last strong enough to take his future into his own hands. 

But Shiva’s message had meant far more than simply his own fate. Ignis, too, had been changed irreversibly. Dead now was the man who had been called the Reaper. That darkness had left him, immolated in the flames of his sacrifice for love. He would never again serve as a tool of the Caelum legacy - instead, he would help to shape it, to rule it, if he so chose. No longer a monster, no longer a killer, but a king. 

Noctis yawned as he dropped the crystal back into his pocket. There would be much to do in the morning - he had an empire to rebuild, after all - but that was still plenty of hours off. Sleep was calling to him. Fingers still twined with Ignis’, Noct pillowed his head on his arm next to his lover, and allowed the thrumming of his crystal to lull him into a dreamless slumber at long last. 

 

Chapter Text

Dawn broke in a cloudless sky over the city of Insomnia. Sunlight spilled like molten gold between towering buildings and shadow-cloaked streets, illuminating the early morning bustle of a metropolis that never slept. 

From the balcony of the penthouse, Ignis Scientia looked out over it all and smiled. Not so long ago, Insomnia itself had been in the grips of a nightmare. Death and danger had lurked everywhere in the seemingly endless night, poisoning the very air with a plague of fear. He himself had seen the cost of that poison, of the evil that had been allowed to thrive unchecked beneath the city’s streets. Bodies, blood, and sacrifice. 

But that past was behind them now. In casting out the darkness, they had defeated Death itself. They had saved their home, and the millions who went about their lives each day in its light. Insomnia was finally at peace.

Not, of course, that the city had escaped the violence completely unchanged. Ignis swept his gaze across the skyline, at the buildings that towered even above the distant curve of the Wall, and found it distinctly lacking. The Citadel, Regis Caelum’s crowning glory at the heart of the city, was gone. A casualty of battle, much like Regis himself.     

Both losses had been devastating blows to the Caelum family, and to the new oyabun who still struggled to fill the shoes in his father’s place. Yet while the family could rebuild, it was decidedly Noctis who had suffered - and, indeed, continued to suffer - more than any of them. 

Turning, Ignis found the sleeping form of his prince still curled up beneath the sheets of his bed. Disheveled bangs aside, he was a picture of peace in his sleep. Beautiful, fierce, but hardly the innocent boy he'd been not so long ago. In nearly every way, Noctis had grown into the man he was always destined to be, a man who would make his father proud. Only, Ignis mused with an adoring smile, he was so much stronger than that. Stronger because, in the face of the gods and his own death, he had chosen life. This life. 

For that. Ignis couldn’t have been more grateful. 

“Highness,” he hummed, stepping out of the warmth of the morning sun. From the balcony railing, he took up his cane- a beautiful ebony black with the horned skull of a Reaper carved into the silver handle - and made his way one careful step at a time to the comforting shadows of Noct’s bedroom. “Love, it’s time to get up.”

A muffled grumble from the pillows was his only answer. 

“Noctis, it’s nearly ten. You know the Board will grow impatient if you keep them waiting too long. They’re expecting the budget reports this morning.”

“Let ‘em…-” the young oyabun paused to yawn. “-...wait.”

Still smiling, Ignis lowered himself to sit on the edge of the bed. His violet robe spilled open, but he did not bother closing it. There was never need for decorum here. He hummed again as he reached out to brush a lock of hair from Noct’s cheek. “And the proposal for the new tower? You know they’re going to need your signature on the zoning paperwork.”

This time when Noct moved, it was to flip himself onto his other side and bury his face in the warmth of Ignis’ body instead. “Five more minutes,” he muttered, and curled his fingers in the silk of his robes. Tugged a little, and Ignis, laughing, obliged him. 

“And what,” he purred. “Would Your Highness have me tell Clarus when he inevitably calls for you?”

Noct grinned. “Tell him we’re busy.”   

“Very well. In that case, I suppose we’d better get to work.” Allowing his robes slip completely from his tattooed shoulders, Ignis sank into his prince as indulgently as he ever would.

 


Together they crossed the grounds of the Caelum compound, heading for the row of low buildings against the back fence. Morning had given way to a brilliant spring day, and the fair weather was reflected in the energy of the Glaives they passed. Without a Citadel in which to conduct their business, Noct had been forced to repurpose the compound’s dojo as a makeshift meeting hall. As a result, the Glaive captains (in lieu of their Marshal, who was still on an extended mandatory holiday while his injuries healed) had decided to move their training session outdoors.  

Libertus and Nyx could be seen across the field, barking orders at their men while they ran them through a series of drills. The newest face among the Glaive recruits was there, as well. Ignis couldn’t resist stopping to watch at the sight of Aranea Highwind, now garbed in the traditional black uniform of the Caelum family, blazing through push ups and leaving the others in her dust. Despite his initial misgivings about her streak of disloyalty, she was turning out to be a powerful asset. An expensive one, mind, but worth the price to know she’d finally be fighting on the same side.  

Suddenly, Ignis felt Noct’s hand on his forearm where he clutched his cane. A seemingly simple gesture but for the blue eyes that searched him, clearly monitoring for darkness, and for signs of pain.  

He shook his head. “I’m alright, Noct. Sorry. Let’s continue.”

Inside the lofted training hall of the dojo, most of the members of that morning’s meeting had already gathered. A few tables had been salvaged from the wreckage of the Citadel, and seated in folding chairs around them were the architects of Noctis’ future vision. An unlikely team of great minds, some friends, others still undecided. But all of whom Noct trusted with his plans for the rebuilding of his empire. 

Unsurprisingly, Prompto was the first to greet him at the door with a smile as bright as the late morning. “Hey, buddy!” 

“Hey," he grinned, tapping his fist against his best friend's. "Where’s Gladio?”

“Oh, he’s around here somewhere. Still avoiding his dad, I think.” A long-suffering sigh, then like the flip of a switch Prompto was right back to giddy excitement. “Anyway, did you get my texts? Check it out! Lady Lunafreya’s got bling! ” 

He nudged Noct in the right direction. Luna was easy to spot, seated between Clarus and Monica near the center of the room. In contrast to their more somber attire,  she was even more radiant than usual in a brilliant white-and-silver suit, her hair braided and adorned with blue jewels the color of sylleblossoms. But that wasn’t what had gotten Prompto so worked up. It was when she finally noticed them, and waved in a shy greeting from across the room, that Noct caught the telltale glint of gold decorating her left hand.

“Apparently, Nyx popped the question over the weekend,” Prompto positively beamed. “She said he was so nervous, he was babbling and everything. Hah! Like Luna was gonna say no, right?”

Noctis mirrored the bright smile that lit up Luna’s face. “It’s about time. So... I guess this means you and the lunkhead are next, then, huh?” 

“Wh…?” Blue eyes went round as Prompto sputtered. “D-dude! Warn a guy!”

Ignis chose that moment to lift his cane between them. He gave them each a pointed look, then gestured towards the open seat at the head of the table. “Prompto, please take your place. Noctis, shall we get started? I believe we've kept our guests waiting long enough." 

The oyabun conceded with a weary nod. Some habits died harder than others. They took their places at the head of the gathering - Noctis in the large, black leather chair his father and grandfather before him had used; Ignis at his side on a simple stool. Personally, Ignis would have preferred to stand, but Dr. Yaegre had insisted he take things slow while his body and back mended. Thus he lowered himself gently onto his seat beside the throne, crossed his legs, and rested his cane across his open lap. 

Noct waited for him to settle before at last addressing the others in the room. " Non enum dormiunt!" his voice rang out, calling the family to attention. 

" Insomnia immortalis!" they responded faithfully. Around the table, the members took their seats again in turn. 

The first to speak was Noctis himself. "Good morning, everyone. I believe you all know why I've asked you to come here today." 

Cid Sophiar folded his arms. "I don’t," he grumbled in perfect tradition. Cindy, seated to his left, shushed him. 

"It’s been five months since this family was brought to its knees by a powerful enemy. We lost good men and women - my father included - in the fight. We lost our castle. But we did not,” he said, raising his voice. “Lose our throne.” 

Somber murmurs of agreement and approval rippled around the table. Noctis waited patiently. 

“The fact that you all sit here with me today is proof that the Caelum family is eternally strong. And we owe much of that strength to our allies.” 

Here, he stopped to bow his head to the most important of the guests seated around him. First to Luna, representative of the Nox Fleuret family, who in the aftermath of the Citadel’s destruction had pledged Tenebrae’s financial support. The allegiance between the two families had been sealed not with a wedding, but with the exchange of gifts, heirlooms that would remind the generations to come of their promise.

Next, he turned to Camelia Claustra. There had admittedly been some tension following their uneasy partnership, especially when Claustra publically took credit for stopping Ardyn’s brutal killings. But, in the end, the move had made sense. In all of her official reports, she had never once mentioned the Caelum name, or the role they had played in reducing the city’s central landmark to ruin. The backlash, the criticism, the call for someone to blame - she had taken that fire for them, as well. There had never been any prosecution, and, perhaps by way of appreciation, the files the city had kept on Regis Lucis Caelum and Aranea Highwind had both mysteriously disappeared overnight. 

Now the DA herself was seated among them, at her place beside Weskham, as usual. She acknowledged Noct’s gratitude with a curt nod of her own. 

Finally, Noctis bowed his head to the senior members of the family, the ones who had stood alongside his father since before he’d even been born. Clarus Amicitia. Weskham Armaugh. Cid Sophiar. And though he wasn’t present, Noct sent a special word of thanks to Cor, who had very nearly given his life in the line of duty. They had not all seen eye-to-eye since Regis’ death, but the loyalty of these four men was unshakeable. Noctis would absolutely depend on their support moving forward, and in exchange, he had promised to start taking their advice to heart. 

Satisfied, Noctis resumed his speech.

“Everyone in this room is a vital part of our family’s continued success. If we’re going to reestablish order in the streets of Insomnia, we’re going to have to cooperate as equals.” He let those words sink in for a long moment. Ignis had advised against using the word trust in his speech, but Noct hoped the deeper meaning was implicit. What he was trying to build - his vision for the future of the family’s role within Insomnia - was one of peace, not bloodshed. There had been enough of that, he figured, to last the city a century or more.

Across the table, Monica caught Noct’s eye right on time. At his cue, she strode forward to place a tablet in front of him. The lights dimmed, the tablet flickered to life, and above it a rather impressive model of the city’s layout was displayed in three dimensions. “If I may, boss? This is the proposal we’re expecting to launch to the city’s Planning and Development Committee next week. As you can see,” she continued, and clicked a button on her handheld remote to zoom in on the display. “The plots of land currently owned by Caelum Holdings Ltd. are here, highlighted in yellow. This one - “ the shape of a large building, not as wide as the Citadel but arguably taller, lit up brighter than the others around it “ - is where our reconstruction begins. If you’ll turn your attention to the folders in front of you, I’d like to go over the budget proposals related to the Regis Caelum XIII Memorial Tower, and the repurposing of funds to….” 

Ignis felt a brush of fingertips across the knuckles of his left hand. Though Noct was still watching the presentation, his attention was divided, as it often was, between work and him . In the past, Ignis might have admonished him for what appeared to be lazy, even disrespectful. But now, he thought he understood better what Noctis was really trying to do. 

With an inward smile, he turned his palm to slide against his prince’s, their fingers twining between their seats. I’m here , the gestured reassured him. I’m with you. Always, my love. 

Hand in hand, they let the sound of Monica’s voice wash over them as the future was unveiled one glowing frame at a time.

 


“So, it’ll be right about...there.” Noct steepled his fingers, holding them up to his face as he tried to imagine the shape of the tower in the distance. He squinted one eye, then the other, then took a small step closer to the balcony. “There?” 

“More to the right, darling,” Ignis laughed. Resting his chin gently on the oyabun’s shoulder, he shifted his wine glass to his left hand and helped to adjust Noct’s position with his right. Mostly, however, he took it as an opportunity to pull Noctis closer against him, with one hand coming to rest conveniently above the curve of a hip.

For his part, Noctis melted back against him as naturally as he’d ever done. “It’s gonna be so awesome, Iggy. You think Dad’ll like it?” 

“Of course he will. The design is beautiful.” A loving kiss to the side of Noct’s cheek. “It’s an incredible honor you’re giving him.”

Noct hummed. A peaceful silence descended around them, there on the balcony high above the world. Ignis tightened his hold, hugged his lover closer, and in turn Noctis closed his eyes. One hand slid along the length of Ignis’ arm, moving slowly, purposefully toward his wrist. The breeze swayed them, a slow dance with no need for music. In that moment, everything was as it should be. 

Everything was perfect.

Almost. 

Lips once again brushed his cheek. “More wine, love?” Ignis offered, already reaching for the bottle. 

But Noct shook his head. The two glasses he’d already had had left him feeling fuzzy, sentimental (and, if he was being honest, slightly off-balance). Not for the first time, he was glad for Ignis’ strength at his back. Smiling, Noct turned in his arms to face him. Swiped up both of their empty glasses and set them just out of reach on the balcony rail.

“Noctis, I--”

He cut short the protests forming on those lips by sealing them with his own. A chaste kiss at first, then deepening as Ignis adjusted to embrace him. Noct indulged himself for several moments, enjoying the taste and heat of Iggy’s mouth, the soft hair giving way beneath his fingertips. Even the ease with which Ignis gave into him, still so new after all the years they’d denied themselves this. 

Gradually, however, Noct began to feel the weight of something more important pulling him back. As much as he wanted to spend the night losing himself in Ignis (and, he knew, there would still be time for that later), there was another reason he’d brought him up here this night. One more request for the man who had already given him so much. 

“Iggy.” Though still pressed close, the tone in Noct’s voice caught Ignis’ attention at once. He slowed his pacing, peppering pale cheeks with barely-there kisses while he listened. “I...I have something for you.”

“A gift? Highness, there’s really no need.”

“It’s...not a gift. Not exactly.” This time when he pulled back, Ignis gave him space. Green eyes watched in curiosity - and perhaps hunger - as the oyabun began to unbutton the front of his shirt. Starting at the collar, working his way down until he’d revealed the slender line of a chain hanging above his breast.

A necklace? Ignis had never seen him wear any jewelry aside from his father’s ring. So why now…?

But Noctis surprised him by drawing the chain up and over his head, quickly as if he might otherwise lose his nerve. He left his collar undone as he held the necklace out for Ignis to see. 

In his palm, glowing faintly against the warmth of his skin, was the most beautiful crystal Ignis had ever laid eyes on. Perfect swirls of sapphire and emerald light danced around the core, which pulsed rhythmically with a life of its own. The longer he watched the crystal, the more it seemed to thrum, to flicker, to draw him in. Before Ignis realized it, he was reaching out to run his fingers across the face. 

“It’s...warm,” he observed, other words failing him in the intensity of its light. “Where did you find such a thing, Noctis?” 

The younger man paused. “...I think that’s less important than what I choose to do with it now that it’s mine.” 

Ignis tore inquisitive eyes from the crystal to watch Noctis instead. 

“I’d like you to have it, Iggy. To keep it safe for me.”

“Are you...certain?” 

“Yeah.” Noct took Ignis’ outstretched hand between his own. Placed the crystal along with the chain into which it had been set in the center of his palm, and closed his fingers around it. “I’m sure. I’ve been thinking about it, and I figure there’s no better place for it than with you. I trust you with my life, Iggy.” 

Noctis knew he didn’t need to explain. Even now, as he helped to link the chain around Ignis’ neck, he felt beyond a hint of doubt that he’d made the right choice. Ignis didn’t need to understand the true nature of the crystal, only that it was important to Noct. That would be enough for him to guard it, to protect it, to kill for it if need be. 

Because as much as Noctis hoped for a future of peace, he was no longer naive about the darkness in the world. Men, gods, demons - none were immune to the temptation of power. Noct knew well that a day would come again when they would have to take up their weapons, to fight the shadows and the light to defend the balance between them. 

They were yakuza. They were warriors. They were kings

As Noctis laid his hand over the crystal, pressing it flat to Ignis’ warm skin, he felt a heady rush of vitality burst through him. It carried him up onto his toes, spilled out into a passionate kiss that expressed far better than words the emotion filling his heart. Once more, Ignis didn’t have to understand. He simply felt , and fell into the kiss with equal fervor. 

Far below, over the railing of the balcony, the city of Insomnia was catching its second wind. A vast kingdom of light, of shadow, and of everything in between. 

It was their kingdom. And together, they would rule it well.   

 

~end~