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Born to Dance in the Dark

Chapter Text

For he comes, the human child,

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.


 

Ignis eased his foot off the gas pedal just as the sleek, white Bentley sedan swerved into their lane, threatening to clip off the driver’s side headlight of the Star of Lucis. He bit back the curse he wanted to mutter under his breath, but he couldn’t quite contain the thought that the driver could possibly utilize his five hundred chocopower engine to at least match the flow of traffic up the main road leading to the north side of the Citadel. Ignis was able to resist the temptation to lay on the horn. The Prince’s car was well-known in this area, though not to everyone—apparently. And though one additional car blaring its horn in the tangled mass of metal fighting its way through the post lunch hour traffic would hardly attract attention, it wouldn’t be seemly for the Prince’s royal vehicle to be harassing Crown citizens.

Oblivious to Ignis’s inner irritation, Noct leaned his head back against the warm garula leather seat, ignoring the flashes of crowded restaurants and shops that lined the street. They’d both traveled from Noct’s apartment to the rear entrance of the Citadel often enough to know that it would only be a minute or so before the throngs of pedestrians scurrying between the gaps in traffic would give way to the guard station that would take them to the staff parking lot.

“Can’t remember the last time I was in this car,” Noct mumbled to himself.

Ignis adopted a light, pleasant tone. “It would have been about a month ago, I think.”

“Not much reason to use this one since you’re always carting me around in yours.”

He let out a sigh of mock exasperation, rolling his eyes toward his ungrateful passenger. “Forgive me for working too hard.”

The corner of Noct’s lips twitched up into a smirk in response, and Ignis returned an amused smile, even if the statement was far truer than Noct could possibly know.

“So why this car today?”

“Captain Drautos mentioned wanting to use it to ferry guests to the signing ceremony. After we arrive at the Citadel, I shall entrust it to him.”

Which seemed an odd request to Ignis. It wasn’t as though there were a dearth of appropriate luxury vehicles in Lucis’s capital city, so the need for Noct’s car specifically must have come down to its additional features. The Star of Lucis was one of a handful of bulletproof vehicles in the city, suitable for protecting the Prince from any assassination attempts. Though Noct had protested the need for such a measure, Ignis had thought it wise of the King to take the precaution. It may have been twelve years since Niflheim’s last two attempts on Prince Noctis’s life, but that was no reason to let their guard down.

But even with the kingdom of Lucis finally due to sign a peace treaty with Niflheim after hundreds of years of conflict, Ignis silently wondered why Captain Drautos would need the two-seater vehicle to protect a driver and a single dignitary. The car was too small and low to the ground for a man as aged as the Emperor, and who else would need the protection? How many guests would they need to ferry one at a time to the event?

Ignis shook his head ever so slightly to clear his thoughts as he turned into the drive that led to the lot and slowed just long enough for the guard to recognize them. To question the orders of superior officers was to question the King himself, and though his incessantly calculating mind never ceased wondering about the decisions made from the throne, he was wise enough to hold his tongue. King Regis Lucis Caelum and his line had founded and protected the kingdom of Lucis for two thousand years—against disease, invasion, natural disasters, and war. The word of a Caelum was law, their wisdom absolute.

Well, with one exception, in Ignis’s private opinion.

Of course, every monarch required additional minds for successfully maneuvering the intricacies of leading a country through the complex state of affairs Lucis had found itself in within the last few decades. King Regis had an entire council of members learning all they could of diplomacy, international relations, economics, finances, production, trade, battle tactics, and myriad subjects besides in order to ensure he made the wisest decisions for his people in Insomnia and the outlands of Lucis—those settlements that lay beyond the magical wall that protected the capital city from Niflheim’s war machines. Prince Noctis may have been too young to have chosen his future council, but his right-hand advisor had already been hand-picked by King Regis himself when the Prince had still been an infant.

Ignis was proud to serve his king and be responsible for the guiding and shaping of his next monarch—a position he took with the weight of fate itself even before Noct had been named the prophesied Chosen King of Light. But the secret thoughts stirring restlessly at the back of his head wondered if King Regis had also been this . . . sullen and unsure of himself at this age. As unconcerned as the King seemed to be with Noct’s progress, Ignis supposed that it would only be a matter of time before Noct aged gracefully into adulthood and began properly taking over his many responsibilities as future leader of Lucis.

“Are you gonna let Prompto drive the Regalia?” Noct asked as they passed a shuttered garage door set between two massive concrete pillars, where the vehicle in question was stored until Ignis was due to pick it up later this afternoon for their journey tomorrow.

“He seemed quite keen to take the wheel. And what of yourself?”

As Ignis pulled into the space reserved for them at the front of the lot and put the car in park, he glanced over to see Noct smirking in the direction of the garage. “Think I’ll pass. Probably best if you don’t let him drive, either.”

“There’s no guarantee I’ll be much better,” Ignis reminded him before getting out. He waited until Noct shut the passenger door behind him before clicking the lock. “We’re all beginners when it comes to driving outside the capital.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

As he held open the door to allow Noct to pass out of the humid May sunshine into the air-conditioned hall, Ignis allowed a glimmer of anticipation to seep into his tone. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like out there.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Noct replied in a low, quiet voice, and it was only Ignis’s years of experience handling his mercurial moods that alerted him to the underlying current of excitement in his muttering.

This would be a well-deserved respite for all four of them, surely—a break from the burdens of their positions and a chance to explore the world. With the exception of Noct’s trip to Tenebrae to visit the Oracle for healing after the assassination attempt had failed when he was eight years old, none of them had even so much as taken a single step beyond the Wall. And while Insomnia was doubtless the center of architecture, art, and culture in the world, Ignis was eager to see for himself the bright white sands and turquoise seas of Galdin Quay, to taste the shellfish pulled fresh from the Cygillan Sea. Long had he entertained the fantasy of strolling alongside the glimmering canals of Altissia, watching some of the most famed chefs in the world work as they made a sumptuous meal for him, and spending a leisurely afternoon coaxing the city’s secret attractions to reveal themselves as he explored the paths less traveled. If only they had more time before the Prince was due to be at the wedding. They might have explored more of Lucis’s outlands, perhaps even the Ravettrician and Terraverden continents.

There was so much he could learn of the world, and he was nearly on fire with the prospect of getting this chance to know, but his more rational side kept him calm. The reality of the experience would likely be that he would spend the next three weeks wrestling three unruly children across the continent, keeping them from falling off the ferry, then attempting to avert a war every time the Prince opened his mouth once they arrived in Altissia. With both the host country and the bride’s country loosely controlled by the Niflheim Empire, Ignis imagined tensions would be high until the treaty was signed and Noct’s marriage to Lunafreya, Princess of Tenebrae and current Oracle, was finalized.

Ignis had only just recently learned in a letter from his mother that his father was from Tenebrae. Perhaps, before Noct returned from his honeymoon, Ignis could make the trip across the ocean to Terraverde and see his father’s homeland with his own eyes before returning to his duties in Insomnia. He should certainly stop briefly in the outer Sorwester District on his way back into the city to pay his parents a visit, at the very least. He’d been three years old the last time he’d seen the sparsely forested outskirts where his parents resided just inside the Wall—saying a final goodbye to his father as his Uncle Caeli escorted him to his new life in the Crown City. It had only been since his mother had begun sending him letters in the last three years that Ignis had entertained the notion of visiting them, but his relentless workload had kept him from sating his curiosity surrounding the blood relatives he barely knew or remembered. This would be the first, and likely only, opportunity for quite some time to attempt a deeper connection with his family.

“Ignis,” a sharp, authoritative voice called out from their left just as they entered the Citadel’s entrance hall. Ignis stretched his neck to see over the throngs of harried clerks and Crownsguard rushing to and fro like a seething black river and spotted Titus Drautos—captain of the King’s military unit, the Kingsglaive—striding toward them.

“Yes, sir?”

“Where’s the car?” Captain Drautos asked in lieu of a greeting.

“In the parking lot.”

Captain Drautos gestured for them to make their way to the bank of elevators at the rear of the polished onyx and gold-trimmed hall, but it wasn’t until the dark, gilded doors slid shut on the small space with just the three of them inside that he spoke again.

“Make sure you’re available at all times,” he said in a low, strained tone, a frown tugging at his lips that deepened the stress lines forming around his mouth. “I can’t say for sure when King Regis will be able to see you given his schedule.”

Ignis attempted to stifle his surprise, as he’d been under the impression that they were to have met with the King immediately, but his eyes widened a fraction in reaction to the news nevertheless.

“I had no idea.”

He wondered how this would affect the tight schedule he had put together for the remaining time they had before they left. The four of them were supposed to leave early tomorrow morning in order to make it to Galdin Quay by that evening. Exactly when was His Majesty going to find the time to speak to his son before sending him off to be married as the terms of the treaty demanded?

“Seriously?” Noct scowled from beside him, leaning further back into the corner and crossing his arms. “Whatever happened to meeting us now?”

Captain Drautos’s cold grey-green eyes flicked briefly over to the Prince, but the silver medals adorning his captain’s uniform clinked as he turned to direct his answer to Ignis instead. “An intruder somehow managed to infiltrate all the way to the throne without being spotted. We suspect magic.”

“An assassination attempt before the signing?” Ignis asked, his voice softening in concern, but his tension eased somewhat when the captain shook his head immediately.

“The Crownsguard are reporting that they demanded nothing more than to speak to King Regis. Against their advice, the King chose to grant the audience in his private chambers. I’m going up there now to do some damage control.”

“He . . . met privately with the intruder?” Ignis asked incredulously. Until the treaty was signed, Lucis and Niflheim were still technically at war. This person could have been sent to murder the one man whose life force and magic held the Wall strong above their heads, for all they knew. What could have possessed the King to dismiss his royal bodyguards’ advice and entertain this guest during such a tumultuous time?

A ringing tone sounded above their heads as the doors slid open to reveal the Hall of History—a reminder of the weight of the undefined future that lay before the Caelum line just before the doors that led to the audience chamber where the King ruled from his gold and onyx throne.

“Seems like a lotta trouble to go through just to talk to him, but I guess that’s what it takes these days,” Noct mumbled bitterly as they stepped out of the elevator together. But his voice softened as he added, “Hope he’s okay.”

“It’s my job to make sure the King gets to the signing ceremony in one piece, so you leave that to me,” Captain Drautos replied. He began to veer off toward the hallway that led to the King’s study, but Ignis stopped him.

“Captain.”

Drautos halted and turned to face them. “Yes?”

A thousand questions were buzzing through Ignis’s thoughts, but he could only think of one that would appropriately convey his fears out here in the open. “Is the date of the signing still undecided?”

The captain’s expression tightened a fraction. “Unfortunately, yes.”

Ignis furrowed his brow, looking down at the captain’s polished Glaive boots as he let out a long sigh. “Unfortunate, indeed.”

“I understand your anxieties,” he said, already turning back in the opposite direction, “but King Regis has said he’d like to proceed with caution.”

“Of course,” Ignis replied under his breath to his retreating back, but a frisson of disquiet he couldn’t quite resolve prickled at the hairs on the back of his neck. Honestly, though, he was being ridiculous. The King would never have agreed to this treaty had such measures not been what was the very best for his kingdom, surely. Their king would guide them through these troublesome times much as he had since before Ignis had been born; of that, he was certain.

“So when do you think Dad will meet with us?” Noct asked, looking up at him. They met each other’s eyes for a moment before Noct let his attention wander over the bustling hall. “Guess we could go upstairs and get packed while we wait, but it could take forever with everything going on here.”

Ignis ushered him toward the door to the audience chamber. “Let us see what we can find out, shall we?”

Lord Caeli Scientia was waiting for them precisely where he and Ignis had previously agreed to meet this afternoon—just to the left of the throne room door. He took a step forward when he spotted them approaching, his green eyes pulling down at the corners in an expression Ignis interpreted as severe stress and anxiety. Given today’s events so far, Ignis hardly needed to ask after the cause.

Though technically a member of the King’s organization of elite individuals assigned to the protection and needs of the Royal Family, Uncle Caeli’s role in the Crownsguard leaned more towards the administerial and security-related aspects of managing the King’s schedule. As such, his custom-designed Crownsguard uniform suited the formality of his position and his efficient, no-nonsense sense of style—a simple button-down with a crisp collar and a single-breasted three-piece suit in the royal black that had been associated with House Caelum since the founding of the kingdom.

“Prince Noctis,” he greeted with a deep, formal bow. “You look well.”

Noct grimaced slightly at the greeting but said in a more casual tone, “Hey, Mr. Scientia. Is my dad around?”

“Unfortunately, his . . . meeting has yet to adjourn,” he replied with a slight wince, though Ignis couldn’t tell if it was due to the Prince’s neglect in using his title as he should or the circumstances at large. “You have my sincerest apologies, Your Highness.”

“No worries,” Noct said with a shrug.

Uncle Caeli raised his eyes to meet Ignis’s, likely knowing full-well what havoc this would wreak on Ignis’s tight schedule. “I’m sorry for the delay, Ignis. No one seems to know anything. The King dismissed all personnel from the entire suite surrounding his study and ordered that he is to be disturbed by no one until further notice.”

“It’s not your fault, Uncle.”

“Yeah, we’ve got other things to do anyway,” Noct said, but his voice grew quieter as he added, “How’s he doing?”

Uncle Caeli frowned. “Exhaustion aside, he seems to be doing just fine.”

“Can he still walk?”

“But of course.”

Noct echoed his frown, doubtless worried for his father’s health after the recent skirmishes with the Empire followed by this sudden desire for peace that required so much preparation. Maintaining the Wall that protected Lucis’s capital city from daemons and ships of war alike required the life force of the eldest living Caelum—the only one capable of wielding the full force of his family line in the Royal Ring of Lucis. Even if the city itself weren’t directly attacked, the King’s life was also drained each time members of the Kingsglaive expended energy on magic to defend Insomnia beyond the Wall. From the reports Ignis had heard in Council meetings, several skirmishes with the Empire before the abrupt withdrawal of enemy forces and an offer of peace had taken quite a toll on His Majesty’s already waning strength. For three years now, he’d been unable to summon his Royal Armiger and had been forced to use a cane to walk. Recent events could very well leave him incapacitated and unable to resist an invasion during one of Insomnia’s most vulnerable points in history, if they weren’t all very careful with this treaty.

“Great,” Noct mumbled half-heartedly, turning back toward the elevator that would lead them to the top of the northwest tower, where the royal apartments were situated. Ignis nodded his thanks to his uncle before taking a step to follow behind his charge, but Uncle Caeli’s hand shot out to touch him on the arm, stalling his exit.

“Ignis, I will contact you once His Majesty has a moment.”

“Much appreciated,” he said with a nod. “For now, we’ll be on our way to the prince’s quarters.”

“I suppose I should consider our ‘weekly lunches’ cancelled for the time being,” Uncle Caeli replied, a slight smile bringing an indulgent twinkle to his eyes, “at the very least until you return.”

Ignis blew a gentle huff of a laugh through his nose. They had “scheduled” a weekly lunch to update one another on their lives for as long as he could remember, but their conflicting schedules had only allowed a handful of such meetings to actually take place over the course two decades.

Ignis let out in a rush before his wayward charge could call an elevator without him, “We’ll schedule something for certain when I return—you have my word.”

“I’m holding you to that,” he heard Uncle Caeli call out softly as he strode to catch up with Noct.

He managed to step into the elevator just before the doors shut behind him without appearing too rushed, but Noct flashed him a rueful smirk at failing to leave him behind and make him wait for another lift.

“You’re gonna have to pick up the pace if you wanna keep up with me out there,” Noct teased.

Ignis lifted his chin and reached beneath the edge of his blazer sleeve to adjust his left cuff. “I believe I’m equal to the task. I’m here, am I not?”

“Barely.”

When the door slid open again, the two of them moved simultaneously to step off the lift, but a pair of Crownsguard seeking to enter before checking to ensure that it was empty impeded their way.

“Oh, good afternoon, Your Highness,” the first guard said, stepping off to the side to allow them to pass and dipping his head in a bow as his partner mimicked the gesture.

“Afternoon,” Noct mumbled, looking away. He waited until they had walked several feet down the long hallway lined with dark, closed doors before he added in a lower voice, “I can’t stand that.”

“Being greeted?” he asked amusedly, but half his attention had zeroed in on the sound of thudding boots on carpet headed quickly in their direction from up ahead.

Noct shook his head, seemingly oblivious to the sound. “Not that. All the formality, bowing their heads all the time . . ..”

He was unable to complete his thought. Just as they turned the corner, two Kingsglaive—judging by the thigh-length, high-collared, silver-detailed military coat of the man and the form-fitting body suit and jacket of the woman—nearly collided with them as they headed in the opposite direction. The man’s shoulder clipped his own as he passed, jerking his body roughly in their direction.

“Pardon me,” Ignis said politely.

His tensed hands had relaxed at the sight of the uniforms, but he still eyed the dark-haired woman in particular, wondering why a mage would be posted for guard duty, of all things. Then again, with the King ordering the Glaive to the palace for the signing and the Crownsguard to assist the Crown City Police with crowd control, he supposed that no one was where they should be at a time like this.

“You okay?” the Glaive asked over his shoulder, not stopping to truly check, but the woman turned around, walking backward to meet their gaze.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” the mage added, her dark eyes still glittering with what appeared to be fading mirth.

“Eyes forward,” the Glaive barked softly, and she wiggled her brows at the two of them before spinning around to continue on her way.

For his part, Ignis could only flash Noct a wry smile. “It seems not everyone is capable of a proper greeting.” As he turned back for a final glance toward the retreating pair, he added by way of explanation, “Those are Kingsglaive uniforms . . ..”

Noct followed his gaze with interest before they disappeared around another corner. “Oh, yeah?”

He realized that if Noct was incapable of recognizing Glaive uniforms on sight, he likely hadn’t caught his implication, either. “They aren’t from the Crown City. Perhaps they don’t know who you are.”

Noct nodded to the door they had reached as he pulled out a small gold key and unlocked it. “No way they’d see me if they’re always hanging around the Citadel.”

Of course, had Noct truly spent much time here, he might have realized that the Glaive were never assigned to guard the Citadel, as that task had always been appointed to the Crownsguard. No, before the proposal of the peace treaty, the Glaive had always been on the front lines of the war with Niflheim, and their appearance here inside the Citadel just before the signing seemed a troubling show of bad faith, in Ignis’s opinion. But he chose to forgo a chastising remark on the Prince’s ignorance of basic government structure in favor of picking at the source of that ever-present sense of disquiet following him around today like a shadow.

“I imagine the Empire’s terms leave them with mixed feelings.”

Noct paused in front of the unlocked door for a moment, his brow furrowing. “Everything out there’ll belong to Niflheim, huh.”

“Precisely,” Ignis said with a nod and a touch of relief that their future king had ruminated on the broader implications of this treaty beyond his marriage to Lady Lunafreya. While nearly all of Lucis’s economic presence resided in the protected capital city of Insomnia, the kingdom spanned the entire continent. Hardly anyone knew of what business went on in the outlands beyond what little culture the immigrant Kingsglaive brought with them, as any immigration into the city for any purposes beyond military need had been banned over three decades ago. Ignis had heard brief mentions that outlanders were dissatisfied with Niflheim’s demand that Lucis cede all territories beyond Insomnia’s Wall to them, but as far as he could tell, no one had given the matter much attention or had even verified the sentiment beyond hearsay.

“Well, they live in Insomnia now, right?”

“Even so,” Ignis replied, stifling his disappointment, “their homes will cease to be a part of Lucis. The news must be shocking to say the least.”

“Yeah . . ., good point.” He opened the door and stepped inside the parlor, the boots of his hardly-worn Prince’s fatigues echoing off the parquet wooden floor and the walls of the mostly-empty space. He gestured to the high, arched doors along the far end of the wall that led to his childhood bedroom. “Anyway, just pack whatever you think I’ll need.”

Ignis released a weary sigh as he strode to the bedroom and pushed on the handle to open the door. “If you insist. But I expect you to sort through it later.”

Technically speaking, it wasn’t his responsibility to act as the Prince’s valet. His duties encompassed a variety of functions, all of which he’d been trained to perform perfectly from the age of three. Ignis was to see to the Prince’s grooming for his future role—his education, his nutrition, his finances, his household, and how he conducted himself as a member of the Royal Family. He was responsible for giving the Prince advice when he felt he needed it, and he was to serve as a tactician and strategist should the situation have need of one.

But Ignis had also given his word to King Regis at the age of six when he first began his assignment—that he would always, no matter what, care for his son. That promise had brought him no end of grief and confusion in the following years, and not only because his rigorous and extensive education and impeccable skills in several vital fields had been truncated as a result of keeping it. It seemed that keeping his word also required him to cook and clean up after the somewhat indolent adolescent.

And, it would seem, assist him in packing his suitcase.

“You know,” Noct said after a while, pausing in haphazardly dumping whatever lay within arm’s reach into his bulging bag as Ignis made an attempt to straighten things and take stock of what they still needed. “I think I spent more time sneaking out of this room than I actually spent in it.”

Ignis chuckled. “Indeed. And it wasn’t uncommon for me to go with you. Every excursion was more nerve-wracking than the last.”

“Y’know,” Noct smirked, giving him a good-natured shove, “I remember someone there, but he was always in a bad mood, trying to get me to read.” But the playful expression faded from his features as his voice grew softer, as though he were mostly speaking to himself. “It was cause I hated being stuck in here. I couldn’t get a moment alone.”

“Everyone was worried about you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Before you sustained that injury, you were a much livelier child,” he said carefully, hoping the Prince might open up some about the experience, but not daring to expect a true answer.

“I didn’t really talk much after it happened, huh?”

He certainly hadn’t. It was as though the vivacious child Ignis had helped the palace staff to raise over the last three and a half years had died, and instead, he had been charged with looking after a withdrawn and sullen—almost combative—youth. Every once in a while, Ignis thought he spotted glimpses of the boy that had once been so eager to please, eager to be loved. Those moments came few and far between, but they were enough to keep his faith despite never once being thanked for his monumental efforts.

“Even I was perplexed at your radical change.”

Noct’s sapphire eyes shot to his, widening in surprise. “Really?”

Ignis looked down at the lumpy bag lying defeated on the four-poster bed in front of them and began removing some of the spare shirts to roll so they would take up less space—though the action hardly mattered. They would likely be depending on the armiger to store their clothing once they were out on the road—if Noct could manage the rather tricky task of adjusting it to include such items.

“Indeed,” he replied in a gentle tone. “Which is why I had no choice but to accompany you whenever you left this room.” Despite the consequences to himself. But he cast the stray thought aside. “I always hoped these spontaneous ‘excursions’ would one day come to a peaceful end,” he continued in a more jovial tone, “yet my hopes were dashed.”

Noct had meandered over to the window bench, where Ignis used to read his astronomy book to him on nights he couldn’t sleep as they dreamed of one day seeing real stars. He looked out the window onto the sprawling expanse of the city below, lost in thought, but he let out a short laugh at Ignis’s words.

“Ha! I remember. You took the fall for everything.”

“I was reprimanded for ‘absconding’ with you away from the Citadel.”

Noct’s voice grew softer as Ignis wandered toward the far wall, his eyes roaming over the shelves for anything they might have missed in packing. “My bad. You were doing me a favor and got blamed for it anyway.”

“I was simply doing my job. I have no regrets on the matter—not even now. Hm? What’s this?”

A flash of icy blue had caught his eye amidst the chaos of Noct’s possessions, and he reached up to pluck the object carefully from the shelf without disturbing the rest of the mess. When he brought it in for closer inspection, he recognized the small wooden figurine as an ornament that King Regis had given the Prince as a child—a totem of one of the Messengers of the gods said to protect House Caelum since its founding.

“Carbuncle. I haven’t seen this in ages.”

Noct looked over from his seat by the window. “Let’s take it with us.”

“It’s an important keepsake, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Noct shrugged. “I figure it’ll at least keep us safe on the road.”

Ignis walked to the bed and tucked the figurine carefully between two of the t-shirts he’d just rolled. He knew well the value of talismans held up before a man as a vanguard against the darkness from his own secret experience. A pang of regret shot through him that his was too large to carry with him on their journey, but he dismissed the thought. It wasn’t as though he’d be leaving it behind for good, and he was bringing along evidence of his mother’s favor, at least—his own reminder of home.

“I wouldn’t take this little lucky charm so lightly. It brought you back from the brink of death, didn’t it?”

Noct may not have breathed a word to anyone about the specific events that had led to his nanny’s death and his extensive injury, but Ignis was one of two people on this planet Noct had told of his vision as he’d lain in a coma after the attempt on his life as a child. Even though they were alone at the moment, Ignis still noted that Noct’s eyes widened somewhat in alarm before he relaxed into nonchalance once more. “Maybe in my dreams, at least.”

His reluctance to speak of the Messenger leading him back to the land of the living was made clear as he turned toward the heavy wooden closet door, glanced inside, and changed the subject.

“What else do I need . . .,” he muttered to himself.

Ignis suppressed the snort of derision threatening to escape him. “A sword?” he suggested carefully.

“Good call.” He disappeared into the back of the small closet for several seconds, and Ignis winced at the sound of thudding, clanging, and shifting emanating from the open door until Noct finally emerged, the engine blade he’d received as a gift from his father gripped in his hand. It appeared to be in terrible condition. Rust had accumulated where the blade met the scabbard, and he was willing to wager that the edge was as dull as a butter knife. He made a mental note to add blade sharpening to his list as soon as he had the chance. His own could use a once-over at the same time.  

“I remember training with this.”

“There was hardly a moment of peace around here after you received it.”

“Yeah,” he said as he laid it on the bed next to his bag. A gentle laugh tumbled from his lips before he said, “But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the blade-warp down.”

“If you hadn’t sustained that injury from the attack, I imagine it might’ve been much easier for you. You did quite well for yourself regardless,” he said diplomatically.

Noct’s tone grew brittle. “I didn’t really have much of a choice.”

But Ignis wouldn’t stand for wallowing in self-pity as was often the Prince’s wont. Their fates had all been pre-determined, but that was no reason to languish in misery. Millions of lives depended on them to do whatever was required whenever the time came for the Chosen King to act, and they had to be prepared as best they could so that they could rise to whatever that occasion demanded.

“Certainly,” he agreed.

Noct’s scathing response was forestalled when a single, soft vibration sounded from Ignis’s left breast pocket. He made an apologetic gesture to Noct before reaching into his blazer and answering.

“Hello? This is Ignis.”

“It’s Caeli,” his uncle replied. “I’m calling from one of the desks downstairs, as an inductee managed to crush my phone yesterday with a stray practice staff. No matter. I was instructed to tell you that His Majesty will be unable to meet with the Prince today.”

“I see.”

“The aides have informed me that the baggage with all your dress uniforms are ready and waiting in the antechamber off the ballroom. I suggest you check to ensure everything is correct, and then meet me in the Hall of History again—alone. King Regis had a special request of you to personally carry out before you left for the day.”

“Understood,” he said firmly, though his mind was racing with curiosity. “I’ll be right there.”

As he ended the call and replaced his phone, Ignis said to Noct, “I’ve just been informed that His Majesty is too busy to meet with us today.”

Noct’s eyes dropped to the floor at his feet as though contemplating the complexity of his artfully mismatched boots. “Huh.”

The Prince clearly felt more than he was vocalizing at his father’s rebuff, but there wasn’t the time for gentle reassurance today. “I’m going to check on the baggage for the ceremony. Please sort through your belongings in the meantime.”

“Got it.”

Ignis turned and swiftly strode out of the room, leaving Noct standing motionless in front of his overfull bag.

***

Once Ignis had ensured that the Royal Raiment and their formal Kingsglaive uniforms for the wedding were complete and properly packed, he proceeded directly to the Hall of History to meet his uncle. His dark blonde hair was easy to spot over the lines of people passing one another on the polished stone paths between the Zen gardens lining the room. He was standing in the alcove leading to the audience chamber, fixing Ignis with a steady, serious expression. To Ignis’s surprise, he leaned in to grasp the door’s handle as Ignis drew closer.

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

Ignis bowed his head slightly, concealing his shock and curiosity at the turn of events as he breezed through the open door. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said in a low voice.

Modulating his steps so that they wouldn’t echo in the vast throne room, he came to a stop about halfway inside the darkened room, along the wall and near one of Crownsguard on duty. They met each other’s eyes briefly, and Ignis nodded in greeting. He believed the man’s name was Iulius, but he couldn’t be certain, as Ignis’s presence with the Crownsguard had always had to come second to his primary function as Noct’s senior advisor. His induction into the group of elite agents had been voluntary on his behalf—what he considered a necessary measure for properly doing his job.

He looked up to the throne, squinting into the thick shafts of afternoon light streaming in from the towering windows on either side of the throne to illuminate the far end of the long room. At the apex of the split, curving staircase sat King Regis, staring down at a man and a girl standing on the landing of the stairs below him. The man, at least, Ignis knew well—Cor Leonis, Marshal of the Crownsguard. Ignis frequently sparred with him and found him to be a formidable foe, impossible to touch. Even Gladio, recently named the future King’s Shield and admittedly more skilled in combat than Ignis himself, had never managed to best him in mock battle.

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

Ignis’s eyes shifted over to “Laura” in surprise. He couldn’t see much from his position, but he guessed her to be somewhere between the ages of sixteen to twenty-four, judging by the outline of her face. Had this girl been the cause of such a stir among the command structure of both the Glaive and Guard this afternoon? Certainly, there had to be more to the story, as he doubted the King would be assigning her to missions had she been a mere intruder. The infiltration must have been a premeditated operation orchestrated by His Majesty beforehand to test both the Crownsguard and the girl, with the girl emerging the victor, clearly.

The hood on her dark blue velvet cloak was pulled down to reveal her long hair, so black that it was nearly blue. The silhouette of her full gown made her appear more at home here in the throne room than in a combat situation, and he wondered how she had managed to sneak past the palace’s considerable security wearing such a garment.

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

“Here. I would like to watch personally.”

While Ignis was mostly successful in maintaining a neutral expression, a single eyebrow twitched up involuntarily before he smoothed his features once more. He himself had never been asked to display his weapons prowess in front of the King in such a manner, and no one he had heard of had been tested in the throne room in front of an entire shift of Crownsguard. Circumstances of late were hardly routine, but for what assignment could the King possibly be considering this girl that such a drastic measure was necessary? He had to admit that he was curious as to why the King should decline an audience with his son the day before he left and then wish Ignis to witness this.

After retrieving his notebook and fountain pen from his jacket pocket, he turned to the first page and readied himself to take notes should they be necessary.

As Cor and the girl moved to the main floor so they would have more room, Ignis was able to see her face more clearly. She was obviously high nobility with that coloring; her thick black lashes rimmed almond-shaped eyes that glowed bright blue against her fair skin. To Ignis, she appeared as though she could be Noct’s sister. But she was also pale and wide-eyed. She even looked as though she were shaking a little. Was she ill? Perhaps she was nervous regarding her upcoming trial. Ignis had to admit that he would be if he were in her position.

He ran his eyes up her form—shrewdly assessing her as an opponent. She was slightly tall for a woman, but small and lithe. No doubt she would be quick with a blade if she had the skill. Even if there was no hope of beating her opponent, it was possible she would make a good showing—perhaps even wearing that gown that was so inappropriate for combat.

The girl shed her cloak and placed it neatly on the newel post of the stairs that led from the throne. It seemed that along with the additional bulk of the long swathe of blue velvet, she had also relinquished what little imposing regality she had in her bearing. Though her midnight blue gown was obviously of the finest make of embroidered silk, her body appeared even smaller and more vulnerable without the rest of her ensemble.

The Marshal had summoned his katana while he waited for her to quickly pull her hair into a thick plait, and again, Ignis worked to conceal his shock at the weapon he’d pulled. Skilled though Ignis was in bladework, he’d only just begun sparring with partners using live blades. To use a battle-ready weapon in a friendly spar was often unnecessary and highly dangerous—a technique to be showcased by only the finest blademasters, or at the very least, implemented with extreme caution by an expert.

Her braiding complete, the girl turned to face the Marshal, her stance signaling that she was ready for an attack, but Ignis could see no weapons in her hands or on her person. He allowed himself a small, secret smile. This girl was sneaky. She must have the ability to summon and was waiting for the last moment to bring her weapon into existence so the Marshal couldn’t gain information about her fighting style from her choice of blade.

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

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

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

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

At this point, her onslaught became swift and vicious, but still, she didn’t seem eager to end the contest. Despite watching her touch the Marshal five more times, Ignis knew from observing her defensive measures that she could move faster than she was and could end this on her whim. Was she toying with him?

The Marshal appeared to be tiring, his blocks growing slower as she continued to make strike after strike, stepping forward as he began to give ground. Sensing his weakness, the girl leapt at him, batting his sword to the side with her left blade.

Though Ignis felt the buzz of a text alert in his left breast pocket, he ignored it in favor of keeping every iota of his attention on the conclusion of this display, his breath catching ever so slightly as the Marshal crashed to the floor on his back. They skidded several inches across the smooth floor until the pair came to rest with her perched over him, his right arm trapped beneath her left falchion, his left trapped beneath her knee, and her right falchion at his throat. The fabric of her ornate gown pooled over the Marshal’s legs and on the floor around them like a puddle of water.

The vast hall, so prone to echoing at even the slightest of movements, had gone utterly still and silent for several moments—each of the twelve members of the Crownsguard shift and the King himself stunned—and Ignis wondered who would be the first to break the spell that seemed to hold the room captive.

“Sorry,” the girl murmured almost subserviently.

The Marshal let out a sudden bark of laughter that caused at least three of the Guard to flinch at the unexpected sound. “Don’t be.” He continued to chuckle as she moved off him. “It’s good to be defeated every now and then. Reminds me never to grow complacent.”

The air shrieked again in a flash of silver light as she placed her blades back into thin air, and Ignis’s attention remained on the spot where they had disappeared for several seconds. Her action didn’t appear to be standard of the Crystal magic every Glaive and Guard used to store their weapons in a personal armiger. But all magic on the planet, so far as Ignis knew, was bequeathed to the people from the Crystal via the King. If hers didn’t originate from that source, then where did it come from?

The girl offered a hand to help the Marshal up, and as he straightened to his full height, he gazed imperiously around the throne room at the Crownsguard, who stood open-mouthed at their posts at regular intervals toward the visitor’s door.

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

“Marshal,” he replied, bowing slightly before realizing he had not yet greeted His Majesty. He placed his pen and notebook in his blazer pocket and walked straight-backed to the stairs. The girl was still breathing heavily against her corset when he stopped by her side, but he didn’t spare her a second glance as he crossed his right arm over his chest and bowed deeply.

“Your Majesty.”

As he slowly raised his eyes and straightened from his bow, Ignis immediately noted that King Regis’s demeanor had completely transformed from the exhausted, distracted man Ignis had occasionally observed and the staff had constantly described since the proposal for the treaty had unexpectedly been brought forth by none other than Imperial Chancellor Izunia himself. Though he still appeared overworked to Ignis’s eyes, King Regis smiled easily down at him. He sincerely hoped that meant the King had made progress with the treaty negotiations this afternoon.

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

Another buzz vibrated in his pocket, but he again ignored it. “Of course, Your Majesty. I shall have him ready as early as is possible for His Highness.”

It was likely that Ignis would have to drag the Prince out of bed and toss him bodily into the car, as early as they were expected to leave tomorrow. He sighed inwardly. It was going to be yet another sleepless night.

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

Ignis suppressed the desire to let his mouth drop open as he stared up at his liege. His Majesty had been testing her for their journey? Did he really believe they would need that much combat expertise to attend the Prince’s wedding, even located as it was in Niflheim-occupied territory? Gladio was already coming with them, and Ignis himself was more than proficient with his daggers. The treaty was to be signed in a matter of days, so who was the King expecting them to meet?

Still, it wasn’t his place to question His Majesty’s orders. The King’s word was the word of the gods in the Crown City.

Ignis turned to the girl, bowing slightly. “Ignis Scientia, at your service. It is an honor and a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.” Now that he could see her face more clearly, he thought there was something familiar about her eyes. Frustrated that he couldn’t place where he knew her from, he added, “Forgive me; do you know where I might recognize you from? You appear familiar, but I’m afraid I can’t quite place from where.”

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

He didn’t specifically recall seeing her among the rows of books, but he supposed it was possible that his subconscious mind had recalled what his conscious recollection had not. “That’s a possibility. I’ve been in the stacks for long stretches recently, researching the areas we’re to be traveling through for our journey,” he replied smoothly.

And he hadn’t slept a full night through in weeks. He desperately hoped that the temporary relinquishment of his clerical duties in the Citadel would allow him more time to sleep on the road, as he wasn’t certain how many more cans of Ebony his body would allow before committing mutiny.

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

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

There was still so much to accomplish by tomorrow morning—even more now than there had been several minutes ago. He still needed to pick up the Regalia from the royal garage, exchange enough crowns into gil that they might spend the night in Galdin before setting sail, and assist Noct with packing up his apartment—and those were just the tasks he needed to complete within the next few hours. He still needed to put the finishing touches on his own packing, and if he was fortunate, flatter his neighbor into looking after the plant he kept on his windowsill. It was bad luck his apartment wasn’t Noct’s. Their cleaning party this evening would have gone much more efficiently had they been required to pack up Ignis’s spartan domicile instead.

He would have to move quickly if he was to accomplish everything necessary before they left, and he had a feeling that the two texts he received were merely going to add to his list of things to do.

When he pulled out his phone just outside the throne room, Ignis saw that he’d received a text message from Captain Drautos, informing him that a Glaive by the name of Nyx Ulric would have a car waiting out front to take the Prince home to his apartment. The second text was from Gladio, informing him that he’d been required to meet with his family for a special parting supper and that he may be late to Noct’s apartment-cleaning party that evening. The confirmation from Gladio’s father, the King’s Shield and Prime Minister, that the Crownsguard had indeed been taken off duty in the Citadel in favor of the Kingsglaive and placed on external patrol for the signing troubled Ignis, but at this point, so much had been troublesome of this entire affair that he found himself wishing this journey were already over if only it meant the treaty were signed and peace could truly be declared.

Ignis let out a sigh and called Noct as he made his way to the elevator that would take him to his office several floors below. The very first thing he had to do was make a list of everything that needed to be taken care of with a fifth member in their party now accompanying them.

“Hello?” Noct answered.

“Just me. Have you finished packing?”

“Yep.”

“Then please be on your way home. I’m running a little late.”

There was a pause at the end of the line before Noct said, “No problem. Did something happen?”

“Nothing serious,” Ignis answered, figuring he could tell the Prince the news of their newest retinue member this evening. “There’s simply more to do than I anticipated. It’s just a matter of time until I can wrap things up here.”

“All right,” Noct said morosely, and Ignis felt a pang of sympathy that he was likely still disappointed in his father’s behavior today, but still—there wasn’t the time to address the matter thoroughly.

“Captain Drautos said there should be a car waiting for you outside.”

“Got it.”

Guessing Noct’s reaction before the words had even left his lips, he said, “Gladio will be late as well. It might be a good idea to start cleaning before we arrive.”

“Right . . ..”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can to assist.”

***

Ignis pressed the call button to the lift and fought the urge to lean against the wall and close his eyes. He was running later than he’d planned. Astrals, he despised running late. As it was, he’d left several errands off his to-do list just to make it to Noct’s apartment as early as he had. But it seemed that no matter how many tasks he accomplished, dropped, or rescheduled, another three would insert themselves onto his lists. It was his responsibility to ensure that everything involving the Prince’s end of this bargain between two warring countries went smoothly—for the future of Lucis. Should anything go wrong . . . well, he couldn’t afford to think of such things. He would just have to accomplish the impossible.

“Hey Ignis!”

Recognizing the bubbling, enthusiastic voice, Ignis turned in the direction of the call. A flash of swooped blonde hair streaked toward him and halted awkwardly just inside Ignis’s personal space. He took a single step back so that he could greet his acquaintance properly.

“Prompto.”

“Did you just get here?”

The lift door opened, and the two of them stepped inside. “Indeed. Were you able to see your parents?”

“Nah,” Prompto said with a casual shrug that didn’t fool Ignis for a second, “they weren’t home.”

“That’s unfortunate,” he said gently.

Prompto gave another half-shrug as he shifted from foot to foot, inspecting the display that announced the number of each floor as they ascended. “No biggie. I’m used to it.”

Ignis knew from watching Noct that the son of constantly busy parents never truly grew accustomed to being disappointed. Though Ignis hadn’t initially approved of Prompto’s influence in Noct’s life—he encouraged the boy to neglect his duties far more than Noct was already inclined to do—Ignis had a feeling that perhaps their shared experience with absent parents was what had initially brought them together five years ago.

“By the way, Gladio packed a ton of stuff for the road,” Prompto said.

“The camping equipment?”

“Well, he had a bunch of stuff out, and when I asked what he needed it for, he said ‘cooking.’”

Ignis looked away and let out a breath through his nose. He wasn’t certain how it had happened. He’d only picked up the skill because he’d wanted to make Noct smile again after his injury, but it had somehow morphed into a lifelong responsibility of keeping him fed and well-nourished. The truth was that Ignis held no great love for cooking, contrary to his reputation. It was simply another means by which even duty-oriented men like Gladio could tease him, thereby lessening the value of his other considerable talents by comparison. Ignis wasn’t known about the Crown City as a blade expert or a skilled strategist with an eidetic memory. He was the cold, robotic shadow of the Prince who wore glasses and cooked.

It hardly mattered. Ignis had spent his entire life ignoring gossip and rumors of all sorts flitting around the Citadel in favor of concentrating on his own performance, but it was more than wearisome when even close acquaintances behaved as though the rumors were true.

“I suppose he intends for me to use them,” he breathed out heavily.

“Do you cook a lot, Ignis?”

He frowned, not knowing how to respond. A normal amount, perhaps? Didn’t everyone cook for themselves at least once or twice a day? “I wouldn’t say ‘a lot.’”

“Y’know, Noct let me have a bite of his dinner once. Oh, and one of those pastry things you’re always making.”

He didn’t wish to rise to the bait Prompto had laid out for him, but he couldn’t help himself. Despite his reputation for being a chef, Ignis had only cooked for himself and Noct, and Noct had never been particularly forthcoming with praise—only complaints regarding his gratuitous use of vegetables.

“And?”

The elevator rang its arrival as though to punctuate Prompto’s exclamation. “It was amazing!”

“Is that so?” he said, raising an eyebrow, but he was secretly pleased someone else thought so, even if the occasional experience eating out with the two of them had proven that Prompto never complained about food of any sort.

Prompto nearly tripped over the lip of the elevator door in his haste to exit, but he managed to right himself with minimal flailing and looked up at Ignis with a bright smile. “Yeah! I was hopin’ that’s what it’d be like at camp, but you usually cook in a real kitchen, right? I can’t imagine what it’s gonna be like on the road.”

As he led them down the hall toward Noct’s apartment, Ignis was about to reply that he didn’t anticipate having any troubles should the need even arise, but Prompto didn’t pause long enough for him to respond. “So I asked Noct, and he said there was nothin’ to worry about. Now I can’t wait to have more of your meals, Iggy!”

He chuckled softly, pleased despite being drafted for the task to see Prompto’s appreciation shining in his cerulean eyes. “Well, I certainly don’t want to disappoint. I might as well ask your preferences.”

Prompto twisted his mouth in thought. “Well, I like sweets, but real food’s good, too. Spicy food and . . . well, I’ll eat anything, really. Even weird stuff.”

“Understood. I was hoping to experiment with local ingredients if we get the opportunity to camp, so I’m glad you can keep an open mind.”

As Ignis pressed the button on the intercom to alert Noct to their arrival, Prompto took three hopping steps toward the apartment door, grinning madly. “No problem at all!”

“Be right there,” came Noct’s bleary mumble from the speaker. If Ignis guessed correctly, Noct hadn’t spent the last several hours cleaning but had likely just been awoken from another of his languorous cat naps.

It appeared that a very long night lay ahead of them.

Chapter Text

Noct flopped onto the couch, wiping the sheen of sweat from underneath his black bangs and wiggling a little as the dark cushion sank under his weight until it threatened to swallow him whole.

He’d miss this couch. The massive sectional was perfect for getting together with Prompto (and sort of Ignis), pulling the TV out of his room, and just kicking back with a good game for a few hours. The problem was that “couches” didn’t exist in the Citadel. They were all “sofas” or “settees,” the kind with carved wooden arms he couldn’t lean against or fancy fabric he wasn’t allowed to put his feet up on. He guessed settees were all he had to look forward to when he got back from this trip—one last hurrah before his preordained life started kicking in.

“Takin’ a break already?” Gladio’s complaint cut through Noct’s sigh, and Noct flicked his eyes over to where Gladio was taping a box shut. With a low grunt, he heaved the heavy load into his arms and hauled it to the stack by the front door. “We just started back up again.”

Noct was shaking his head vigorously to get Gladio to keep his voice down, but it was too late. Ignis’s head whipped up from where he was leaning over the kitchen counter, poring over some packing lists or important papers or something like he always seemed to be.

“I certainly hope not,” he replied with a frown and a stern glare in Noct’s direction. “There are more tasks to complete than we have hours left before we leave.”

“What, you didn’t schedule everything out to the minute two months in advance?” Noct retorted, smirking in his direction. It was kind of a low blow, since he knew the last-minute nature of the treaty and the wedding announcement was probably driving perfectly-organized Ignis Scientia up a wall, but what could he say? Noct didn’t really want any part of this except for the road trip, and he was tired of being dragged around the city and made to pack and clean.

Ignis opened his mouth to speak before closing it again. He hesitated for a second before replying, “Apologies for the tight schedule, Highness. As I said before, there’s simply more to do than I anticipated.”

A touch of guilt, but mostly disappointment flooded through him at Ignis’s formal response. Hadn’t he just said this afternoon that he hated it when people were formal with him? He would’ve thought that after all these years together, Ignis would’ve gotten the hint and lightened up a little. He paid such close attention to everything else.

Noct always got the sense that Ignis originally wanted to say something else when he hesitated like that, like maybe he was trying to bite back some sarcastic or witty comeback only Specs could think of. He wished that were the case. It’d be nice to see him let loose a little more often than a remark here and there—prove there was a human being under that stiffness and constant adherence to protocol, but he never seemed to lose that stuffy stoicism and relax or smile. He wasn’t like Gladio, who was usually a hardass but at least knew how to kick back now and then.

Ignis was always so damn perfect—amazing at everything and always getting on Noct’s ass to be as good as he was at everything. But he just didn’t get that Prince or not, Noct was just a regular guy, and he wished Ignis would just stop trying to make him into something he wasn’t. Every time he failed at what was expected of him, Ignis would be in a bad mood, and Noct had always hated that veil of disappointment that closed over his eyes whenever he inevitably didn’t live up to the Lucis Caelum hype. They’d both be happier if Ignis just left him in peace.

Noct shrugged. “Whatever. Makes no difference to me if stuff gets done.” He didn’t see why Ignis was always freaking out everything. It wasn’t like someone else couldn’t take care of what they left behind anyway. If he loved cleaning so much, why didn’t he take care of all this himself when he got back?

Ignis had opened his mouth and taken a deep breath, probably to inform him of the hundred and seventeen reasons why this had to be done tonight, but Noct jumped in to change the subject and escape the lecture.

“Hey, where’d you go this afternoon, anyway? There were all these weird rumors about Dad flying around the Citadel when I walked out to the car. The city’s going nuts.”

Ignis had turned away so he could stand on his tip toes and reach to the very back of the highest cabinet shelf. At Noct’s question, he pulled back with a stack of plates in one hand and frowned at him.

“I was called into the throne room for an audience with His Majesty. What are they saying about him?”

Hot, bitter jealousy flooded Noct’s chest at Ignis’s admission. He and Specs had been raised together as children, as brothers, and Noct had always gotten the sense that his dad would’ve preferred to have perfect Ignis as a son over the disaster he’d gotten instead. This was the kinda thing that proved it. How long had he waited around the Citadel for his dad to deign to speak with him? They’d barely talked at all since the terms of the treaty had been set. Really, they’d hardly spoken since their disastrous trip to Tenebrae. He’d always received reports on Noct’s progress directly from Ignis. And now he was too busy to see Noct but had enough time to secretly call for Ignis instead?

But it was easier to pretend that he didn’t care about these things, so he faked a light tone and said, “Oh yeah? How’d it go? I guess with the timing, you were there to see it yourself.”

His frown deepened as he set the plates on the counter next to the sink. Without looking up from carefully wrapping each dish in newspaper and placing them neatly in a box, he said, “The visit was most . . . intriguing, but to what rumors are you referring?”

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

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

“Uh . . .,” Prompto stuttered, looking over to Noct with a ‘help me’ expression.

Even though Prompto and Noct had been best friends for years now, Prompto hadn’t really spent much time with the other two and therefore didn’t know that the best way to handle Ignis’s weird version of teasing was to ignore it.

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

It didn’t really matter to him if his dad dated, even if the thought of it was a little weird. His mom had been dead for so long he didn’t even remember her, and he was old enough now that it wasn’t like any woman would be his new mom or anything. But it’d sure as hell be gross to have a stepmother his own age, or even younger, if the rumors were true.

Ignis let out a dramatic sigh and hung his head. “Freedom of the press, honestly. Our lives would be so much simpler if we exercised a little less freedom if you ask me,” he grumbled under his breath before looking up to Noct. “No. Honestly, you know by now not to trust those sites, particularly when the news is so sensational.”

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

“I can vouch for the intruder part. Made my old man late for a meeting with me,” Gladio added. “Had everyone in the Citadel freaking out.”

“The Crownsguard themselves are confirming that Laura is the King’s paramour? That seems unlikely. Infiltration and sparring do not imply relations,” Ignis said doubtfully.

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

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

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

Noct was relieved to hear that the intruder this afternoon hadn’t been a more serious problem with his dad as stretched thin as he was. He’d recently learned for himself in the past year just how taxing it was to make and maintain Crystal servants. Gladio and Prompto could do little more than summon, and Specs could only manage a couple odd spells here and there because Noct wasn’t as good at binding people to the Crystal as his dad, who supported an entire army of warping spellcasters. He felt the bond sapping him of energy every time any of the four of them used magic—especially now that they’d trained a couple of times as a group in preparation for the trip. He didn’t know if it was because he was defective or because of his injury as a kid, but he just didn’t think he would ever be as good as his dad at using the Caelum powers in general. Gods help him if the time came for him to support the Wall or the entire Kingsglaive with his life force, but then that would mean that his dad . . ..

His dad was one of the two reasons he was going through with this whole marriage thing. With the war over, at least he’d be safe.

But Noct had known for a while now that the intruder had been a false alarm. And the story of how Cor was finally handed his own ass on a platter for once was pretty cool and all, but those weren’t the parts he really wanted to hear about most.

“And did she and my dad hold hands afterward? Cause that would imply ‘relations.’”

Ignis’s eyebrows twitched up a little, his lips parting in surprise. “I . . . I cannot say for absolute certain; I left just after the match was over. However, I have good reason to have my doubts as to the claim.”

If Ignis had doubts about anything, it was worth paying attention to. Noct never could figure out how he did it, and he sure as hell would never admit it, but Specs was right about everything. It was actually kinda annoying.

“Oh yeah, and what reason’s that?”

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

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

“What?!” Gladio and Noct exclaimed together.

It was worse than he’d thought. He’d been looking forward to leaving Insomnia for the second time in his life—not because he had any particular desire to travel or anything, but because for the first time in his life, he’d be able to shake free of the Crown weighing him down. Those Kingsglaive not recognizing him this afternoon had filled him with hope that he could be himself for a while without everyone looking to him as the Chosen King. He’d had enough of people hovering over him all the time, getting on his ass to be more than what he really was. His entire life had never been his own, and he’d never really been alone, even after he’d moved out of the Citadel and went to public school. It was bad enough having to take two bodyguards with him, even if Specs and Gladio were all right, but to drag a third along? A representative of his dad to babysit him? No way.

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

Ignis raised his voice ever so slightly so he could be heard over Gladio’s answering guffaw. “As I said, I highly doubt it. Please, all of you get back to work, else we shall never finish.” He gave an indignant sniff before turning back to the cabinet to pull out another stack of dishes.

“Aww, man!” Prompto whined.

“Uptight, overbearing pain in the ass,” Noct grumbled as he and Prompto reluctantly staggered off the couch and started removing books from the shelves. He still didn’t see why they had to work all night just because Specs had to have everything perfect before they left. Even if he didn’t feel like doing it himself while Noct was off with Luna, it wasn’t like they were never coming back. Couldn’t they do this later?

“Weird shit going on around here lately,” Gladio said, moving to the kitchen to help Ignis. “You know even Cor’s gonna be on external patrol for the signing?”

“I’d heard about the Crownsguard from several sources, but not the Marshal himself,” Ignis replied in a troubled tone. “That leaves the Citadel and the King almost exclusively to the Kingsglaive.”

“Yeah, that was my thought too. I don’t like it. No one knows how to protect the King better than the Guard. Dad was acting all weird about it, too. Talking about how the Shield’s and the Crownsguard’s duties were to center around the people now or something. I dunno.”

“And Noct?” Ignis asked.

“Naw, he made it clear my job hasn’t changed. Just his.”

“How strange.”

“Yeah, and now this new girl outta the blue. Did he say why we had to take her? It’s gonna be a cramped ride with five of us in the Regalia,” Gladio asked.

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

“Huh. Gonna need to pick up some more gear then. Maybe even a bigger tent. You got time to stop by Overcome tonight?”

“They’ve long closed for the evening. Believe me, I spent more than enough time this afternoon thinking out the implications of adding another member to our retinue, from decreased fuel efficiency on the drive to Galdin to an additional security clearance for the ceremony itself.”

“Sounds like Dad just turned your world upside down, huh Specs?” Noct chuckled. At least he wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to lug someone else along.

“Hope she’s got more than ball gowns to wear, otherwise it’s gonna be a rough trip,” Gladio said.

“We don’t even know if we’re gonna be able to camp, though,” Prompto pointed out as he tossed another handful of books into the box on the coffee table. “If we can get there in time for tomorrow’s ferry, we’ll be in Altissia by the next day.”

“Prompto has a point, though I intended for us to stay the night in Galdin before we set sail—as a celebration, of sorts.”

Noct’s ears perked up a little at the news. He’d been hoping to drag his feet a little—they had three weeks before the wedding, after all—but he hadn’t expected Ignis to add some fun to the itinerary.

“Really?”

“Of course. It’s not every day our Prince is to be married, after all,” he said with a smile. “But let us bring what we have, and I’m certain she’ll bring her own equipment with her once the King brings her up to speed on the plan. She seemed to be the capable sort.”

“High praise comin’ from you. Plus, we can get more equipment outside the city if we need it,” Gladio said hopefully.

Ignis pursed his lips, but didn’t explain the reason for his expression. Once he’d taped his box up and pulled out a marker to label the lid, he let out a small sigh.

“That’s the kitchen sorted. Gladio, Prompto informed me that you had intended for me to use your new cooking utensils. Do you have a list of what you brought so I may know what to supplement?”

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

Noct shot him a disbelieving smile and shook his head. “All Coleman products, I bet. You’ve only been camping once. Why’d you get all that stuff?”

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

It sounded like both Gladio and Ignis were interested in stretching the trip out a little before they had to be in Altissia, which was good news for him. Noct wouldn’t mind trying to camp, maybe. He wasn’t so sure how much he’d like sleeping on the hard ground, though. And even though the havens were supposed to be safe, the idea of being out there in the middle of nowhere surrounded by daemons and animals . . . well, they’d just have to see.

“I dunno. We’ll see how it is once we get out there. Maybe we’ll extend the trip and get there the day before the ceremony if it’s not so bad,” Noct said.

“I’d like to leave a little more cushion than that,” Ignis protested.

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

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

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

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

“Finally!” Prompto sighed as he collapsed back down on the couch. “I never realized how big this place is.”

Noct tossed the rest of the books in his box and leapt onto the other section, leaning his head into the armrest.

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

Which was the very thing he hadn’t wanted to be reminded of. He blankly stared up at the white ceiling, breathing through the heavy weight of the future threatening to drown him as thoughts of Luna and his dad and Lucis swirled through his head. But he blinked the thoughts away and looked over when Ignis turned toward him. “Please be mindful of the fact that you won’t be alone when you get back.”

“It hasn’t hit me at all. I’m sure it’ll all work out, though,” Noct said, shrugging a shoulder. In a quieter voice laced with the hope he hadn’t meant to express aloud, he added, “Think Luna will really come to Insomnia?”

Luna was an amazing girl—probably his closest friend in the world, but he still couldn’t see himself married to her any more than he saw himself becoming King. Even imagining himself married was a weird thought. But Luna was another reason why he was going through with this whole treaty thing without much fuss.

The last time Noct had seen Luna in person, he’d been eight years old, staying in Tenebrae so Luna’s mom could heal him after the incident with the marilith. He remembered spending a serene couple of weeks in that quiet, colorful place after he’d been healed—with Luna as his guide to the rolling hills of sylleblossoms and rocky views that stretched on forever. He remembered the last day he’d been there—towering arches of bone-white trees, gushing waterfalls, and his dad and Luna’s mom standing around for some kinda ceremony. But then it had all gone wrong. The roaring wind of Magitek engines coming in for a landing. The flashing steel of Nif soldiers. Fire. Swords. Blood.

He’d sat helpless and terrified in his wheelchair, watching Luna’s mom fall to her knees clutching at the blade impaling her abdomen, before his dad had lifted him from his chair, grabbed Luna, and ran for it. He could still hear Luna’s brother crying out for help over the roaring flames and screaming servants. He recalled with perfect clarity the sight of Luna’s wide, terrified eyes as she looked back toward her brother—then let go of his dad’s hand and allowed herself to be swallowed whole by the Nifs who’d only had eyes for their Lucian targets.

They’d never talked about why she’d chosen to stay behind that day—he’d definitely never asked—but she’d lived in Niflheim-controlled territory ever since. She never said a word about it, but sometimes he wondered if it was a hard life for her to live under the control of her mom’s murderers. It was surprising to think that they’d allow her to come back with him after this. She’d still have to roam the world doing her Oracle duties, but marrying her was his way of making up for them not saving her all those years ago—as much as anyone could pay someone back for that level of failure.

Marrying her meant she’d finally be safe.

“The realization has yet to sink in, I see,” Ignis chuckled.

Gladio let out a disbelieving snort. “You haven’t thought about it, have you?”

Six, why did they always feel the need to tease him about this?

“Give me a little more credit than that.” Allowing a hint of that familiar bitterness to seep into his tone, he said, “Still, thinking about it’s not gonna change much, is it?”

Apparently, his entire life had been decided since the day he was born, or whenever it was he’d been picked to be the Chosen. He may have come up with reasons for going along with everything, and good ones too, but in the long run, he’d learned long ago there was no point trying to change things or worry about it. Stuff was gonna happen whether he liked it or not.

Gladio conceded his point with a sympathetic nod. “I get ya.”

“Not easy being the prince, huh?” Prompto said.

“First things first: completing our journey,” Ignis said cheerfully, and Noct smiled a little to himself. They all could be annoying, even Prompto sometimes, but they were good for distracting him whenever he got down.

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

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

“There’re all kinds of wild animals on the outside, right? Think they’ll just walk on up to us?” Prompto asked.

Noct shook his head and smiled. Prompto had always had this obsession with animals . . . but still, it’d be pretty cool to see some real live ones roaming around out in the wild. Maybe Ignis would even loosen up enough to let them do a hunt or two. He’d always wanted to try using all the pointless battle skills they’d acquired on something real.

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

Prompto’s face twisted doubtfully. “I had a look at some maps. But even if you ask around, nobody really knows anything.”

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

Noct yawned and stopped listening to the conversation, allowing the images his imagination was feeding him to pull him into his dreams.

Sprawling landscapes . . . he’d be happy just to get out of this city and maybe see the open sky above his head for once.

Chapter Text

“How could I forget the bespectacled gentleman with the bespoke wardrobe? Chef Ignis!” Prompto exclaimed.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re the best friend and gunner, Gladio is the Shield and swordsman, and Ignis is the chef? You’re traveling with your own personal chef?”

Ignis silently clenched his teeth together in an effort to maintain his placid, pleasant expression. From his experience, it would do him no good to redress the misinformation. How uncouth would it appear to correct Prompto’s generalization and instead describe his lifetime of study and dedication to a wide range of subjects that not only spoke to his personal interests but also to his demanding role? There was no way to salvage her first impression without appearing a braggart, and history had taught him that she would likely formulate her own opinions no matter what he said.

Still, his eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror, where he could see her sharp gaze assessing him carefully from the middle of the back seat. He pretended to look around her so that it appeared his goal had been to check the road behind them before returning his eyes to the road ahead. A quick glance to the temperature gauge, however, had him easing his foot off the gas pedal in concern. The Regalia, while one of the fine vehicles to be made in Insomnia, was quite old, and the fact that the engine temperature had only steadily climbed after allowing Noct and Prompto to open her up a little hadn’t gone unnoticed since Ignis had returned to the driver’s seat.

Even with their enthusiasm for the gas pedal, they hadn’t made it quite as far as Ignis would have liked. They’d been delayed at the Citadel as they said farewell to King Regis and were introduced to Laura in an official capacity. Traffic in the Crown City had been monstrous until they’d reached the outskirts of Insomnia. After an hour of driving beyond the Wall for the first time, they had yet to reach the first point of civilization.

“Oh, yeah!” Prompto agreed. “I mean, I’ve only had a couple of things he’s made, but what I’ve had’s been incredible! Right Noct?”

“Yeah,” Noct mumbled from the seat behind Ignis. “Guy can do things with an alstroom you wouldn’t believe.”

“Any creativity I’ve gained stems only from necessity, as His Highness refuses to eat healthily unless it appears on pizza,” Ignis answered.

“So you made an . . . alstroom pizza? What is an alstroom, exactly?” Laura asked.

Ignis counted out fifteen seconds of absolute silence in the car, with nothing but the wind from the lowered top blowing over his ears, before he realized that no one was going to respond to her odd question this time. He was about to patiently answer her when the Regalia’s motor seemed to choke on her own breath before giving a spluttering exhale.

“This doesn’t bode well,” Ignis said, frowning as he used the car’s momentum to pull off to the side of the road. Sand and gravel crunched underneath the tires before Ignis brought the car to a full stop, turned off the engine, and turned to look at Gladio in the front seat beside him.

The five of them sat in silence for a few moments as the sweltering heat beat down on the tops of their heads. For all the expertise on sword and gunplay sitting in the car, none of them knew anything about fixing anything that could be wrong with the Regalia. Prompto had some small amount of experience in repairing and working with machinery, but as a mere tinkering hobbyist, he hardly knew enough to fix something as complex as a vehicle.

Sighing, Ignis pulled out his mobile and scrolled through his contacts list to find Hammerhead’s number. He had to admit he hadn’t thought of collecting contact numbers of the towns they would be passing through in case of an emergency, but when his uncle had forwarded the number to Cid Sophiar’s garage in Hammerhead from King Regis “just in case,” Ignis had seen the wisdom in collecting the numbers to the hotels in Longwythe and Galdin as well. But he’d hoped at the time he wouldn’t have to resort to these precautions at all, let alone before they’d even reached Hammerhead.

Drat, a busy signal. So much for his preparedness.

And of course, there was no sense in attempting anyone in the Crown City. They’d been warned on departing that their ability to contact anyone in Insomnia would grow spotty just outside the Wall due to the magical interference, with communication becoming nearly impossible the farther they drove. They were on their own out here, which had been, up until that moment, one of the most exhilarating sensations Ignis had ever experienced, but as he glanced around at the completely alien landscape devoid of any human life, the terrain became far less welcoming.

He wasn’t terribly concerned just yet. As a former member of King Regis’s royal retinue thirty years ago when His Majesty had completed his Bonding of Souls tour to collect his Royal Armiger, Cid had been instructed to look after them while they were still on Lucian soil, so there was a possibility he would send someone should the hour grow too late.

“I can try to take a look and see if there’s something I can fix, but if the car needs any parts, there’s nothing I can do,” Laura said, and he turned in his seat to see her gesture for Prompto to open the door so she could get out. He noted her calm expression as she met his eyes. Given what he’d guessed of her history thus far, he’d expected her to be more high-strung in such an unfamiliar setting. “Ignis, would you mind popping the hood, please?”

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

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

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

Ignis couldn’t blame him for his hesitancy as he placed his hands on the top of the steering wheel and pressed his forehead against them, seeking to hide his face from the sun and bask for a moment in his fatigue. Astrals, it was scorching out, and even with the top down, it had to have been hotter on the pavement in front of the steamy engine than inside the car. In their eagerness to be out on the open road, they’d probably gotten carried away and pushed the old girl past what she could handle in this weather.

“You sure you know enough about cars to be of any use?” Gladio asked.

Though his phrasing and intonation was rather brusque, in Ignis’s opinion, he couldn’t blame Gladio for his attitude, either. In the hours they’d made small talk as they crawled through heavy traffic and out into Leide, all four of them had come to realize that the girl knew very little about . . . well, anything, really, so it came as a surprise that she seemed so confident looking at the Regalia’s engine.

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

“Thanks, Prompto,” Noct grunted, and Prompto shot the three of them a silent, wide-eyed look of panic before grimacing and following after her.

The second she had raised the hood and began directing Prompto to check various fluid levels, Gladio turned to look between Ignis and Noct, muttering low enough so he couldn’t be overheard, “It’s not just me, right?”

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

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

Ignis couldn’t understand was why they were being so unfair to the newest member of their retinue. As far as he was concerned, the girl had been perfectly pleasant, if a bit . . . sheltered, cheerfully asking each of them about their lives and their roles in the group. Even if his own introduction hadn’t gone as smoothly as he would have liked, he could hardly fault her for the circumstances.

He was about to inform them that they ought to try being more patient with the girl’s inexperience when the hood slammed shut.

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

“I’ve been attempting to call, but all I’m getting is a busy signal,” Ignis replied, holding up his mobile, from which he could hear the tinny sounds of the repetitive beeping of an engaged line.

“Well, then!” she said cheerfully, clapping her hands together with a wide, manic grin as she walked around to the trunk of the car. “We might as well get moving.”

He saw the prudence of her suggestion, of course. It would hardly do to sit there fretting about their situation when they could make some progress while he continued to try and call. But his formerly pleasant mood was now soured as the weight of their schedule pressed down on him. He knew from their conversations thus far that she was aware that daemons beyond their skill to fight would emerge as soon as the sun went down, so her lively disposition seemed somewhat bizarre given their current status.

“Someone seems eager,” he said mildly.

She tilted her head at him, her cobalt eyes glittering with some emotion he couldn’t name. “Honestly, where’s your sense of adventure? A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting.”

He had no response for her. This . . . girl, who didn’t even know what a common, everyday mushroom was, had the audacity to lecture him about his sense of adventure?

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

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

Though he placed the car in neutral, Ignis turned back toward Laura and furrowed his brow, dissatisfied with this arrangement. He had only managed to catch an hour or so of sleep the night before, and his tense shoulders and enervated body were grateful for the comfort of the luxurious seat, but this was still wrong. He was loath to force a lady to push a heavy vehicle across the desert while he sat, not exactly comfortable in the blazing sun, but certainly more so than those out pushing. Though she was clearly expertly trained in combat arts much like themselves, he doubted she had much experience exerting herself physically in this oppressive heat.

The car had only just reluctantly slogged its way off the berm and back onto the asphalt when Ignis decided that he must speak up. “I’m afraid I must insist that Laura be the one to sit in the driver’s seat. The Regalia is quite heavy, and combined with the heat and your diminutive size, Laura, forgive me, but you’re at a considerable disadvantage compared to the rest of us.”

Instead of the sigh of appreciation he was expecting, he was surprised and somewhat bewildered to see the sapphire flames spark in her eyes.

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

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

Ignis raised a single eyebrow in Laura’s direction before turning to watch the road ahead.

After about fifteen minutes of groaning and grumbling complaints muttered in low voices, Noct decided that the only logical switching interval could be fifteen minutes, but his brilliant scheme to take a break failed when Prompto brightened.

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

Ignis decided to join Laura at the back of the car, both because he wished to show his support of the King’s decision that she accompany them and because it was much more efficient to push from this angle. It seemed odd to him that the others wished to avoid her so completely that they should be willing to make their work more difficult. As he placed his gloved hands against the hot metal, she gave him a small smile of encouragement before leaning all her weight into the trunk and walking forward.

Between her eyes and her smile, there was something about her that struck a chord with him the longer he spent in her company. She was almost painfully familiar, and he wondered at his reaction to her—neither positive nor negative, but a zing of some indefinable instinct. This was too visceral a reaction for a chance glimpse in a library; it was personal in a way that sent a chill down his back. He tried yet again to recall where he might have seen her face before but couldn’t attain any new insights.

“I think we can forget about hitching our way there,” Gladio grumbled as he tried to flag down yet another car that passed by without slowing. They had stopped just long enough for Noct to let Prompto out of the driver’s seat and take his turn to steer, but as soon as he’d settled into the seat, Gladio returned to his position to begin pushing again. “Thought people were friendly outside the city.”

“You can only go so far on the kindness of strangers,” Ignis replied as smoothly as he could through his exertion. It seemed that getting the car rolling again after stopping almost wasn’t worth the few seconds’ respite.

“Come now, be fair. Who’s going to pull over for five people dressed mostly in Crownsguard uniforms in the outlands? From what I heard, the decision to annex wasn’t exactly a popular one,” Laura said. Noct muttered an incoherent reply, but Gladio eyed her Kingsglaive mage uniform suspiciously before shooting Ignis a significant look.

So she wasn’t completely clueless, after all. Her assessment of the current situation in the outlands was succinct and accurate, despite the information not exactly being openly acknowledged in the upper echelons of Lucian nobility. She must have spoken to His Majesty on the matter before leaving.

The evidence of her empathy to the plight of the Kingsglaive along with her uniform might have convinced him that she was actually an outlander if not for her accent, coloring, unique weapons, and obviously enormously expensive combat training—to the exclusion of all additional education, it would seem. It wasn’t as though there weren’t a few Insomnians in the Glaive, though he’d never heard of a member of high nobility joining. Still, he shook his head minutely in Gladio’s direction. The likelihood that the King had put her in whatever uniform he had available was high, as there clearly hadn’t been time for her to have custom Crownsguard fatigues made up.

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

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

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

“I saw on the map that the town of Hammerhead is centered around the garage and a diner,” Laura said. “I think we should talk to the proprietor at the diner. Small towns like that, I bet everyone goes there, and they’d talk to everyone that passes through. They probably know everything about the area, including where to make some money.”

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

“Yeah, that makes sense . . .,” Laura said quietly.

He frowned a little at her subdued tone—he supposed he could have handled that more gracefully, but honestly, the lack of mental acuity she’d displayed thus far had proven that she needed to be put in her place. She should certainly not be making important decisions for them. Inexperienced or not, Ignis was still the best man in the group for that particular task, and he needed to assert his intellectual dominance now in the beginning of their journey before she attempted a takeover.

She’d been evasive whenever he or Prompto had attempted to ask after her origins thus far, but Ignis believed he had garnered quite enough about her from carefully observing her phrasing and reactions to their comments. Though he himself was new to the world outside the city, Laura seemed to be new to life in general. Their hours spent talking in the car revealed that she knew nothing of television references, video games, books, music, or movies—even common, everyday foods. Given the way she spoke and fought, Ignis assumed she must have grown up in a noble household with nothing more than a combat trainer—and perhaps a mechanic.

Typically, he had little patience for people such as she, as anyone who displayed such extensive evidence of ignorance wasn’t worth his personal time unless they proved their inclination to learn—though he was always courteous—but her skill in combat, at the very least, denoted an exceptional dedication, desire to be of use, and some level of intelligence. He could hardly demean her for her lack of experience if her ignorance was due to circumstances beyond her control. He would have to apologize for his discourtesy in private once they reached the employment center, and perhaps he could determine the source of his familiarity with her once he offered his services as a guide, of sorts, to this new, wider world of theirs.

He continued to quietly observe her as the others griped about their sore feet, the oppressive heat, and how much farther they had to push the rolling brick across the scorching asphalt. Laura barely uttered a sound as she helped them, choosing instead to observe them in turn, and Ignis made no effort to conceal that he was watching her—very, very carefully. Still, even as her fair skin grew redder with the heat and exertion, she began to relax some and smile at their jokes, commiserate with the others for their suffering, and smirk down at Prompto when he melodramatically collapsed on the asphalt.

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

“Just flip me over when I smell like I’m getting burnt,” he sighed mournfully.

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

“Is it just me, or was it supposed to be way closer?” Prompto whined as they cleared a curve to reveal another stretch of wilderness rolling far out to the horizon.

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

“The map said Hammerhead was right there,” Noct argued, pointing to where the cracked pavement looped around a collection of rocky cliffs looming ahead of them.

“Literally next door!” Prompto agreed.

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

A second of silence passed before Noct said in a soft, pensive tone, “The world’s a big old place.”

Ignis turned in his seat to look back at the Prince, who was staring out to the mountains on the horizon with a bright, dreamy look in his eyes that Ignis hadn’t seen since they were children. He followed Noct’s gaze, and it took him a moment to realize that this was it—the moment he’d been waiting for. He hadn’t truly noticed before this moment just how free he felt now that they had left the city walls behind and how silent it was with the roar of the Regalia’s engine quieted. For the first time in his life, the horizon ahead of him was completely clear for miles, and though the current situation was rather unfortunate, the fact that there wasn’t another soul nearby felt . . . somewhat peaceful.

He realized then that he wouldn’t have experienced this moment had the Regalia not broken down. Indeed, a straight line wasn’t necessarily the most interesting path between two points.

As he looked back in the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of Laura, her faced flushed and sweating, her hair falling out of its clip and sticking to her skin, Ignis couldn’t help but add, “Filled with wonders.”

***

As Ignis had feared, the fees required to repair the Regalia would most certainly deplete the meager amount of gil he’d brought along for the stay in Galdin and any emergency purchases they may have needed to make. Unfortunately, Cid couldn’t give them a more exact estimation of the time he would require to complete the repairs. If they were to be stranded here, they would need some time to look for work, but given how busy the garage was, he had a feeling it would be at least a day before they were called to come and pick the car up again, perhaps even longer.

“What kinda biznis y’all think I’m runnin’ here, anyway?” Cid demanded irritably, hobbling toward the garage door with a hand held fast to his lower back. “Doin’ things right takes time and patience, so you boys jus’ take her in and run along.”

Ignis frowned over at Laura, who seemed to take no notice at not being acknowledged, but complied, pushing the heavy vehicle the last several feet into the shade of the building—with any luck, for the last time in his lifetime.

They stood and watched as Cid yanked the garage doors closed behind him with an unnecessary shuddering slam, hiding their only source of transportation from view. It was only after several seconds that the five of them turned to Cindy, who was looking up at them all expectantly.

“She ain’t gon’ be ready for a while. He’ll take his time, but he’ll get ‘er done. Y’all need somethin’?” she asked.

Noct looked first to Prompto, then over at Ignis, but it was Prompto who spoke up.

“So uh . . . good news—I found out they got Ebony out here. Bad news—I got a feeling our money’s no good here. What’s a gil?”

“Betcha Ignis came prepared,” Noct said smugly.

With Cindy watching their exchange closely, Ignis suppressed the sigh building up in his lungs. Had they not paid attention when they’d broken down and he’d cited their potential funding issues? Flattered though he was that Noct maintained so much faith in his preparedness, it was somewhat frustrating that he paired that particular trait with never listening to a word Ignis said. He may not have spelled the situation out bluntly, but surely they’d put the clues together and realized that he’d only brought a limited amount of gil with them?

“I’m afraid we’ve expended the last of our funds on the repairs,” Ignis answered.

“Might as well make good use of the extra time, then,” Gladio said suggestively, stepping closer to Cindy and grinning down at her. “You got any suggestions?”

Cindy’s vibrant green eyes lit up in a mischievous smile. “Ohhh, now I get it. This must be what Paw Paw meant when he said he was gonna ‘teach them boys a lesson.’ Told me he oughta have y’all take care of some ornery varmints that’ve been causin’ a ruckus ’round here. I’d be happy to pay y’all for your services if you’re up for the challenge. How ’bout it?”

When Noct looked back up to Ignis for guidance, he answered, “All according to Cid’s plan. I say we play along and teach him not to underestimate us.”

“Old man’s got his eye on you, Noct. Show him what you got!” Gladio said encouragingly.

Prompto let out a long sigh. “So much for finding an easy way out . . .. Thanks a lot, ‘Paw Paw.’”

“Yeah, I guess we’ll do it,” Noct answered.

“But don’t feel obliged or nothin,’” she laughed, dipping her cap with a saucy wink. “Wouldn’t want ya to ruin your royal reputation.”

“Heh,” Noct half-heartedly returned as he began trudging back toward the shops, “somehow I think I’ll be okay.”

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

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

Dread pooled in his belly as he watched Laura narrow her eyes at the woman and begin striding in the pair’s direction.

“What are you going to do?” he hissed from behind her, but she ignored him.

While he himself didn’t care for the way the woman was handling the situation, it wasn’t their business if a woman chastised her daughter, and he didn’t see how causing a scene and drawing attention to themselves was going to benefit anyone. He shot a look over at Gladio standing next to the door of the diner, who held his hands up in surrender and went inside. That was an enormous help. Already, it seemed he was to be in charge of ensuring everyone behaved themselves in a civilized manner—only he hadn’t anticipated being responsible for four instead of three.

“Hi there!” she said with a wide smile and a wiggle of her fingers as she kneeled down to the weeping child’s level. Ignis stopped abruptly several paces away, surprised at her cheerful tone. “M’ name’s Laura. What’s yours?”

She said this in an awed tone full of wonder that made it sound like the most exciting secret in the world, and Ignis noticed that the girl had already stopped sobbing to stare at the strange woman.

“Cami,” the girl sniffed.

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

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

It was likely their fault that Cid or Cindy would be unable to look at the mother’s car today, even if they had arrived before the retinue. Ignis had a feeling that, despite Cid’s irreverent attitude towards royalty, the Regalia had been moved to the front of the queue, no doubt overbooking the garage even more. He ran his eyes over their worn traveling clothes and the seemingly ancient, rusty vehicle with its Duscaean license plates. Their accents didn’t match Cid and Cindy’s—nor the townsfolk whose conversations he’d caught snippets of here and there, so he surmised that they must have been quite far from home.

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

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

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

Ignis watched Laura carefully for her response in the hopes that she would be disarmed by the child and give a straight answer. At first, Laura’s eyes widened in horror for a moment, but then she shook her head.

“Sorry. M’ really new to the Kingsglaive. Jus’ star’ed today, s’matter of fact.”  

She looked over at the girl’s mother—standing next to the car, her long, dark hair hanging forward as she pinched the bridge of her nose. Ignis thought she appeared to be holding back tears, and he felt pity for the less fortunate woman wash over him, though he couldn’t think of any possible way they could be of assistance to her. For the briefest of moments, his and Laura’s eyes met in silent, shared understanding before she turned back toward the little girl.

“Lemme talk to your mum, ‘kay? See if there’s anythin’ I can do to ‘elp.”

“Okay.”

Without looking over at him, she stood, walked to where the woman was making an attempt at composing herself, and put a hand on her shoulder. Her head shot up in alarm at the touch, but Laura greeted her in a calm, soothing tone.

“Hey,” she said softly.

She stared at Laura, no doubt taking in her Kingsglaive uniform, before casting a quick glance in Ignis’s direction. Wishing to make a good impression, he bowed his head slightly in greeting before she turned back to Laura.

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

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

“That’s the spirit!” she replied almost uncomfortably immediately, a mad grin spreading across her features. “Name’s Laura. You?”

“Shawna.”

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

“Yeah, all right.”

Ignis waited until the woman slid into her car before he approached Laura, who had already opened the hood and was bending over to inspect the engine.

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

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

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

“I certainly hope you know what you’re doing,” he cautioned, but she didn’t even grant him an acknowledgement this time.

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

The woman’s expression transformed immediately at her words, her haggard face giving way to a bright smile. “Really? Oh! Thank the gods! Thank you!” she exclaimed before rushing to the shop, leaving her daughter standing next to Laura and staring cautiously up at her.

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

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

It was only when Laura began speaking to him that he noticed the dramatic change in her accent, transforming from the commoner speech of the poorer native Insomnian districts to a severely formal diction like his own. Had the choice been deliberate in order to better blend in with the implication of lower origins? Or had she inadvertently revealed that her birth was not as high as she represented herself? She’d been extraordinarily careful about her answers and phrasing thus far, so he had to assume, for now, that it had been the former. Still . . . he wondered.

“Give her a break. She thought she was going to miss out on her only night with the father of her child.” Her voice grew wistful as she shook her head. “Can you imagine for a moment what it would be like to not be there the one day your love is back, not knowing for absolute certain that they’ll ever return?”

A impulsive desire to ask her who she’d lost shot through him as he watched the intense emotion cross her face, but he repressed it. They certainly didn’t know each other well enough yet for him to ask such personal questions. But as that sometimes irksome desire to know and understand all continued to buzz at his thoughts, he made a mental note to ask her someday.

“And her husband is Kingsglaive,” she continued in a more neutral tone, “so of course she’s going to trust anyone in a Glaive uniform. You should know yourself that groups like Kingsglaive and Crownsguard are family. They look out for their own.”

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

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

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

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

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

He meandered slowly and indirectly toward the diner’s front door—not because he was exhausted but because he wished to take in every detail of the scene around him, from the weeds pushing their way through cracks in the pavement to the car models he’d never seen or heard of before to the rather odd and plain sense of fashion the people seemed to have out here. The garage and diner truly did appear to be the center of the tiny town, with locals and travelers alike clumping into loose groups to trade gossip about news from other regions. Did they not have papers and websites for that sort of thing?

This place was just so different . . . interesting—primitive, but certainly a curiosity. He found himself somewhat pleased that they’d been stranded here longer than he’d intended, as it gave him a unique opportunity to learn about a culture so very different from the one he grew up in.

When he heard Princess Lunafreya’s name mentioned, he stopped by the stoop to the diner, pretending to inspect a faded sign advertising Takka’s spicy jambalaya so he could listen to what they were saying.

“So Lady Lunafreya would be a Lucian?” a woman asked, leaning against an open car door.

Her conversation partner was seated sideways in the driver’s seat, lacing up a thick pair of black combat boots. “I can’t imagine it either!”

“Well, what does Tenebrae think about all this?”

“They’ll still claim the Oracle’s theirs, of course. Can’t say I blame ‘em after the way Caelum's treated the Kingsglaive.”

“You know they rejected Shawna’s application to join Jason in Insomnia? After all they’ve done for the Royal Family. He’s got a kid, for Six’s sake.”

“Might be for the best though. I heard they treat immigrants like trash.”

“I guess you’re right,” the first woman answered with a sigh. “Fuck Insomnians, I say! Think they can just use us to defend their Wall then toss us aside.”

“Part of me hopes things’ll actually get better under Niflheim,” the second woman replied in a small voice, not looking up from the bow she’d tied on her boot. She sighed deeply. “I really wish I could wear a dress someday. Maybe a grand, sweeping white one like Lady Lunafreya’s.”

“Ha, keep dreaming, girl. It’s this or EXINERIS for the likes of us.”

Deeply troubled to hear such candid talk about his people, Ignis stepped over the threshold of the refreshingly air-conditioned diner, spotted the other three sitting at a booth in the corner, and slid into the seat next to Noct. He stared blankly down at the bland beige table beneath his gloved hands, wondering if the King were aware of this contemptuous attitude toward Insomnia beyond the Wall . . . and wondering why Ignis hadn’t been aware himself. Blatant cases of prejudice based on place of origin? He’d heard stirrings, of course, and he was well-familiar with the disdain between the different levels of nobility, but he’d had no idea tensions were running this high among everyday citizens.

“That was the most painful couple of hours I’ve spent with someone. I was almost glad to get out of the car just so I wouldn’t have to be so close to her,” Noct said, interrupting Ignis’s train of thought.

“Yeah, what the hell was up with that? Felt like I wanted to jump outta the car and run away as fast as I could . . . or run a blade through her,” Gladio agreed, nodding.

Ignis gaped at the two of them, his eyes widening in disbelief at what he was hearing. Gladio often threatened someone in jest, particularly other members of the Crownsguard, but his furrowed brow and frown indicated he was being completely serious, which was completely out of character for him.

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

“I dunno,” Prompto said with a grimace, spinning the salt shaker in between his palms. “Maybe it’s not her fault. Like, she’s nice and stuff when Ignis or me talk to her, but it’s kinda hard to keep it up for long, ya know?”

“Seriously? It’s not just the weird thing, it’s her too. I can maybe forgive her for not knowing King’s Knight, but when she asked what an alstroom was, that was the end of the conversation for me,” Noct shot back. “Dunno how you managed to keep it up.”

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

“This is hardly appropriate conversation,” Ignis interrupted as Gladio opened his mouth to add to Noct’s argument. “And I must insist we maintain civility through the course of our journey, at the very least.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Elbows off the table, if you please, Highness,” Ignis said quietly. “And do sit up straight.”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll talk to the proprietor—just as soon as I get cleaned up. Perhaps he’ll know where the employment agency is,” Laura’s voice cut in suddenly, and Ignis did his best to conceal his surprise at her unexpected appearance at the end of their table, her face ruddy and covered in greasy smears. Really, tired or not, he needed to learn to pay better attention out here. Given what he’d just heard outside, she could have been a local that had recognized them and meant to do the Prince harm.

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

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

He narrowed his eyes at her, trying to recall when any of them had told her that. It was possible, he supposed, that she had drawn that conclusion from several of his gentle admonishments when the others had expressed an interest in stopping in Hammerhead to shop earlier this morning. But then that would require far more intelligence than she’d displayed thus far.

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

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

“Whoo! That’s enough to buy us something for lunch!” Prompto exclaimed, frantically pointing at the menu hanging above the long, curved counter up front.

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

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

She glanced up at the board and frowned. “I’ll . . . just have some water, thanks,” she said with a slight smile. Before he could respond, she turned toward the restrooms and walked away. He frowned after her.  

The menu was hardly the sort of fare Ignis preferred customarily, but it seemed to be the type of cuisine common to these sorts of places. Though Noct often complained about Ignis’s healthy eating habits, he wasn’t above eating cheap junk food now and then—as long as it was in moderation—a concept beyond the Prince's understanding. Not every meal had to be a sophisticated, five-star experience, either; he was more than capable of adapting and even enjoying a wide variety of culinary experiences. But it seemed that much like Noct, Laura was going to have to adopt a more flexible palate if she was going to survive the different regions they would be traveling through.

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

It wasn’t until after Ignis had ordered for the four of them at the counter and returned to his seat that Laura emerged from the restroom, her face clear of engine grease.

Instead of joining them, however, she headed toward the counter and leapt up onto a stool on her knees, leaning far over the surface to catch the proprietor’s attention. As the others chatted about the heat and how different the scenery was from the city, Ignis watched Laura’s face light up at the proprietor’s approach with that smile she only seemed to reserve for complete strangers. Had they really offended her so much that she wouldn’t look at any of them like that? Perhaps she had overheard Noct complaining in the car or talking about leaving her behind, and not just Gladio’s final remarks.

Gods, how disgraceful a first impression could they have possibly made? What would she report to the King of their behavior when they returned?

An employee stopped by the table to drop off their drinks, and after flicking the tab open and taking a measured sip, he cupped the hot can of Ebony with both hands, grateful to be able to experience a comforting, familiar piece of home out here in this foreign place. Despite the morning spent in the heat, he was beginning to feel a bit chilled as the air conditioning dried off his sweaty shirt. He imagined the sunburn forming on the back of his neck was doing little to help the matter and decided he would need to reapply more sunscreen before they left.  

Turning back to watching the proprietor and Laura interact, he took a longer draught of the hot, bitter fluid, letting it warm him from within and shock his system awake.

They spoke for a few minutes before she smiled at the man again and headed toward their booth.

“Damn,” Gladio muttered, catching sight of her approaching from across the room and subtly scooting to the edge of the bench. Casting a silent, displeased glare in Gladio’s direction, Ignis moved closer to Noct to make her feel more welcome to sit down. Honestly, they were all behaving like children. This was going to be a rather long journey if they weren’t willing to even make an attempt at friendliness.

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

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

“Thank you,” he said softly as he stood. In a louder voice, he added, “Very well. I’ll see what he has for us, then.”

“And find out where our food’s at!” Noct called to his retreating back.

It turned out that the man at the counter, who introduced himself as Takka, had three hunts available appropriate to their combat skill, totaling over three thousand gil in bounties. Coupled with their task from Cindy, they should be in a much more fortunate position within a couple of days. Though none of them had actually seen a wild animal up close before, Ignis was confident that they should have no trouble handling these assignments with their extensive training. Noct, Gladio, and Ignis had spent their entire lives knowing that they would likely wind up killing something at some point—whether that was an animal in tradition with House Caelum’s favorite bloodsport or a human on the field of battle.

It would be beneficial, he thought, to experience this taste of true combat before Noct’s destiny came calling.

He immediately chased the thought away. Ignis had made his peace—he believed—with the idea that he would take a human life someday in order to protect his homeland and those he cared for, but that didn’t mean he relished the prospect. Given what he’d learned of his disposition during Crownsguard training, he believed he could be easily stirred to violence and even ruthlessness should the need arise. Still—this would be a perfect opportunity, a gentle easing into the idea for the entire party.

The proprietor was also helpful in pointing out the locations of havens and foraging points in the area. Ignis decided it would be most prudent to head to the haven just to the north directly after lunch and set up camp, where they would be in a prime location to begin their hunts the next day. With any luck, he could somehow lure Laura away from the rest of the group, where he could perhaps politely pry some additional information from her without the distraction of the others.

He was about to thank Takka for his very welcomed help when Laura sidled up next to him, placing both her elbows on the counter and leaning in.

“Hey, Takka,” she said. “D’ ya ‘appen to ‘ave a rag I could borrow? My friend over there ‘ad an accident wiv the ketchup, an’ I didn’t wanna leave a big mess for ya.”  

She gestured with her head back to the booth, where Ignis could see Gladio gesticulating angrily at Prompto while Prompto looked down at the table, which was somehow artfully dotted in arcs of ketchup spatters. How had that happened? Their food hadn’t even arrived yet.

“Yeah, sure,” Takka said as he reached under the counter. He tossed her a damp rag, and she casually raised a hand to snatch it from the air.

“Cheers,” she said with a smile as she held it up in mock toast. She was about to turn back to the booth when Takka stopped her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely hopeless,” Gladio muttered under his breath.

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

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

Even though he felt a quick prick of irritation, he couldn’t fault her for her offhanded remark regarding his doing the laundry this evening, as he’d volunteered himself for that particular task when he realized they would be camping and would need to hand-wash their sweaty clothes. He certainly trusted no one with his silk coeurl print, and Noct’s fatigues needed to be stretched out properly to dry, else he would appear as though he’d just rolled out of bed fully dressed. At that point, it was simply easier just to do everyone’s laundry and ensure they all represented the Crown with pride by appearing their best.

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

As Ignis proposed his plan, Laura finished wiping the table and headed back to the counter to return the rag, taking her glass of ice water with her.

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

“Please sit up and chew with your mouth closed, Highness,” Ignis sighed wearily. Even if they weren’t recognized out here, there was absolutely no excuse to allow the Prince’s etiquette to slip simply because of the veil of anonymity. Ignis could only imagine the state of his manners at the wedding in that case, where the papers would report Lady Lunafreya’s marriage to an unkempt vagrant who gnawed at the bones of his meal like a half-starved sabertusk.

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

“You got a problem with camping now?” Gladio demanded of Prompto.

His voice grew higher in pitch as he backpedaled. “I mean, camping sounds fun and all, but after the day we’ve had, I kinda wanted some soft beds, a real shower.”

“With our money situation being what it is, it isn’t prudent to spend funds on accommodations when there are free options available,” Ignis said, though he secretly agreed that real showering facilities would be ideal after the day they’d had.

With his final word on the matter, the rest of their meal was spent in silence. He centered his attention on the dish in front of him—a garula cutlet that had a surprisingly light yet crunchy crust to it. Though he could do without the blanket of tomato sauce making the crisp, grilled bread soggy, he considered it a rather fine, if heavy meal, but he supposed they would all be getting enough exercise out here so as to require the additional calories. Pulling off the bread, he inspected the layers carefully.

“I daresay I could recreate this,” he muttered softly to himself.

“What was that, Iggy?” Gladio asked.

Ignis looked up. “Oh, nothing. Apologies.”

The four of them were almost finished eating when he suddenly realized that Laura had still not sat down with them. His gaze wandered over the busy diner until he caught a flash of her black hair behind the counter, where she appeared to be spooning a jar of what he assumed to be levain into another jar.

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

“I believe she promised the proprietor some of her levain. It’s used for making sourdough breads,” he explained, knowing they would have no idea what levain was. He was somewhat impressed that Laura traveled with her own. She must have been an avid baker, which was odd, given the lack of knowledge of culinary arts she had shown thus far. Making good sourdough bread was a precise and difficult art if one wished to do it properly, and it was hardly a practice of high nobility to make their own breads, given that most households kept their own bakers on retainer.

The more he learned about her, the less she made sense. And with that thought, his intention to correct that niggling irritation in the back of his mind as soon as they set up the haven solidified into a full-fledged plan. Using the knowledge he’d obtained from his studies beforehand, he would teach her to forage, where he could ask his questions and find out more about her without distraction.

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

“Wonder why no one else feels what we do,” Noct added.

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

Chapter Text

“Ugh, why’s it gotta be such a long walk? Haven’t we walked enough today already?” Noct complained, kicking his way through the dry brown dirt. Puffs of dust billowed out from under his treads as he aimed a particularly frustrated punt at a gray-green tuft of grass, but the second he’d taken a step forward, the wind kicked up and blew the cloud back into his face.

Great. Just great.

“The journey would be far easier if you would pick up your feet, Highness,” Ignis pointed out—ignoring Noct’s suffering as he spluttered out a cough and wiped at the grime sticking to his sweaty skin.

Noct waited until he’d taken several steps ahead of him before tossing a silent sneer at his back. Gods, he was being such a pain in the ass. Seriously, he wasn’t even sure the guy was human after a day like today—trudging along that asphalt, taking the time to comment on Noct’s manners, and still wearing that blazer in this heat?

“Man, I can’t believe Cindy’s gonna be slaving away all day in this heat—probably all night, too,” Prompto said, wiping at his brow.

“I’d say it’s likely, given the queue,” Laura answered.

“She certainly didn’t seem to mind,” Ignis said.

Gladio groaned a little as he raised his left hand high in the air, stretching his shoulder. “Sounds like sleep comes second to her work.”

Noct couldn’t really put his finger on the feeling eating away at him, but he managed to keep it out of is tone as he said, “Helps it’s her dream job.”

“She does get really passionate when she talks about cars, doesn’t she?” Prompto asked, skipping up to his side to grin at him like a lovestruck idiot.

“Yeah. It’s actually pretty cute,” Gladio chuckled.

Laura glanced over her shoulder from where she’d been walking ahead with Ignis. “And it will be particularly adorable when she helps Cid get us back on the road again.”

Her tone wasn’t exactly cold, but it was that same, dry, formal attitude Ignis would always put off, and Gladio seemed to notice, his eyes flicking back and forth between the two leading them to the massive gray stone rising above the flat desert floor.

Noct had noticed it too—had been noticing it all day. Specs was fascinated with the new girl, but Noct didn’t get it. She was just like every single airheaded aristocrat they both used to make jokes about at all the charity balls and state dinners as they chased Gladio across the dance floor—much to Gladio’s enjoyment. But Specs watched her every move like she was the most interesting puzzle he’d ever seen—or a snake about to strike.

For once, he didn’t care what Ignis thought. Noct didn’t like her. What he couldn’t understand was how Ignis could voluntarily walk so close to her when sitting next to her in that car for hours on end had just about killed . . . one of them, Noct wasn’t sure which.

Prompto elbowed him in the ribs. “Hey, you reckon she’s taken?”

“Huh?”

“Cindy!”

“I don’t think so,” Gladio said doubtfully.

“Pfft, and you’d know,” Noct scoffed. It was no secret anywhere in the Crown City that Gladio got around. While he had to admit he was always impressed watching Gladio work, Noct wasn’t really interested in what all he got up to in his free time. The whole thing—stringing along all those girls—sounded exhausting to him.

Gladio shrugged. “Not exactly hard to tell. She’s got a pretty strong defense.”

“Even to someone like you?” Prompto asked.

Gladio looked back to Noct with that devious look in his eye, which was the only reason Noct had time to duck before Gladio could cuff him around the neck to rub a fist through his hair like he hated. Gladio chuckled at the loss and shook his head.

“Curious as I am to see, my priority’s keeping ‘His Highness’ safe.”

The three of them looked forward when they heard Laura’s muttered, “Cindy has far more brains than people give her credit for.”

“Whaddya mean by that?” Gladio asked accusingly over Ignis’s snort of derision.

When she turned around, Noct, Gladio, and Prompto stiffened a little, afraid she was gonna come back to join them to explain, but she stayed in her spot next to Ignis as she spoke.

“I overheard some people talking in town, so I introduced myself and got to chatting. It appears as though Cindy’s parents had taken over the garage when Cid started slowing down, but then they were attacked by daemons. Cindy was just a child at the time.”

“Wow . . . so she lost both her parents when she was little? She must be so strong,” Prompto breathed.

“The garage was suffering until she took over. Poor Cid just couldn’t keep things running on his own. I wouldn’t let her appearance fool you. You can wager she knows well what effect that outfit has on business. Call it marketing, if you will, since it certainly isn’t any good for working on cars.”

“A cunning scheme,” Ignis said, “as the garage does seem to have a venerated reputation for its impeccable service as well as its . . . staff.”

“Well, people do what they must when times are tough. She clearly loves her work, and someone as dedicated as she is? She’ll fight tooth and nail for what she loves.”

“Wow, so she’s smart and strong, and she loves machines. She’s perfect,” Prompto sighed.

“How did you manage to learn all this so quickly?” Ignis asked, narrowing his eyes at Laura.

“I watch. I listen. I ask questions and get to know people.”

“I watch and listen as well,” Ignis retorted, and if Noct wasn’t mistaken, he sounded a little insulted and defensive. Safe from his line of sight, Noct let his lips twitch up into a smirk. It sounded like the dumb girl was giving Specs a run for his money. Maybe that meant they’d keep busy enough competing with each other that they’d lay off him for a while. “In fact, I made a most troubling discovery in town earlier. There is a prevailing sense of discrimination against Insomnians here in the outlands, so we may have to keep a lower profile than I had anticipated.”

“That’s not too surprising, given how the Glaives are doing in the city,” Gladio said.

“You mean to say that you knew about this?”

“I don’t just train with the Guard, ya know.”

Noct stopped listening to the political chat as he let his eyes wander out over the horizon. The desert was dry, rocky, dead-looking, and hot, but he didn’t care. If he could get Ignis off his back for the next three weeks, nothing would be expected of him until the ceremony. The idea that he wasn’t a prince out here, that he wasn’t even a Caelum, felt like a weight had been suddenly lifted so he could breathe freely for the first time in his life, and just this once, he didn’t wanna be reminded about the Glaive, the Crownsguard, the treaty, or the fact that even this one trip had to be taken with three bodyguards.

As though Ignis had been reading his thoughts, he broke from his conversation with Gladio and looked back to Noct with a soft smile. “This scenery is completely different, is it not?”

“From the Crown City?” Prompto asked before Noct could search for an answer.

“Yeah.”

“Of course it is. But there weren’t beasts and daemons either.”

Gladio sloppily emptied the last of his water bottle, letting the dregs drip over his lips and down his sweaty neck. With the flick of his wrist, he dismissed the bottle and pointed toward Prompto. “Nature’s beauty comes with danger. That’s how it works in the wild. It’s definitely no place for a moonlight stroll, but it’s not all bad.”

“Yeah,” Noct agreed, “I kinda like it. It’d be even more peaceful if we didn’t have to walk.”

“We’re nearly there,” Ignis answered on a sigh, pointing to the stone platform ahead. Now that they’d drawn closer, Noct could see that it was covered in glowing blue shapes—series of scribbled circles connected by overlapping lines—forming a scrawled, messy geometric pattern. “Hard to imagine daemons in the night are a fact of everyday life for the locals here.”

“I imagine we’re about to get used to everyday life out here when the sun goes down tonight,” Laura said.

“Well, I’ll never get used to them, that’s for sure. The Crystal and the Wall work for me,” Prompto said.

Ignis glanced back at Noct from the corner of his eye, frowning. “Ah, but not without the King to uphold them.”

A heavy slap to his shoulder lurched him out of the thoughts already beginning to claw at his brain, and Noct looked up to see Gladio smirking down at him with that challenge in his eyes like they were about to start a spar. “That job’ll fall to you someday, Noct. Hmph. Think you’ll be up to it?”

“I’ll see what I can do, okay?” Noct snapped back. He stared down at his shoelaces, now covered in a fine layer of golden-brown dirt, as they rhythmically passed beneath his line of vision with each step. Three weeks. He just wanted three weeks to not have to think about this kinda shit anymore. But Gladio and Ignis especially were so duty-bound to the idea of him becoming King, he didn’t think they’d ever be able to understand what kind of pressure they put on him when they talked like this.

He stepped up onto the stone ramp behind Gladio and stopped when they were all lined up along the edge of the large circular stone slab that overlooked the scene for miles in the distance. If he squinted into the haze on the horizon, he thought he could make out the back of Hammerhead’s garage. Piles of enormous boulders set into the dust surrounded them on all sides, scattered out to the distant mountains set between massive walls. Tiny farms and silos dotted the area, and Noct wondered what could possibly grow out here beyond the scraggly gray grass and leggy bushes they’d passed. Just to the right of their campsite, where the stone dropped off a good eight feet to the hard-packed dirt below, he could see a small square of corrugated tin sheeting—what looked like the roof of a rustic wooden shed.

“Uh, is that supposed to be the bathroom?” Noct asked, pointing.

“It’s called an outhouse,” Laura answered. “And honestly, I wasn’t even expecting that much.”

“Man,” Prompto sighed. “We have it good in the Crown City.”

“And not only the accommodations,” Ignis agreed.

“Hanging in the street after dark,” Noct said.

“Pickin’ up late night snacks,” Prompto added.

“Worst you had to worry about was waking the neighbors,” Gladio said. He let out a long, contented sigh as he looked out to the mountain chains on the horizon in every direction, so far away that they appeared no more than ridges forming a boundary on the world. “Guess we don’t got any neighbors to worry about out here except for the ones keeping us awake tonight.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Prompto asked nervously. “One night out here, and we’d be eaten alive.”

“Hardly. The Oracles' runes are what sanctify these havens,” Ignis replied, gesturing to the glowing writing etched deep into the floor.

“Never appreciated the Oracles’ power until out here in the wild,” Gladio said, summoning the tent bag to his hands.

“Benediction, purification, and healing are the province of the Oracle.” Ignis stepped forward commandingly, examining the space before shielding his eyes with an arm and looking up toward the sun. “Now. The sun should rise over there in the morning, Gladio, so I would set the tent up over here, facing in this direction,” he said, pointing out what he wanted.

Gladio nodded and dropped the bag where he’d indicated, unzipping it and laying out the stretch of dark gray fabric. “Sounds pretty impressive that she can wield all that magic without the King.”

“I can speak to the healing,” Noct said as he summoned the four camp chairs. He had no doubt Specs was gonna get on his back for not doing enough to set up, so he figured he could fiddle around with unfolding and deciding where to put them for a while before he noticed and gave him another task.

“Ahhh . . . that injury from when you were little,” Prompto said.

“Yep.”

“The winds seemed to have prevailed to the south, Noct, so be sure to set the chairs to the north of the fire,” Ignis said as he awkwardly unfolded the first chair. “I suppose I’ll get started on setting up the kitchen so we can have ourselves a proper meal after today’s exertions—once we return from foraging, of course.”

“Man, take it easy. We’re camping here, not setting up for battle,” Gladio answered. “Did you hear ‘em all talking in the diner about Lady Lunafreya? Now I know why everyone makes such a big deal about her.”

Prompto fidgeted a little before heading over to a small pile of sticks someone had left near the fire ring. He began arranging them into a pile before he said, “All this time, I had no idea.”

“Start with the smaller branches first, Prompto. And be sure to leave plenty of space for air to pass through, but not too much,” Ignis said. As he turned back to the foldout table he was setting up to carefully watch Laura as she pulled his camp stove out of its box, Prompto raised his eyebrows at Noct, who shrugged. “In this case,” Ignis continued without looking back in their direction, “you're not at fault for your ignorance. We've been cut off from the Empire all our lives. Her miracles never reached the Crown City.”

“She’s like, the only one who can do magic the King can’t even do, right?” Prompto asked.

“Well,” Ignis replied hesitantly, “House Caelum is capable of healing through the supplementation of potions and phoenix downs, enchanting weapons with the power of light—that sort of thing; however, there are limitations, as you know. But according to legend, House Fleuret was gifted this language—” he gestured to the floor—“directly from Ramuh himself just after the War of the Astrals.”

“Well then why don’t they just write that stuff all over the towns to keep them safe?” Noct asked.

“Power comes at a cost.”

Everything went still for a second as all four of them turned to look at Laura, who had said the sentence so suddenly and so heavily that the message seemed to be delivered from the gods themselves. Having unfolded all the chairs except for one, Noct moved to the south side of the fire ring and began unfolding the one he’d claimed as his—both to irritate Specs and so that he could better watch the others.

“I imagine it does,” Ignis finally answered in a softer voice after a few seconds. “The writing system is known only to House Fleuret, and Lady Lunafreya is the only one capable of using it magically. Even the name of the language is a complete secret to all but the Oracle line.”

Noct leaned back into his chair and watched the others work for a bit, letting the burn from his sore feet throb as he stretched his legs out. Prompto, who was humming his favorite Afrojack song and arranging the wood, looked up at him and shot him a wink before going back to work. Gladio seemed to be struggling with setting up the pile of fabric and plastic that was somehow supposed to serve as their shelter tonight.

“Okay, what?” Gladio muttered to himself, holding five different-sized poles up to his face to inspect the writing on them. “None of these says A-5, and I’m s’posed to have five of them?”

Noct held back his snicker so he wouldn’t get caught slacking and looked over at “the perfect area of the haven” Specs had chosen for his kitchen area, not that Noct could tell why any of these things needed to be arranged so exactly. As Ignis fiddled with the knobs and buttons on the camp stove, Laura seemed to be toying with one of the lanterns on a pole nearby—carefully attaching a small, white silk baggie to the inside.

She seemed friendly enough to him—definitely weird—but now that he wasn’t trapped in that tiny back seat practically pressed against her, she’d become tolerable, at least. With her having to sit so close to him for so long . . . he shuddered at the thought of having to get back in the car with her.

He’d thought he’d lost his mind the second he’d slid into that seat next to her and shut the door. A foreboding sense of wrongness had washed over him suddenly and violently—so violently that instinct had screamed at him to summon his sword to his hand and stab her through the heart. But the fact that he’d never actually wanted to kill anything in his life or how much the instinct to do so freaked him out didn’t seem to matter. The feeling hadn’t subsided one bit as the miles had flown beneath him—lessening only the tiniest amount each time he slid from the back seat to take his turn to drive.

At least it wasn’t just him. Gladio and Prompto had made it clear they were feeling that same desire to either get away from her or end her life. He was pretty sure Ignis was just trying to be tough or polite about the whole thing, but Noct bet he felt it too. No doubt "Mr. Perfect" just didn’t wanna admit he was feeling murderous for no apparent reason.

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

As she leaned up on her tiptoes to replace the glass cover over the lamp—what the hell was she doing, anyway?—he studied her clothes. At least she wasn’t wearing a gown now. She was dressed just like one of the Glaives that had run into them outside his old room at the Citadel yesterday, with thigh-high combat boots, a form-fitting fatigue suit, and a short, high-collared jacket. Her long hair was clipped into a loose twist with a few long, dark tendrils falling around her face. The only personal item he could see was a necklace—a blue crystal disc that matched her eyes, covered by a silver tree and hanging from a chain of silver links. He had no idea where she was keeping her weapons. She’d implied that his dad had given her access to the Crystal’s powers on the drive out of the city, but she hadn’t placed anything into their armiger yet, as far as he knew.

“You’ve done that before,” Ignis said, looking over at her with a furrowed brow.

“Once or twice,” she said casually. “It isn’t as though it’s terribly complicated.” Without warning, she turned toward Noct, and he quickly looked away and back at her so it didn’t seem too obvious he’d been staring. “Noctis? I . . .—” She hesitated a moment, biting her bottom lip before raising her head high and continuing in a stronger voice. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you all in tomorrow’s hunt—or any hunt, for that matter.”

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

“Uh . . . why not?” Noct asked.

She took a deep breath before replying, “I’ll protect you when your life is in danger, and I’ll fight daemons with you, but I will not—no—cannot hunt down animals.”

“Even if they’re threatening people’s lives and stuff?” Prompto asked. “That Hunter guy we traded with to get the meat said they were getting sick or something—going crazy and hurting people.”

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

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

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

“Fine,” Noct shrugged. “We have enough in the group to handle the hunts anyway.” It didn’t really matter to him if she stayed behind for this whole trip, and anyway, it’d probably be best if she remained at the haven so he could get a break from her.

Gladio let out a final grunt of disapproval before stalking away toward the haven ramp. “Nobody better touch that shit,” he growled, pointing back to the pile of fabric and poles. “Gonna go for a walk to get some more firewood, but I’ll get to it when I get back.”

It didn’t look to Noct like they needed any more than they had already, but he said, “Yeah, sure.”

“Do be certain to return well before dark,” Ignis cautioned.

Gladio stopped on the ramp and turned. “Ig. Relax. I know.”

Ignis shrugged. “Very well, if you insist.” Noct ducked in his chair so he wouldn’t be noticed as Ignis turned back to his stove, but he did a double-take and addressed him. “Noct, as long as you’re . . . resting, you may as well take the opportunity to use the energy deposits and put together some elemental spells.” He unrolled his utensil pack across the spare table Laura had just unfolded for him. “They may prove useful for tomorrow.”

Noct sighed and staggered to his feet, heading toward the three deposits he’d spotted before they headed up the ramp. “Yeah, whatever.”

Ignis had been on his ass all morning for the stupidest stuff—his language, his posture, his eating habits. He didn’t get it—they’d left the city behind, and hardly anyone knew he was the Prince. This was supposed to be his bachelor party—a final moment of freedom. He thought the guy’d lighten up for a change now that the whole world wasn’t watching, but instead, he seemed to have only gotten worse.

One by one, Noct drained the energy that had gathered over time in each of the elemental stones—growing hot and sweaty as he collected the fire, shaky and sick with the electricity, and shivery with ice. Feeling nauseated, he stumbled back up to his camp chair and collapsed back into it, taking several deep breaths to calm himself and settle his trembling limbs.

“Why do those elemental deposits even exist out here if Noctis and his father are the only ones in the world that can use them?” he heard Laura ask, but he didn’t open his eyes to answer her pointless question. It didn’t really matter, did it? His dad had told him he’d have access to them at any haven, and he’d never thought to question why.

“They aren’t here merely for convenience’s sake,” Ignis answered. “Havens were constructed by Oracles on top of intersections of natural magical ley lines—sites where magic is particularly powerful. Those elemental stones pre-date the havens and act as a release for the pent-up energy, though they’ve been rendered mostly useless, since the havens now serve that function.”  

“So now they collect just enough to max out their reservoir, and the haven uses the excess to power the runes? But then that leaves a convenient node for elemental siphoning.”

“Indeed—a perfect place for House Caelum to gather what they need.” His voice darkened from vaguely impressed to frustrated, as though he was trying not to grit his teeth. “And perhaps create some spells for us to use tomorrow.”

“All right, all right. Get off my back,” Noct groaned as he sat up and summoned a flask to his hand.

“I dunno why we bother with those. They do as much damage to us as they do to what we’re attacking,” Prompto complained from where he was still crouched next to the fire ring, rearranging the wood—again.

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

Ignis sighed. “Because they’re a potent resource to have in case we need them.”

“I’m trying to make ‘em less unpredictable, but it’s hard,” Noct said, cupping the flask in his hands and staring down at it. No matter how many lessons he’d had with his dad or Ignis, it seemed like he would never be any good at this magic stuff.

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

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

It was weird, but he felt kinda bad when her expression fell a little. “Oh. All right then. I’m going to go help Gladio collect firewood. I’ll be back in a few minutes to go foraging, Ignis,” she said, pointing her thumb in the direction Gladio had walked off in.

Dread washed over him as Ignis’s head snapped up in his direction. He strode toward Noct’s chair with that frown on his face that let him know he was about to be chewed out, so he braced himself for impact when Ignis leaned in close.

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

Gods damn it, Noct didn’t want her any closer to him than she had to be; he didn’t really wanna be working on this crap at all. How could Ignis stand to be so close to her like he’d been all day?

Rolling his eyes at Ignis’s back, he reluctantly called out, “Actually, Laura, could you come back? Maybe I could use your advice.”

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

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

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

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

As she brought her hands to his, he couldn’t help but shudder in revulsion. This was more than weirdness, more than needles. This was stabbing, burning pain. But it was still bearable, so he schooled his features and forced himself to look at her. Six, that bloodlust he’d never felt in his entire life was rising inside him, practically begging him to end her life right this second, as he met her perfectly friendly eyes.

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

Closing his eyes and focusing on the elements swirling in his body, he concentrated on bringing the fire energy to his fingertips and pushing it into the glass like his dad had taught him when he’d turned twelve.

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

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

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

The knives stabbing up his bones returned when he summoned a new flask and she put her hands back on him. But as he gathered the fire and pushed it to the container, the air around him shrieked as though the world itself was in pain, and a bolt of pure lava seemed to shoot from her fingertips up his arms. He slammed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth harder against the pain, but it intensified the longer he tried to fight against it. Noct gasped as he snatched his hands away, and the flask full of pure fire elemental energy dropped from his shaking fingers onto the stone floor of the haven.

“Noct!” Ignis and Prompto yelled.

Time seemed to slow as he heard the glass shattering with a sharp, tinkling sound at his feet, but the flat tent, the kitchen area, and the sight of Ignis and Prompto hurtling toward them was immediately obscured by a wall of bright orange, billowing flame that swallowed them both whole.

When the pain he’d expected didn’t come, Noct looked up at the roaring fire inches away from his nose with a calm kind of acceptance. It was weird, he thought, sitting oddly calm in a chair engulfed by a fire like this. He couldn’t see Laura anymore as he waited in a surrealistic daze to feel something, but all he noticed was that even his arms felt fine now that Laura wasn’t touching him.

It was almost disappointing when the flames started dissipating. The dancing inferno had been kinda cool to watch.

The first person he saw when the fire curled away into the fresh air was Laura, her eyes wide and panicked as she stood and stepped back from him, her hands held up in a gesture of surrender. Prompto stood frozen with his hand reaching out uselessly for them. Ignis was the only one moving—advancing on them with two potions in his clenched fists. On seeing the two of them perfectly fine, he stopped suddenly—dismissing the potions, rushing to Noct’s side, and patting at his jacket to check for injuries.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, probably not. Think you just gave Specs a heart attack,” he chuckled.

“Hardly,” Ignis said irritably, returning to his kitchen.

“But I think I can do what you did myself now.” It was actually really easy, and he wondered why no one had taught him this before.

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

Prompto plopped in his chair and pulled his camera out. “All right! Does that mean we won’t get electrocuted anymore?”

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

“Just the one time,” Noct said defensively. “It was an accident.”

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

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

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

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

After a few moments of silence, Prompto turned to Laura and held out his camera. “Didn’t you say before you wanted to see my pics?”  

That bright smile spread over Laura’s face as she turned to Prompto. He grinned back at her like a fool. Gods, they looked like they were auditioning for a toothpaste commercial.

“Really? Yeah, course I do.” As she reached put for the camera, Noct noticed that she carefully twisted her hand at an angle to make sure she didn’t touch Prompto’s skin.

As she clicked through the photos, stopping to smile or inspect certain shots more closely, Prompto kept leaning forward and taking a breath to speak, then flinching and sitting back in his chair. Unbelievable. The guy’d finally found a pretty girl interested in his photos, and he couldn’t stand to even get near her. Noct bet it must’ve been extra uncomfortable for him—a regular person who’d never been trained to kill anything until recently—to be feeling like he wanted to murder a girl like Laura.

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

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

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

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

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

Prompto awkwardly rubbed at the back of his neck and leaned forward as much as he could stand. “So . . . whaddya think?”

“They’re fantastic,” she said immediately and enthusiastically. “This really is a great way to record our trip. But you’ve got to make sure to hand the camera off to me now and then so you can get in some shots, yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whaddya think about her no hunting thing?” Prompto asked. Noct looked up to see him fiddling with his camera lens and refusing to meet his eyes.

He lifted his shoulder in a half-shrug. “Seemed like a lame explanation, but whatever. She can stay here at the haven—far from us.”

“Yeah,” Prompto chuckled falsely. “Totally lame.”

“Are you gonna be okay with it?”

“Y-yeah! Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Cause of your thing for animals.”

He slapped his hand in the air before letting it fall to his lap, but Noct noticed that he still hadn’t lifted his eyes from his camera. “Pfft. No problem. I got this!”

“If you say so.”

Prompto placed the camera on the ground next to him, stretched his legs out, and leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head. After looking up at the sky with a dreamy expression on his face for a couple seconds, he let out a long, contented sigh.

“She’s out of my league, but we have so much in common.”

“Who’re you imagining this time?” he asked, not completely disguising the amusement in his voice.

He narrowed his eyes up at the cloudless sky, determination hardening his expression into resolve. “When all this is over, I’m gonna visit her in Hammerhead.”

“Oh, her.” He hesitated, the question seeming to catch in his throat for a second before he finally blurted out, “Hey, whaddya think you’ll do after this trip? Really.”

Prompto sucked in a lungful of air and held it for a few seconds before letting it out in a long, slow breath. “I dunno, dude. No idea. Still tryin’ to find . . . it, ya know?” 

Noct knew exactly what it felt like to be searching for “it,” whatever it was supposed to be. His purpose in life was something he’d rather not think about though, because Prompto had one advantage that Noct would never admit he envied the hell out of—the freedom to choose. Noct might not feel complete and at peace with himself when he got back from this trip like Prompto was hoping to, but he did know exactly what lay in store for him. The second he got settled, Gladio and Ignis—and probably Laura now—were gonna drag him off for the Bonding of Souls tour, at which point, he’d be ready to take over for his dad as King should anything happen.

All he knew was that he wasn’t ready.

Chapter Text

Despite his weariness, Ignis took extra care to pick up his feet as they walked the dusty plains of the Weaverwilds, though it would probably do little to spare his boots from needing a decent once over this evening. He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed in a lungful of clean, untamed air, allowing it to settle deep into his blood. Casting his eyes over the desiccated tufts of grass, the delicate grey-green bushes, the craggy piles of golden rocks, and the rugged mountains in the distance, he could plainly see now why outlanders called this place "the wild." There was no law out here, no standard of order, but nor was there bureaucracy, meetings to attend, or connections to be made.

He himself felt a little wild out here in this lawless land.

Under the guise of looking past her for more patches of wild tomatoes, he stole a glance at Laura—such a shame that all that talent should be laid to waste on a woman who refused to hunt. He couldn’t fault her for her personal philosophy, but then why become a soldier? Had the King been made aware of her limitations before assigning her on this mission? Hunting hadn’t been a certainty, but it had always been a possibility for this trip. Fortunately for Noct, he had more than Laura to rely on for safety now that they were no longer merely spending the night in Galdin and departing for Altissia, but what good would she be to any of them if the Prince were attacked and the rest of them were indisposed? These “personal philosophies” of hers certainly limited her usefulness to the group, and Ignis had formed nearly as unimpressed an opinion as Gladio on the matter.

But if what Ignis had observed of her work ethic thus far was a demonstration of her usual habit, she wasn’t completely useless. In fact, she seemed eager to help in any way she was able, which appeared to be more than he’d originally thought. Despite her supposed dimness, she’d moved through the diner and setting up camp with a self-assuredness and finesse that contradicted his original assessment. Her vocabulary and progression of logic in general conversation seemed to rival his own. Even her skill with magic, unusual side effects aside, indicated an innate talent beyond any that Ignis had ever seen. The woman had solved an age-old elemental complication in a matter of seconds as though it were nothing, for gods’ sakes!

He’d been waiting for the moment they were alone together to apologize for his behavior earlier, but now that it had arrived, he found himself apprehensive, fearing she would berate him for his display of stupidity. Astrals, he despised being wrong, even more so with an audience, and having to apologize for a misstep was even more unpleasant, as the recipient typically enjoyed ribbing him for his mistake before granting their pardon.

He let out a quiet sigh, basking in their peaceful moment for one more second before he broke the silence.

Suck it up, as Gladio would say.

Ignis gently cleared his throat to get her attention, and she looked up at him, her eyes glowing sapphire in the almost too-bright Leiden sun. Taking a steadying breath, he fought his instinct to look away from her.

“Laura, I’d like to offer my most sincere apologies for being curt with you this morning, and as it turned out, completely incorrect.”

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

“Yes, I’d noticed,” he said mildly, but then winced inwardly. Here she was being gracious, and he was finding further ways to insult her. Just because he felt wild out here didn’t mean he could afford to lose his manners and loosen his tongue. He had court to return to, after all. With a delicate sniff, he straightened, looking out to the horizon. “Well, if you won’t accept my apologies, at least allow me to express my gratitude for not calling me out in front of the others, even if they did miss a prime opportunity to take great relish in my being wrong.”

She put her hand in his path to stop him and pointed off to his left. “Green peas, yeah?”

Ignis followed her gesture and spotted a small green patch standing out starkly against a sea of brown, cracked dirt, and he nodded as he turned to head in that direction.

“I get it,” she continued. “It’s difficult, sometimes, being the one who’s always right. Means you’re never allowed to be wrong. Even your friends—they lie in wait for you to slip up so they can tease you about it.”

He exhaled a chuckle through his nose. “That’s for sure and certain.”

Did that mean she held the same role among her own friends? She’d certainly been correct this morning and was being generous with her forgiveness now. Perhaps she knew what it felt like to never be allowed to make a mistake, to always, always have to be perfect at all times. And though he strove for it in every moment, desired it more than anything in his life, even he was prone to making errors now and then. But with that sense of perfectionism came a distinct disadvantage: he’d observed that everyone around him would become careless as a result of his presence, as there was no need to put forth much effort when Ignis was always there to do it, and do it well.

Did she know what it was like to be the only responsible one? The idea gave him a little hope for this trip, as the prospect of being the only one holding them all in check when he’d been looking forward to a bit of rest depressed him somewhat, even if he would never stoop so low as to complain about it.

He watched her work as he bent to pick the peas from the plants nearest him, noticing how quickly and efficiently she moved—organizing her search for the pods from top to bottom, right to left—before moving on to the next plant. He found himself mimicking her actions when he noticed that the way she brushed her hands against the undersides of the lush green leaves revealed the pods faster than his own inexperienced fumbling. How could a plant such as this even survive out here in such an arid climate, anyway?

Her eyes slid to his as she took a step to begin searching the plant in front of him.

“Thank you for agreeing to teach me to forage. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the plants in this area—hopefully the animals as well.”

“You’re very welcome.” He hesitated a moment as she drew closer to drop her peas into the burlap sack he was holding, wondering whether he should utilize this tactic to pull information from her or if it wouldn’t be prudent to get her guard up so early in the conversation. He decided to throw caution to the wind and speak as though he’d already had her figured out. “I don’t imagine you had much call to be outdoors in the Crown City and thought you might appreciate the guidance. I myself am only familiar with the local flora and fauna because of my paltry studies beforehand,” he said with a disarming, somewhat self-deprecating smile.

Her eyes shot to his, and he realized he’d erred with her again as she frowned. “You would do well to take into account your level of experience in all things, not simply combat, before you go making judgments about that which you believe you understand. You may not realize it yet, but you have quite a narrow-minded view of the world, Ignis Scientia.”

Of course, she’d recognized his attempt to irritate her into correcting his assumption. She was obviously far, far more intelligent than he’d initially given her credit for, and he was the slow one for not having adjusted his strategy to compensate. Her rebuke stirred in him a conflicting desire to defend against the insult of which he'd never been accused in his life or to simply apologize for his behavior. He was about to open his mouth to deliver the latter of his two options, but she held a hand up to stop him.

“Let's cut through the games, shall we? If it’s additional clues you’re looking for, I’m no stranger to living off the wild. I may look and sound like one of you, but I’m not from Insomnia—from anywhere in Lucis, actually. And I think you’ve already gathered I’m not truly a Glaive.”

He stood frozen for several moments as she dropped in the rest of her peas and continued walking in their original direction. He’d suspected several possible scenarios for her origins, but this hadn’t been one of them. Thinking on the matter, the idea that she wasn’t from Lucis at all explained so much, really, including why she was unfamiliar with the most basic facts of their society—not to mention that rather odd “rhinoceros” gaffe earlier. Though she spoke in perfect royal and commoner Lucian accents, Lucian may not have even been her first language.

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

Then he had another thought.

Jogging to catch up to her, he exclaimed, “Surely you’re not from Niflheim!”

She stopped to glare at him, clearly offended by his insinuation. “Narrow-minded,” he thought he heard her mutter, before she raised her voice to him. “Of course I’m not!”

The thought had occurred to him that every word out of her mouth so far had been a lie, but there were two compelling reasons why he chose to believe her. The first and foremost reason was that his king had vouched for her, and Ignis trusted his liege with his and Noct’s lives both. The second reason was far more mystical but no less trustworthy—he could feel it in his bones that she was telling the truth. His entire life, Ignis had relied heavily on his intuition, a sense he felt was somehow connected to the magic in his blood that told him whether a person was safe to be trusted. She felt . . . right to him, but even his instinct wouldn’t allow him to ignore the curiosity nearly burning him alive whenever he stumbled upon something that he couldn’t answer.

He’d discovered a newfound sense of respect for her, but there was so much about her that still didn’t add up. He decided to lay aside rhetorical tactics and instead speak straight with her as she had with him.

“My apologies, but then where are you from? The King neglected to give us the story of your background before we left.”

“He neglected to tell me of a lot of things in that study of his, but he did manage to inform me you’d be a pain, you know. He wasn’t wrong,” she shot back, but her voice softened as she said, “Of course, I mean that in the kindest sense. I think he’d be proud of you right now, living up to his expectations.”

Seemingly oblivious to his numb shock at her response, she broke eye contact and gazed into the distance, her expression growing faraway as though she were debating something inside that infuriatingly inscrutable mind of hers. King Regis had informed her that Ignis would be “a pain”? He wasn’t certain how he felt about that assessment, but he couldn’t allow himself to be distracted in such an important conversation.

He thought she’d chosen not to respond to his original question when she began walking again, but he followed after her, waiting patiently and silently for an answer. It was only once he’d begun fantasizing about grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking the answer from her—though he would never do such a thing—that she scoffed quietly.

“From. What does that even mean, anyway? I’m from . . . so many places, all so very far away. I’m sure you’ve never heard of any of them.”

“Still, I should like to know,” he replied gently in defiance of his impatience.

With a deep sigh as though she were about to begin some epic tale, she said, “I was born in a city . . . well, it would be more of a village to you and your Crown City, called Lliaméra, deep in the heart of the Palomian Forest of Miriásia. Everyone’s gone now, though—wiped from existence. I'm all that’s left.”

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

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

“Quite the opposite of ‘on the brink of a war,’ I’d say. If all goes according to plan, the treaty will be signed in a matter of days, and peace will return to Eos once more.”

If all goes according to plan,” she pointed out, and he frowned at the statement. So, even an outsider had noticed everything that had plucked a foul chord in his instincts as well? That certainly boded ill. Before he could formulate a reply, she asked, “Can I ask you a question?”

Ignis glanced at her warily from the side of his eye. He supposed he deserved no less after having lured her out here under false pretenses, but now that he’d been caught, it didn’t mean he would be naïve enough to fall for the same scheme and give her unfettered access to his knowledge.

“That depends on the question.”

She appeared to be surprised by his reaction to her request, but asked, “Tell me about Lady Lunafreya?”

“That wasn’t a question at all,” he said carefully.

He was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt—perhaps she hadn’t realized that the vague wording of her question was a tactic he himself used when attempting to pull the most important information from someone, as they were likely to answer with facts most relevant to them first. There was certainly too much of Noct’s heart potentially hidden in her query that he would not share with her.

“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I’ll be clearer. The reports keep reassuring everyone that her marriage won’t interfere with her duties as Oracle as though the people are terrified that it will. What exactly are her duties, and why are people so frightened? Surely, with modern medicine, people aren’t that desperate for healing?”

He relaxed at the benign nature of the information she was seeking, but curiosity nagged at him once again. “Were your people not susceptible to the very same plague? Evidence suggests it’s been present in the world for over two thousand years, though we’re only recently seeing its slow rise in the last thirty years or so. As such, we know very little about it. Legend tells us it was released on the world during the War of the Astrals and set dormant by the Founder King of Lucis and the First Oracle. We refer to it as Starscourge, and it causes the afflicted to disappear into thin air.”

“My gods—a virus as a result of a war,” she breathed, her face growing pale. “History repeating itself—that’s exactly what happened to my people.”

Something about her pallor struck another chord of familiarity with him, more powerful than any he’d had thus far. Without hesitation, he stepped directly in her path and raised his hands to catch her should she fall, though had she asked, he wouldn’t have been able to explain why he expected her to. As he looked down and met her puzzled eyes, he was suddenly overcome with the instinct to protect this stranger, to take care of her, though he couldn’t fathom a reason for it. He felt that she was delicate, somehow weak, despite all evidence to the contrary. The sudden onset of these irrational thoughts unnerved him. Where had they come from out of nowhere? He dropped his hands, but to his alarm, she tentatively reached out to brush gentle fingers against his chest, just over his heart.

The sensation of her touch was far more intimate than he was expecting. He took a step beyond her reach and looked away.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I thought for a moment, you weren’t . . ..”

“What?”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

He turned his head to meet her eyes, frowning in confusion. Had he missed something? “You didn’t.”

She took a small step forward, seemingly searching for something deep in his eyes, but she didn’t make any additional move to touch him. “Who are you really, Ignis Scientia? You’re no chef.”

“Noticed that, have you?” he said wryly in an attempt to break this odd tension building between them. “You’re right; I’m not. But I think you’ll find I share similar sentiments regarding you.”

“So many times today, an odd expression will cross your face when you look at me. What’s going through your head when you do that?”

“It’s irritating me I can’t place where I know you from.”

Without any sort of signal on either’s behalf, they began walking side-by-side once again, more slowly this time. He didn’t make even a half-hearted attempt to search for more peas and tomatoes, and he noticed that her eyes remained locked firmly ahead of her.

“I’ve only been in Insomnia a few days, and I was telling the truth when I said I’ve seen you around the library. The Citadel itself as well.”

“No. This is more than a chance glimpse.”

He watched her expression carefully for any sign of deceit, but he could only detect a slight stirring of melancholia as she shook her head. “I’m sorry. Whoever you’re looking for, she isn’t me. Perhaps I simply remind you of someone.”

“I’ll admit to the possibility, but I rather doubt it. I don’t forget a face easily.”

Her tone grew light as she offered, “I’ve been told that I look like the Prince. Personally, I don’t see it.”

“No,” he said with a laugh, “your resting expression isn’t nearly as dour.”

“A predominant trait in royalty, I assure you,” she said with her own chuckle, but she grew serious with the sort of sudden heaviness she’d displayed back at the haven. “It’s understandable, given the weight they often bear.”

“Indeed.”

They let the silence fall between them as they walked—comfortable at first, but the longer his last statements echoed in his own ears, the more uneasy Ignis grew. He hoped she hadn’t thought his remark disloyal to his liege, as he hadn’t intended to express any sentiments of the kind. People often mistook what he considered his sarcastic sense of humor for savagery when he never meant it in that manner. As such, he’d learned long ago to keep his inner commentary quiet, but he’d found himself slipping more often in recent weeks in more casual company. He’d have to be more careful of that in the future.

There was no way to recant his previous statement, however, without appearing defensive, so he let the matter go.

“You never answered my question, you know,” Laura said suddenly.

“My apologies. What was the question?”

“Lady Lunafreya. Princess Lunafreya—whatever. Her duties? Is she the only one who can heal the Starscourge, then?”

Finding himself once more in familiar territory as the teacher, he eased back into his history lesson. “Historically, the Oracle has been gifted with the ability to alleviate the blight’s effect on the population and planet by healing the disease and clearing the atmosphere, though I’ve come across conflicting reports on whether all Oracles are capable of healing.”

“But Lunafreya definitely is?”

“Yes. In addition to acting as the bridge of communication between mortal and divine, Lady Lunafreya travels from settlement to settlement, healing the Starscourge until the true King of Light ascends to rid the world of it completely.”

“And the King of Light is Noctis.”

“Correct. The world awaits the day Noct is to ascend as King and rid the world of its influence.”

“And how does he intend to do that?”

“We’re . . . not certain,” he admitted reluctantly. “No one is.”

They’d been told this story for over half their lives—Noct would be the one to rid the world of “the darkness”—though none of them knew exactly what that would entail. Despite Ignis’s most persistent questioning, no one from the King himself to the lowest Draconian priest seemed to have any idea what would be required of them to do. Their nebulous destiny was one of the reasons Ignis had toiled so hard all his life—his promise had come to include taking care of Noct as he met the great weight of that destiny. Ambiguous though their future was, it had become Ignis’s sole purpose in life to see him through it.

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

That part of the prophecy seemed to be relatively clear, at least. “Eternal darkness and the eventual end of all mankind.”

“Of course,” she said with a nod, as though he hadn’t just proposed the extinction of the entire world. “That seems to be the only consequence there ever is with these sorts of things.”

Ignis froze when she suddenly stopped and flung out a hand in his path, though he noted she’d been careful not to touch him.

“What is it?” he whispered as she tilted her head—as though she were listening carefully to the barest of auditory stimulus on the air.

“Shh. Do you hear that?”   

He closed his eyes and cocked his head, straining to listen. Other than the wind blowing through the sparse greenery, he couldn’t hear anything that would have caught her interest.

Shaking his head, he said, “No. What is it?”

As she looked out to the rock formations surrounding the two of them, her eyes sparkling with excitement and mischief, a slow, almost manic smile spread over her features—full of wonder and electricity that Ignis couldn’t possibly fathom a reason for. Nevertheless, he felt his blood quicken in his veins and his own lips quirk in amusement at her sudden, unexplained joy.

“Ignis,” she whispered, the hushed breathiness of it dripping with elation. “Come with me. Keep quiet.” She turned to their right and jogged forward a few steps, but when he didn’t immediately comply, she looked back, beckoning for him to follow.

“Come on! Allons-y!” she coaxed with an almost girlish giggle.

He understood the sentiment, if not the second, foreign-sounding phrase, and followed after her.

She trotted off on silent feet to a nearby rock formation, which stuck out from the ground like a mountain made miniature. Quick though he’d always considered himself on his feet, he found it somewhat difficult to keep up with her and keep his eyes on his surroundings while flitting over bushes and rocks jutting out from the hard-packed sand.

What could she have possibly heard all the way out here that he couldn’t?

As they reached the base of the massive boulder, she held a finger to her lips and crept around the corner. He followed behind until she halted suddenly, and he poked his head around hers to see what had gotten her attention.

The creature was rather large—easily six meters tall, had it been standing. Even lying with its legs curled beneath itself under the shade of the rock wall, its face rested well above their heads. As it whipped its horned, wedge-shaped head to look at them in alarm, Ignis summoned his polearm automatically to his hand. Judging by its physiology, it was likely herbivorous, but the dinner-plate-sized hooves and long, vestigial claws were still capable of doing them great damage, should it choose to do so. And though Ignis hadn’t yet come across the creature’s entry in his field guide, Takka had said that all the animals in the area were dangerous.

The animal seemed to read his thoughts and proved Takka’s statement when it bared its teeth threateningly and loosed a long, resounding bray.

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

“Laura, don’t,” he hissed, though he obeyed her silent instruction not to attack.

His rather eerie sense regarding her delicacy having passed, Ignis wasn’t terribly concerned for her safety, as he knew she could summon a weapon and kill the creature before it could even stand. Still, given her refusal to hunt, he wasn’t completely certain she would do so, even if her life were in danger.

“This one’s different,” she said softly, still taking slow, careful steps toward the beast. “Perhaps someone tried to keep it as a pet?”

He had no idea how she had reached this conclusion, but it seemed unlikely, given that the animal had stretched its prodigiously long neck taut to meet her as she neared, its lips quivering to take a sizable chunk out of her.

Ignis was about to jump out to defend her when, without looking away from the creature, she said in a soothing voice, “Ignis? Don’t you dare.”

He reluctantly obeyed, remaining rooted to the spot as she drew closer. It went against every instinct he had, allowing the head of that enormous wild animal to reach the vulnerable-looking girl, but then he had to remind himself that appearances could be deceiving. She held her arms out as the animal deposited its muzzle, which was nearly as large as her torso, into her embrace.

“Hello, dear,” she cooed, stroking its cheeks, and Ignis had to splutter a quiet laugh at the absurdity of this mad situation he’d somehow found himself in.

At the sound of his laughter, Laura looked up at him, gesturing with her head that he should approach. “Put that thing away and come here,” she said gently.

Swallowing, Ignis dismissed his polearm and took a cautious step forward. Surely, he would be safe if the creature hadn’t yet attacked her? It wasn’t as though he knew anything about interacting with animals in the wild or reading their body language. His uncertainty from his inexperience was a new, uncomfortable sensation, but Laura did seem to be somewhat of an expert in this. He decided to trust that expertise in the face of his ignorance.

As he approached, she moved around to the beast’s side, settling on the dry, brittle grass with her back against its belly and her legs stretched out in front of her. Seemingly dissatisfied with the cessation of her attentions, the animal curled its neck around and deposited its muzzle in her lap, and she ran her fingers lightly over its velvety tawny nose with a soft murmur. At her touch, it heaved a whooshing, breathy sigh that hitched her entire body forward and back with the movement.

He stood over her when he reached them, uncertain of what to do. Noticing his hesitation, she patted the ground next to her and said, “Come sit down with me . . . if you want.”

The idea intrigued him, he had to admit, but he couldn’t help but eye the sparse grass surrounded by dusty, cracked dirt. He’d been keeping an eye on his lists of things to do today as the hours crept past without the opportunity to get anything done. An overwhelming number of tasks awaited him when he returned to camp, and he didn’t need to add any additional time to the laundry by having to scrub even more filth from his clothes.

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

“I—”

“Just sit down, and I’ll clean your clothes myself when we get back,” she huffed. “You’re absolutely mad if you thought for a moment I wasn’t going to help with that, anyway.”

He had thought that, in fact, but still he replied politely, “That won’t be necessary.”

Still, he decided to acquiesce for this unique circumstance and settled down next to her, stretching his legs out in front of him along the animal’s long hind legs. He tried not to think about the fact that a single kick in his direction could kill him outright as he leaned back against the beast’s ribs, feeling the animal rock his body with each breath.

The feeling was . . . actually rather pleasant as he sat in the shade and looked out at the sweeping view of otherworldly landscape surrounding them. After removing the glove from his left hand and setting it in his lap, he ever so carefully stretched his palm over the beast's leg, stroking the short, wiry fur.

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

He opened his eyes to glare at her. “Do you mean to say that you approached this thing not even knowing what it was?” he demanded.

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

In what seemed to be a frequent habit of his since they’d left this morning, he took in a slow, deep breath through his nose, filling his lungs until they tingled from stretching so far. Beyond the scent of wild animal, he could smell the dirt; the sweet, dry grass; and the heat on the wind. The aroma was so very different from the stench of car exhaust fumes, sewage, and humid trash he had grown up with in the city, even in the wealthier districts close to the Citadel. This aroma was wild, savage, free, and he could tell that it was beginning to infect his blood and mind—untaming him. He’d been out of the influence of the royal court for mere hours and already he was sitting in the dirt with a woman he hardly knew with his back to a feral animal. Perhaps he was the one that had gone mad, but Astrals, was he ever enjoying it.

“Yes, it’s lovely,” he said, looking over at her with a crooked smile.

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

Ignis leaned his head back against the beast’s belly as she was and gazed up at the sky in silent awe. It was just so . . . massive, so clear, so blue. He’d never seen anything like it.

“I’ve never done anything like that, except perhaps in my dreams.” He hesitated a moment, debating whether he should add this more personal tidbit, but he finally decided that it would be a good test of her reception of his innermost thoughts at a relatively low risk should she prove cruel or dismissive. “I tended to avoid looking at the sky as a child, and it’s a habit that’s followed me into adulthood.”

“I think I can understand that, with your Wall above your head, but we’ll have to break you of that habit now that you’re out here.”

He closed his eyes as the warm wind whipped through his hair. “Yes, I believe you’re right . . ..”

***

“Ignis,” came a gentle whisper.

The animal beneath his back flinched as he startled awake, and he bolted upright, his eyes darting over his surroundings in unfocused alarm.

“Hey there, sleepyhead,” Laura said kindly from above him, and he looked up to see her smiling sweetly down at him.

“I . . . I fell asleep,” he said dumbly.

“Yes, you did.”

Bloody hell, how could he have fallen asleep out here in the middle of nowhere when anything could have attacked them? How irresponsible could he have been? He supposed Laura had been keeping a lookout, but even if he’d technically been safe, he was hardly making a good first impression.

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

“A couple of hours.” Horror flooded him, and the color must have drained from his face, because her brow furrowed in concern. “It’s all right, Ignis. I kept watch. It’s just that you looked like you needed the rest.”

“It’s not that,” he spat, although that was part of the issue. “We need to get back. I have more things to do than hours in the day, and I’ve just wasted two.”

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

While her sentiment was touching, she didn’t understand that his life was a never-ending rotation of lists, tasks, chores, requests—and that was to say nothing of his own endeavors to improve himself. No matter where she was from, her skills and education still clearly suggested that she’d been raised a noblewoman, and though he himself was titled, his circumstances were very different from those of most courtiers. There would always be more to do, and even if a miracle occurred and he somehow managed to accomplish his every task, someone was going to ask him for a favor. Someone was going to break something, muddy something, need something, and he would be the only one who could fix it.

Caring for the Chosen meant that the fate of the entire world was constantly in his hands, and it was especially vital for his king and country that this trip be completed without the slightest error.

And he wasn’t off to the greatest of starts.

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

The moment they returned to the haven, Ignis headed to his prep table and summoned his notebook, which contained all his recipes, notes, and lists. As often as he was teased that he could use his phone for these tasks, he found he rather enjoyed the satisfaction of crossing something out, and especially throwing a completed list away. Even as he copied down his recipes, he would find himself idly sketching certain ingredients, perhaps even drawing what he expected the final product to look like so that he could anticipate plating it in a manner that would maximize the potential for presentation. These things couldn’t be accomplished on a mobile.

His daily to-do list was tucked into the front cover, which he pulled out and began to scan to determine how much he could get done before he needed to begin preparing supper for the group.

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

Ignis glanced at the fire ring before casting his eyes around the site, his attention catching on the large stack of sticks and wood pieces next to the tent, which had successfully been erected since they’d left.

“He’s likely all right. Gladio has been eager to enjoy the wild. I imagine he went for a hike.”

“Then I think I’ll help Prompto set up his shot for tonight—unless you need my help with anything?”

“No, that’s quite all right. Go and assist Prompto,” he replied, nodding to where Prompto sat fiddling with his camera in his camp chair next to his set-up tripod.

“All right. Don’t worry about making an entrée for me tonight, and you can skip making the bread. I already have some I can give you for the group.”

She had already headed over to the other side of the haven to speak to Prompto by the time he looked up from his list, not giving him a chance to respond. Only four entrées tonight? And how had she known he was going to need bread this evening? He pulled his fountain pen out of his jacket pocket to cross one item off—a relief, really. Making bread wasn’t particularly labor intensive, but it was terribly time consuming, and he didn’t have anything near as extravagant as a levain to make sourdough. He wondered whether she had made it this morning before leaving in anticipation of their needing it. It seemed impossible, given how early they’d left.

When he found “Make Bread” on his list, however, he saw that it had already been crossed out. Had she found his notebook in the armiger? She’d already known the book wasn’t private, he supposed, as he’d had it out to refer to it several times already that day in front of her, including when he’d come up with his new recipe at the diner. His brow furrowed as he scanned the list to discover that she had crossed other items off besides the bread.

He set his notebook down and summoned Noct’s jacket. Sure enough, the buttons had been sewn back on with clean, precise stitches. He dismissed the jacket and summoned Noct’s sword, which he’d meant to sharpen and clean either this afternoon or this evening. Not only had it been polished, but it bit easily into his fingernail when he gently brushed it against the edge. He checked each of the blades on his list: his daggers, his polearm, even his straight-edge razor, for gods’ sakes, had been cleaned, polished, and sharpened. Had she done all this as he slept? How on Eos had he managed to sleep through that? How had she found the time to do it all in only two hours?

Ignis’s gaze snapped to where Laura sat next to Prompto, and as though she could feel his eyes on her, she looked up at him.

Her attention dropped to his razor in his hands before sliding back up to his face. Ever so slowly, her lips pulled wide, the skin around her eyes crinkled, and her eyes glittered with delight.

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

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

Chapter Text

Ignis inspected his completed spread one last time, questioning his every decision made this evening. Perhaps it hadn’t been the wisest choice to serve a dish so similar to what they’d had for lunch, but he was eager to evaluate just how much he could improve on Takka’s recipe while the memory of the original was still fresh in his mind. In honor of Prompto’s newfound obsession with the joint, or perhaps with the “goddess” two shops down, Ignis had decided to call his recreation Grease Monkey's Schnitzel Sandwiches.

Takka had clearly used fresh, high-quality meat in the original recipe, which Ignis believed he had matched with the well-marbled garula steak tenderloins he’d managed to trade from a Hunter named Dave in exchange for a generous portion of their seemingly endless supply of rice and what was left of their meagre amount of gil. Laura’s bread had elevated the dish considerably—her caramelized crust, airy crumb structure, and complex varieties of wheat he’d never before tasted in his life added a depth of flavor that Takka’s processed bread couldn’t touch.

But if the thought wasn’t conceited of him, Ignis believed he’d managed to bring his own flair to the recipe as well in order to more effectively coax better flavors and textures from the simple ingredients.

He had substituted panko crumbs instead of what he had believed to be breadcrumbs made from Takka’s stale, processed bread—allowing for a thicker, lighter, and less greasy crust that wouldn’t lose its crunch as easily. He also butchered the tenderloins to enable him to fry the cutlets properly, allowing for a blush of medium-rare that gave the meat more flavor. To finish the dish, he had simply garnished with fresh, biting parsley, choosing to dispense with the heavy tomato sauce that Ignis believed had overpowered the sweet umami of the garula tenderloins.

He leaned in to examine one of the five plates more closely before reaching to grab a towel and wipe off a spare piece of parsley that had landed on the plate’s edge instead of the sandwich. Adept as he was at remembering instructions, he recalled with perfect clarity that Laura had requested that he not prepare dinner for her this evening, but a small, insignificant voice in the back of his head had suggested that he might be able to entice her to broaden her culinary horizons somewhat with a more gourmet option than what she’d been presented with this afternoon.

Picky eaters were his specialty, after all.

Satisfied with his presentation, he turned to where the other four sat around the campfire and announced, “Dinner is served.”

Prompto leapt immediately from his seat and skipped to his side. “All right! Thanks, Iggy!”

“Four guys, a camp fire, and fresh fried meat. Can’t beat that,” Gladio said, grinning at him.

“And a woman,” Ignis muttered softly, casting him a significant glare and adding an edge of impatience to his tone. He’d thought this had been settled earlier this evening when he’d informed Gladio that Laura’s ignorance was due to a difference in culture, not a lack of intelligence, and his concerns about the Kingsglaive near the Royal Family during this turbulent time didn’t apply in this case, either.

To his credit, Gladio’s face fell somewhat. “Oh yeah . . . sorry.”

As they lined up at his table to choose their plates and make their personalized adjustments, Ignis watched each of them carefully to take note of their preferences. He did his best to conceal his disgust when Prompto immediately applied a copious amount of ketchup, so close to what Takka had served them this afternoon. Even Gladio and Noct dumped a healthy portion of steak sauce on his perfectly golden-brown crust. Were they not willing to try it as Ignis had originally intended? His plainer recipe had been designed to better showcase the meat’s tender, juicy flavor, of which he knew they were all fond. Still—if that was how they preferred their meals, he would hold his tongue. All that mattered was that it would fill their stomachs and please them, really.

Besides, they likely didn’t realize that it was no simple matter to fry foods on a camp stove.

“I can’t believe you did all this,” Laura said in a low voice, and Ignis turned from his inspection of Noct’s plate to look down at her.

To add to his disappointment this evening, he saw that she’d only placed two dry pieces of toast on a fresh plate. So much for his small hope, but surely, it couldn’t be coincidence that she was eating only the food she had contributed this evening? Did his cooking appear that unappetizing? He’d certainly put a great deal of effort into impressing all of them, including her, with his skills, but he seemed to have fallen short of her estimation.

“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked earnestly, hoping she would provide him with some feedback for why she had refrained this evening. She had to have been starving, as hard as she’d been working alongside them all, and he hadn’t seen her eat anything of substance all day.

She set her plate down on the edge of the prep table. “I’m fine,” she replied quietly so the others couldn’t hear. He frowned after her as she headed to the cooler where they kept the drinking water—bottled for convenience but filled from the tap in Hammerhead after they’d used up their supply pushing the Regalia this morning.

Distracted, he groped for his plate and took it to sit in his camp chair by the fire. Was it his imagination, or did she seem wearier than she had appeared earlier this afternoon? He remembered she’d been pale and shaking yesterday in the throne room. Perhaps she was recovering from an illness—and today’s exertions would hardly have been a help. Astrals, he should have remembered and made soup this evening, instead. Tomorrow, perhaps, he could try out a recipe for tender roast stew with their remaining supply of garula meat.

“Glad you made these, Specs,” Noct said happily from his spot across from the fire. “Think I could probably eat this every d—”

A gentle breeze blew through the haven, collecting the smoke from the fire into a whirlwind that billowed directly into Noct’s face. He choked on his final word and leaned forward to cover his mouth and cough violently.

“You okay there, Noct?” Prompto asked.

“M-man!” he said shakily when the air had gone still. “It’s like it likes me or somethin’ tonight. How come it’s not chasing after you guys?”

Ignis was about to explain that he’d informed Noct of the wind patterns this afternoon and had organized the campsite so that both his stove and the campfire would blow directly off the haven and not into the chairs or tent, but Gladio spoke first.

“Sit on this side. It’s not blowin’ this way.”

“Yeah. Good idea.”

“Not bad, Ig,” Gladio remarked with a grunt as put his sandwich down on his plate and reached for the beer down by his feet.

“You kidding me? I never ate like this at home. This is awesome, Iggy!” Prompto exclaimed.

Ignis ducked his head, staring down at his plate. Pleased as he was to hear their gratitude, however, he couldn’t help but smile a little to himself. “It’s nothing, really.”

“You posh royals are spoiled if you think this is what normal people eat while camping,” Laura said to Gladio and Noct. She flashed a glowing smile at Ignis as she strode past them with her plate and bottle. “You’d better be grateful Ignis apparently has superhuman skills in the kitchen.”

Then why had she refused to even try his meal? He certainly didn’t want to sound like an impudent brat and ask her directly—particularly if the reason was what he suspected.

As she twisted to get by him, taking extra care not to brush his knees with her thighs as she passed between him and the fire, it occurred to him that she had no place to sit. He stood, gesturing to his chair.

“Please, take my seat. I’m afraid we weren’t given enough notice to procure camping equipment for you, and we weren’t certain whether you would bring your own. We’ll make it our first priority once our finances are in order.”

Laura shook her head, motioning for him to sit back down as she folded her legs beneath her on the glowing haven rock next to him.

“This is fine,” she nearly whispered before looking down to pick unenthusiastically at her toast.

Already, he was beginning to despise that word.

“We uh . . . need to get another tent, too, and an extra sleeping bag,” Prompto said, wincing. “I’m not sure how we’re all gonna fit in the tent tonight.”

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

“You’re gonna need shelter if we camp out when it rains. We won’t get ya nothing fancy, but it’ll get the job done,” Gladio said with a frown. “Make it the first thing we do when we get the bounties for our hunts, Iggy.”

“I intend to do just that,” he replied, heartened to see that Gladio was finally showing his friendlier side to Laura despite his dislike and somewhat justified opinion of her.

If they were to pass the entire three weeks before the wedding in such close and possibly dangerous quarters, they would all need to get along, at the very least, and hopefully become a cohesive unit in that time. Ignis believed he had established a tentative rapport after this afternoon, despite his clumsiness, and Prompto had made significant strides in extending a hand of friendship. It was past time for the others to do the same.

“Man, it’s nice having no roof—open sky,” Gladio sighed, stretching his legs out toward the fire. “I could live out here.”

“I bet you must’ve felt cramped in the city,” Prompto said.

“Is that a crack about my size?”  

“Uhh . . . no! I totally didn’t mean it like that! It’s just uh . . . you know, how everything’s crowded.”

“The groans and yelps in the distance are kinda creepy though. Think they’re daemons?” Noct asked.

“Mostly nocturnal animals, but I think a couple of them are daemons, yes,” Laura answered.

“I’ve been tryin’ to ignore the shrieks, but thanks for the reminder! Sleeping tonight’s gonna be soooo much fun!” Prompto said sarcastically.

“Don’t think I’m gonna have much of a problem, after today,” Noct said.

Gladio barked out a single, sharp laugh. “You mean after every day.”

For his part, Ignis focused on the dancing flames in front of him, idly picking at his meal and only half paying attention to the conversation as he organized the evening ahead of him. The night air had grown surprisingly chilly as it had grown darker, and even after the day spent sweating in his jacket to keep the blazing sun from burning him through his dress shirt, he found he was glad he’d kept it on through the heat of the day and as the sun sank below the horizon.

Though somewhat darker-skinned because of the Lucian half of his heritage, he was still pale in comparison to Gladio, a full-blooded Lucian noble on both sides of his family for generations who seemed to tan without burning at all. But what Ignis now understood to be his father’s Tenebraean blood combined with a lifetime spent indoors beneath the Wall’s protection meant that Ignis tended to burn somewhat before darkening into a tan—an unpleasant experience he’d rather avoid.

As Caelums had mixed with members of Tenebraean nobility for generations, it appeared as though Noct had suffered for the royal porcelain skin that many a Lucian noble strived to obtain. He’d have to ensure that Noct remembered to put on sunscreen before they went out tomorrow morning—Prompto as well, as whatever his heritage, he seemed to have suffered the worst from today’s exertions in the sun.

Ignis cast a quick glance at Laura, noting that she was as fair-skinned as a Tenebraean royal, and yet it didn’t appear as though the sun had even touched her today. Clearly, she’d taken even greater precautions than he before she’d left the city. He wondered if this Miriásia was some isolated region on the Terraverden continent somewhere, at war with the Empire before it fell to the scourge.

Once they had all finished eating, Ignis turned to the dirty dishes piled up on the prep table with a sigh. This was how it was going to be every evening, was it? He supposed being given the role of dishwasher wasn’t entirely inappropriate, as they all knew of Ignis’s fastidiousness when it came to cleanliness—and of his frequent habit of deep-cleaning Noct’s apartment when it got out of hand.

Still, it would have been kind of one of them to offer their help.

As he poured the rest of the heated water from the stove into his washing bucket, he glanced around the site, noting that Noct had crawled into the tent to play on his phone—probably moments away from drifting off to sleep, Prompto had wandered to the edge of the haven to finalize his aperture and ISO settings, and Gladio had found a clear space behind the tent to perform his routine bodyweight exercises.

“Do you need any help?” came a soft query from behind him. He turned to find Laura standing close by, already reaching for the dishtowel he’d laid on the spare prep table.

As much as he would appreciate her company while he worked, he couldn’t possibly ask her to take over more of his tasks. “As I said earlier, you’ve done enough already. I’m in your debt as it is for taking over my responsibilities this afternoon.”

He may not have wished to owe her anything more than he already did, but he did secretly hope she would stay and talk with him, instead. There was still so much more he wanted to know, but he feared he’d pushed the bounds of politeness too far already with his direct questioning earlier. Perhaps she would volunteer more the more accustomed they became to each other and proved trustworthy.

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

“Really, it’s not nec—” he began, but he was forced to take a step as she practically pushed him aside with her hip.

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

Ignis turned his head away and closed his eyes for a moment. Kindness without cost. Could it really be that simple?

He merely hadn’t wanted the others to expect solicitude from him and take him for granted—even if he was technically a servant of the retinue by extension of being Noct’s servant, and even if he’d already resigned himself to the role of kitchen master for the duration of this trip. If he were honest with himself, this went against everything he was—asking a guest and a lady to compensate for him without repayment—even if his title was likely equal to or higher than hers. Not only was it a blow to his pride, to ask for her assistance in his duties was simply not how he was raised by his tutors.

But they were no longer in a royal court; they were out here in the wild, where the others had already mentioned to him several times to relax. It wasn’t as though he were ungrateful for his position in life; he was only too happy to serve and see the moments when others appreciated his efforts. But he had to admit that he was growing rather weary of always walking alone through life, of being worn down all the time, of having to pretend to always be perfectly put together in every moment when he was often hanging by only a thread and a cup of coffee.

The alluring solution Laura was presenting him with offered the possibility of finding relief while still holding true to the decorum necessary for serving the Prince, but in Insomnia, these offers usually came at a price. Though he’d slipped with her more than once today, she’d yet to take her pound of flesh from him in repayment, and he was beginning to wonder if she ever would. She had proven herself trustworthy thus far—that he was permitted to be wrong in front of her. Could he also be weak, if even for only a moment? The afternoon he had spent with her seemed to suggest so.

Well, there was really only one answer to give her, in the end. It wasn’t as though he could beat her away from the kitchen area. He turned back to her and nodded once.

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

Her eyes seemed to light up as a slow grin spread over her face. “You are most welcome.” Without another word on the matter, she took the wet plate he was gripping too tightly in his hands and began rubbing it dry.

Apparently, it really was that simple.

They’d almost finished with the dishes; all that was left was the pan Laura had just finished draining of oil when she looked up at him with that wide-eyed euphoric expression he had already come to identify as wonder.

“Ignis,” she whispered in a luminous voice. He stopped scrubbing as she reached up to dim the lamp on the pole next to them. “The sun’s gone down. When was the last time you looked at the sky?”

Silently, he turned his attention out over the desert and raised his eyes, dropping the pan in the bucket as awe overcame him. Long had he been fascinated with the idea of the stars, though he’d given up on the prospect of ever seeing any when he was a child. Ignis had done his best to engage Noct in the hobby when they were younger—reading from his astronomy book when he had trouble sleeping after his incident with the marilith. Together, they would lie awake on the window bench in Noct’s room, gazing at the pictures, making up stories about the constellations, and imagining they could see them through the haze of the Wall and light pollution from the city.

But for all their dreaming, Ignis had never imagined a sight such as this.

Never in his life had the sky seemed so . . . enormous—so completely all-encompassing that he felt small in comparison. It wasn’t possible that the night sky could be so impossibly black that it was almost a void that would swallow him whole. But no, the longer he looked, the more he realized that the twinkling points of light transformed the inky blackness into a velvety blue he wished he could reach up and brush his fingers against. He hadn’t believed Laura when she’d said “ten billion stars” to Prompto earlier this afternoon, but what other number could describe the sea of sparkles he was currently humbled by?

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

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

The idea was inconceivable, but even trying to imagine the concept made him feel tiny and insignificant in this miraculous infinite universe. “I’ve never seen anything so dazzling in all my life.”

“And to think, this is only your first night out of the city,” she said with a soft smile in her tone. “Imagine what else we’ll see on this journey of ours.”

Something inside him seemed to break as he stared up at that expanse of wild beauty—his heart began to throb in his throat and his insides suddenly felt too large for his skin to hold him together. He was freefalling into something he neither understood nor felt entirely comfortable with, but the rush of sensation flooding him was exhilarating. Surely, he wasn’t alone in feeling like this when taking in such a magnificent sight?

He reluctantly turned away from the star-filled vision to meet Laura’s gaze. She was watching him silently, her expression overflowing with the same joy and wonder he felt expanding his chest.

What else would she draw his attention to as they traveled, he wondered? He silently thanked the King for sending her with them, if only for this opportunity to learn from this strange creature who saw the world so differently than he.

“Thank you,” he murmured.

“Thank you. Watching you experience that for the first time . . . was a gift.”

He wasn’t certain how one should respond to such a compliment, if that was even what it was, so he turned back to the pan. But he allowed his attention to wander over the wondrous vision glittering above him as he worked.

Finishing the dishes and sitting down in his camp chair with a fresh cup of Ebony after such an experience felt almost like falling to Eos—becoming a mortal once more after receiving a taste of the divine—particularly when the others began noticing and speaking to him again.

He had just balanced his notebook on his lap to begin tallying up their needs and costs when Gladio came up from behind him and gave him a rough slap to the shoulder, nearly knocking his glasses off.

“Awesome grub, Iggy.”

“You’re very welcome,” Ignis replied, pushing his glasses back up onto his nose. “Are you turning in for the night, then?”

“Yeah, pretty wiped. Used to the work, but I think the sun sucks it outta me, ya know?”

“Ugh, me too,” Noct agreed, poking his head out of the unzipped door of the tent.

“Ha! You’ve never worked a full day in your life!”

“That’s not true! Used to work as a part-time cook at Standing Sushi—on top of school and training and everything.”

“Hardly what I would call ‘cooking,’” Ignis replied, his mind half on the blank sheet before him and half noting that Laura had just removed her Glaive jacket and was laying it across Gladio’s camp chair.

“How come you like cookin’ so much?”

Ignis looked up and hesitated, not wanting to outright deny the Prince’s assumption but also wishing to communicate the truth. He chose to indirectly answer the question, though he knew no one listening—except perhaps Laura—would notice his evasion.

“I find the true joy of cooking on the faces of those for whom I cook.”

“Huh.”

A memory shimmered in front of his mind’s eye, and he smiled softly. “I’ll never forget the smile on your face the first time I cooked for you.”

It had been months since he’d last seen Noct smile or laugh. Even after receiving the Oracle’s healing, he had still been confined to a bed or a wheelchair for nearly eight months upon his return to the Citadel, and the entire staff had nearly been driven mad with King Regis’s worry and Noct’s nearly catatonic state—made so much worse by the second assassination attempt in Tenebrae. Ignis had yearned to do everything in his power to help, to restore Noct to the bright and lively child he’d once been. He hadn’t been certain of the details that had led to the death of Queen Sylva and their escape from Terraverde, but Noct had clearly been traumatized. He’d barely spoken a word of his first experience beyond his home country—except for Lady Lunafreya’s kindness and a certain pastry he’d had there.

Thrilled to see him speaking at all, Ignis had grilled him for every detail he could recall of the treat before consulting with the Royal Pâtissier. For weeks, he’d learned how to manipulate the sticky dough, how to properly incorporate the butter into the flour without allowing it to melt, how to laminate it so that each layer was perfectly even.

The half-hearted smile tugging at the Prince’s lips had been well-worth the effort after months of blank staring, and he vowed that he would keep trying to get that recipe right if it was the last thing he ever did. Over a decade later, and he still hadn’t managed it to Noct’s satisfaction, but Ignis wasn’t deterred in the slightest.

“I barely remember what I ate yesterday,” Noct said incredulously, but his expression grew tender and distant as he added, “Well, whatever that first meal was . . . I’m sure it was pretty good.”

Ignis ducked his head to push his glasses up on his nose again. “Much obliged.”

“Hey, I didn’t think . . . what’s your plan if your glasses break?”

“I’ve got another pair,” he said with a frown, “just in case.”

Prompto looked over at them from his spot on the edge of the haven, his hand still on his camera’s shutter button. “The man always has a plan.”

“Even if he didn’t, he’d still be all right,” Noct said.

Gladio let out a soft groan as he crawled into the tent and rolled over onto his back. “Yeah, Iggy’s eyes ain’t that bad.”

“Oh, really?” Prompto asked.

Ignis suppressed a sigh. “My vision is passable without corrective lenses,” he admitted, preparing himself for either aggressive questioning or teasing remarks as he so often received when this topic came up.

“Then why not take ’em off sometimes?”

“Well . . ..”

Noct let out a snort. “You don’t get it, huh?”

“Ignis likes his world to be crystal clear,” Gladio said.

“Indeed. I’ve never been one for ambiguity.” Which was an ironic statement to make today, as for all that he’d enjoyed himself since leaving home this morning, ambiguity seemed to have defined his every moment since.

Laura’s voice interrupted from the darkness somewhere near Prompto, and Ignis found he had to squint and allow his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light beyond the campfire to see her.

“I knew a man who preferred wearing glasses just because he thought they made him look clever, so I’d say you’ve already got a far better reason.”

She was sitting cross-legged at the edge of the haven, releasing her long hair from its twist to let it cascade down her back. Outside the circle of light the campfire provided, the moonlight seemed to turn it into living blue flame as it bounced and fanned down to her elbows. Her eyes seemed to catch the moonlight and reflect it, shimmering an ethereal blue as she gazed up at the breathtaking sky stippled with stars. By the time his eyes had adjusted to see her, she was leaning forward to press her hands firmly against the stone beneath her, her bare arms illuminated by the faint glow of the runes. Again, something seemed to coalesce in Ignis’s chest at the sight of this painfully familiar, capable, kind, warrior woman sitting quietly amidst the stunning scenery, closing her eyes, and murmuring softly under her breath.

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

Prompto must have thought so too, for he had shifted the composition of his shot to include her sitting gracefully beneath that infinite glittering sky.

“So, uh . . . are you praying or something?” Prompto asked after several more clicks of his camera. “I could leave you alone.”

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

“What sort of meditation?” Ignis couldn’t help but intrude. He had read about many types of meditation, as well as their benefits, but despite his childhood dream and his connection to his intuitive sense, he didn’t consider himself the spiritual sort to gain any advantage from these techniques, even if he were to have the time for such self-indulgence.

Ignis possessed a somewhat lapsed sense of religion. Even though his uncle had often reminded him that he should keep the family’s devout loyalty to Ifrit a complete secret, he needn’t have bothered. He himself had never paid any mind to the the god many had labeled as a traitor to mankind. Instead, Ignis would always hold a special place in his heart for the gentle goddess Shiva due to his own personal journey, but many years had passed since his dream had faded into hazy memories and his prayers had dwindled to the occasional thought. Even her statuette on his bedside table had been relegated to a spot behind the lamp in favor of better reading light.

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

“Umm . . . what does that even mean?” Prompto asked.

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

“To mitigate the effect I have on you all. Don’t think I haven’t noticed all of you flinching when I’m near.” She looked back and forth between the two of them before her eyes slid to the tent, where it seemed both Noct and Gladio had already checked out of the conversation in favor of sleep.

Flinching? Had the others gone as far as physically recoiling from her presence? But then, he’d done the same this afternoon on the plains, if for different reasons. He recalled at the time that she’d said the queerest thing—she’d apologized for hurting him. Had she meant literally? Still—he couldn’t fathom a reason for it, as she hadn’t hurt him in the slightest.

She had caused Noct pain, however, when she’d attempted a tandem spell with him. Was this what the others had been referring to in the car and at the diner? Was it a literal discomfort she’d been inflicting on them?

“Err, yeah,” Prompto said, wincing and rubbing at the back of his neck. “We were kinda wondering about that, actually. Sorry.”

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

“Thank Six!” Prompto sighed. “I was starting to think . . . but why would we feel it though? Just because you’re, uh, vibrating differently.”

She tilted her head in thought, frowning. “I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with the Crystal. As its servants, you feel this difference more keenly, Noct most of all. It’s why I hurt him when I was helping him with spells earlier.”

“Ohhhh, so that’s why the people in Hammerhead were all chill around you?”

“I believe so? They aren’t connected to the Crystal as you are, correct?”

“That’s correct,” Ignis answered, still curious as to why he had a deeper connection with the Crystal than Gladio and Prompto and yet hadn’t felt an inkling of what they’d experienced. Another thought regarding his perception of her being ill occurred to him, and he had to ask, “And what about you? How does this energy difference feel to you?”

He believed he’d already interpreted the scenario and put the clues together—how she had appeared to be pale and shaking in the throne room, his rush of instinct to catch her earlier, the fact that she’d eaten naught but toast and water today. Most damning, he recalled with perfect clarity the first moments those flames had subsided to reveal that Noct was blessedly safe, and she was saying, ‘I didn’t think it would hurt you, too.’

His suspicions were confirmed when her eyes grew tighter. “It burns,” she breathed. “Every touch, every breath is fire.”

“Then why do you stay here?” Prompto asked.

It was certainly a valid question. This wasn’t her homeland. If staying here in Lucis so close to the Crystal’s influence meant as much pain as she claimed, he couldn’t imagine what would keep her here. Would her suffering lessen when they left the continent, or would their connection to the Crystal mean that she would always be close to its power in some fashion or another?

He thought of every time she had smiled today and wondered at her astounding ability to hide pain. What else was she hiding?

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

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

“So what can we do to help?” Prompto asked eagerly. “Like, what’re you doin’ there?”

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

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient if you used one of us as a template, then?” Ignis suggested. He wasn’t certain if he had any idea of what he was talking about, but surely, if she was attempting to match her resonance to be more compatible with them, it would make far more sense to have one of them nearby. He did wonder if his lack of feeling threatened by her would affect her ability to use him as a source, but he saw no reason for why he should be different than the others. “We both have direct access to the Crystal’s powers through Noct,” he added.

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

She grimaced. “To be honest, I’m not sure. It won’t be comfortable, but I can never tell when what I do is going to hurt you.” Her eyes flicked briefly toward Ignis, her expression contrite, but she looked to Prompto again and continued as though her train of thought hadn’t been interrupted. “I certainly won’t try using my magic on any of you; I never would have offered to help Noctis if I’d known I could hurt him like that.”

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

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

For the first time since Ignis had met him, Prompto’s expression grew deadly serious. Taking a deep breath as though he were preparing himself for a harrowing trial, he closed his eyes and nodded. “Go ahead.”

He immediately hissed in a breath and winced when her hand made contact with his arm.

“I’m sorry!” Laura exclaimed, flinching away, but Prompto’s hand shot out to hold hers in place.

“No! It’s okay!” he said with an awkward smile-grimace. “It’s not as bad as it was earlier, but it’s still kinda . . . I dunno, like . . . wrong.”

Ignis wondered exactly what the sensation Prompto was referring to felt like. It seemed to manifest itself in the others as physical pain, and if their comments in the diner were anything to go by now that he understood they hadn’t been speaking metaphorically, a desire to run or do her physical harm. But even after spending so much time near her today, he had yet to experience what the others seemed to feel so keenly. Admittedly, he had not yet touched her bare skin as Prompto was doing now, but they had all complained of the phenomenon without having touched her.

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

Still, there were some things that were more important than frugality, and that was symbolism. They needed to present a united front to the world as they traveled to unify two warring countries, and they needed to let Laura know that she was welcome in their group. She may have made the others uncomfortable now, but she was making an effort to correct the issue. In the meantime, she could sleep between him and the side of the tent so as not to disrupt anyone else’s rest.

A small grunt followed by a ragged breath drew Ignis’s attention to where Laura and Prompto sat facing each other at the haven’s drop-off.

Laura immediately opened her eyes and snatched her hand back at the sound, chastising gently, “You should’ve said something sooner. Are you all right?”

Prompto’s relief was instantaneous the moment her hand left him. His entire body sagged from its previously rigid position, and he beamed at her. “Yeah, no sweat. I can tell it’s much better already, but I think my tolerance for it kinda wears down after a while.”

“I think we should stop for the night.”

“Yeah . . . maybe? I’m kinda dead,” he said, gesturing toward the tent. He leapt to his feet, taking a few hopping steps forward as he gained his balance.

“Good night, Prompto,” she said hesitantly, her eyes not leaving him as he gallantly did his best not to stagger toward the tent. “And thank you.”

Prompto spun around on his heel, wobbling ever so slightly as he pointed a pair of finger guns in her direction and winked. “You got it, girl! Anytime!”

Ignis dropped his attention back to the work in his lap, trying to think of any additional expenses he hadn’t considered, but nothing sprang to mind. After several moments, he felt rather than saw Laura settle into Noct’s camp chair next to him. He finished tallying the bounties for their prospective hunts, placed the sheet of paper in his notebook, and looked over to see her staring blankly into the fire, her knees pulled up to her chest and the light from the flames dancing across her skin. She had wrapped a giant, monstrous looking blanket around herself, making her look like a child with the patchy brown fabric engulfing her like an overstretched garula skin.

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

Laura’s vacant expression didn’t change as she shook her head, and his mouth tugged down in a frown as he brushed away the somewhat surprising stirring of disappointment.

“It’s been a long day, and you still look exhausted. I think I’ve imposed enough for one day.”

“If you’re fatigued, I can offer my services another time, but don’t feel as though you need to decline on my behalf. My, err . . . predilection for caffeine in the evening tends to keep me up later than the rest.  And I assure you, it’s no burden on my part.”

She turned toward him then, worrying her lower lip between her teeth, so he made the decision for her.

“Here.”

He stood and pulled his chair close to hers so that the arms were touching. Turning toward Prompto’s chair, he removed his gloves and jacket and laid them neatly across the back of the seat. He unbuttoned his cuffs and pulled his sleeves up to his elbows, folding them back precisely to bare his forearms. When he sat down beside her, he took a quick breath before reaching for her hand and entwining their fingers tightly, arranging it so that as much of his bare arm was laid overtop hers as possible.

And still, he felt no discomfort from her touch, which was a relief, but also curious. Was it his intuition that allowed him to overcome whatever sense had overwhelmed the others?

Her hand was slightly cool despite their proximity to the fire, and oh, so soft—lacking any callouses despite her no doubt extensive experience with blades. He’d never touched a woman—anyone—like this for an extended period, and he was somewhat scandalized and surprised by the sudden, insane thought that he should let go of her hand and run his fingertips along the veins of her wrist and up her forearm.

Shoving the feeling aside, he swallowed and turned his eyes from her to the fire, but the delicate scent of her perfume chased after his retreat, making him want to inhale until he was breathless. A deeper breath, and he could almost taste it on the back of his palate—fresh Duscaean pine needles from the Citadel gardens as they baked in the oppressive heat of a summer sun, mixed with a light, sweet floral scent he couldn’t name. The aroma taunted him, making his blood burn and his heart beat a little faster.

What on Eos was the matter with him? It wasn’t as though he was doing this for an excuse to . . . fraternize. She needed his help. The retinue needed his help. Perhaps he was more exhausted than he’d realized.

He let out a slow, steady breath in an attempt to compose himself.

“I must be getting better at this if you can bear that,” she said quietly, contemplating their arms between them. “The additional skin contact seems to make the connection more intense.”

He felt his cheeks set fire at her words and silently damned that his every thought seemed to show so easily on his face despite how successfully he managed to school his features. May Ifrit burn him alive, he thought he’d long broken that particular habit of his.

He was tempted to tell her that he’d never felt what the others had, and yet he didn’t wish her to think he was some sort of freak. But what if he lacked the proper energy she needed to acclimate? She would have to rely on the others for realignment. Putting her through the humiliation of having to hold a stranger’s hand if it wasn’t going to help her, however, was not acceptable—even if he was apparently getting some sort of perverse pleasure from it. He decided to ask an indirect question to probe the matter.

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

Her lips pinched together. After a moment’s hesitation, she said, “I can still feel it, but it’s not as strong as it was before. Hopefully, after a few days’ practice, I won’t rub you all the wrong way anymore, and I’ll be able to breathe again.”

So, his assistance was doing her good, and his touch was not unbearable. These were the best circumstances he could hope for.

“Are you all right?” he asked once he’d allowed himself a moment to inspect her face closely. She still appeared unhealthy to his eyes, her skin just this side of bloodless and translucent to be considered normal.

“I’m always all right,” she answered dismissively.

Holding back the sigh of disappointment he wanted to release, he inclined his head to fix her with a piercing glare. Only just earlier this afternoon, Laura had proven herself a capable verbal sparring opponent. Surely, that tactic had never worked on a single soul she’d attempted it on. He had higher expectations of her after all he’d seen today.

She met his gaze with just as much heat. “I’m fine.”

In the name of the Six, if he heard that word one more time this evening . . .. Uncowed by the fire in her returning glare, he waited patiently until she dropped her eyes to their joined hands.

“The trial with Cor wasn’t my first yesterday,” she said, so softly that he almost hadn’t heard her. “And on top of that, this . . . issue.” She tightened her hold minutely on his hand. “I’m afraid I’m not feeling my best.”

“I’d suspected as much,” he said quietly. “Will solving this issue restore your health?”

She looked up at him and nodded.

“Then I shall make myself available every night for as long as I am needed.”

Chapter Text

Gladio hadn’t expected the air to be cool and a little damp when he unzipped the tent flap and poked his head out early the next morning. He was kinda surprised the light wasn’t blasting him in the face, as it was well after six in the morning, and for some gods-unknown reason, Ignis had instructed him to set the tent up facing east. As his eyes found the horizon and the reason why his eyeballs weren’t being fried out of his skull, he had to smile and shake his head.

Fucking Ignis Scientia was always thinking of everything.

Gladio’d had no clue why Iggy had been so gods damn specific about where everything had to be and in which direction it was facing yesterday as they’d set up camp, but seeing how the sun was hidden from this specific spot by the highest peak of the mountain chain in the distance, he figured Iggy must’ve planned to keep the tent in the shade for a while as the sun rose . . . until it got to be late enough for Noct to be up, when it would shine directly through the tent flap onto his face.

With a soft groan, he hauled himself to his feet, tensing his sore muscles to stretch them out a little and relieve the ache he only felt after the most intense workouts. Seriously—he’d been kicking his own ass since he was old enough to walk. What was it about yesterday that had laid him flat like a cadet getting his first licking from Cor?

He turned toward the kitchen area, where he expected to find Iggy already up, dressed, mainlining Ebony, and cooking up enough to feed half the Crownsguard. It was a well-known fact that Ignis never slept, hardly ate, and was never seen doing anything that could be considered relaxing. In fact, now that they were out here about to engage in actual combat, Gladio was hoping to collect on the bet with Sampson that he’d get injured and wind up exposing wires instead of blood.

The demand for an ETA on breakfast died on his lips, however, when he saw that the stove was clean and cold, with no evidence of food anywhere in the vicinity.

Gladio had to admit a part of him thought he was seeing things when he swung his eyes around to the camp chairs, where the back of Ignis’s head could be seen craned uncomfortably against the top of a smaller dark one resting on his shoulder. Slowly and silently, he crept around to the side for a better view. Sure enough, Iggy was passed out in his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him so that his fancy shoes were nearly touching the fire ring of gently smoking logs. Laura was curled up in Noct’s chair like a contented cat, and both of them were half covered in one of the ugliest blankets he’d ever laid eyes on. Over top the enormous pile of fabric that looked like a garula skin with a bad case of mange, Laura’s long hair spilled down Iggy’s chest and into his lap.

Gladio could maybe shrug this all off as an innocent mistake—except their fingers were entwined tightly with one another’s on top of the blanket, as though they’d fallen asleep holding hands.

So, this shit was finally happening, huh? After all these years of pushing girls—and guys, just in case—in Iggy’s direction, Gladio couldn’t help but groan at his timing. All those years of him not taking the bait and making excuses about his duties to the Crown, Gladio’d just figured the guy was asexual or something, which was fine too. Gladio took his responsibilities seriously as well, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t found some time to have more than a little fun. And why shouldn’t he? With whatever lay ahead of them, their lives were only gonna get harder the closer it came time for Noct to become King. The opportunities for living a free life were running out, and as many times as Gladio had tried to explain that to Iggy, he never thought the stiff bastard had ever listened to him.

But now, on the road like this with another member of the retinue, things could get complicated. He didn’t want to put a stop to what was probably Ignis’s first time having fun, especially on this trip, but he would at the first signs of distraction. Things in the city and out here were getting weird fast, and they all needed to be prepared for shit to hit the fan at any second.

Gods damn, but it was weird seeing Iggy so . . . expressive with someone after knowing them only a day. Hell, he and Noct had known him since they were kids and had never seen him touch anyone beyond a handshake, or if he was feeling particularly cuddly, a slap to the shoulder. And this particular girl . . . how could he stand to be near her without wanting to strangle her to death?

He had to say, he couldn’t say much for Iggy’s taste. Inspecting her slack face, he could admit she was pretty hot, but way too weird for him, personally. She seemed nice enough—a little dumb, despite what Iggy had said about her origins—but it wasn’t her IQ that really mattered to him. He’d make friends with anyone so long as they had a good heart. No—it was that crawling feeling deep in his instinct he couldn’t seem to shake, even after he’d overheard her explanation for it last night.

And the fact that she was wearing a Glaive uniform now of all times wasn’t exactly adding up in her favor. Unlike the others, Gladio had trained with Glaives since he was sixteen years old. Like with any group of people, there were some he liked and some he didn’t, but working with all of them and overhearing their shit talk in the locker rooms had opened Gladio’s eyes to a whole new side of Lucis—one that had always existed but had never been talked about. And he understood—really. Family came first. And even though he’d strayed away from his royal accent at seventeen and sworn he’d honor his king by respecting all his subjects, the family that came first for him would always be the Royal Family.

It didn’t sit right with him that this chick just showed up out of the blue from some place he’d never heard of, was currently wearing a Glaive mage uniform, and was cuddled up with one of the most aloof and mistrusting guys Gladio had ever met. What if she was trying to seduce Iggy to get to Noct somehow? Had she really been trying to bag King Regis before he sent her out here?

No—he wouldn’t act on assumptions. His liege had ordered her to come with them, and he just had to trust that King Regis was making the right decisions. His dad might’ve been weird about his new assignment as “the People’s Shield,” but protecting the Chosen was still Lucis’s top priority. He’d give her a chance, at the very least, to prove her dedication to House Caelum.

Still . . . he’d have to keep a close eye on them—on her.

Welp, time to meet the morning after, guys, he thought to himself as he scooped up the last of their firewood and dropped it unceremoniously onto the smoking pile.

Gladio didn’t have time to react to their startled awakening, let alone enjoy it. Quick as lightning, the girl leapt to her feet, and with a deafening shriek and a sickening lurch of air, she had the fanciest silver-white falchion Gladio had ever seen pressed to his jugular before he could blink.

Fuck, he should’ve thought this through.

“Easy there,” he growled through clenched teeth, fighting the instinct to put his hands around her throat. There was no doubt in his mind that maneuver would be the last one he ever made on this eos.

Her hardened expression softened instantly as she took several retreating steps and flicked the blade away with another ear-piercing screech.

“Gladio,” she exhaled in horror. “I’m sorry. I . . . I can’t believe I let my guard down that completely. I must’ve been tired, I—people can’t usually sneak up on me like that.”

“Not a good idea out here in the wild,” he warned, his eyes darting to Iggy behind her.

Dismissing his own daggers in mortification, Iggy looked first to Gladio—opening his mouth to speak—then to the back of Laura’s head for a moment before allowing his attention to shift to a spot just over Gladio’s left shoulder. The flush spreading across his cheeks as that inhumanly intelligent mind fumbled for something to say was starting to remind Gladio of his own teenage years. Seemed like everyone, even Ice-Cold Scientia, was a slave to his hormones in the end.

Poor fucker.

But it was good to see him relaxing for once in his gods damned life, if that was what this could be called, so Gladio decided to take it easy on him—just this once.

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

Iggy looked down to the haven floor, raising a hand across his eyes to push his glasses up on his face. “I’d better . . . freshen up before starting breakfast,” he mumbled before striding off.

Huh. From the looks of things, the guy was a human after all.

Still chuckling to himself, he turned toward the girl—no, Laura—who maintained a neutral expression as she raised her chin up at him.

“Ignis was just helping me acclimatize my energy patterns to yours, so I won’t make you all uncomfortable anymore. We must have fallen asleep,” she said coolly, but the slightest blush of pink still stained her cheeks as she spoke.

“Huh,” he said thoughtfully, tilting his head as he inspected her, trying to decide if she was embarrassed at being caught making moves on Iggy or being caught unawares, “so that’s what the kids are calling it these days.”

He decided then and there it was gonna be fun teasing her, if only to see the blush on her face deepen, but maybe this whole thing was as innocent as she was claiming. This was Ice-Cold Scientia they were talking about, after all.

Even though he’d already felt her effect as she’d held a blade to his throat, he still held out a hand toward her to test. “Lemme see what you guys accomplished.”

She grasped it like she was shaking his hand, and even though that need to summon his sword and cut her down still washed over him, he had to admit the feeling wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it had been the day before in the car.

“Well whaddya know,” he said, giving her a crooked smile. “You actually feel a little more normal.”

“A little,” she replied in a business-like tone, releasing his hand and taking a step back. “A few more sessions with one of you should do the trick.”

The fact that she hadn’t named Ignis specifically for her murder therapy wasn’t lost on him. Maybe he’d misread the situation and was jumping to conclusions. Weird as Iggy was, he was always eager to help anyone in need, especially a lady in distress, even if it left him spending the night in an uncomfortable camp chair. Granted, anyone was probably likely to receive way more information than they needed when they dared ask him for help, and probably a lecture, but whether it was hours before dawn, the middle of the day, or midnight, if it was possible to find the guy, Ignis was always willing to lend a hand.

Normally, Gladio might’ve been the same way, but this was one chore he definitely wouldn’t be volunteering for.

“Well, keep us posted,” he said, turning toward his camp chair. Just in case, he waited until he’d sat down and Laura had moved toward the stove before he took out his two-handed sword. He always kept a battle-ready edge on his blade, but the intricate details running up the center could always use a quick extra polish. With any luck, he was about to bloody the thing for the first time today, and he wanted it looking its best for the occasion.

But he kept a close eye on Iggy and Laura as they chatted over breakfast prep.

“You guys brought along steel-cut oats? On a camping trip?”

“I find the loss of quality in instant to be too great to tolerate. Would you care for some this morning?”

She hesitated, and Gladio smirked down at his work, wondering if Iggy was gonna throw another silent hissy fit when she didn’t eat his food.

His posture seemed to visibly unclench when she answered, “Perhaps a little. No more than a couple of bites, please.”

“As you wish,” he said jovially. “My only regret is that I haven’t yet located a fruit I was hoping to find out here, which would go splendidly with these oats. They don’t carry it in Insomnia, I’m afraid.”

“What’s it called?”

“I believe it’s called ‘peach.’”

“Oh! I know peaches. You’re right. Peaches and cream oatmeal is one of my favorites.”

“Is it now?” he asked, his tone practically dripping with interest.

Gladio couldn’t help but release a small snort, wondering if this meant they were gonna find those gods damned peaches and be eating peaches and cream oatmeal every gods damned morning on this trip.

“Something amusing with your sword, Gladio?” Iggy asked.

“Naw, it’s just . . . if they don’t have peaches in Insomnia, how’d you hear about ‘em in oatmeal?”

“I—” He stopped, his brow furrowing. “Do you know? I can’t recall. Something in my memory suggests that they can be found in Leide, though I didn’t see any while we were in Hammerhead.”

“Never heard of ‘em. So you know what they look like?”

“They’re round, bright orange and yellow, and they have a unique sweet-tart, almost floral flavor.”

“That’s a peach, certainly,” Laura said, “but you won’t find any growing in Leide unless the climate changes drastically somewhere in the region.”

“Well, then, it sounds as though we have a mystery on our hands. Perhaps we’ll encounter them in Altissia, as Accordo is a fertile growing region.”

Figuring he couldn’t polish his sword any more than it already was, Gladio reached deep for his connection with the Crystal through Noct and dismissed it to his personal armiger. Maybe if they did well these next couple of days, he could pick up that sick war sword in Hammerhead he’d been eyeing as he was checking out Dr. Yeagre hanging out by the arms dealer.

“Gladio,” Ignis called, not looking back at him as he removed the lid to the steaming pot and scraped and stirred their breakfast with a practiced air. “You’d better awaken Prompto and His Highness now if we’re to complete a hunt in addition to Cindy’s errands today.”

“Yeah, no sweat,” he grinned.

Gladio was rarely put in the position to have to wake Noct up; that kinda thing was usually Ignis’s job. He’d been given the pleasure exactly once when they’d all stayed too late at Noct’s place and Ig had had a meeting or some shit to get to. Gladio never did have the patience to let the alarm slowly bring Noct to consciousness like Iggy probably did. Half-sitting on his face and releasing the loudest, nastiest fart he could muster was far more entertaining. The resulting week-long whine-fest ensured Iggy would never ask for such a favor again—until the morning he got caught sleeping with a girl draped over him, it seemed.

Now all he had to do was decide whether he wanted to try the farting trick again or go with something more classic, like a nice bucket of water.

***

With a long, mournful howl, the last sabertusk of the pack collapsed under Noct’s sword, going limp before he yanked the steel from between the animal’s shattered ribs. He turned to the rest of the group with a triumphant smile, but while Gladio raised a fist in congratulations and Iggy was ready with a word of praise, Prompto frowned a little to himself.

“Maybe it’s just me, but I felt kinda bad taking those things down,” he said hesitantly. “I mean, we won and all, but somehow I feel sorry for them.” He let out a pained sigh. “Wonder if I’ll ever get the hang of all this fighting.”

“Sure you will,” Gladio said, leaning out to give him a rough shove to the side, “if you live long enough.”

Ignis replied in a gentle, understanding tone, “You’re not alone, but out in the wild, it’s kill-or-be-killed.”

“For some of us, at least,” Gladio muttered, definitely not looking in the direction where Laura was waiting off in the distance, but he didn’t think anyone had heard him.

“Personally, I’d prefer the former,” Noct said. With a casual flick of his wrist, he dismissed the blade into his armiger and began cockily strolling back toward Laura. “How much longer till we find this special dualhorn Dave and that scientist wanted us to track down, anyway?”

“Sania said the bloodhorn should be in this area, and we’ve been seein’ tracks. Should be soon,” Gladio answered. “Nice job with that last one, by the way.”

“Thanks. Would’ve done better though if I’d had a clear shot for a warp-strike when we first spotted them.”

Gladio cast a side-eye at Iggy, who was doing his best to inconspicuously check everyone over for injuries next to him. “Yeah.”

If it weren’t for the fact that a member of House Amicitia had served as the King’s sworn Shield since the Founder King himself, Gladio might’ve thought Ignis was aiming for his job.

Cor seemed to have identified Ig’s brilliance when he marched into his office at fifteen and requested to join the Crownsguard in order to better protect Noct. Even though Gladio had been working with Cor since he was big enough to swing a sword, Ignis seemed to have immediately earned his esteem and respect in a way Gladio never could. And then Gladio had been officially outshone when Ignis became the first Crownsguard-inducted member who could healcast almost like a Glaive—not to mention that weird spirit magic he could pull. Gladio would never admit it out loud, but it kinda pissed him off the way things just seemed to come to the guy despite the fact they were both working their asses off.

And now out here . . . that pack of sabertusks had been their first hunt, and already Iggy was stepping between Noct and danger, tossing daggers across their paths, getting his arm ripped open because he flung it between Noct and a set of sharp jaws.

It turned out that though a sound didn’t escape his lips as they applied their first potion to his arm, Ignis Scientia did, in fact, bleed like a real man.

But Gladio was supposed to be the Shield, not Ignis. And while he’d gladly step in front of Noct to save his life, what Iggy didn’t understand was that Gladio had also received a lifetime of training on how to toughen the kid up, turn him into a king, allow him to come into his own. It was gonna take a few hits to turn him into King Regis, and they were gonna need him to be even more than that if he was going to become the Chosen. The Prince had been pampered and babied enough in these last twenty years. It was time to let loose, have a little fun, and learn what it felt like to hurt and experience the consequences of his actions a little.

They’d had this argument before back at the Citadel—several times. And while Iggy agreed that Noct should be given the opportunities to grow, he believed that growth should be at Noct’s pace, not Gladio’s. Gladio had yet to see evidence of Noct “eventually doing what was asked of him” without a little ass kicking first, but Iggy was a fast learner. Hopefully he’d catch on soon. Otherwise, words were gonna have to be exchanged.

“You know, it just occurred to me, but this is totally like King’s Knight,” Prompto said, tripping a little as he skipped over an outcropping of rock.

Noct curled his lip in disgust as he hopped over an enormous pile of shit from what looked like a herbivorous animal—a bloodhorn, maybe? They had to have been getting close.

“Huh?” Noct asked distractedly.

“There’s four of us, just like in the game! See?”

“Well, then I gotta be a five-star character,” he laughed, skipping to Prompto’s side like a happy-go-lucky kid. A full day outside the city, and already, they were all feeling the weight of Insomnia lifting off their shoulders. Yeah . . . this trip was gonna be good for them.

“Hell no,” Gladio replied, reaching out to ruffle Prompto’s ‘do he’d spent so much time on this morning. “If anyone here’s a ‘Rare,’ it’s me. I did take out the most sabertusks.”

“No way! I was at a disadvantage!” Noct argued, his eyes sliding over to Iggy for a second before hardening on Gladio.

“Dude,” Prompto argued, “you can warp.”

“Yeah, but it takes a lot outta me. You’d understand if you could do it yourself.”

“Man, I wish! That’d be so rad.”

“I might suggest,” Ignis said in a low voice, “that we all keep in mind there are five of us in this retinue, even if one of us has chosen to forgo certain aspects of this trip.”

“Oh yeah,” Prompto said, frowning as he looked up at Laura waiting for them on the next hill over. “I swear, Iggy, I don’t mean to! She just . . ..”

“Yeah, same here,” Noct agreed.

Gladio raised his eyes to the figure picking her way down toward them and nodded. He wasn’t trying to stir unnecessary shit with her or anyone in the group, but there was just something about the way she would sometimes kinda slip his mind when he was beyond the influence of her presence.

“Hmm,” Iggy said, observing their responses with narrowed eyes. “Perhaps a byproduct of her effect.”

“We’re trying, Specs, honest,” Noct said under his breath before Laura got too close.

“And I appreciate the effort, Highness—as will His Majesty when he receives her report upon our return.”

“You think she’s reporting directly to the King?” Gladio asked.

“Evidence at her trial would seem to suggest so.”

Damn—which meant she was an even bigger deal than he’d thought. There were few people not on the Council that reported directly to the King. Even Cor reported to Gladio’s dad. His old man was one the few who received regular private audiences, though he also held a couple of special positions as the Shield, the head of the Crownsguard, and the Prime Minister seat on the Council. The only other military official he could think of reporting directly to King Regis was Titus Drautos.

“Hey guys,” Laura said brightly. “I found some more tomatoes and peas while you were busy. I think we’re about stocked up on them now.”

“We finished off the sabertusks for Dave,” Gladio said, watching her carefully for signs of being upset about the bloodshed, but her expression didn’t change at the news. “Now we gotta find this mutated bloodhorn.”

“Seeing as how that scientist called it ‘abnormally strong’ and ‘extremely violent,’ can’t say I wanna find it,” Prompto said.

“She’s not just any scientist,” Gladio informed him. “Sania’s the real deal—a world-renowned biologist.”

“Sania . . . last name Yeagre, if I’m not mistaken,” Iggy said thoughtfully.

“Took you long enough to make the connection,” he shot back, probably a little smugly. It wasn’t often he could out-inform Iggy, and he sure as hell was gonna take the opportunity to rub it in a little. After all, just because Gladio had cast aside the image of regality in favor of being down-to-eos didn’t mean he hadn’t done well in school, too.

“Sania who?” Noct asked.

“Sania Yeagre,” Iggy answered, “famed professor of biology from the University of Insomnia. Her works have been published the world over. Unfortunately, her reputation has suffered as of late due to her decision to leave the city and study the mutative organisms beginning to crop up around Lucis.”

“Whoa, she’s a big deal?” Prompto asked. “You sure don’t get that impression.”

“Yeah, her latest project’s this dualhorn with blood-red tusks,” Gladio said. “There’s been a rise in mutated animals coming outta the wild and attacking people lately. She and Dave think it’s due to the nights gettin’ longer.”

“Nights getting longer?” Laura asked. “Since it’s early summer, I take it you don’t mean because of seasonal changes.”

“Naw, I was talkin’ to her in Hammerhead. She says the average amount of daylight we’ve been getting s’been decreasing steadily for a while now, but no one’s studying it except for her.”

“That’s . . . rather troubling. A change in daylight can affect animal behavior, certainly, but the reason behind the reduction could possibly be deadly to the entire world.”

“I would say that’s an understatement. Could the darkness Noct is supposed to eradicate in the prophecy be far more literal than we’ve been led to believe?” Iggy said. “I wonder why news of this hasn’t reached the Citadel yet.”

“Seems like a lotta news doesn’t reach the Citadel these days,” Gladio said darkly. “But probably cause we don’t got a lotta scientists in Lucis.”

As they drew clear of the corner of a craggy rock sticking up out of the dirt, they halted, growing quiet. Roughly twelve feet ahead of them was a field of churned and upturned soil about the size of his back yard at home. Scraggly bushes had been ripped up from their roots to lie wilted and defeated across the ruts, and the backside of the rock they’d just rounded was scarred with what looked like long, jagged scrapes from something sharp.

“You think . . .?” Prompto asked.

“Think we’re getting closer,” Noct said softly. “So that’s why the bounties?”

“Yeah, that’s why the Hunters are out in full force around here,” Gladio answered. “Thing’s obviously gone feral. Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

They followed the stump-like tracks off to the north in silence for several moments before Prompto asked, “So, they’re the new Crownsguard or something?”

“Similar, though technically a civilian outfit,” Ignis said.

“I dunno. They’ve definitely seen a lot more action than we have,” Gladio said, doing his best to keep the resignation out of his voice.

Even though the Crownsguard were considered the best of the best in Insomnia, there was really no one to compete with besides border patrol and the Crown City Police. It was only due to his own initiative that he’d trained with Drautos and the other Glaives, and he was baffled to realize that at the age of twenty-three, after he’d already sworn his oath as Noct’s Shield, he was as green as a first year cadet compared to any member of the Kingsglaive—and now these civ Hunters. Why hadn’t he been better prepared as Shield of the Chosen? Why had he, Iggy, and Noct been so shielded from the real world, given what they would have to do one day?

But what was done was done. The best thing he could do for himself and for Noct was to take on any challenge while they were out here—maybe even become well-seasoned Hunters in their own right.

“I met some Hunter friends of Shawna’s yesterday while you guys were talking to Dave,” Laura said. “Apparently, he’s the son of their leader, Ezma.”

“That’s excellent news, indeed. We’ll have to keep in touch while we’re on the continent,” Ignis said. “He’ll serve as an excellent liaison for the goings on in the area, I’m certain.”

Laura stopped suddenly, holding out a hand to halt them as she closed her eyes and cocked her head. “Shh. Hear that?”

Gladio mimicked her posture, straining his ears to pick up on what she might’ve heard. At first, all he could pick up on was the rustling of grass and dry leaves rubbing together in the trees. If he held his breath and waited for the wind to grow still, he thought he could hear a sort of scuffling off to the northwest . . . maybe?

“How do we know it’s the creature we’re looking for?” Ignis asked softly.

“I don’t hear anything,” Noct said.

“Hmm, less time wearing headphones, perhaps. Music that close to your eardrums deadens sensitivity.”

“I just have a feeling. Come on,” Laura said.

She trotted several steps in the direction of the faint sound, but Gladio called out softly behind her, “You mean you aren’t staying behind this time?”

“Finally gonna join us, huh?” Prompto asked.

“Mutated, highly dangerous animal? I should at least stick closer this time.”

“You could do one better and help out,” Gladio muttered.

Her attention flicked in his direction for a second, unamused, before she picked up the pace. “I can’t.”

The four of them grew silent as they followed behind, trying their best to mimic her silent, bounding movements over the dry grass. Gladio tried to brush off the fact that she’d rushed in and taken over his role as tracker, but at this point, he had to accept that they weren’t even tracking so much as following a hunch and a sound.

She led them beneath a pipe bridge of some kind and aimed for a boulder set along the edge of a cliff, but Gladio had already spotted their quarry and began leading the other three toward the wild beast pawing at the ground with a massive foot.

That’s a dualhorn?” Prompto asked. “It’s nostrils are smoking!”

“Doubtless part of its mutation. We’d best make quick work of this,” Ignis said. “I recommend forming a strat—Noct!"

Gladio knew what it meant when Noct raised his sword above his shoulder like that—like he was gonna warp-strike into the animal’s face—and while Gladio was all for the kid growing a pair, this was one of those situations where it was necessary for him to jump in and be the Shield.

“Wait a sec!” Gladio warned, leaping in front of him and raising his sword while Ignis put a hand on his shoulder him from behind.

“What—scared, big guy?” Prompto taunted, but Gladio noticed he kept his feet firmly planted by Noct’s side behind Gladio.

“You oughta be, too. Thing’s vicious.”

“You sure? Looks tame to me.”

“Yeah,” Noct added unnecessarily.

The dualhorn seemed to sense Prompto’s doubt and took several lumbering steps forward, it’s blood-red horns lowered in a threat even Gladio’s inexperienced eye could interpret clearly.

“Look out!” Ignis shouted, but Gladio had already timed the arc of his sword so that it would meet the beast’s legs three strides before its horns met any of them. With a feral grunt, he swiped the steel across its vulnerable tendons, cutting the dualhorn’s legs from underneath it. With a deafening crash, it collapsed onto its side, kicking up a cloud of dust as it skidded to a halt in the dirt.

“Yeah! Show him who’s boss!” Prompto cheered, pumping a fist in the air.

“Nice one, Gladio!” Noct applauded.

Gladio still had his sword raised above his head in triumph when Iggy lunged forward to push Prompto out of the way.

“It’s not over yet!” he shouted as the dualhorn rolled to its feet with a groan.

“Ahh!” Prompto shrieked, scrambling to the side to get out of the way of the solid wall of horned head shaking itself in fury in front of them.

Gladio grinned to himself as he hefted his sword over his shoulder. This was the kinda shit he was born to do.

“Ready for round two?” he roared in anticipation. “Bring it!”

“Watch yourself, Noct!” Iggy called out as Noct rushed forward.

“I know,” Noct snapped.

“Come on, guys,” Gladio urged, hoping to lighten the mood some. “This is s’posed to be fun. Remember, Noct, Iggy may be our tactician, but you’re in charge. You gotta tell us when we can bust out our moves, but remember, we can’t use ‘em all the time . . ..”

***
“And that’s how we get it done!” Gladio bellowed in triumph as he slashed his sword through the neck of their final sabertusk for the day. Hot damn, they should’ve started doing this years ago! They were all getting pretty good at hitting the moving targets, which were definitely harder to kill than the practice dummies Cor used to set up in the Citadel gardens for them to stalk and poke at like they were cats playing with toy mice.

It’d turned out he’d been right that first day out on the plains—he’d been born for this kinda life. If he hadn’t been born a Shield, he could imagine escaping out here—hunting out in the fresh air, finally letting loose and actually getting to use the sharp part of his blade on something that would bite back, being able to dress like a ‘heathen’ in this gods damn heat—the only bad part about the past several days. But he could stand a little extra sweat in his leather if it meant he could escape his responsibilities for a while. He sure as hell wasn’t interested in rushing back to Insomnia anytime soon.

Ig had already processed one of their anaks by the time Gladio had finished yanking all the valuable parts off the sabertusks, and they had just met up in front of the anak Gladio and Noct had killed when Iggy paused, tilting his head and frowning down at the creature Gladio had seen for the first time today. It looked fat enough to get some decent cuts of meat from, but he didn’t see what could be making Iggy so upset.

“What’s up, Ig?” Gladio asked when he sighed and started working on removing the thing’s haunches, hacking through the joints with a spare machete he’d pulled from the armiger.

“Sirloin’s been sliced to ribbons,” Iggy said through gritted teeth as he yanked the leg free and inspected the area on the animal’s side, where Gladio and Noct had done the most damage.

And here was the part about Ice-Cold Scientia that always pissed everyone off back at the Citadel. It wasn’t enough that they’d killed everything without needing more than a couple of potions, no. They also needed to get degrees in butchery while they were at it. Gods damn, it seemed like he was never satisfied.

“Wait,” Noct said, shooting him a disbelieving look. “You mean we’re s’posed to be considering cuts of meat on this thing? No way, Specs.”

“I’m just tryin’ not to die, thanks,” Prompto added.

Gladio let out a sigh. Yeah, it was annoying, but it was best not to piss off the chef. “Point out the areas you want us to avoid. Can’t make any promises though.”

Once Iggy had finished lecturing them on which parts of the animal would be turned to ground meat anyway and which were better served as steaks, butchering the animal as he spoke, he stood straight and said, “I believe that was all we had on our list today. The anaks were quite the windfall. Let us collect Laura and return to the haven for supper.”

Gladio spared a glance just outside the combat area where, predictably, Laura was standing, her face a mask of stoicism as she kept watch. But he was used to this scene, as they had spent the past several days hunting for fun and profit in the area while Cid took his gods damned time fixing the Regalia.

Even after having spent almost a week with her, he couldn’t understand why the girl insisted on coming but refused to help. At the very least, she’d stayed true to her word and hadn’t said a damn thing about them killing the wildlife; he would’ve ripped her a new one if she’d tried.

She had mentioned something about not being able to protect Noct should something go wrong while she was back at the camp, but then what did she think he was there for? The fact that the King had felt another fighter was necessary on this mission still rankled, even if the state of things in the city had unsettled his instincts as of late. Inexperienced or not, hadn’t he proven himself a capable Shield? The others had their own positions in addition to combat skills that didn’t overlap with his—the momma and the best friend. But after hearing about Laura’s fight with Cor, Gladio knew that she had been assigned to be an assassin, like him, even if she was apparently a card-carrying member of the SPCA or some shit. She had yet to even prove herself to them in battle beyond Iggy’s word, and after a week of watching her stand idly by as they did all the work, he was feeling up to a challenge.

He sighed, kicking at a rock in his path as they walked. Clearly, he was still trying and failing to take the high road and consider it extra safety for his liege. He’d have to do better about that, or this was gonna be a long trip.

There was one way to work off his frustration with her, and she should have the energy for it, as she hadn’t done much today besides some foraging. If what Ignis had said about her combat skill was true, then it was a waste to have her in their group and not take advantage of the learning opportunity, but he had a feeling maybe her abilities had been exaggerated. No way could this little girl have taken on Cor the Immortal in a fancy dress.

And because of whatever hand holding she and Iggy’d been doing every night, he thought he could stand to be close to her without accidentally snapping and killing her . . . but he should probably insist on no weapons this time, just in case. If he won, he’d have something to crow about back home, even if he had to add an asterisk to the victory for not beating her at the sword.

“Hey, Laura!” he called out to her as the four of them approached. “Wanna spar tonight before dinner? No weapons, just fists. First one pinned has to do the dishes for Iggy.”

He thought the wager was more than fair, since she’d done the dishes with Iggy every night so far, anyway. She was almost obsessive about cleanliness, just like Iggy. Gladio’d even gotten up a couple of times in the middle of the night to take a piss to find her awake, polishing Iggy’s boots or washing and pressing their clothes with nothing but a bucket and a flat iron pulled from the fire. The first time it’d happened, she gave a little wave and said something about not usually needing much sleep.

Six, what a pair they’d make—making sure everyone ate their vegetables and brushed their teeth for at least two minutes before bed before staying up all night scrubbing down the haven with toothbrushes.

Laura’s face relaxed into a more natural expression as they got closer. “Sounds interesting, and I’m sure it’s the only way Ignis is going to get any of your help in the kitchen,” she accused.

“Dayum! We got ourselves a competition going on up in here!” Prompto crowed, jumping up and slapping Gladio on the back. “You’re soooo gonna get it!”

“This should be interesting,” Noct mused. “Pre-dinner entertainment?”

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

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

“Ha!” She flashed them all a sassy tongue-to-tooth smile before turning her back to them, sashaying in the direction of their camp and adding an extra sway to her hips even Gladio could appreciate. Looking over her shoulder flirtatiously, she said, “Remember that cockiness, now, boys. We’ll see who receives an ass whooping.”

Her attempt at mimicking his colorful phrasing sounded awkward in her posh accent, but he had to give her points for trying. Maybe she wasn’t an Iggy clone, after all.

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

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

“You’re in love with everyone,” Gladio said, rolling his eyes and giving Prompto’s head a little shove.

“You tryin’ to say I don’t got standards?”

“Yeah, maybe I am.”

“Easy for you to say when you get like, all the girls. Talk about standards.”

“Ha! Jealous much?”

Gladio grinned when Prompto didn’t answer. “Stick with me, kiddo, and you’ll learn a thing or two.”

When they returned to the haven, Laura immediately disappeared into the tent while Gladio marked out a clear section of dirt just within Iggy’s line of sight. As he casually kicked a few of the larger rocks out of the makeshift arena, he took the time to think about his strategy. He figured that their almost comical disparity in size would be the deciding factor in this fight. His longer reach would make it easier for him to get a hold of her, and once he did, his superior strength would finish the job. Her size would make her faster, and therefore more difficult to catch, however. Still, even if she did somehow manage to get a hold of him, he couldn’t see how she planned on taking him down. She was almost a full foot shorter than he was, and he could probably lift her one-handed and throw her halfway across the clearing if he wanted. 

But no matter what, he couldn’t underestimate her. It’d be in his best interest to end this quickly.

After a couple of minutes, she emerged from the tent in a pair of black shorts and a tank top, her feet bare and her hair pulled back into a tight bun. She strutted confidently across the dirt, unaffected by the sharp rocks beneath the soles of her feet, and stood at the ready about ten paces from him.

“Kick her ass, Gladio!” Noct cheered from his perch at the edge of the haven.

“Language, Noct!” Iggy called out from the stove as Prompto let out a “Whoop-whoop!”

“What, no ball gown this time, Princess?” Gladio teased, leering at her.

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

“Nope, that about covers it.” He tossed a sloppy salute to Noct and Prompto before turning back to her. “Begin!”

He didn’t give her the chance to assess his stance or strategy and rushed her, bringing up the fist of his non-dominant hand at the last moment to catch her off guard. He may as well have been moving in slow motion, because she ducked his fist easily with a merry laugh and as she bent lower, used her momentum to swing her left leg up and around from behind her. As he recovered his momentum and reached out to grab her, she jumped, swiping that leg across his cheek with a powerful thwack of skin hitting skin. Gladio stumbled backward, his head swimming a little as he tried to keep his eyes on her. She tossed him a cheeky grin and spun off to his side.

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

And all the while, she was giving him this wide, teasing grin and sparkling eyes—like she wasn’t even concentrating on the fight, like she was playing with him.

The moment she took him down was shocking one for Gladio, but he guessed he shouldn’t have been too surprised, given what she’d done to Cor. He couldn’t figure out how she’d gotten all the way up his back to catch his neck and jaw with one of her thighs, but he was already immobilized by the time he felt her other thigh wrap itself around the back of his head and twist in an alarming way. Helpless, he toppled backward, completely at her mercy. When he crashed to the ground with his neck between her knees and her body slamming hard on her side above him, he knew a simple jerk of her powerful legs could snap his neck in two. Still too stunned to say anything through the careful pressure applied to his trachea, he hit the ground next to him twice, tapping out.

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

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

“And on that note,” Ignis called out, “it would be wise to get cleaned up. Dinner will be ready in ten minutes.”

Gladio watched his boots shuffling in the dirt as they made their way back to the haven together. No matter what, he couldn’t let this get him down. As he did when he found out the Glaives could kick his ass, he was gonna use this as an opportunity to improve. He was trapped on this trip with the best fighter he’d ever seen; it only made sense to learn what he could these next couple of weeks so he could kick her ass one of these days. Seeing as how she was always awake when he and Iggy got up in the mornings, he figured it might be a good idea to ask her to spar before his warm-up.

“Sorry about that,” Laura mumbled softly next to him, also watching her feet as they walked side-by-side back to the haven. “Being the girl, I had to prove myself to you guys, you know?”

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

When she looked up at him with those wide, anxious blue eyes, he swore she almost looked vulnerable. “So we’re good?”

He grinned down at her. “Yeah, we’re good, Princess.” 

Her answering smile reminded him of when he’d do something to make Iris happy, so he ignored the weird feeling and briefly put his arm around her shoulder. She hesitated for a second before leaning into his side.

“Thanks.”

By the time Gladio dunked the dirty dishes into the dishwashing bucket and the others had pulled their chairs up around the makeshift kitchen so he could still be a part of the conversation, he felt like his stomach was gonna explode from the half an anak’s worth of prairie-style skewers he’d horked down. How dare such a tasty-ass animal not come to his attention for the first twenty-three years of his life? Why the hell hadn’t they been serving these in Insomnia all along?

“If you weren’t such a gods damn genius, you could’ve opened a skewer stand, I swear, Ig,” Gladio grunted as he plunged his hands into the hot water and grabbed one of the plates to wash.

Iggy settled in his chair with a can of Ebony, immediately reaching out to interlace the fingers of his free hand with Laura’s, and gave him a calculating look over the frames of his glasses. But Gladio ignored the expression or what it could mean and paused to stare significantly at their entwined hands. This was the first time they’d done that before everyone had gone to bed—which either meant they were trying to make things public or prove they had nothing to hide.

Gladio’s attention slid to Noct, whose eyes darted from his phone screen to shoot the two an odd look.

“Well, I should like to set my sights somewhat higher than restauranteur,” he said airily, “but I take it you enjoyed the skewers, then?”

“Yeah, perfect meal to follow up a kickass spar,” Gladio said with a grin.

“You mean getting your ass kicked,” Noct laughed.

As Iggy let out a disapproving tut at Noct, Prompto practically vibrated out of his chair to lean toward Laura. “Seriously, that was incredible! I’ve never seen anything like that!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” he mumbled, looking down at his coffee can. “Your style is much more elegant, I believe.”

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

Ahh, this mysterious experience of hers. They’d all had more than one conversation about what it could be as they walked back to her location on the outskirts of a battle. Gladio figured she must’ve been a Shield to the Crown of this Miriásia place before it fell. Iggy, of course, refused to speculate until she’d volunteered the information herself. The most outrageous theory had been concocted by Noct and Prompto, who were convinced that she was some kind of orphan raised by Draconian priests in a secluded mountain town. She never offered any kinda information, and none of them were sure if they really had the right to ask with her reporting directly to the King, though it seemed Iggy was constantly trying out his subtle manipulations on her to get her to open up more. But since she’d brought the matter up, Gladio figured he’d walk out on a ledge and get her to elaborate.

“So you do have real-life battle experience?”

Her face fell as her gaze turned inward. “Oh yes, quite a bit,” she said in a small, faraway voice.

Well fuck. He hadn’t meant to make her sad. This was why soldiers didn’t ask shit like that. He should’ve listened to his dad’s advice and kept his mouth shut. But still . . . the thought of it . . . she’d actually killed people.

But that must’ve meant she was about Iris’s age when she went into battle, or even younger. That kinda thing wasn’t unheard of in Lucis, but gods damn, the thought of his little sister in a kingdom-ending war made him sick.

“Why are you holding hands like that?” Noct interrupted suddenly. Gladio raised an eyebrow in his direction. He’d never known Noct to be socially aware enough to understand when the subject needed changing, but he was grateful for the intervention nevertheless.

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

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

As Gladio set aside another clean plate to dry, he surreptitiously shot a glance to Noct, who leaned back in his chair, seemingly satisfied with the answer. “Huh, guess I’ve barely noticed . . . whatever that was lately. Thought it was cause we weren’t cooped up in the car.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My word,” Ignis breathed, his wide eyes and awestruck expression lit from below by the magical fire. “It’s beautiful.”

Gladio paused in scrubbing the metal skewer sticks free of carbon to stare openly at the unleashed magic in front of him. Only the King and a few Glaives were able to manipulate the elements raw like that, and never in a specific shape, color, or no freaking way scent—what the hell.

The truth was that Laura was right—the Lucians’ access to the Crystal, the only source of magic on the entire planet as far as he knew, was limited to a few spells, mostly having to do with the elements and the source of light that created the Wall and protected them from the daemonic hordes. According to legend, the Caelum line was tasked by the gods themselves to protect the Crystal because they were the only ones capable of wielding its powers in addition to their own. Lucis had prospered beyond all other empires and kingdoms because of House Caelum’s protection these past two thousand years, but that prosperity was also the reason why Niflheim was so intent on taking them down. More than its lands and its riches, Niflheim wanted to get their hands on that rock. Who knew what they would be capable of with all that power if they learned to channel it?

But even though he didn’t wanna admit it, Lucis was fighting a losing battle. House Caelum’s powers seemed to be getting weaker with each generation—most noticeably when King Mors had had to scale back the Wall, which used to stretch all the way to Keycatrich, leaving millions of his subjects defenseless. Gladio had learned in his classes that it’d been a contentious decision at the time, but it was either that, or he’d lose the strength to hold up the Wall altogether. Now, even with the reduced territory, King Regis’s life was being drained away to the point where he could no longer summon his own Royal Arms.

And Noct. Not only could Noct not hardcast like his old man, he could barely create and maintain Crystal servants. This treaty was King Regis’s only way of preserving some kinda future for the kingdom of Lucis—to give Noct the chance to grow into what he’d been prophesied to become.

But Laura’s display was living proof that there were somehow other sources of magic in the world besides the Crystal servants created by the King. And there was Iggy and the Glaives, who still needed the connection to the Crystal but could do things with magic even Noct couldn’t. The idea gave him hope.

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

“Well, you’re gonna have to rely on good old-fashioned teamwork to get you through then,” Gladio said as he stood to dump out the dish bucket over the edge of the haven.

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

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

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

With dinner finished and everything cleaned up to Iggy’s satisfaction, they all settled into what had become their nightly routines. Gladio counted out a few sets of one-handed pushups before sitting down to a game of King’s Knight with Prompto and Noct. Iggy released Laura’s hand for long enough to make himself a cup of Ebony, but immediately settled back down by her side with one of his wildlife books.

Gladio pulled his own book out on the tea ceremonies of ancient Lucis once he’d crawled into the tent for the night and settled on his bedroll, but he propped himself up on his elbow instead of reading, idly fingering the edges of the thick hardback cover as he cast a skeptical eye in Iggy and Laura’s direction.

It sure as hell looked romantic with the two of them sitting alone by the fire, the orange glow and flickering shadows lighting up the small smiles on their faces as they held hands and made comments about whatever they were reading together. No way was this all business. It couldn’t be.

Noct dove headfirst into his pillow and wrapped his arms tightly around it. “Kinda weird, seeing Specs touching someone like that,” he sighed into the fabric.

“More than kinda,” Prompto agreed. “I always thought he was a germaphobe or something . . . not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just . . . you know—the cleaning, and since we’ve been out here, the gloves.”

Three pairs of eyes shot in their direction when Iggy suddenly threw back his head and let out a hearty laugh.

What the fuck? When was the last time he’d heard Iggy laugh like that? Had he ever? Gladio had been trying for years to wrangle a laugh from the robot and had barely managed an occasional half-smile or soft chuckle. What could she have possibly said to him?

It seemed that the world immediately recovered, tilting back on its axis as Iggy dropped his gaze to his lap, and they all clearly heard him mumble, “Apologies.”

But it looked like Laura was soaking it up. She shook her head up at him, her eyes shining with mirth as she poked her tongue out to touch the top row of her teeth.

“It’s cool they’re making friends,” Gladio muttered. “She’s kinda weird, but really not so bad. Specially now that murder thing’s dyin’ down.”

“I’ll be happy when things get back to normal, though,” Noct said, burying his head back into his pillow. “That’s kinda freaking me out.”

Prompto hesitated like he wanted to say something but seemed to decide against it. Gladio folded his hands behind his head and leaned back, staring at the dark tent fabric and trying to imagine what Altissia was gonna be like. As much as he enjoyed being out here in the wild hunting and camping, he kinda hoped they’d get there with enough time to spare to visit the Arena Galviano. He’d heard stories about some of the epic beast battles that had taken place there, and the idea of sittin’ back on a private balcony with a beer sounded like a perfect way to waste an afternoon away.

Lost in his plans, Gladio didn’t manage to fall asleep until after Iggy settled into his sleeping bag beside Prompto nearly an hour later.

Chapter Text

“Peaches?” Takka repeated, his entire face compressing as he searched his memory for an answer to Ignis’s query. “No . . . don’t think so. Ain’t never heard of ‘em. And I’d know. Work with the farmers all the way out past Lestallum, ya see?”

Ignis sat back further on his stool, cupping the hot can of Ebony between both his hands and stifling his disappointment at the news. Seeing that Takka had several more patrons eager to put in their breakfast orders, he gave the proprietor a slight bow of his head. “I see. Please, don’t let me keep you. Thank you for your time.”

“No problem. You know, you city folk sure are politer than I expected.”

The slightest stirring of indignation ruffled him somewhat, but he ducked his head and ignored the comment, allowing Takka to return to his work as he enjoyed what was left of his free time this morning. While Cindy was putting the finishing touches on the Regalia, they had all gone their separate ways, either exploring the tiny town of Hammerhead—which they’d learned was called such because it had grown up around the garage that His Majesty himself had titled after a nickname for Cid, a sore point for the aged mechanic—gathering more information from the locals, or in Ignis’s case, spending a rare moment alone. Although he’d enjoyed the company and growing sense of camaraderie with the other four this past week and a half, he believed he would always need at least some time each day spent in silence and solitude to feel completely himself. He found it a difficult feat to feel isolated this morning, however, with the chatter of dozens of patrons and the radio blaring a terribly repetitive song of the sort these outlanders preferred. He decided to give up any concept of alone time when Gladio stepped over the stool next to him and plopped down with a sigh.

“We gotta talk.”

“Regarding?” Though he believed he already knew the answer.

“Noct.” He sighed again, and Ignis suppressed the desire to do the same. “You gotta quit babyin’ him. He’s havin’ the time of his life out here.”

“Which is precisely what concerns me. I’m all for taking this opportunity to allow him to grow, but I also believe we should exercise at least a modicum of caution. You are his Shield, Gladio—”

“You’re right, which means I know full-well what the duties entail, and they include helping to raise a king I’m proud to protect.”

“And you think I don’t share the same responsibility?”

“It’s not your job to protect him; it’s mine,” he shot back, his voice growing rougher with frustration, but his volume remained low—for the moment.

Still, given that they’d had this discussion several times before and they both knew where it was headed, Ignis thought it wise to end this conversation before tempers flared and they attracted attention. He remained silent, the retort that he’d been trained in far more than Gladio could possibly realize hanging heavy on his tongue as it always did. If anyone should realize the necessity to be somewhat sheltered—within reason—and happy when one’s entire life would soon be dedicated in service to the kingdom, it should have been Gladio. The three of them had been born into lives and positions they could never call their own, after all. The least they could do was allow the child to live a little before his future overtook them all, Ignis agreed, but not at the cost of everything they’d worked so hard to protect him from all these years.

Gladio seemed to recognize the capitulation, as well as the reason for it, and relaxed his posture somewhat reluctantly.

“Looks like Noct isn’t the only one havin’ the time of his life out here.”

Ignis took another sip of his Ebony and nodded. “Indeed. I’ve noticed you seem to be enjoying your time outdoors, and Prompto is regarding this entire trip as a stag holiday of sorts.”

“Yeah, and I noticed you and Laura are gettin’ along pretty good,” he said suggestively.

Ignis shot him a look from the side of his eye to see him waggling his eyebrows. He looked down at his Ebony again.

“I advise you not go looking for drama where none exists. She is . . . an enigma. Nothing more.”

Which wasn’t precisely true. Laura was . . . he wasn’t certain. What would one call a person one was friendly with but knew essentially nothing about? She was a rare, strange creature that technically neither wanted nor needed anything from him—a scenario he was most unaccustomed to. For the most part, the people he associated himself with these days were friendly enough, but the relationship always seemed to go in one direction—always take, never give; always learn, never teach—not that he terribly minded. Yet even when Laura used him to align herself, it had been a voluntary and unnecessary action on his behalf—more as a favor in repayment of all she had shown and done for him since they’d left the city.

More and more, he was finding that he enjoyed spending time with her, either in quiet companionship as they went about their chores or in polite conversation as they explored their new world together. But he hadn’t forgotten his duty. Each word that issued from her lips was collected, weighed, and measured, and the more data Ignis had gathered, the more muddied the final picture of who this girl really was became.

“Uh huh,” Gladio grunted doubtfully.

“Honestly—”

But they both grew still when the song from the radio at the end of the counter finally reached its conclusion, and the announcer declared that His Majesty King Regis had addressed the kingdom on the matter of the peace treaty the previous afternoon. Ignis stared down the curve of the counter, past the various plates laden with patrons’ breakfasts to where the radio sat as the familiar, comforting voice of his king issued from the speakers, full of strength, authority, and reassurance.

Some among you may regard this term of peace with apprehension,” King Regis said calmly. “You may wonder if your king has forsaken his people, when it is for their very sake I have acted. The lands of Leide, Duscae, and Cleigne shall be ceded to imperial governance, granting us assurance that the people of these regions will be spared further bloodshed on account of this war."

“Like hell!” cried out a voice from one of the booths in the back corner.

“Load of chocobo turds!” a woman agreed.

"Life will go on, and all will continue to know liberty and prosperity.

“You mean INSOMNIA will know liberty and prosperity!”

Ignis shot Gladio a concerned look as a collective “boo” rose from the diner patrons.

“We better get goin’,” Gladio said under his breath.

Doing their best to appear unrushed, they both stood from their stools and made their way toward the door. Before they were out of earshot of the radio, Ignis heard the parting words of the newscaster over the continued objections of the patrons:

An appeal for understanding and support from His Majesty ahead of the signing ceremony. While there is no denying that the impending treaty has been met with a modicum of resistance in the outlands, on the whole, the Lucian populace welcomes the coming peace.”

“Least there still is a treaty. Can’t believe they haven’t set a date yet,” Gladio muttered as they picked up the pace toward the garage. It seemed as though Cindy had finished her work, for the garage door was standing wide open, the indigo-black Regalia gleaming in the already oppressive morning sun out front. Prompto, Noct, and Laura had noticed the appearance of their ride and were circling the car, admiring the glittering chrome wheels and shining paint.

“It’s comforting to hear, I agree,” Ignis replied. “Only I hadn’t realized the extent of this growing resentment and what it would mean for our trip. Loath though I am to rush this, we should continue straight to Galdin should the atmosphere prove this unsettled in Longwythe.”

“Agreed.”

As they drew closer, they heard Cindy answering a question Noct had asked about his father’s car.

“Still, in every rumor, there’s a grain o’ truth. After all, when it comes to cars, Crown City folk know their biznis. It’s a right shame they put up the Wall thirty years ago.”

“You mean when they stopped allowing outsiders to enter the city?” Laura asked.

“Yep. Lotta goods became the stuff of legend, includin’ the wax I used on this baby. Sorry ‘bout the wait. Ain’t she purdy, though?”

“She’s almost too pretty for the road,” Gladio agreed, folding his arms and tossing Cindy a sly grin.

“We should all get a picture with her!” Prompto exclaimed.

As Prompto handed the camera off to Cindy and showed her how to work the Crown-City-made device, Ignis went over to stand by the driver’s side door, crossed his arms, and leaned casually against the front panel.

There was something weighted about this moment that Ignis couldn’t quite identify—as though they had reached both the beginning and the end of something monumental. Already, they’d grown so much in their time away from the Citadel. They were well on their way to becoming a deadly, cohesive combat unit. They had paid fairly for a service they needed and regained financial independence with no help from any Crown connections. Though he was desperate for a steaming hot shower and a fragrant bar of soap, he was proud of the five of them for having spent the last ten days on their own in the wild. He would be most grateful for the luxurious accommodations at Galdin Quay before they boarded the ferry to Altissia so he could relax, perhaps even soak in a tub, but a small part of him would miss the time they’d spent bonding over the campfire and tracking game.

“You boys smile now, ya hear?” Cindy called out before she pressed the shutter. As she leaned in to hand the camera back to Prompto, she added, “So if y’all wouldn’t mind stoppin’ at the motel on yer way to Galdin, I already put those parts in the trunk for the owner there.”

“Yeah,” Noct sighed wearily as he opened the door to the back seat. “Pretty sure one of us would do anything for you.”

“I’ll have to keep that in mind!” she laughed.

Before Laura slid into the middle seat, she flashed Cindy a wide smile. “Feel free to text those schematics to one of the guys, and I’ll take a look. Thanks for getting us back on the road, Cindy.”

“Yes, you have our sincerest gratitude,” Ignis added as he closed the driver side door behind him. “And do thank Master Cid for us, as well.”

“Will do!” she said with a wave as they pulled away.

The promise of the open road ahead of them once again lifted Ignis’s spirits as he turned left out of Hammerhead for the last time, begging him to add weight to his foot on the gas pedal, but he refrained. Though Cid and Cindy had no doubt restored the Regalia to top operating condition, it would do them little good to get themselves stranded halfway to Galdin without another garage between here and there to repair her.

“Never thought about how people viewed the Crown City from the outside,” Noct said thoughtfully.

“Neither have I,” Prompto said, “but she said it’s the place where legends were made. Can you believe it? The stuff we use every day!”

“And goods produced in the purlieus have yet to match that caliber, even from thirty years ago,” Ignis said. “The Crown City must seem like a futuristic paradise in comparison. Imagine—only thirty years it took for the entire remainder of the continent to stagnate to this point.”  

“Many aspects of civilization are lost when survival becomes the main goal,” Laura said sadly. “Between the daemons attacking and the Starscourge making people disappear, it becomes all they can do just to feed themselves.”

“It’s a good thing Cindy’s helpin’ everyone out like this,” Prompto said dreamily. “Seriously she’s like, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, like, a real-life goddess!”

The answering tone in Noct’s voice told Ignis that he was likely already leaning against the window with his eyes closed. “Yeah, well, now you got that picture of her, you can pay your respects to the ‘Grease Monkey Goddess’ as much as you want,” he mumbled.

“Just be sure to keep both hands in sight while paying your respects, please,” Laura muttered.

“Hey! It’s totally not like that! I’m not like . . . creeping on her or anything!” Prompto protested over Gladio’s bark of laughter. “She’s too good for that. I’ll sure miss seeing her once this road trip’s over with.”

“There’s no reason you can’t pay her a visit any time you please,” Gladio said. “I’m sure Cindy’ll be glad to look after your car.” He paused for several moments for dramatic effect. “. . . Oh, right.”

“Not funny,” Prompto mumbled.

“If you need, I can always lend you the Regalia,” Noct said.

Ignis breathed in, preparing to inform the two of them that the likelihood of being allowed to leave the city when they returned would be low until it was time for Noct’s Bonding of Souls tour, but the words died on his lips before he’d opened them.

Let them dream.

“Whoa!” Prompto exclaimed, and Ignis looked up at the rearview mirror to catch the corner of his hopeful grin and flush of excitement spreading across his left cheek. “I—uh—thanks for the offer, but once we’re back in the Crown City, I think I’d better score my own wheels.”

“Suit yourself, but you’re gonna need a better job than ‘clerk’ to afford one,” Noct reminded him. “And it’s not like there’s a lotta room to move up at a comic book store.”

“I know,” Prompto sighed. “I was thinkin’ I could up my game on this trip, maybe make some extra money on the side doing wedding photography and stuff when I get back.”

“Specially if you advertise yourself as the official royal wedding photographer.”

“Really? Me? The official photographer?”

“Sure, why not? There’s gotta be some benefit to being the Prince.”

“Oh em gee! Now I totally gotta document everything.”

“Well, now you’ve been given royal permission,” Ignis chuckled softly, his eyes not leaving the road ahead. He wasn’t entirely certain how far out the junction to Galdin was, but he believed he recalled that it wasn’t far the day they’d pushed the car to Hammerhead. He certainly didn’t want to miss the turn and wind up at the entrance to the Insomnian ramparts.

“Hey, what about you guys?” Prompto asked. “You had to’ve wanted to be something else at some point. Gimme some ideas!”

“I just wanted to fish,” Noct answered immediately. “TV, the latest game, a lake or somethin’, and a pole.”

“Dude. That’s cool and all, but that’s no help,” he whined. “What about you, Gladio?”

“Ha! No help here, either. Always was gonna be a Shield, but I wanted it. Becomin’ a Hunter’d be pretty cool, though. Camping out here in the open, livin’ off the land. Maybe even growin’ stuff.”

“Yeah, I can’t be a Hunter or a Shield in the Crown City.”

Ignis raised an eyebrow when he felt several taps on his right shoulder just as he’d spotted the junction for Galdin in the distance. Turning his head slightly, he saw Prompto leaning over Laura’s lap to push his torso eagerly between the seats.

“Please fasten your seatbelt,” he said gently.

“Oh yeah, sure thing, Iggy,” Prompto replied, sitting back in his seat. “But what about you? You weren’t always gonna be a . . . whatever you are, right? You remember what you wanted to be growing up?”

“My childhood aspirations?” he asked in surprise. He hadn’t expected to be included in this soul-searching conversation and thus hadn’t prepared an answer. “Hmm . . ..”

Contrary to Prompto’s belief, Ignis had been destined to become . . . whatever he was at three years old when his uncle had brought him to the Citadel for his specialized training. A chamberlain, a senior advisor, a future Prime Minister—there existed no one title for what, exactly, he was and what he was destined to become. The schedule for him assuming his duties had been accelerated with the sudden death of Queen Aulea, leading to his becoming the Prince’s companion, advisor, and guardian at six years old. As such, his aspirations hadn’t centered around dreams of possible futures so much as a ceaseless desire to succeed, to become more, despite any obstacles that lay ahead of him. Perhaps, if he concentrated, he could recall the occasional fleeting fantasy, but nothing concrete, for there was little point to dream of what could never be. But certainly, this couldn’t be a suitable answer for what Prompto—

“Y’uhh . . . no need to go into depth,” Prompto said before he could begin to formulate a response. “Really.”

Somewhat relieved, he allowed the matter to pass. But for all their time spent out in the Weaverwilds together this past week and a half, not nearly as much had changed as Ignis had previously thought, because the car grew awkwardly silent for a moment, and he found himself counting out the heavy seconds passing them by before he relented and addressed the source of the quiet directly.

“Laura?” he asked politely, looking up to meet her eyes briefly in the mirror.

She, likewise, seemed to be surprised at being consulted. “Me? Oh . . . I hadn’t thought about it in lifetimes. Um . . . a pop star, believe it or not.”

Actually, he didn’t believe it. Had it only been ten days ago he’d considered her an overly-sheltered Insomnian noblewoman? A pop star seemed such a thoroughly ordinary answer, considering who she had become instead, but then, he supposed that all little girls had their dreams.

“You mean like a singer? You can sing?” Prompto asked.

“Not well enough to be a pop star,” she said with a snort. “I do all right otherwise.”

The only warning Ignis received was the click of a seatbelt before Prompto’s entire upper body was shoved between his and Gladio’s.

“Hey, tryin’ to read, here!” Gladio growled, giving Prompto a little shove toward Ignis.

“More importantly, I’d prefer to drive without being driven 'round the bend, thank you,” Ignis added with a huff as he gripped the steering wheel more tightly with both hands.

“I wanna hear her!” Prompto exclaimed, fiddling with the dials on the dash. He flipped rapidly through several radio stations, and Ignis was about maneuver him back into his seat as though he were an over-eager toddler when he settled on a heavy metal song and threw himself into his seat again.

“This one!”

“Um . . .,” Laura said hesitantly.

“Not exactly a good one to sing to,” Gladio muttered.

“What’re you talkin’ about?!” Ignis chanced a brief glimpse back to see Prompto raising both hands into the wind and closing his eyes. “You're loco if you think you're gonna hide this chocobo. Everybody's gonna wanna ride your chocobo!”

“I’m . . . afraid I don’t know this one,” Laura said, but Prompto was no longer listening. “Chocobo? Sounds like a sort of candy bar . . . or something naughty.”

“One can’t be certain that wasn’t the composer’s original intention,” Ignis said with a wry smirk up at the rearview mirror.

“It's choco-loco style in a choco-rodeo. Gonna ride him straight through hell in this chocobo rodeo! Yeah, let's ride!”

“Just be happy it’s the radio, so he can’t put it on repeat like King Regis used to,” Gladio chuckled, not looking up from his book as the song came to an abrupt end. He leaned forward to turn the volume of the next song down to a more tolerable level. “This is just like my father’s stories about the big road trip.”

“Even the car’s the same,” Noct said sleepily.

“Think the King and his men knew how to party like we do?” Prompto asked.

“Hard to imagine,” Ignis said. “It’s always so much fun.” 

“And don’t forget they were in the middle of a war. Not my kind of party,” Gladio said.

Prompto’s tone grew more subdued. “Yeah, war’ll put a damper on things.”

“Was this still part of the war with Niflheim?” Laura asked.

“Yeah,” Noct said. “My dad used to tell me bedtime stories about it. Thirty years ago, he, Cid, Gladio’s dad, Cor, and some guy called Weskham headed out to Accordo to try and re-establish an alliance with them.”

“They were overwhelmed, however, by the Empire’s new Magitek soldiers and were forced to return home,” Ignis continued. “And when the Wall was damaged, King Mors had but one choice to save Insomnia, which was to scale it back to the city’s ramparts.”

“They all came back alive though, didn’t they? That’s a victory if you ask me,” Prompto said. “And sounds like some stories to tell!”

“They saw some pretty rough stuff, but they had the time of their lives on the road. My dad never would’ve set this up otherwise.”

Prompto slapped both his hands on the shoulders of Gladio’s seat. “So they DID know how to party!”

“Which is why it’s important to document everything,” Ignis said. “I’m certain His Majesty will be eager to see evidence of his son following in his auspicious footsteps.”

“I dunno,” Noct mumbled. “Probably not.”

“Well, not much to get now, anyway. Already got a bunch of this area, and it kinda all looks the same,” Prompto said. Ignis had to agree. Accustomed as he was to driving for short periods of time in the city, this wide-open landscape, though breathtaking, had a tendency to wear on his eyes after so long behind the wheel, especially with the too-bright Leiden sun reflecting off the tawny sand and grass.

He noticed that Gladio’s attention would often drift from his book as they passed by rusted-out vehicles laid to rest along the boulder-strewn road, and Ignis, too, would wonder what circumstances had led to so many cars being left to rot when the population was clearly suffering for all the technological advances they could get. For a brief span as they drove past two cliffs forming a window to the western horizon, he spotted some rather remarkable arch formations in the distance, which were too long and spindly to have been formed naturally. He wondered if they were the famed arches appearing along the edges of the Disc of Cauthess. To his disappointment, it didn’t appear as though they would be drawing any closer to them on the course of their journey. Oh, but he’d always wanted to see with his own eyes the great meteor of legend, said to have fallen to the planet during the War of the Astrals and caught by the Archaean himself. Perhaps they would have an opportunity to see it during Noct’s Bonding of Souls tour. As the locations of the tombs of the Old Kings were kept secret by the reigning monarch and their retinue, Ignis wasn’t certain whether a tomb lay in that area or not.

For now, he could only dream, as the tour would be their absolute final chance to leave the city—likely for the rest of their lives.

They had just passed yet another abandoned, weather-burned barn when he heard Prompto from behind him. “Hey, Laura, since we’re sitting here anyway, you wanna work on that energy thing?”

Ignis chanced a glance in the rearview mirror, but Noct seemed to have been waiting for such a reaction, as their eyes met briefly before Ignis turned his attention back to the road.

Strange as it had been to hold her hand every evening—uncomfortable, even, in front of the others—he’d rather come to enjoy their time together studying the flora and fauna to be found in the area. He’d come to look forward to those quiet hours in front of the campfire, breathing in that now familiar scent of hers and attempting to come up with witty remarks to the reading material just to make her laugh.

But those evenings were fast coming to an end as she came closer to fully aligning herself—even faster, it would seem, as he heard Laura’s reply to Prompto. “If it’s not too much trouble. You waited too long to tell me last time.”

“Naw, it’s no trouble at all! Won’t catch me complaining about holding a girl’s hand!”

So, they were holding hands today, were they? He let his eyes flick briefly up one last time to see that Laura was leaning heavily into Prompto’s side, and it did appear as though their shoulders were aligned so that they were likely holding hands . . . in his lap. Did it appear quite so intimate to the others when she and Ignis had worked together on the issue? They almost looked to be courting.

“Oh yeah! This is so much better than last time!”

He hated himself for that stirring of moodiness that brushed over his skin at the thought of them cozying up to one another back there. She had been honest from the very beginning as to the business-like nature of their work, even if Ignis hadn’t entirely, and he could hardly fault her if he had merely been a tool for meeting her goal. He brushed the ugly emotion aside, determined not to allow his offense to cloud his judgment. He would see for himself how much she valued her free time with him when she had completed her transition and no longer required assistance.

“So how long will we be staying in Longwythe?” Laura asked.

“I thought we might spend the night, perhaps explore the settlement, take the opportunity to clean up, and see if there are any bounties available in the area,” Ignis answered. “Though that depends on the state of things when we arrive. Tensions were running rather high when we left Hammerhead.”

“I’m in no rush,” Noct said with a yawn.

“Sounds like someone’s about to ‘time travel,’” Gladio chuckled.

“Time travel?” Laura asked.

“His hilarious code for falling asleep in the car, cause the time goes by faster,” Noct mumbled. “Great for traffic jams at home.”

“If only such a tactic worked for us all,” Ignis said. “Get some rest, Highness, and we’ll arrive before you know it.”

“Wouldn’t have to sleep if someone didn’t have us up at the butt crack of dawn every morning,” Noct grumbled before going silent.

Ignis slouched deeper into the seat and leaned his elbow against the door, looking forward to everyone settling in for the long drive ahead so he could allow his mind to wander over the wild Leiden landscape and the luxuries that awaited them at Galdin.

***

It hadn’t taken long at all for them to find the manager of the dilapidated motel Cindy wanted them to make the delivery to, and after a quick chat, they all agreed to separate after a long morning together in the car to explore the town on their own as they had in Hammerhead. Ignis appreciated finally being able to enjoy the quiet as he strolled the cracked sidewalks and breathed in the fresh, toasted air. Longwythe, as it turned out, was even smaller than Hammerhead had been, with so few shops and amenities that Ignis wondered how it was possible the locals were able to eke a life out here in the middle of nowhere. Filthy and run-down though it was, there was, at least, the motel, which guaranteed them running hot water and a mattress or two—he hoped.

After Hammerhead, the novelty of such places had already lost their charm for Ignis. But there was one advantage to spending the day in this dull and primitive settlement—they were even less likely to be recognized by the fifty or so people wandering around the main street than they had been in Hammerhead, which was fortunate, as it didn’t appear that Insomnians’ reputation was any more favorably looked upon here.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a quarry around here?” asked a man as he and his conversation partner passed by the diner window, whose advertisements Ignis was perusing.

“Not anymore. It’s a shame, though: they say it was a virtual mineral motherlode. Insomnia’s skyline was single-handedly built on the backs of this town, but the money dried up when the daemons took over. This place once teemed with people, until the mines went under, and Regis abandoned all of it.”

“Ah, the Balouve Mines. Is it really as bad as they say it is?”

“Yeah, it is. All the miners done disappeared. They say it’s the Starscourge. And when the daemons took over . . . the minerals got corrupted somehow. Can’t even mine there anymore.”

“Damn king should’ve done something—sent some money, at least. Not like he’s payin’ enough for the oil and gas he’s usin’ up in that city of his. Could’ve begged the Oracle to come out here and heal the people before they disappeared, too. Not too proud to do it for his son.”

“If they aren’t careful, this place is liable to wind up like Keycatrich.”

“Wealthiest city in the outlands—nothin’ but daemons now. You been up that way lately?”

“What for? You said yourself there’s nothin’ up there anymore but daemons. I ain’t interested in dying, thanks.”

Though it troubled him to discover more evidence of the people of Lucis suffering due to neglect, Ignis also found it frustrating that these people were laying their burdens on a higher authority instead of taking charge of their own futures. Had it truly only been the Wall that allowed Insomnia to prosper? Arid and barren though this region was, it was still rich in resources, which if collected, could earn their little town a decent enough living to clean up the buildings, at the very least. And the people had the Hunters to protect them from daemons, did they not? Why must everything be the King’s responsibility to fix for them when his life’s energy was being drained to save what he could?

A half an hour’s stroll, and he believed he had seen all there was to see of the little town, and that included reading all the faded billboard advertisements, taking a look at the menu at the local Crow’s Nest franchise, speaking to the proprietor, and picking up all the bounty assignments they were capable of handling. There were a few items of interest at the market truck parked just outside, so he indulged himself in a little shopping. The likelihood of them encountering Cleigne wheat on their way to Galdin was low, indeed, and the region was said to be famous for it. He wondered if it was the variety Laura used in her bread.

“THANK YOU!”

Ignis flinched and took a small retreating step at the girl’s unexpected, overenthusiastic gratitude. With a slight bow of his head, he said, “Thank you. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered sheep’s milk fresher than this.”

“Thanks! I drive it in from Swainsmere myself every morning!”

“You’re from Duscae, then? Tell me, might you have encountered a fruit called a peach?”

The girl frowned. “I’m so sorry! I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s no matter,” he replied, taking a retreating step as he prepared to leave. “I thank you for your time.”

“You’re welcome! BYE NOW!”

As he took another step back, one of his sahagin-skin dress heels bumped against someone standing behind him. “Pardon me,” he began as he turned, but Prompto came into his view and grabbed his elbow, leaning in close.

“Dude, she’s cute. What’s her name?” he whispered.

“It’s Penelope,” Laura answered softly from his other side.

“Penelope?” Prompto asked, a slow grin spreading over his face. “Think I’m gonna do me some shoppin’.” With a confident swagger but a quivering chuckle, he headed toward the back of the truck serving as the display for Penelope’s wares.

Ignis turned to Laura as she watched Prompto’s attempt at flirting and examined her closely, trying to glean any information he could from the outfit she had changed into. Though they had all packed civilian clothes for this journey, this was the first time he’d seen any of them wear anything beyond their uniforms, and he wondered at the reason for the change. The khaki-colored pleated peasant blouse that fell off her shoulders was made of an oddly rough material, and the sculpted corset cinched around her waist appeared scarred and worn. Paired with loose-fitting trousers and heavy brown work boots, she appeared to be prepared for a day of stylishly-done hard labor.

“You know, I probably have a few peaches I can give you if you’re that keen.”

“Thank you, but no. The thrill of the chase is half the fun, after all. I’m certain they’ll turn up eventually,” he said jovially, thinking of Noct’s pastries. “Have you found anything diverting to do this morning? I see you’ve already managed to introduce yourself to the locals.”

Laura looked up at him, a mischievous glint in her eyes that inexplicably sent a shiver of dread and anticipation through him. “Oh yeah. Wanna do some sightseeing with me?”

Believing himself to be giving a witty response, he allowed his gaze to pass over the scene behind her and said sardonically, “I believe I’ve already seen all there is to see.” However, it was only as the words left his lips that he realized his response could be taken as a refusal of her company, and he hastily added, “Though I would be most interested to see what your insight would add to the experience that is Longwythe.”

He looked down when he felt her fingers entwine with his and attempt to tug him off. “Well then, allons-y!”

“Just a moment,” he chuckled, turning away to catch Prompto’s attention. “Prompto, if you wouldn’t mind reminding Noct and Gladio to meet us by the Regalia at three o’clock to begin the hunts? I sent them a text, but neither has answered.”

“Indubitably!” Prompto replied in a faux royal dialect.

Ignis let out a sigh, but he couldn’t maintain his exasperation for long with Laura waiting on him. When he met up with her on diner’s stoop, however, he was bewildered to find that her entire demeanor had changed in the split second he’d been gone, her expression having grown concerned and wary.

“What’s wrong?”

“How many hunts did you take?”

He bristled somewhat at the harsh brittleness of her tone but answered, “As many as were available at our level of skill.”

Her words grew slow, carefully enunciated. “Do you intend to complete them all?”

“You gave your word you wouldn’t interfere with our hunting the wildlife,” he stated, infusing his own tone with a fine layer of frost. “Besides, two of the hunts are daemons. I thought you’d be pleased.”

She wilted somewhat as she sighed wearily. He was well-familiar with that particular expression of displeasure, as it was the least antagonistic method of communicating his own exasperation, but he wasn’t accustomed to being on the receiving end of disappointment—not since he was a child. Had he missed something again? As he reviewed the conversation, he realized he had made an assumption that might not have been valid.

“It’s not the animals you’re concerned about, is it?”

She grew somber as she reached out to take his elbow and lead him behind the diner. “Perhaps you’ll understand by the time we meet up with the others. Will you come with me?”

“Of course.”

Though not exactly poor, Ignis led a small, simple life in the Crown City, which meant that he lived in a less than affluent district and had seen his fair share of poverty. But as he stepped beyond the Crow’s Nest’s fence line and toward the craggy Longwythe Peak looming over them in the distance, he discovered he’d never encountered anything quite like this.

As Laura led him past several rusty tanks, through a wall of haggard-looking bushes, and past a row of overflowing trashcans, he realized that she’d brought him to a residential area, which he’d skipped over on his first tour of the town. Unlike Insomnia, space and the price of real estate shouldn’t have mattered in the slightest on these wide-open plains, and he was puzzled for nearly a block as he observed that each house was nearly identical—a simple, small rectangle located nearly on top of its neighbor just as it would have in a massive city. He was about to ask Laura for her opinion on why they hadn’t built the dwellings so that each had at least the smallest of gardens when he looked up and noticed the grid of streetlamps hovering close to the roofs, as though the houses had all huddled together in fear of the dark.

Fear of the dark.

“Might I ask where we’re headed?” he asked.

“The winds from last month’s sandstorms blew off much of Mr. Slater’s roof. He sent word around town this morning he’s looking for a crew of volunteers.”

“Volunteers?”

She halted abruptly and turned to face him. “Things are very different out here than in the city,” she said patiently. “Rather than every man seeking to improve his own standing, the community can only survive if they band together to help one another.”

“I’m willing to help, of course,” he responded immediately, then hesitated, “. . . though I’m afraid I don’t know much at all about construction. I’m willing to learn—whatever is required.”

He was pleased to see her face soften into a smile at his eagerness. “And I’m willing to teach you. Come on.” She led him down another oppressively narrow street toward a faded blue shack with a crowd of about twenty men, women, and children milling about the surrounding houses.

“Might I ask you a question?”

“I may not be able to answer, but I will if I can,” she said without looking in his direction.

He paused, somewhat surprised that she had openly admitted to not being entirely candid with her every response, though he’d suspected as much for all her evasiveness thus far. It hadn’t escaped his notice, all those evening by the campfire, that for all that their interest in each other’s lives had been mutual, the sharing had come predominantly from his side.

He chose to word his question broadly that she might offer up something more of herself.

“How is it that you know so much about such a variety of subjects?”

It was a probe into her past—they both knew it, but it had deliberately been phrased so that she could brush aside his query should it prove to be too invasive. Though he couldn’t see her face, following behind her as he was, he could tell that she was considering her words carefully as she responded.

“I’ve . . . traveled some. The thing is—you can't just read the guidebook. You've got to throw yourself in. Eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double, and end up kissing complete strangers. You have to talk to the little people—the ones that don’t matter to anyone. You never know what you’ll learn until you do.”

“City folk!” an older gentleman cried out from up ahead, pointing to the two of them from his lawn chair on the front corner of the blue house. The four children clambering at his knees turned to give them wide-eyed stares before scurrying off in different directions. “Y’all git turned around? I kin send someone to git ya back to the main road.”

“No, we’re here for you, Mr. Slater,” Laura answered. “Penelope sent us to help with your roof. I’m Laura, and this is Ignis.”

“Typical,” he snorted. “Always showin’ up after the hard part’s done. Well, git on up there then. They’re finishin’ up the flashing right now.” Drawing a skeptical eye from Ignis’s shoes to his hair, Mr. Slater gave a “hmph” that reminded him strongly of Cid. “Least ya got some meat on your bones, boy, cause the meal ain’t gonna be ready for a coupla hours.”

“I can be of some assistance there as well, should you require it.”

“Ha! Both me and my daddy spint our lives an’ our backs buildin’ up that city of yers. ‘Bout time one of yeh returned the favor. Now, git on up there and leave the cookin’ to the wife!”

As Laura led him through the throng of loitering people and around to the opposite side of the little house, where a rickety ladder was leaning against the edge of the roof, he asked under his breath, “Is that all? He didn’t even ask after our credentials.”

“He assumes you know what you’re doing. Everyone else in the community does.”

“And he doesn’t pay any of these people for their services?” He eyed the collection of townsfolk dashing between the houses, trading instructions and what looked like plastic containers of food, and children chasing dogs and each other with brandished sticks. It appeared as though no one on the ground, at least, were involved in the project, and yet they seemed to be a part of it in a detached way he couldn’t define.

“He’ll pay in his own way,” she answered as she started up the ladder. “Besides lunch for all of us, he has three sons he’ll lend out to help when the others need it.”

“You and Miss Penelope must’ve had quite the chat.”

Once they’d reached the top and introduced themselves to the six other men—far too many for such a small roof, in Ignis’s opinion—Laura set about giving him a lesson in roof replacement. She explained the process of what had already been done—how what was left of the old roof had been ripped off and the frame, roofing paper, and molding replaced—before explaining how to follow the chalk lines and layer the shingles so that they met perfectly with the others working on different sections. The work itself was simple, if a bit monotonous and uncomfortable due to the heat, so he remained quiet and listened to the crew chatter on about their lives, with Laura joining in as though she, too, had lived in Longwythe for decades.

Though he’d been raised a courtier and a diplomat, Ignis had always struggled somewhat when it came to fitting in with a group of people. In formal settings at the Citadel, he excelled at reflecting the perfect image of regality and hospitality, but at informal gatherings, he knew that many found his mannerisms too stiff, even bordering on snobbish, though he never intended to come off as such. Any attempts he’d made at the vernacular middle class accent that Noct preferred or a more casual manner had always felt false to him, so he’d long ago given up the practice.

Which was why he found himself admiring Laura as she bantered easily with these people she couldn’t have had anything in common with. She’d even gone so far as to change her accent again to put them more at ease. Yet there was nothing false about her manner—she was the same woman there on that roof as she had been for the past week—kind, friendly, and curious. But he found himself wondering which girl was the true representation—the noble warrior or the untamed country girl. She seemed to know too much of both spheres to be either.

“Sawyer’s gonna be spittin’ nails for a week he couldn’t make it today. You know how much he loves Maribelle’s chitterling sausage? And the marrow bones! Gonna give ‘im hell for missin’ those.”

“Ah, it sounds as though we’re in store for an offal feast this afternoon,” Ignis said good-naturedly. “Sounds awfully tempting.”

“Maribelle’s the best at nose-to-tail cookin’. You’re in fer a treat,” the man named Lee answered before turning to the younger man named Davis working further down the roof’s slant. “Take it easy on yer brother and save ‘im some. Ain’t his fault he ain’t here.”

“I saw someone preppin’ fried chickatrice feet before comin’ up ‘ere. Maribelle's really goin' all out! Where is Sawyer though?” Laura asked.

“Got a wife and two kids, don’t he? Can’t afford to do this kinda thing when a hunt comes down the pike that pays in gil.”

“New bounties came in?” a third man asked. “Haven’t seen decent ones since those Hunters in Lestallum blew through and cleaned us out.”

“Yeah, he’s out gettin’ the ones he can handle by himself so he don’t haveta split the bounty.” Davis’s dark eyes grew darker. “But he n’ the boys are gonna head out to the Callaegh Steps tonight.”

“They’re gonna take on the mines?! They crazy?”

Ignis slowed in his work to listen, his interest piqued. He had seen that very hunt available in the book of wanted posters the diner proprietor had shown him this morning and had intended for them to handle it this evening. The assignment hadn’t seemed unduly challenging, but the way everyone went quiet at the news suggested otherwise.

“He ever get the chance to head up to Hammerhead to fix his ax?” Lee asked gravely.

“Can’t afford it. And he ain’t gonna ask Cid for charity work.”

“Shit.”

As Ignis pulled his handkerchief out of the jacket he’d left discarded next to him to wipe the sweat from his brow, he found Laura’s eyes watching him, filled with a deep knowing. He met her gaze for a moment before her attention flicked toward the men speaking.

And he understood.

The five of them didn’t belong in this world; as such, they created a wake wherever they appeared. The Hunters might have been more experienced in practical combat settings, but they were poor. They hadn’t received the rigorous training of the Crownsguard. They didn’t have access to the best weapons. They couldn’t wield the King’s magic. And by taking every lower-level bounty in the area, their retinue was crippling the local economy, as there didn’t seem to be many opportunities to make a living out here. He would have to be more careful about such things in the future, and not only because news of bounty hunters from the city cleaning out all available hunts was sure to make for juicy gossip. Certainly, their group had progressed enough to leave the easier hunts to the locals. As long as he was careful to take their skill level into account, they could relieve the community of dangerous creatures without gutting the economy and still support themselves as they made their way to Altissia.

“I apologize . . . for assuming the worst of you earlier,” he said softly so the others wouldn’t overhear.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said dismissively, waving a hand in the air. “But you can’t make assumptions based on the world you know. That world doesn’t exist out here.”

“Indeed,” Ignis replied, eyeing her significantly. He certainly wouldn’t be making a single assumption regarding her ever again, as often as he seemed to be wrong.

“Now. Don’t think I didn’t notice your hesitation in the car earlier this morning, but Prompto cut you off. Please. Won’t you tell me of your childhood aspirations?”

Chapter Text

With a deep sigh that fogged up the glass, Noct buried his face in his arms as he leaned against the back door of the Regalia, wishing he could be passed out in the back seat with the air conditioner running as they left this place far behind. Longwythe was hot and boring—even the diner was similar to the one in Hammerhead, but not as good. They didn’t even have his favorite Hammerhead Hot Sandwich here.

That didn’t mean he was ready to get to Altissia though. He’d be glad to see Luna again, but he sure as hell wasn’t in a hurry to get married and come back here to be put on the conveyor belt to becoming King. And despite Ignis being a pain in the ass, Laura acting as their official royal escort, and them not having any money, he had to admit he was kinda having fun.

Except for right now.

“It’s 2:55. Where are they?” he moaned into the glass. Seriously, Specs was always fifteen minutes early for everything, which meant he was now running ten minutes late, which also meant he’d made all the extra effort to be here for Ignis’s version of on time for nothing. A prickle of worry shot through him at the thought of what could be causing the delay. “You think they’re okay?”

“Take it easy,” Gladio said. He leaned against the front of the car and crossed his arms. “We can send out the Kingsglaive and call in the Guard if they aren’t here in five, but not before.”

“Did either of you guys check out what we’re doing today?” Prompto asked.

“No,” Noct said, but he knew they’d be collecting bounties from Ignis’s text. “Why?”

“I dunno . . . starting late like this. Think we’re gonna fight daemons?”

“I hope so,” Glado said, and Noct nodded in agreement. It’d be nice to change things up a little and do some hunting out of the sun, maybe even finally get to see Laura do some of the sword work she’d earned such a good reputation for.

But that wasn’t the only reputation she was earning. Between the handholding with Ignis and Prompto on this trip and the rumors flying around the city about her and his dad, he was beginning to wonder what her deal was. Which was weirder, really—that she’d gotten cuddly with Ignis or his dad? No matter how many times he’d tried since meeting her, he just couldn’t picture King Regis holding hands with a stranger in the throne room. He hadn’t even held Noct’s hand since . . . he couldn’t remember when the last time was.

It was possible that was just how she was. Maybe he’d work up the nerve to ask her about it someday, but he sure as hell hoped she didn’t try that with him.

A familiar, rhythmic clicking caught his attention, and he raised his head to spot a black and silver dog trotting toward him eagerly from across the motel parking lot, Ignis and Laura trailing behind at a distance.

“Umbra!” Noct greeted, crouching to rub behind the dog’s ear with one hand and reaching for the journal he knew would be tucked in his sash.

He’d been confused when Luna had insisted he take the journal back to Lucis with him while he’d been visiting Tenebrae. But as a kid, he hadn’t thought about how Tenebrae wasn’t as modern as the rest of the world and didn’t have cell phones—not that it would’ve mattered anyway with reception not reaching through the Wall. And since the Nifs had invaded, the landlines were sure to be tapped. It was almost like she’d known something was gonna happen, like she’d known she was gonna stay behind.

It seemed surreal that it would only be days before he got to talk to her in person for the first time since he was eight—and they’d be getting married. Did that make her his girlfriend now? That was a weird thought, even if he liked her a lot and always had since the first time they’d met. She’d always been so kind to him—quiet and accepting in a way that made him feel at ease. When she’d told him they’d be working together to rid the world of darkness, of course he couldn’t refuse such an amazing girl, even if he really didn’t know what he was promising at the time. He’d decided then and there that no matter what, he’d never let her down.

Then when they had and they’d left her behind, he swore he was gonna do his best to make it up to her—starting with the journal. He gave himself away piece by piece, trusting her not to judge him about his secrets and doubts, appreciating the way she’d always reassured him he could accomplish everything everyone expected him to. No one had ever expressed their undying faith in him like that—not Gladio, Ignis, and especially not his dad. And he felt comfortable talking to her; she didn’t fawn over him like the girls in the city did and never once treated him like a prince.

Their marriage though was . . . whatever. The guys kept ragging on him about it—especially Gladio and Prompto.

“Lady Lunafreya doing all right?” Prompto asked.

He chose not to share her message that she was leaving Tenebrae and shrugged a shoulder half-heartedly. Still inspecting the colored oval artwork of a statue of a woman surrounded by sylleblossoms and greenery, looking for any kind of secret meaning behind the image, he said, “Probably. She pasted in a little nature stamp.”

“A stamp?”

Ignis and Laura stepped up to join the other two standing over him and Umbra. “She's opted for simpler modes of communication to indulge our indolent prince.”

“She usually sends pictures and flowers,” he said a little defensively. It wasn’t like she was writing novels or anything herself, but they did occasionally share more personal stuff he didn’t want any of them to know about. “I send back stickers and stuff.”

“Sounds like you two have some riveting conversations,” Gladio muttered before turning to Ignis and Laura, tossing them a knowing grin as he eyed their dusty clothes and sweaty hair. “You’re late . . . for you. You guys have fun? Prince Charming was about to send out the Guard to come and find you.”

Ignis ran his hands up his bangs in an attempt to get them sticking back up. “It’s 2:58,” he said, raising his chin in defiance.

“Where’ve you guys been? Not like there’s much to do here,” Prompto said.

“Sampling the local cuisine,” Ignis answered, a smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. “And I must say, it was a load of tripe.”

“Sounds awful.”

His smile grew to a grin. “Do you know? It was.”

"Oh my gods," Laura muttered, hanging her head. "Your sense of humor, I swear . . .."

Whatever the joke was supposed to be, Noct didn’t get it, as usual. “Okay, whatever,” he mumbled, turning back to his notebook.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the cactuar sticker he’d picked up from Hammerhead for this purpose and fixed it to the next page. Then he searched his other pockets, faster when he felt that they were all empty, until he heard a sigh from above him. A gold-colored tube appeared in his peripheral vision.

“Thanks, Specs,” he said as he reached out for the pen.

“Pleasure, Highness. Do remember not to put pressure on the nib.”

“Got it.”

Careful to be gentle with Spec’s precious pen while he was watching, Noct wrote out the disbelief that had been on his mind all day in his neatest script, Finally going to see you after all these years.

“How many notebooks have you been through?” Prompto asked.

As he tucked the journal back into Umbra’s sash, Ignis held out a hand until Noct deposited his pen into his waiting fingers.

“A lot?”

Gladio hauled himself upright off the car and leaned down to give Umbra a quick pat. “Impressed you actually stuck with something.”

“There was that time he forgot it and freaked out,” Prompto laughed.

Still crouched down on the pavement, Noct glared against the afternoon light up at Prompto. It hadn’t been funny at all. By the time he’d collapsed on his couch after a long day, ready for an all-night horror film fest, he remembered he’d left the book back at school—probably in the book cubby under his desk in math class. He’d assumed the worst when Specs had driven out there and bribed a janitor to get in, only to find no evidence of the journal or his math homework. For days, he’d skulked in the shadows, convinced that at any second, the tabloids were gonna release every secret he’d shared with Luna over the last few months.

“Only for it to return with a sylleblossom pressed in the pages,” Ignis said with a chuckle.

“Which means . . .?”

“It means what it means,” Noct snapped before Ignis could answer with some kinda joke. “‘Everything's okay,’ ‘I'm here . . ..’ Y'know—flower stuff.”

“Yes, well,” Ignis said diplomatically, “shall we make tracks, Noct? We have a bounty to handle before we set our sights on game that resides in the dark.”

“How many on the list today?” Prompto asked.

Ignis hesitated for a moment. “Three. A herd of magnanirs and mesmenirs, and two daemon hunts.”

“The bone-icorns?” he thought he heard Laura ask.

“Didn’t your text say five hunts?” Gladio asked as Ignis unlocked the car and got inside.

He leaned forward to press the button that would lower the top before he answered, “I . . . thought some were below our level of skill and decided we could leave them as fodder for amateur Hunters . . . if that’s all right with His Highness, that is.”

Ignis was always doing this kinda thing—the subtle reminders that he was supposed to be the one calling the shots—but he wasn’t in the mood for playing mind games this afternoon. He’d thought they were supposed to be saving up money for when they got to Altissia, but then again, he wasn’t sure if the government there was supposed to be putting them up for the wedding. Either way, the finances were supposed to be Ignis’s thing, not his.

“Whatever you think.”

“Very well then,” he said with one of his sighs, starting the car. “The herd was last sighted just to the west of Longwythe Peak. With any luck, we can track them down before nightfall. Then we handle the daemons.”

“Cool.”

***

Noct had thought Ignis’s newfound confidence in their skills would mean that he would chill out a little, or at least get off Noct’s back some. It was bad enough that he wasn’t allowed to go on a road trip without his Shield, Advisor, and an extra bodyguard, but from the very first time he’d pulled his sword out to finally use it for real, Ignis hadn’t backed off for a second while they were in combat—jumping in front of him and flinging his arms out, pushing him out of the way, sticking way too close as they tracked their quarry. Didn’t Ignis trust him to handle himself after all the training they’d had? Noct had taken to warping more often just so the guy couldn’t keep up with him.

Like right now. Noct crept silently over the cracked dirt, hunched over with his hands at the ready to summon his sword as he swung his eyes over the terrain in search of the bone-white horn  of a . . . whatever it was called rising high in the air, which he knew he would find close by, since he could hear the herd’s hoofbeats growing louder as they drew closer. He could also feel Specs right at his back, his fingers brushing against his t-shirt.

“Just ahead,” Ignis whispered, pointing to the really obvious flurry of white in the distance standing out against the never-ending brown canvas of dirt and dust. He positioned himself in front of Noct as they drew closer, holding his arm out as he whispered, “Proceed with caution.”

What was he gonna do if they attacked—push him to safety like some little kid? What would it take before he trusted Noct to handle himself? Screw this sneaking around.

“The hunt is on,” he growled as he raised his sword over his shoulder, threw it over Ignis’s outstretched arm, and warped to the nearest bony creature—he couldn’t tell if it was a magnanir or a mesmenir, but it didn’t really matter—just before the blade buried itself between the animal’s ribs. The whoosh of his warp faded from his ears as time returned to normal, and as his boots hit the ground and his elbows jarred painfully from the force of his impact, Noct thought he could hear Ignis sigh from behind him.

Pain in the ass.

Once he’d drawn the blade from the creature’s hard exoskeleton and retreated a safe distance, Noct glanced quickly around the combat area for Gladio, convinced his heavier sword would have a better time hacking through this thing’s plated armor. When he spotted Laura standing on a high rock overlooking the scene, Noct had to keep from rolling his eyes. But Ignis and Gladio had caught up and joined the fight while Prompto hung back, taking shots from a distance. Dismissing his daggers and summoning a polearm, Ignis flipped over the body of a fallen . . . whatever and landed in a crouch to swing the blade around and jab it into another’s chest.

“Watch the enemies’ movements,” he called out in a clipped tone, “and don’t—”

“Yep. Right. Got it.”

Seriously? “Watch the enemies’ movements”? What else was he gonna do, close his eyes and do a dance through the combat area? It wasn’t like he didn’t already know all this stuff, and Ignis was just as inexperienced as he was in hunting animals.

Damn, but these things were faster and way more vicious than the sabertusks they’d dealt with in Hammerhead, and even Prompto was having trouble staying off to the sidelines to get a shot as the animals pounded through the combat area, spinning in circles and kicking up their head-sized hooves to kick at him or try to slice him in half with the long, bladed horn on top of their heads.

“Gladio, do it,” Noct commanded irritably as he took several steps back and summoned a potion. He breathed a sigh of relief as the glass cracked in his gloved hand and the soothing magic washed over his arm, stemming the steady drips of blood as though they’d never been there.

“Hell yeah, you want some?” he growled, winding up for the cyclonic move he’d named tempest. “Try this!” With his last whirlwind around two of the creatures’ ribs, Noct followed up with a warp into one of their chests to finish it.

“Say your prayers!” Prompto laughed as he took a shot at another of the herd.

“Nice one!” Noct called out to the both of them, but really he was more impressed with Prompto’s attitude. As much as he loved animals, Noct was surprised he’d made the adjustment to hunting so easily.

Noct was about to warp in to finish off one of their two remaining marks when something collided into him from the side, slamming him to the ground.

“Hey!” But his protest was cut short as a scythed horn passed inches above his head.

“Bollocks,” he thought he heard Ignis Scientia, perfectly composed Senior Advisor who was always getting onto him about his language, whisper under his breath.

What did you just say?” He turned in Ignis’s direction to see him kneeling in the dirt inspecting a bloody tear in his jeans.

Ignis leapt to his feet and summoned his daggers to his hands. “Never you mind,” he said tersely before flying off to toss his blades into the belly of the rearing beast several yards in front of them.

Noct staggered to his knees, recoiling a little when a camera suddenly appeared between him and his quarry. “Smile, Noct!”

“Ugh, Prompto, do you have to take that now?”

Prompto leaned down to give him a hand up. “Hey, this is probably my best shot today!”

“On and off the field, if you don’t pay attention,” Gladio growled as he and Ignis flanked their last creature.

“Yes, some shots would be helpful right about now,” Ignis agreed.

“Right! You betcha!”

By the time it fell to the dirt at their feet and Gladio had finished stripping the corpses, the sun was beginning to set, streaking the sky with pink and gold light. Instinct was urging him to go back to the hotel; he’d heard the stories of iron giants as big as houses popping out of the ground right in front of cars on the road, but he also had Ignis’s doubt weighing heavy on his mind. They needed to bag something good, something big, and maybe Specs would finally lay off.

“It should be dark by the time we get to where those daemons were last spotted,” Laura said without preamble when they’d caught up to her. “They’re just to the north of the peak, so we have to walk.”

“You actually gonna hunt with us for once?” Noct asked as he fell into step behind her.

He couldn’t decide if the look she gave him was hurt or irritation, but he felt kinda bad when she answered, “I said I would.”

It took what felt like hours to navigate the darkening terrain, keeping the peak to their right for protection as they stumbled their way over the rock outcroppings. When they’d reached the spot and those five flan seemed to grow up out of the ground and rise into a gelatinous puddle of glowing black goop, Noct had to stop and watch for a few seconds as Laura pulled out her ornate falchions in a flash of silver light and leapt fearlessly into the middle of all of them. Ignis had been right: they’d seen a lot of swordplay in their lives, but he’d never seen anyone move the way she did—like she was dancing.

As she twirled to slash one blade across the belly of one flan, she stabbed the other out to the side without even looking in the second one’s direction. She seemed to move without thought or hesitation—so swiftly that Noct had trouble analyzing her attacks and retreats as she feinted and swayed fluidly around the combat area.

Okay, maybe he could see why his dad had thought it would be a good idea to send her along with them besides helping Specs with the chores.

“You gonna help or stare?” Gladio asked as he hustled by to squish his blade into one of the daemons with a juicy, squelching sound that kinda grossed him out a little.

Coming to his senses, Noct joined the fray, warping and pulling out all the aerial combat moves he’d learned to impress her . . . and maybe Ignis, but he barely let Laura out of sight as they finished up. As much as she’d contributed to the battle, Noct had seen her move faster with Gladio, and she’d had to have moved even faster if she’d really defeated Cor. He got the sense she was holding back but couldn’t figure out why.

But they were all gonna have to up their game if they were gonna keep up with her—even Mr. Perfect, who was off to the side applying another potion to his bloody abdomen.

“Gladio got ‘em!” Prompto called out, dismissing his pistol and pointing finger guns at Gladio.

Gladio jiggled his sword through the last flan’s chest and into the dirt as he smirked in Prompto’s direction. “What’d you expect?”

“Well done, everyone,” Ignis said, delicately adjusting his glasses on his nose as he rejoined them. “Though even with the extra help, I should’ve liked to wrap that up more quickly.”

“You in a hurry or somethin’?” Gladio asked as Ignis turned and took several long strides back the way they’d come. “Not like we don’t got all night.”

He stopped and turned, careful not to let the light clipped to his blazer hit anyone in the face. “We’ll need to head back to the car for this final bounty, and I have reason to believe we may have competition for this one. In fact, I’d expected to see them before this.”

Noct sighed and followed after him. “Then why didn’t we do that one first?”

“I thought we might give the local population an opportunity first, given the state of the economy out here in the wild,” he said. “But if you disagree, I shall of course defer to your decision and make the necessary adjustments next time.”

The local economy? More like he’d probably hoped it’d get taken off their list so they wouldn’t be in any more danger. “Whatever. The economy’s important too.”

“Please tell me we don’t have to make camp tonight,” Prompto complained. “We are gonna stay in the motel, right?”

“Yeah, Specs,” Noct agreed. “Whaddya say? I could use a real shower.” He leaned toward Ignis, rubbing his hands vigorously through his hair and releasing a cloud of dust all over his precious coeurl-print shirt.

He scowled distastefully, brushing off the shiny fabric with a gloved hand. “Yes, I had planned for us to stay in the motel this evening—in the wildest of hopes that civilization would do you some good, Highness.”

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

“Surprised you’re willing to drive us out to the steps at all tonight,” Gladio said. “Thought you were gonna put your foot down after refusing to let us hunt daemons in Hammerhead.”

“We’ve proved ourselves enough, I believe, to handle this. A prince’s duties include protecting the people, and it is my duty to serve in assisting with that function. That does not, however, mean that I will support frivolous sojourns in the dark.”

“Whatever you say, Sergeant Specs.”

***

According to the clock on the dash, it had been a couple of hours since they’d hopped in the Regalia and driven down to the Callaegh Steps, which appeared to Noct as flat rock platforms set into an overgrown, gray-green hillside. If he squinted into the dim landscape lit by the moon overhead, he thought he could see something in the distance—an old, broken-down crane, maybe. But he was having trouble concentrating on helping the others locate the spot where these goblins were supposed to be giving everyone trouble. It was now past one in the morning, and the two hours’ nap he’d just had wasn’t nearly enough—not to mention that he hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. Even as he crept up the hillside with his hands held at the ready to summon a weapon, he could hear his own stomach churning and growling.

“Hey Ignis, make it a BBQ tonight,” he suggested to the backlit shadow creeping just ahead.

“Mmm, might be a little late for one.”

“Yeah, late night meals make ya fat,” Prompto agreed.

“I was more concerned about the mess, the utensils that will need scrubbing. Perhaps something simpler, but no less filling.”

Ugh, seriously? It wasn’t like the precious dishes couldn’t be left until tomorrow, and he and Laura loved doing the dishes together anyway. “Any other excuses?”

“If—”

Whatever his answer had been, Noct would never hear it. The five of them froze as a long, raw scream pierced the night air.

“That one was human,” Gladio yelled, already rushing in the direction of the sound. “Someone needs help!”

“Let’s go!” Ignis urged.

At the sound of another, shorter scream and the unmistakable clang of a metal weapon clattering against stone, Noct put on a burst of speed, summoning his blade to his hand to prepare to warp his way there.

“No Noct!” Ignis commanded, holding out a hand as they ran. “Save your magic for the battle.”

“But we gotta save them now!”  

Ignis threw him a steely-eyed glare. “You must learn to use your resources wisely.”

“Can’t protect anyone if you hit stasis and pass out before you get there,” Gladio agreed. “Save your magic.”

Their travel lights found them first, even though his eyes couldn’t identify what exactly he was seeing. Swirls of black and purple writhed like snakes around two pale heaps on the ground, gathering into several billowing clouds, each the size of a kid.

“What’s—”

Long, bony arms ripped their way through each of the clouds, and as seven sets of similarly pale and scrawny legs took on the weightless bodies and lifted them to their full, stunted height, Noct realized the cause of the mayhem.

“It’s the goblins!” he cried out, summoning his blade and warping forward. He slammed into the small, slimy body, sickened a little at how human it seemed, but didn’t hesitate in pushing the steel through the thin membrane of skin and sinewy flesh.

“Noct!” Ignis called out from across the field. “Might I suggest we shed a little light on the situation?”

“Oh yeah, Prompto!”

As he slashed across the goblin’s neck, driving it away from the heap he was starting to think might be a person, he heard Prompto’s reply, “Sure thing! Let me brighten your day!”

An explosion of sound flooded bright white light over the scene just as Noct’s daemon melted into the soil at his feet in a puddle of black and purple goop. A sickeningly sweet smell mixed with freshly-laid tar washed over him, making him glad that he hadn’t eaten in a while, and he staggered back from the stench clinging to his nostrils, gagging and tripping over the heap behind him. He dismissed his sword before he killed himself falling on his ass.

“You okay?” Gladio asked, grabbing for his hand, but he couldn’t move.

“That’s—” He couldn’t catch his breath as he choked on his own voice, but Gladio seemed to get the message when he raised a trembling hand to point in front of them.

“Yeah,” Gladio said grimly, tugging him to his feet whether he liked it or not. “C’mon. We got the rest of ‘em. Looks like two of the civs survived. Iggy’s givin’ ‘em some of our potions now.”

But Noct couldn’t tear his eyes off the shredded pile of flesh, bone, blood, and clothing as he was led toward where the others stood in a circle. It was difficult to tell beneath the red stain still dripping down the guy’s vacant, terrified expression, but he thought that he appeared to be about their age. His black leather Hunter’s jerkin had been clawed open to reveal his breastbone, somehow standing out starkly white against the almost black pool growing beneath his back. The long wooden handle of some kinda weapon lay splintered in his right hand as though he’d died defending himself with whatever he’d had left.

Noct hadn’t really ever seen a body up close—not really. In the battle of Tenebrae, everything had been too hectic for him to really focus on the soldiers falling all around him, and he hadn’t actually seen Luna’s mom’s face like this . . ..

“What can we do to help?” he distantly heard Laura asking someone.

Noct released his breath in a whoosh as Prompto’s starshell faded, plunging the horrific sight into a blackness too deep for his travel light to penetrate. The numb horror seizing his chest made it difficult for him to tell whether he was relieved not to have to see it any longer, but the afterimage still burned the back of his retinas even as he was brought to the rest of the group.

“We’ll carry ‘im back to the truck ourselves,” one of the Hunters was saying.

“There were too many. We just ran for it,” a younger guy said in a trembling voice. In the glow created by all their travel lights, he looked to Noct like a corpse himself—pale as death and wide-eyed. “I . . . I didn’t even check to see if he followed or not. Shit.”

“I thank yeh kindly fer comin’ to our rescue,” the older Hunter said solemnly, “but you boys better get goin’. Between the light and the sound, we’re all gonna get overrun here in a second.”

“He’s got a point,” Gladio said. “We gotta get outta here.”

“Please take the bounty to do with as you will,” Ignis said as they separated, “for the burial or the family.”

Noct didn’t hear the Hunter’s response as he fell into step beside Prompto, who was staring blankly out at the small illuminated cone of landscape his travel light revealed. “They just . . . left him there alone. In the dark,” he whispered.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” Gladio said in a low, grave tone from behind them. “Never leave a man behind.”

“And far from being a videogame,” Ignis added. “A game over in the wild bears rather severe and permanent consequences.”

“I know that,” Noct snapped. Six, this was the exact thing that’d been bugging him about Ignis since they’d left the city. He wasn’t some stupid kid thinking life was a videogame, and anyway, he’d had way more training than these people out here. He had his magic. He had his sword. No way was he gonna fall to a bunch of goblins. It wasn’t fair that Ignis had known him since he was a baby and obviously still saw him that way. What did he have to do, anyway, to make Ignis happy and get him to back the hell off? To see him as the twenty-year-old grownup he was now?

“You got somethin’ to say, too?” he demanded as he turned to Laura, since she was the only babysitter than hadn’t said a word yet.

A flicker of disbelief shone in her eyes as she looked over at him. “Actually, no. I am neither your Shield nor your Advisor.”

“Then what are you s’posed to be exactly?”

“Noct, c’mon, man,” Prompto said shakily. “Let’s just get back to the car. Hot meal, hot shower, sleep in a bed. Things’ll be better in the morning.”

“Yeah.” But he didn’t believe it.

They were almost at the car—Noct could see the street lamps reflecting off the glossy black paint just ahead past a small rise—when Ignis placed a hand on his shoulder, holding him back.

“What?”

He pointed to a writhing pool of black bodies in a dark dip between two slopes, blocking their path to the car. “Saphyrtails,” he said in a low voice. “Noct, saphyrtails are a formidable enemy at the best of times, but we’ve been out all night, and there are five of them. I suggest we retreat for now.”

But this was exactly the situation he’d been waiting for. “Come on, Specs,” he said with a smirk, but there was a harsh edge to his tone he almost didn’t recognize. Ignis had interfered enough for one day, as far as he was concerned, and he was gonna prove that he had what it took to not have to be protected all the time. He summoned his sword to his hand with a tinkling wash of magic. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Ignis paused, his eyes narrowing in that way that always made Noct feel like he was seeing right through him. Six, he hated that. He raised his chin in defiance, daring him to say something. After several seconds, Ignis sighed.

“Wrapped up in a good book, I should think,” he replied wearily, summoning his daggers.

“Looks like that’s your cue to leave, Laura,” Prompto said. “Kinda wish I could too!”

Laura’s attention slid over Noct and landed on Gladio, then on Ignis. She seemed to be inspecting them all in the same way Ignis always did, and Noct’s jaw tightened a little at her potential interference.

Maybe not his Shield or Advisor, but definitely one of his babysitters.

“Please be careful, you guys,” she said softly before turning off the travel light clipped to her jacket and backing away.

Noct nodded and made to step toward the creatures, but Ignis slapped his shoulder lightly with the back of a hand. “These saphyrtails shouldn’t be in this region. Noct, we must take extra care. They may be mad, like the dualhorn.”

“We got this.”

“Very well, but bear in mind that there’s a thin line betwixt bravery and stupidity. If you insist, they’re weak to swords, greatswords, and lightning, so be certain to either have the flasks ready for us to use, or call on Gladio to use his technique.”

He didn’t bother dignifying his patronizing tone with a response and tossed his sword toward the closest saphytail, setting himself up for a warp-strike. As he wrapped his hand around the shadow of his hilt, he released his hold on time and slammed the blade into the body of the beast, but instead of the clang and juicy thud he’d been expecting, the screeching protest of his sword against the shiny black exoskeleton assaulted his ears. He took several staggering steps back, spinning to the side to duck a blow from a vicious stinger tossed at his head.

If the four of them had been able to gang up on one at a time, they might’ve stood a chance, but the hideous creatures seemed to have sensed his weakness after his failed strike. As Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto formed up behind him to bolster his attack, the remaining four encircled them.

“Form a circle as well!” Ignis instructed, backing against him with his daggers raised. “Whatever you do, do not allow them to scatter us!”

Noct did as he was told, focusing on the saphyrtail in front of him and trying to determine where its weak spot was, but with the four of them forced to keep in formation, there was nowhere to go to evade the snapping claws and biting, burning stinger. Hot blood welled up from the gashes and punctures in his arms and dripped down to his fingers, making it difficult to keep hold of his sword hilt. The ringing clang of steel against armored claws made his eyes tear up to the point where he could no longer see clearly when to dodge the clacking pincers and vicious stingers still eating away at him.

He had to break their ranks. They were all gonna die if they stayed in one place much longer. He tried his best to gather his strength and his nerve, twisting into time and attempting to warp-strike through them, but gods damn it, he didn’t have enough in him to pierce through their tough armor. The tip of his sword slid off the shiny exoskeleton and into the dirt with another shriek as he scrabbled after it amidst the snapping claws.

“Don’t try that again,” Gladio advised.

“Can you locate a warp point nearby?” Ignis asked as he jabbed a dagger at a saphyrtail’s claw before leaning to kick a second in the . . . face, he guessed?

Noct spun in a quick circle, searching for a high place he could warp to one last time so he could better recharge his drained magic and save the guys, but the area surrounding them was completely flat, lacking even a tall boulder for him to get to.

“No!” Noct cried out in frustration.

He was about to batter aside another advancing stinger when the largest saphyrtail took three steps forward, knocking Prompto onto his back.

“Ahh!”

Noct didn’t spare a second thought as he tossed his blade at the animal’s back, using his last warp before he hit stasis to give Prompto enough time to scramble backwards. But as the sparkling blue disappeared and time returned to normal, that unnatural wave of dizziness and fatigue rolled over him, forcing him to his knees.

Something hot and sharp suddenly burned in his gut, and he gasped at the shock of the chill spreading out to his head and feet.

“Noct!” Prompto screamed.

He looked down in a daze and noted almost in a detached way that a long, black pincer stuck out from his abdomen. The blood slickening his hands was nothing compared to what dripped down his t-shirt, but it was kinda funny the way it didn’t even hurt that much . . .

. . . until it suddenly did—a lot.

“Noct!” Gladio bellowed, slashing his sword at the saphyrtail’s head.

Noct felt two hands on his shoulders yanking him back from the claw with a sickening lurch before he fell forward onto his face, his sweat-covered cheek almost sticking to the dirt.  

Sweet Six, was he tired.

As he rolled over, he bit into his cheek to try and clear the fog from his head. Three determined figures hovered over him, their movements a blur as they fought against the onslaught of lunging claws and stingers. The creatures’ attacks had been just as hard on the rest of them from the looks of things—so relentless that they too hadn’t had the chance to pull out potions to heal themselves. Noct flexed his fingers, trying to feel for that groove in his head where access to the armiger lay so he could at least be of some use to them, but he just couldn’t remember how to summon right now.

“Highness,” Ignis groaned as the ground shook by his head. He lolled over to find the cause, and panic seized his chest at the sight of Ignis on his knees a few feet away, panting. Specs never faltered in their training sessions, never admitted defeat. Were things really that bad? Stinging blows still battered at him as he dragged his bloody legs behind him to hover over Noct, and with a growl of effort, he once again raised his dagger up against the assault in a last-ditch effort to protect him to the death.

“Fuck,” Gladio huffed, crouching above them with his sword above his head, his face twisted into a grimace of pain.

Noct couldn’t even see Prompto anymore. Was he even still alive? He couldn’t hear any shots.

Shit. They were all gonna die, right here in this moment, because he’d ignored Ignis’s advice.

What had he managed to do with his life so far, really? Sure, he’d gone to school and learned to fight and done everything that was asked of him without complaint. He’d played along with the whole Chosen King business, went through his training, and agreed to this whole treaty thing. But would they be in this situation if he’d put as much effort in as Gladio and Ignis had their entire lives? Maybe they wouldn’t all be here dying because of a dumbass decision he’d made.

The vision of that bloody corpse passed over his eyes like a phantom. Gods, that was gonna be him any second now—all of them.

No wonder his dad never trusted him.

A sudden whoosh-clang and the thud of something large hitting the ground made Noct twitch in pain on the ground, and at first, he was afraid to look around to see that it’d been the final blow to one of his friends. The sound repeated four more times over the noise of labored breathing and armored animal against steel, and with each repetition, the stingers biting into his skin and the clacking of claws slowed until it grew quiet. It was only once the night had grown still that his fuzzy head suggested the sound had been a powerful warp-strike.

Thank the gods. What were the odds that they’d run into a random Glaive all the way out here?

“Here, Highness,” Ignis said in a low voice, cracking a hi-elixir over his abdomen.

“Thanks, Specs,” he gasped as the pain disappeared immediately, wiping his brain clear of the fog and allowing him to sit up.

Ignis was kneeled by his side, his eyes darting over him and checking for any injuries the elixir hadn’t covered, but Noct was only interested in discovering who had rescued them. He pushed Ignis out of the way and squinted into the dark.

There she stood—black blood dripping from her falchions and her body still glowing blue from her last warp. He’d forgotten about Laura. Somehow, he hadn’t even considered her an option during the fight. How could he have completely forgotten about the bodyguard his dad had forced them to take along for this very thing?

The second the glow faded, she dismissed her falchions, dropped to all fours, and violently emptied the contents of her stomach onto the dusty ground with wracking heaves.

The four of them exchanged uncomfortable glances as she convulsed until Gladio seemed to wake up and rushed forward to reach her, dropping to his knees to grab the hair that had come loose from her clip and holding it so it didn’t trail on the ground.

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

“All in one piece?” Ignis asked softly as he pulled Noct to his feet.

“Yeah.”

He gave a sharp nod in response, thankfully choosing not to lecture him, and approached the rest of the group just as Laura was sitting back on her knees. In the washed-out glow of their travel lights, it was clear even from Noct’s distance that she was trembling as she took in several slow, deep breaths.

“Are you all right?” Ignis asked her in a soft voice.

She nodded. “I’ll be fine. A number of factors there to make that experience unpleasant. Just give me a moment, please.” She gestured to the circle of bodies still surrounding where Noct stood frozen, her mouth twisting in a grimace. “Go ahead and do what you need to do, Gladio. Thank you for your help.”

Her expression grew clearer as Gladio gave her a pat on the shoulder and stood to strip the corpses of anything valuable.

Looking up at Ignis and Prompto leaning over her before turning to study Noct, she asked, “Is everyone all right? Noctis, you haven’t said anything.”

“Yeah, I’m good. Thanks,” he mumbled. There was so much more he knew he should say, but he couldn’t seem to find the words. Something tight was squeezing his lungs—that breathless sort of shock he’d sometimes feel when he missed a step going downstairs.

“All right, got the goods,” Gladio barked from behind him. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”

Noct obediently turned and numbly started following Gladio toward the car, but he stopped when he heard Laura call out behind them.

“Wait. I need to do something first.”

“We can’t stay here,” Gladio argued. “You heard what that Hunter said. Every daemon in the region will’ve heard that commotion.”

“Then leave me behind,” she snarled. “But I need to do this.”

They might not have known Laura that long, but Noct had never seen her lose her temper like that before, not even close. Another lance of guilt stabbed at him that he’d not only proven to Ignis his judgment couldn’t be trusted, but he’d also made himself look like an idiot in front of everyone and pissed off his dad’s envoy. He was definitely gonna have to come up with something more to say to smooth things over when they got back to the motel. But for now, all they could do was stick together, and since it sounded like she was gonna do whatever it was whether they stayed or not, they didn’t really have a choice.

“No one’s leaving anyone behind,” Noct reminded her. “We stick together.”

She gave him a single solemn nod as she drew closer, stopping at the pile of carcasses Gladio had just finished with and placing her right hand on the back of the top body. She closed her eyes, and after several seconds of thoughtful silence, opened her mouth and began to sing a sad, soft song for the hideous creatures that had just tried to kill them all. Noct didn’t understand a word of her song, but he swore he could feel the regret and repentance hanging heavy in the air as it traveled over the open plains. He exchanged a questioning glance with Ignis. Even though the sound was haunting and beautiful, they should really be quieter than this, shouldn’t they?

He frowned in response, but didn’t say a word.

“Well, I think she could’ve been a pop star,” Prompto whispered.

A silver white light blossomed from beneath her hand, covering the creatures in the kind of sparkling silver magic he’d only seen once by the campfire. The ground beneath the pile shifted, turning into quicksand and swallowing the bodies like a sinking ship beneath the waves. Laura’s voice faded after the last pincer had completely disappeared, and she stood—pale and swaying, oblivious to the four of them gaping at her. Ignis took a hurried step forward, holding his hands out like he planned on catching her, and it was only then that she seemed to notice them. 

“Let’s leave, please,” she said in a voice choked with what sounded to him like tears.

***

Noct threw himself back in the fake leather armchair, stabbing half-heatedly at the barbequed spicy long bone rib steak that Specs had probably made in an effort to cheer him up, but really it was just helping him feel more like shit. At the moment, Specs was in a bad mood himself, and Noct was happy that his temper wasn’t directed at him for once.

“Please eat this,” he requested softly as he shook the plate of dualhorn steak a little in front of Laura’s face, but he had that imperious kind of tone that Noct knew meant not to argue with him. 

Laura let out a long sigh, hugging her knees closer to her chest as she shrank back into the corner of the armchair.

“No, thank you.”

Ignis pursed his lips before speaking again—this time lacing his words with that condescending disappointment Noct knew would either piss Laura off even more or guilt her into doing whatever he asked.

“I haven’t seen you eat a complete meal in the entire time I’ve known you. Please don’t make me resort to physical coercion,” he ground out, brandishing the plate at her. “You’ve expended far too much energy this evening on our behalf, and it must be replaced somehow. I’d be happy to make you something else if you find dualhorn not to your tastes.”

Laura turned her head away in Noct’s direction, and for a second, she almost looked disgusted. Did she not like Spec’s cooking? It hadn’t escaped their notice that she rarely ate any of their food, but Ignis had said it was because her energy issue made her feel sick. Now that that was pretty much over, they all figured things would change on that front, but she still only ate breakfast with them, and only on some days.

“Maybe I’ll have some tea later,” she said softly, closing her eyes.

“Please—tea is not nutrition at all. You may be some sort of legendary killer, but even assassins need to eat a well-balanced meal. I must insist you eat this—or something, anything.”

At the word “killer,” Laura flinched like he’d slapped her, and when she’d opened her eyes again to stare up at him, they glittered with anger and hurt as she said in a low, dark tone, “Ignis? Back. Off. I mean it.” Pushing the plate away, she stood and stalked silently out of the room, shutting the front door behind her.

In the silence she’d left behind, Noct hastily cut into his meat, stabbed the bite, and jammed it into his mouth—chewing enthusiastically so that Specs wouldn’t turn on him now that she’d left.

With a somewhat hopeless gesture toward the door, Ignis asked in a soft, almost vulnerable tone, “Are my culinary skills truly that lacking that she can’t bring herself to eat anything I make?”

Like Noct, Gladio also wisely chose not to speak up, opting instead to dig into his dualhorn with gusto to express his implied approval of Ignis’s cooking skills. It was Prompto who hesitantly raised his hand as though asking permission from a harsh teacher to speak.

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

A beat or two passed in silence before Ignis came to some kinda realization. He inhaled sharply through his nose as his eyes snapped to the front door. “I fear I may have overstepped my bounds. I should go apologize.”

“Leave her, Specs,” Noct sighed before he could take a step toward the door. “Don’t need you pissing her off even more. I gotta talk to her about . . . something else anyway.” He stabbed the last bite on his plate, shoveled it in his mouth, and stood to hand Ignis the empty dish, but Ignis touched his arm with his other hand as he took it, forestalling his exit.

“Noct, I don’t know what your intentions are, but I ask that you don’t make any rash decisions. I may have pushed her past the bounds of usual politeness after the toll of tonight's events and plead that you place the blame solely on me.”

“Take it easy, there,” he said with an encouraging smile. “Not like I'm gonna send her packing after . . . everything. No rash decisions, I promise. I just need to talk to her in private.”

As he opened the door and scanned the motel courtyard, he immediately spotted her sitting on one of the porch chairs a few doors down—her knees drawn up to her chest and her chin resting on top of them. When he sat down in the crappy white plastic chair across from her, she lowered her eyes from the night sky to look at him with a weary expression. She didn’t look like she’d been crying, but her eyes were shining and bloodshot like she wanted to. It was probably for the best that Ignis hadn’t been the one to come out here, since he’d probably rather lay down and die than know his words had nearly brought a girl to tears.

“I’m sorry,” she said, blinking and leaning back further into the chair, still hugging her knees. “Being called a killer like that—he couldn’t have known that it’s more than a sore spot for me, and emotions tend to run a little closer to the surface when I . . . anyway, that’s no excuse. I’ll apologize to him when I go back inside.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said gently. “You know how many times I wanted to do that when he yells at me about my diet?” He was pleased to see her chuckle in response, but she still looked so small and so tired. “Are you gonna be okay? Noticed you used both your magic and the Crystal’s back there.”

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

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

She closed her eyes and nodded. “Thank you. But I was only fulfilling my promise to your father.”

Without any additional response from him, she suddenly raised her head, lowered her knees, and sat up straight. The regality of her posture caught Noct’s attention, reminding him of his dad when he was about to get a lecture.

Here it comes, he thought, tensing as he waited for her next words.

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

“Uh, not really, no,” he said, wincing down at the table between them. “I keep running it back in my head—I just ignored Ignis and went for it.” Again, that image of the blood-soaked heap on the ground with those wide, vacant eyes staring off at nothing seared itself in his mind’s eye, and he shuddered a little against the cool night air. “I just wanted him to trust me for once. But we all could’ve died.”

She sighed wearily. “Well, you’re young. Frankly, I expected you to do something like this sooner.”

“Thanks for the encouragement. Don’t think I haven’t been beating myself up about this.”

“There is no condemnation harsher than one’s own when self-pretense is no longer possible, but now that you’ve seen for yourself the consequences, remember that your decisions as a prince, and eventually king, affect the lives of others. Decide when it’s worth it if you die and when it isn’t. Just so you know,” she added lightly, looking out across the courtyard, “a group of saphyrtails is not worth it.”

He chuckled a little. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He followed her line of sight, curious to see what she was watching so intently. Beyond the lighted courtyard and above the diner, the endless black sky twinkled with stars—fewer than those he’d seen out on the havens, but still pretty impressive compared to Insomnia.

“The night sky is so beautiful here,” she sighed, but she sounded almost depressed as she said it.

“Yeah, noticed you and Specs have that in common. Even the way you talk sometimes . . . did you serve as an advisor or something?”

She frowned. “I was a queen, once,” she said so quietly that Noct almost hadn’t heard her. “I guess it’s only fair that you know. Had the whole ‘fate of the world is resting on your shoulders’ bit and everything, just like you. You’d think fate would learn to stop doing that to children, but no. It happens alarmingly often.”

“What happened?” he croaked, because he had a feeling he knew.

A shadow passed over her face as she let out a small, bitter chuckle. “Didn’t Ignis tell you? They all died. Every single one of them. Every person in every kingdom involved in the war died—even the children. And it was my fault.”

Noct tried to conceal the horror that was no doubt bleeding into his expression, but he was too repulsed by her words to give it his full attention. Ignis had told them her people had all died in a war, but this was completely different. Even though he’d been told he was the Chosen King ever since he was a kid, he’d never really thought about what it meant, about the consequences should he fail. But as he stared into the face of failure now, he didn’t like what he saw at all. How would he feel if every person in Insomnia and Niflheim died because of him?

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

“I—I’m . . ..”

But she cut him off before he could think of something to say. “You don’t need to say anything. I only tell you this because I want you to really think about your future, Noctis. People like us—we must strive to be more than we are. It doesn’t matter that we’ll never reach our ultimate goal. You need to decide what you’re willing to live, or die, with.”  

She fell silent, idly reaching up to grip the pendant around her neck as the crickets chirped in peaceful mockery of the bleak hole sitting between them. When she spoke again, her voice was steady and sure, as though she hadn’t just told him she’d been responsible for the deaths of thousands or millions of people.

“This is your journey, not mine. I’m here to help, not offer unsolicited advice. There’s just one more thing I need to say first, though. The worst thing isn’t dying yourself. It’s being the one to survive. Protect your friends with everything you have, and don’t take their sacrifices for granted. You’ll find that life is not worth living if you lose them.

“All the quipping and adventures are great fun, but remember that those men will follow you into the depths of hell itself; you don’t even have to ask. They’ve given up their one and only lives to be with you, and that’s a sacrifice that you should hold most precious to your heart. Tell them while you can, in case it’s ever too late.”

Chapter Text

Prompto was ready to pass out and forget everything that had happened as he slumped onto the edge of the bed he, Noct, and Laura would be sharing that night. But on closing his eyes, his brain couldn’t help but replay everything he’d seen in the last couple of hours, and he found himself wondering just how the hell life had gotten so complicated so fast. This was supposed to’ve been an awesome road trip: good food, good tunes, good company, and an invitation to his best friend’s wedding to the girl that had shaped Prompto’s entire life.

The truth was none of this hunting stuff was really his thing—he secretly hated it just as much as Laura seemed to. But he also saw the way the guys gave her crap for it, and while he admired the hell out of her for sticking up for herself, no way did he have the stones to put his friendships on the line for something as lame as his comfort like that. Plus, it was kinda cool the way he’d gotten the guys’ approval when they saw he wasn’t too shabby with a pistol. He’d just have to get used to it.

Having been a crack shot at arcade shooters all his life, he was used to blood, guts, and corpses on TV, but this trip . . . seeing it in real life had been a totally new level. He’d only held his first real gun about a year ago when Noct suggested he might be able to go with him on his Bonding of Souls tour, but he never thought he’d actually ever kill anything with it—not really. He seemed to lack whatever instinct it was the other three had—not that he didn’t love the jokes and teamwork and stuff—but it was kinda weird seeing Noct, the guy who used to let him borrow his Lucian homework, using all these amazing powers and turning into some kinda super warrior out here.

Tonight had been proof Prompto wasn’t really cut out for that kinda life. He was a fake, really, and sort of secretly jealous at how everyone around him seemed to be amazing at everything.

Seeing that body . . . it was the first dead body he’d ever seen in real life, and it wasn’t anything like TV. The colors seemed so much more vivid, the sense of death so much closer. The smell—that metallic, coppery scent that had shoved its way down his nostrils and wouldn’t let go. Iggy, Gladio, and Laura had barely reacted to the sight, and it looked like even Noct had managed to hold himself together pretty good, but Prompto just couldn’t shake the horror in that dead stare. Even now, as he leaned forward on his knees and closed his eyes to shake the vision, it continued to haunt him.

And even though he tried to think of something happier, the images from tonight continued to flicker behind his eyelids like flashbacks in a bad horror movie—Noct on his knees, white as a sheet with a claw buried in his gut; that final sight of a stinger headed for Prompto’s face before he blacked out; the flecks of red he’d spotted on the shower tiles before hopping in himself to scald the horrible near-death experience and dried blood from his now unmarked skin.

Really, this was way more than he’d signed up for. He hadn’t expected to die on his way to Noct’s wedding, but the more they pulled off this crazy shit, the more likely it seemed. Could he continue on this trip, even if it wound up killing him? Even if he had to become someone he wasn’t to do it?

The answer exploded in his head like a bomb: YES. It wasn’t like he had much back home, and even though he’d already done a lot of wild stuff out here, he was also having the time of his life with the guys. He’d do anything, anything to keep that.

And maybe, if he was lucky, he wouldn’t die. Then he could get home and get back to figuring out just what the hell he was gonna do with his life.

Leaning back on his arms, he stared up at the faded blue walls and the dozens of mismatched photos of Lucis. He could probably do a better job on some of these shots . . . maybe? The depth of field was way too shallow for that one shot of the landscape there, and whatever filter the photographer had used on the herd of garulas grazing in their pasture was all wrong for the mood the image was trying to capture.

Or so he thought, anyway.

He wondered if there was a market for some modern photos of Lucian geography back in Insomnia, since hardly any images were available, as they’d all found out when they heard they’d be leaving and tried to do some checking up on things. It wasn’t like photographers were itching to get permission to leave the safety the of the Wall with a Crown-City-made camera to take shots of some landscapes and animals with the threat of daemons hanging over their heads. Getting permission at all to get in or out, from what he’d heard, was supposed to be damn near impossible after that marilith had somehow gotten in to attack Noct as a kid. And since no one really knew how the vanishing disease was passed on, there was always this unspoken stigma about the few people who would leave and come back—like the Glaives.

Yeah, work would be fun for a while when he got back, but it’d be worth it.

He sat up straight when he heard the front door open and close, and as Laura appeared from the hallway with drooping, bloodshot eyes and a pale face, she froze, staring blankly down at the stained gray carpet for a second before marching past the three of them. Prompto thought he heard a soft, “I’m sorry,” as she passed by Ignis, and he must’ve heard right, because Iggy’s eyes widened a fraction. He whipped his head in her direction and opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t get the chance to answer before she breezed into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. After a few seconds of silence, they could hear the gentle roar of the shower being turned on.

With a twitching frown, Ignis settled carefully into the black armchair in the corner of the room, staring at the bathroom door with a hard, almost angry expression. He gritted his teeth and shook his head.

“Take a sec and pray to Shiva, will ya?” Gladio advised, eyeing his stiff posture. “Chill.”

“Why didn’t I think to ask? I asked all of you. I just assumed it was because—and it was only this afternoon that I swore that I wouldn’t—and now . . . whatever the true reason for that reaction, I was most certainly the cause.”

He’d never seen Iggy like this—all stuttering and frustrated instead of poised and sighing in exasperation . . . almost like . . . Prompto would get sometimes. Even though it wasn’t really his business, Prompto hesitantly said, “You can’t force food on everyone like you do with Noct. And it’s not like she’s starving herself in an unhealthy way.”

His brow furrowed in suspicion. “What do you mean? Beyond the occasional bite here and there, she hardly partakes of anything at all.”

“You probably don’t see it cause you’re so close to Noct, but she’s always snacking on the peas and stuff that grow wild out here while we’re doing the hunts.”

The temptation struck him to tell them about the way she would sometimes stagger or clutch at herself whenever one of the animals died, but he closed his mouth before the words could escape. Gladio and Noct especially gave her enough crap already, and even Iggy had expressed his disapproval a couple of times. He definitely didn’t want to make things harder for her when he knew all too well how she felt being the odd one out.  

There was one reason he was especially looking forward to this wedding. Hopefully when peace was declared, it wouldn’t be such a huge deal if anyone ever found out he was actually from Niflheim. Maybe then he wouldn’t feel like such a fake all the time.

The door opened and closed again, and the three of them looked over to the hall to watch Noct come in. His white face grew even whiter when he noticed them looking at him and froze—just like Laura had— but his eyes went wide and his mouth opened and closed like a gasping fish.

“Noct?” Iggy asked softly.

“I—You guys . . . I’m . . ..”

“You okay, man?” Prompto added.

He dropped his head to stare down at his feet. “Screw it,” he muttered to his boots. “You guys know you’re the best, right?”

Whoa, what exactly had just happened out there?

“S-sure, buddy,” Prompto finally managed. “Feeling’s totally mutual, you know.”

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

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

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

“Of course we know,” Iggy said delicately, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes to inspect Noct carefully. “But it’s good to hear regardless. That must have been quite the chat. Would it be appropriate for you to fill us in?”

Noct trudged to his armchair and threw himself into it with a sigh.

“She’s not an Advisor—or a Shield. She wasn’t a Draconian priest. She is . . . she was . . . a queen.”

***

Six damn.

It seemed like the only way to escape the awkward silence in the room after Noct had finished his story was to crawl into bed and stare up at the ceiling. That way, he wouldn’t have to look at Gladio’s concerned frown or Iggy’s frozen blank stare, but it wasn’t like his choice was a huge improvement on the atmosphere. Taking this time to contemplate the shapes of rusty waterstains pooling over the whitish texture like piss on snow wasn’t exactly going to help him keep up his sunny disposition after such a shitty night.

He figured the least he could do after everything they’d heard was to take the middle and let Noct and Laura have the edges of the bed. It was more of a sacrifice on his behalf for Laura, really, since he knew he wouldn’t get a wink with the way Noct tended to toss and turn. Sometimes it kinda sucked being smaller and shorter, which was the only reason he had to share with the other two smallest people while Gladio and Iggy got the other bed.

The lumpy mattress dipped as Noct settled next to him, throwing an arm over his forehead.

“Hey. You wanna play a game or somethin’ before bed?” Prompto muttered, already knowing the answer. But if he could get Noct to forget about his responsibilities for a sec, he wouldn’t feel so useless right now.

“Not tonight.”

“Yeah, I getcha.”

This Laura thing had shaken him bad, and it was easy to see why. Prompto had tried not to think too much about what Noct would have to do one day, whatever the hell that even was, but hearing what had happened to Laura, it seemed like they couldn’t afford not to think about it now. In a way, it was kinda cool. Noct had a destiny, a purpose in life, which was way more than Prompto could say for himself. He was gonna be the most famous king in all of history! But all the shit that came along with it, not to mention the responsibility of saving the entire world . . . that was like, way too much pressure to put on a guy.

The bathroom door opened, releasing a cloud of steam as Laura stepped into the room. Her wet hair was still seeping dark splotches onto her tight, purple t-shirt, and her skin was still glowing pink from the hot water.

And that unassuming girl had once been queen of an entire country. He couldn’t believe it. He was only just holding her hand earlier today, what the hell?

Gladio and Iggy had both shot to their feet the second the door had opened and approached her from either side, but Gladio reached her first.

“Hey,” he said gruffly, giving her one of his rare, soft and serious smiles. “C’mere.” He reached down to grab her by the wrist and pulled her to his bare chest, and after a second’s hesitation, she brought her hands around his back.

“Just wanna say thanks for comin’ to our rescue tonight.”

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

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

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that, Princess,” she laughed, but it didn’t reach her eyes

She turned toward the bed but jerked to a stop when she almost ran into Ignis, who’d been watching the exchange with the same silent, stony expression he’d had since Noct had told them what’d happened outside. Of the three of them, Prompto had the feeling that Ignis had taken Noct’s news the hardest for some reason—probably because they’d been spending so much time together the past few days.

Iggy took a step back, careful not to touch her as he stood tall and rigid, and inclined his head to fix her with an intense stare. Prompto thought he might be kinda overdoing it a bit. If he’d been on the receiving end of that look, he would’ve run screaming into the night—daemons or no.

Ignis sucked in a breath through his nose and opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, pursing his lips before trying again. What was the big deal? All he had to do was say, ‘Sorry about misunderstanding the meat thing’ and move on. Laura had been really nice so far about things, and it wasn’t like what Iggy’d done was unforgivable.

“I . . . thank you. You have my eternal gratitude for your assistance today. I must also offer my most sincere apologies for my behavior earlier; I am at your mercy with regard to your censure. Please, let me know should you require anything at all, Your Majesty.” Without giving Laura a chance to respond, he tucked his fists to his sides and bowed deeply before turning back to his bed with a deep frown and a bright flush spreading over his cheeks.

Yikes.

Normally, Prompto wasn’t the kinda guy who knew anything at all about royal protocol, but he’d been so nervous about meeting King Regis for the first time that he’d made the mistake of asking Iggy for advice on how to act in the throne room that day. The resulting two hour lesson had been way more than what he needed to know, but he definitely understood enough about the different bows now to know that because Iggy hadn’t crossed his arm over his chest first, it had been not a pledge of loyalty but of subservience—the kind he was supposed to give at a quick, informal dismissal from King Regis or to a visiting royal from another country.

Even though Prompto was apparently the only one in the hotel room that wasn’t of noble blood, Iggy was nothing like the others—maybe because it was because he’d never gone to public school or hung out with the rest of them after class. In fact, Prompto had never seen him spend free time with any friends besides Noct, where it felt like he was always on duty. The couple of times they all went out to the arcade or somewhere to eat, Iggy would drive and bring reading or paperwork to do. When they spent the night at Noct’s place playing videogames or watching movies, he either cleaned, cooked, or sat off to the side typing stuff on his laptop. Sometimes, if Noct really, really pestered him, he could get Ignis to join in on the fun, but those times were about as rare as snow flurries in Insomnia. Most of his day was spent at the Citadel in briefings or meeting with Councilmembers, so he was always super formal with everyone.

Prompto thought that since they’d met Laura first as a regular person, it wouldn’t be such a big deal that she was a queen, but he guessed it was to Iggy. What he’d said to her though had probably been the worst thing he could’ve come up with, if her expression dropping into a sharp frown before almost immediately returning to neutral was anything to go by.

She was probably just like Noct—wanting to be treated like a regular person after all she’d been through, which was probably why she hadn’t told them in the first place. He tried to keep that in mind as she laid down on her back next to him, effectively sandwiching him between a prince and a queen.

He sure as hell hadn’t expected this when he decided he was gonna follow Lunafreya’s advice and become Noct’s friend.

“Hey,” he said with a soft smile, but he was afraid it came off looking more like a grimace. She was just so close—wearing nothing but those shorts and that tight t-shirt, her hair still wet and smelling strongly of some kinda floral scent.

She turned her head to look at him, her eyes dull and half-lidded.

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

As Noct turned off the light, Prompto struggled to think of some way to thank and comfort her that wouldn’t make her feel creeped out or anything. He thought back to the only way he’d ever touched her—the way she’d given him permission to touch her. That would be good enough, right? He reached out for her hand in the darkness and grasped her fingers, giving them an extra tight squeeze of reassurance.

She let out a sigh, and to his absolute terror, he heard the shuffle of her ugly blanket in the still, suddenly stifling air of the hotel room as she rolled to her side and leaned toward him. Sweet Six, what was she gonna do?

“Thank you, Prompto,” she whispered in his ear before giving him a quick peck on the cheek and a returning squeeze.

He was glad for the darkness, because he knew his entire body had gone as red as a Lucian tomato. Inside his head, he was screaming—jumping up and down.

DUDE. I. WAS JUST KISSED. BY A QUEEN!

It was some time before he was able to fall asleep.

***

The scenery seemed to change the second they’d left Longwythe and headed south to Galdin Quay—silently and hurriedly leaving the place at dawn’s first light like that hole-in-the-wall town held some kinda curse. The terrain became greener and rockier—with high, grassy cliffs on his side of the car and tall, leafy trees peeking out over the ridge line. He got out his camera and removed the cap in case they passed by any cool shots, but for the time being, he leaned back into his seat, raising his face to the bright sun and letting the wind whip his hair practically flat against his head.

This was more his speed—cruising by all these incredible views in style and luxury.

As he looked through the viewfinder to capture the color contrast of a golden jagged cliff face surrounded by lush green grass before they passed it, Prompto jumped a little when he felt something hit his shoulder. He looked down to see Laura’s head slumped over on him.

Weird. He hardly ever saw her sleeping, and never in the car like this.

“Laura?” he whispered. When she didn’t respond, he called to Noct as softly as he could and still be heard over the wind. “Hey.” But he didn’t raise his head from the headrest. He carefully moved his arm up and around Laura to poke him, but that only made her fall against his chest.

Noct finally looked over at them and quirked his lips into amused smile.

“Is she all right?” he asked, hoping Noct could see her face better than he could from this angle.

“Yeah,” Noct said. “Said she’s gonna be like that for a while cause of last night.”

Ahh—the magic she’d used. He leaned against the door, pulling her with him so she could stretch a little and get comfortable.

“Welp,” he sighed, shooting Noct a self-satisfied smile, “it’s a hardship, but I guess I can make the sacrifice.”

Noct chuckled, “Yeah . . . you poor thing.”

For his part, Prompto was trying to stay calm enough to not fidget and wake her. He wasn’t stupid enough to think she’d be interested in him in that way; girls went for the brooding prince when the two of them hung out. Plus, she was royalty—way outta his league.

Still, he wondered if she was single.

No, he couldn’t afford to think like that with her. If he messed things up, he’d wind up making the whole trip totally awkward. She’d been nice to them this whole time, even when they hadn’t been, and he was doing this to make up for avoiding her so much that first day. She’d sought his approval for her place in the group just like she had for the rest of them, and it made him feel warm inside that she considered him one of the team, like an equal to Gladio or Ignis. Plus, it was nice having a friend that liked him enough to do this with. It felt good that she needed something from him, and he couldn’t imagine her sleeping on any of the others if he’d been the one sitting up front, except maybe Iggy.

Guiltily, his eyes flicked to the rearview mirror, and he caught Iggy’s intense gaze for just a second before they both looked away.

He thought there might’ve been something going on with those two, but now he wasn’t so sure, since it wasn’t just Iggy she was getting cozy with. No matter what she did or didn’t feel, he was pretty sure there was something there on Iggy’s part. He hoped Iggy didn’t think he was trying to stake a claim on her. Even if she hadn’t been a royal, it wasn’t like he could ever stand a chance if even Ignis couldn’t make a successful move on her.

Just like he’d never stand a chance with Cindy. Sweet Shiva, was she the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen in his life. What could someone like him even do to win a girl like that over, anyway?

He decided to focus on someone else’s love life for once and looked over at Noct, who was staring at the back of the seat in front of him with a glazed expression.

“So . . . you thinking to fairy tale Lady Lunafreya back to the Crown City?” he asked softly, hoping he wasn’t bothering Laura.

Noct’s expression didn’t change as he gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Nah, no need to rush to happily ever after.”

Oh. Right. He’d forgotten about the honeymoon, which Noct had said was gonna involve some kinda extended stay in Altissia before heading back to Galdin for a while. Noct hadn’t seemed really enthused about it, but Prompto? He couldn’t imagine anything more magical.

“Wow. Still can’t believe you’re actually tying the knot, dude! How does it feel now that it’s finally happening?”

“Fine, I guess?”

“C’mon, you can’t fool me. Any guy would be over the moon to marry her!” At least, he knew he would be if he were the one in Noct’s position. Lady Lunafreya might have only sent Prompto one letter, but that elegant script and perfumed paper had ended up being just the words he needed to get his ass in gear, lose the weight, and become good enough to even attempt making friends with the Prince of Lucis. She was just so nice and so pretty—how could Noct not be jumping out of his skin with joy to bag a girl like her?

“No big deal,” Noct muttered, leaning against the door.

“Yeah, whatever.”

Did he really not get just how good he had it? Yeah, being the prince sucked sometimes, especially with all this Chosen shit, but it wasn’t like there weren’t huge benefits. He had a really hot car, a really cool girl, some awesome friends, and all this power at his fingertips. Why didn’t he take advantage of it a little?

Laura was still asleep by the time Iggy turned onto the winding road that overlooked the hotel and quay late that afternoon. Prompto was definitely stiff from holding so still and a little restless after missing out on so many awesome photo opportunities, but he’d never breathe a word to her about it. Actually, she was usually the one pointing out the most non-obvious scenery that made some of his favorite photos: a flower in the perfect shape of a white star, the contrast between a bright green pea plant surrounded by dry desert, or Gladio doing stretches against the rising sun. He kinda wanted to wake her up now so she could do that thing where she’d get all excited at seeing someplace new as they cruised their way down to the beach, with its grand view of the ocean and a huge, curling rock far out to the horizon. But if she hadn’t woken up with them talking and stuff all this time, he should probably let her sleep the last couple of minutes at least.

“Oh em gee, you guys,” he said under his breath, but he doubted anyone could hear him with the top down. “It’s the ocean. It’s so big . . . and blue!” He sure hoped the ferry had an open deck so he could get some good shots on the way to Altissia—maybe a good sunset, and especially that island thing in the distance.

Iggy carefully backed into one of the covered parking spaces, and as the other three got out of the car, Prompto hesitantly squeezed Laura’s shoulder, shaking her a little.

“Laura?” She inhaled and raised her eyes to him. A blotchy red spot had formed on her cheek where it’d been resting against his chest. “Hey, we made it.”

She took in another deep, quick breath through her nose as she shot up off him. “Have I been on you the entire time? I’m so sorry,” she said groggily. “You must be so stiff. If it happens again, just push me off, ‘kay?”

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

“Think I lost the feeling in my ass back by Saulhend,” Gladio groaned, bending over to touch his toes.

“Indeed,” Iggy added with a sigh. His eyes flickered briefly over to Prompto and Laura to give them a quick, sharp look Prompto couldn’t identify before he turned away, leading them toward the boardwalk. Oh shit, was he mad at them both now? “Let us stretch our legs and walk down to the ferry. We can check the schedules posted before we decide how to handle the rest of the day.”

Prompto didn’t miss the way Laura’s eyes seemed to linger on Iggy’s back, a frown pulling down the corner of her lips, before she followed after them.

The five of them strolled unhurriedly up the boardwalk . . . well, four of them. Prompto just couldn’t keep still! Shadows of cool-looking fish flashed just beneath the surface of the jewel-blue water on one side of the dock, people wrestled and laughed in the frothing surf on the other, couples dressed to the nines strolled hand-in-hand in the opposite direction as they discussed the “absolutely breathtaking” views, and the scent of buttery fish wafted toward them from what had to be the restaurant.

“Is this place amazing or what!?” he laughed joyously, slapping Noct’s shoulder.

Iggy looked back at them, his hair dancing forward to floof out as the wind caught the back of his head. “The breeze is quite refreshing.”

“Didn’t think I’d enjoy the seaside this much,” Noct mumbled as he eyed the dock in the distance. “Think we’ll have time to do some fishing while we’re here?”

“I very much doubt it, but I won’t discount the possibility,” Iggy replied. “In case you forgot, we came here to cast off, not cast a line, but perhaps this evening, if the protection of the lights extends to the dock.”

Prompto really, really hoped they’d missed the last ferry for the day and Iggy was still tempted to stay at this place. It looked awesome! The open-aired building that seemed to float on top of the ocean, with its warm wooden beams weathered by salt and wind, made for the perfect lighting for pictures, especially if he managed to catch the colors of the sunset glittering off the surface of the water. He definitely wanted to try some of whatever that smell was, and even though he wasn’t that great a swimmer, he still wanted to wade in the surf or something before doing something luxurious, like getting a massage. It’d be nice to live in the lap of luxury a little before he had to go back home.

“I’m afraid you’re out of luck,” an oozy, mocking voice cut into his fantasy. Lost in visions of five-star meals and getting pampered, Prompto hadn’t really been paying attention to the guy standing in the middle of the stairs leading to the restaurant until he’d said something.

The strange man’s purplish-red hair glowed oddly in the late afternoon sun, and the whacky collection of mismatched clothes and weird patterns made him kinda look like a clown-hobo who’d taken fashion advice from Iggy after he’d had too much wine—with his white undershirt that reminded Prompto of Altissian blinds, the layers of holey and mismatching patterned scarves, and the faded trench coat. But it was more than the guy’s clothes or the oily way he smiled that made Prompto take a step back toward Laura. It wasn’t even the way he reeked of dust and lingering stale cologne so strongly that Prompto had to rub at his nose to keep from sneezing. There was something personal and more than a little creepy about this dude’s expression as he looked at each of them one by one. He was clearly sizing them up, and Prompto had to fight the urge to look away and rub at the itchy, burning tears welling up in his eyes just in case this guy pulled something.

He breathed through his mouth to keep from sneezing in the guy’s face as those unnaturally golden eyes lingered on him like he knew him or something.

“The boats bring you here?” he asked with a swishy hand raised in the air. “Well, they’ll not take you forth.”

When Laura stepped between Prompto and the stranger, his attention snapped to her immediately, his smirk creeping up into a leering smile as they stared each other down. Laura, usually so friendly with strangers, had gone rigid, her hands stiff at her sides like she was ready to summon her swords at any second. Her tension put Prompto on edge. His fingers began to twitch at his sides, anticipation for whatever was about to happen stretching him tight like a wire ready to snap.

Prompto would be the first to admit that he wasn’t exactly an expert in body language, but it looked like they were challenging each other or something. He just hoped he wouldn’t lose his nerve and summon his gun to his hand right here in front of everybody unless it was necessary.

“And what’s your story?” Gladio asked suspiciously.

The stranger waited a few beats before breaking eye contact with Laura, and it was only then that Prompto was able to relax a little.

“I’m an impatient traveler, ready to turn ship,” he said casually, strolling through the middle of their group toward the boardwalk. Laura leapt forward between the stranger and Noct, pushing him behind her and glowering, but the creep only flashed her a knowing grin. “The ceasefire’s getting us nowhere, and you boys are no doubt eager to be on your way to wherever you’re going before it grows too cold.”

What in Ifrit’s cursed inferno was this guy talking about? Before it gets cold? And what was up with Laura? Sure, the guy was a creep, but he hadn’t made a move toward anyone. If being a creep was all it took, she definitely should’ve attacked Takka by now, since that guy seemed to jump every time Noct showed up at his counter.

He felt like he was missing some deeper level to this whole thing, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was about.

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

“Of course,” he said, touching the brim of his hat with a mocking bow. “Forgive me for assuming. It is but a cold comfort that I cannot be of any more assistance to you with these rather unfortunate events.”

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

Gladio must’ve made the connection at the same time, because he took a step forward and narrowed his eyes at the stranger. “Who are you?”

The stranger directed his answer toward Laura instead, and his smile seemed to grow a fraction. “A man of no consequence,” he replied airily. He removed his hat in a flourish at her before turning and ambling down the boardwalk in the direction they’d come from.

Prompto waited until the creep had sauntered far enough away before he reached out to touch Laura’s arm.

“Hey. You okay?”

She kept her eyes locked on the back of the stranger’s long, swaying coat. “Yeah.”

“What was that about?”  

“That guy just really rubbed me the wrong way.”

It was the first time she’d ever said something he didn’t completely believe. It felt to Prompto like they’d met a lot of weirdos out here, but she was always pretty hands-off when it came to protecting Noct. Six, she’d waited until they were all seconds away from dying before stepping in just last night, so why all the caution now?

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

“His comments regarding the ceasefire concern me. I expected the treaty to be signed by now. I do hope everything is still going smoothly in negotiations,” Iggy said with a frown.

“You heard anything since we left Hammerhead?”

“Nothing.”

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

But it turned out that the weirdo had been right. All ferries from Altissia to Lucis had been suspended by Empire, which really seemed to concern Iggy. Luckily, they’d come across a reporter that had the connections to help them out—as long as they helped him out in return. Him threatening to out Noct as the Prince of Lucis if they didn't was kinda shitty, but it wasn’t like they had a choice except to play along. They couldn’t afford to miss the wedding with the treaty between two countries riding on it.

They had Dino mark the map for his errand before they collected a couple of bounties from the chef Coctura and headed out.

“That Coctura chick was pretty nice, but what about that reporter guy?” Prompto asked as they made their way over the long boardwalk back to the car. “He’s really got your number, Noct.”

“Not like we made much effort to keep our identities a secret,” Gladio said.

“Even if we had, the press always finds a way,” Ignis said, rolling his eyes. He summoned the keys as they approached the car port and let out a long sigh. “We needn’t befriend him, but we’d best not make him our enemy.”

“Which means another errand to run,” Noct said.

“It’s not like we have a choice,” Laura said wearily. “He’s our only means of getting off the continent right now.”

Gladio hopped in the front seat and immediately reached for the control that would put the top down. “Maybe Cid was right about your lack of dignity, Noct.”

“Yeah,” Prompto laughed. “You’re one step above delivery boy.”

“Royal rank carries little weight outside the Crown City,” Ignis said.

Noct leaned against the doorframe and looked out over cape shimmering in the sunset. “Glad it’s not weighing me down.”

“So what’s the plan?” Gladio asked, turning to Iggy.

“It’s . . . up to Noct.”

“A lot of Coctura’s stuff was daemons,” Prompto complained. “Looks like it’s gonna be another all-nighter for us.”

Seriously, even though he felt better about hunting down daemons instead of animals, there’d been a reason why they’d been told not to be out after dark. From what he’d heard, one of those iron giants could pop out and squish the five of them flat inside the Regalia before they even had a chance to open their doors.

“Well, uh . . . we gotta look for the gem for Dino, right? So we need daylight for that,” Noct said.

“Correct,” Iggy replied.

“So do the hunts first, I guess, and we’ll get the gem in the morning when the sun comes up.”

“Very well, Highness, and I believe the bounties will be enough to have earned us back our holiday before we leave.”

“Really?” Prompto asked.

“Indeed. We’ll catch some rest at the haven on the beach as soon as we’re finished, and depending on when Dino is able to procure tickets for our passage, we can check in to the hotel the night before.”

“Woohoo! You hear that, Noct? A night in the lap of luxury!”

“Yeah, real beds,” Noct sighed.

“A clean shower,” Laura said.

“A tub,” Iggy added. “And after having observed Ms. Arlund behind the counter, I must insist on completing our celebration of His Highness’s upcoming nuptials with one of her famously delicious seafood meals.”

“Did you know she has her own cooking magazine? Coctura’s Kitchen, it’s called,” Laura said, leaning forward a little in her seat. “I picked up a copy for you to peruse in case you wanted to collect any of her recipes.”

The car was quiet for a couple of seconds, and Prompto held his breath, waiting for Iggy’s response. It was the first time either of them had spoken directly to each other since the night before. Prompto still didn’t get what their problem was, but they all knew something was going on between them because of last night’s events.

Iggy’s voice grew distant and formal. “You have my thanks, Your Majesty. It’s true I’ve been collecting local recipes on our journey as a souvenir and memento, of sorts. Olfactory and gustatory senses are very strongly tied to memory, after all.”

Laura flinched at his tone and looked down at her lap. “You’re welcome,” she muttered.

Prompto looked back and forth between the two, frowning. Iggy was the smartest, most observant guy Prompto had ever met in his life. He was just so . . . amazing at everything. He could somehow tell when Noct had had a bad day before he even got all the way through the door, so why didn’t he realize that being all stiff with Laura was hurting her feelings? It was weird seeing him out here, out of his element and making mistakes, but it almost made him seem human for once. He wished he could do something to help smooth things over, but he barely knew Laura, and trying to figure Iggy out was about as pointless as keeping one of those goblins from last night as a pet.

He’d have to think of something to get everyone on good terms again. Laura being a queen seemed like a pretty stupid reason to give her the cold shoulder.

“Get your camera ready,” Laura whispered. “You see those arches up there?”

“Yeah?” he said, nodding to where two arches crossed over the road just ahead of them. He got out his camera and took off the cap.

“If you turn around when we pass them, you’ll get a shot of them framing the colors of the sunset. Might even be able to get Noct in the shot if you time it right.”

“Oooh, thanks!”

***

By the time they approached the spot on the map that Dino had marked, the sky was turning the prettiest shade of light blue as the sun was preparing to rise. At least the possibility of running across any more daemons was off the table, because he was dead on his feet, but he wished he had a better view of the dawn through the tops of the cliffs that towered above even the footbridge spanning the road that they were taking to this place.

Gladio somehow had enough energy left after a full night out and was helping to keep Laura awake by telling her about a prank he’d once pulled, a story Prompto had heard at least five times before from Noct, so he stayed quiet and kept an eye out for where Dino’s gem might be hiding.

“So we knew they’d been hookin’ up in the showers after training for like a week now,” Gladio was saying, elbowing Laura’s shoulder.

“So of course you decided you had to do something about it.”

“Hell yeah! We all shower in there, thank you very much! So Richardson got the idea to take the spice powder outta my Cup Noodle and pour it in the shower head, then cap it back on . . ..”

“Oh gods.”

“They. smelled like. chickatrice for like. two days!” Gladio laughed, cracking up so hard he could barely get the words out.

“Those poor people . . ..”

“Hey, that’s life in the Crownsg—"

WHOOSH.

Gladio and Laura immediately fell silent. Laura cocked her head and closed her eyes to listen like she always did when they were out tracking. After several seconds, she pointed to the entrance of a tunnel that looked like it’d been blasted through the cliffside.

“Through there. An animal of some kind,” she whispered.

“How could you possibly know—” Iggy began.

Noct shook his head and said just as softly, “It doesn’t matter. We gotta head that way anyway, see?” He pointed to the map that indicated the gem could be found just on the other side—of course. Prompto eyed the dark opening hesitantly. It didn’t look too long according to the map, but it didn’t exactly excite him that they were headed toward the whooshing animal in the small, dark, cramped space.

“S-s-sure hope there’s a l-light at the end of this, eh guys?”

“Don’t go into the light, Prompto,” Iggy said softly as the darkness swallowed him whole, but he was immediately lit from behind as he turned on his travel light.

“Very funny.”

With a flick of his wrist, he summoned his trusty handgun, watching the shimmering magic sparkle around his hand before it disappeared. Sweet Six, that would never stop looking cool. Prompto didn’t even get the chance to switch on his light, because as Ignis and Noct crept around the curve of the stone, Ignis turned back toward them.

“The end of the passage is just through here, and I believe we’ve discovered the source of the sound.”

Panic seized him as he caught up and peered around Noct’s shoulder. “Oh. Em. Gee,” he squeaked, his voice going high-pitched like he hated when he was freaked out, but he couldn’t help it. A wall of glossy black feathers in the clearing just beyond the tunnel’s opening blocked out most of the new daylight, and it was moving up and down in time to the deep breaths wheezing over the cold, echoing stone.

That bird. It was totally that enormous bird they’d spotted outside Hammerhead while they were hunting a few days ago.

“We’re supposed to get near that thing?!” he demanded.

They were sooo gonna die.

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

Laura, who was obviously a nutcase and hadn’t even summoned a weapon, placed a hand over Noct’s wrist as it tightened on his sword hilt.

“I beg of you,” she whispered, “please don’t kill it unless it’s a matter of life and death. Please, Noctis, just this once. It’s sleeping, and we’ve just come in here and—”

Noct nodded and waved for her to be silent.

Did that mean they weren’t gonna attack it? Oh, thank the Six. He wasn’t sure he could handle another near-death experience so soon after the first.

To his relief, Noct dismissed his sword and motioned for the rest of them to do the same, but he saw the flaw in this change of events as he reluctantly put his handgun back in the armiger. Yeah, he sure as hell didn’t wanna wake it up, but he kinda enjoyed the comforting, familiar weight of a weapon in his hand as they approached an animal as big as his house.

Noct must’ve been nervous too, because instead of whispering instructions when he cleared the tunnel, he checked the map one more time, pointed to his eyes, then to the ground surrounding the bird.

Great, Dino’s stupid fucking gem would probably be nestled underneath the damn thing too, while they were at it. He bet Dino had known about this bird all along and just hadn’t warned them about it. Why else wouldn’t he have driven out here to pick up the thing himself?

The sun climbed higher in the sky as they searched, and Prompto ended up using the corner of his vest to wipe the sweat off his face before applying the sunscreen Iggy had just wordlessly handed him. There’d been about twenty times this morning when he’d sworn he’d almost pissed himself when he thought he saw the bird open its eyes—not that that had stopped him from getting out his camera for a couple of selfies and portraits of them all crouched in front of the snoring beast. He was starting to think maybe the gem really was underneath the black wall of death that had been keeping them company all morning. Maybe they’d have to fight it after all, just to get it to move. He crept closer, carefully inspecting the fluttering feathers beating against the grass with the bird’s every breath. Wouldn’t it be awesome if he was the one who found the gem? He could be the hero of the morning, and then they could all go catch some shut-eye.

A sudden great whoosh of breath and a jerk of the animal’s ribs sent Prompto stumbling backwards on his ass into the dirt. He sucked in a quick, silent breath as the thing’s head snapped up a little. His heart pounded hard enough against his throat to make him feel sick, and when a hand came outta nowhere and clamped around his mouth, he was kinda surprised at the instinct to bite it and let loose a scream.

But Laura spoke before he could make good on it.  

“Shh, it’s okay,” she whispered into his ear. When he relaxed, she let him go and helped him to his feet. “Gladio’s found it. Let’s get out of here.”

His disappointment at not being the one to finish this errand vanished at the thought that they could now get the hell out of here and crash into a pillow somewhere. He nodded and silently scurried past the monster one last time, following behind Noct and Laura back into the tunnel. It was only once they’d made it back to the Regalia that he was able to breathe again, but his hands trembled in his lap, and he felt like he was gonna be sick from being on edge for so long.

“Dino’s totally a jerk!” Prompto broke the silence as the last door shut behind them.

“Least we got the goods,” Noct said.

As Laura sat back in the seat and closed her eyes, Prompto leaned forward to stare over at him in disbelief. “Dude! How can you be so calm right now?”

“I dunno. It’s over, I guess?”

“Yes, and now we can get some rest before seeing Dino,” Iggy said as he pulled the car out onto the road and did a smooth U-turn back toward Galdin. “Perhaps we should stay in the caravan rather than setting up at the haven so as to get right to the business of eating and sleeping.”

“Hell yeah,” Gladio agreed. “Could pass out right now.”

It took just about everything Prompto had in him to stay awake long enough for Iggy to head to the shack by the boardwalk to pay and get the keys to the camper, but when Laura immediately staggered to one of the six bunks and flopped into an unconscious heap, he felt obligated to take her place and keep Iggy company. He collapsed against the wall of the enclosed bench near the front door, willing his eyes to stay open as Iggy worked on slicing a pre-made loaf of bread he’d gotten from somewhere.

His nausea seemed to have only gotten worse on the drive back, now helped along by the moldy, stale smelling camper and his heavy head, but still he managed to mumble, “Hey, Iggy, you need any help with that?”

Iggy’s knife paused over the bread for a second. “No, thank you. But I do sincerely appreciate the offer.”

Did Iggy not like him helping in the kitchen or something? Prompto wasn’t the greatest cook in the world—it wasn’t like he could even touch Ignis’s skill level—but he could get by making the staples . . . especially toast. He noticed Iggy had allowed Laura to help him with no issues on the very first day out of the city, so maybe he just thought Prompto was completely useless in the kitchen or something.

He frowned at the thought and chased it away with a shake of his head. He’d prove himself to these guys somehow—he hoped.

There was something comforting about finishing off a night of hunting with Iggy’s home cooking, though—something Prompto hadn’t had much of in his life besides what he managed to make for himself. He’d always dreamed of walking through the front door of his house to a meal prepared by his parents just for him, just like all the characters on TV.

He hadn’t tried much of Iggy’s food back in Insomnia, but everything had been incredible so far after living off salads and whatever he had that could be thrown together easily and served with rice. The eggs were so fluffy, warm, and cheesy—and they were light enough that they seemed to calm his flip-flopping stomach. And the toast—even his toast was somehow fancy, which suited a classy guy like him. Prompto didn’t know what it was about Iggy’s bread, but it was different from any other bread he’d ever had in his life—sweet, malty, and earthy.

“You really know how to make some great stuff, Iggy,” he mumbled sleepily into his plate, and Gladio nodded in agreement as he shoveled another forkful of eggs into his mouth.

“It’s nothing special, really,” Iggy said toward his plate, “but you have my gratitude.” His slight smile fell to a frown when his eyes darted up toward the camper.

Then an idea suddenly popped into Prompto’s head—a way to get the two of them talking again.

“Maybe you should take her foraging when she wakes up,” he suggested, but hesitated when those expressionless green eyes fell on him. “Um . . . you know, she’s always nibbling on the plants she knows when we’re walking around. Maybe you could teach her about the ones in this area after we get the tickets from Dino.”

After a moment, Ignis nodded and looked back toward the rear of the camper where the bunks were. “Perhaps—if we find the time.”

Chapter Text

Ignis had no idea how one evaluated a line cast into a body of water as endless as an ocean; he had only learned from years of watching Noct pull in the pre-caught fish from the small pond just beyond the solarium portion of the Citadel gardens. But despite his ignorance, he still said, “Excellent cast, Noct,” as the Prince’s line plunked beneath the choppy, turquoise waves several yards away.

“How do you even know where to throw that thing?” Prompto asked, looking up from his phone.

Noct shrugged. “Dunno.” Tapping a finger to his temple, he added, “Angler’s instinct. Like I got a radar up in here or somethin’.”

“Someone’s been talkin’ to that crazy fisher guy too much, if you ask me,” Gladio said.

“Nah, Navyth’s cool. Gave me a few new lures yesterday. Told me I should try and catch this one huge fish that hangs around here—the Devil of the Cygillan.”

“Sounds like a daemon.” Prompto’s voice grew tremulous as he eyed the grey, worn dock boards surrounded by water. “You don’t think there’s daemon fish, do you?”

“Not in the daylight, of course,” Ignis answered. “It sounds as though Mr. Arlund has tasked us with bigger fish to fry than clearing the waters of daemon infestation.”

“Still think you should’ve respooled the line before it’s too late. You’re gonna lose the fish if you manage to hook it,” Gladio grumbled from his spot by the last pylon, where he’d been sitting cross-legged for the last several hours.

“Will you relax already? It’s barely worn,” Noct said under his breath. “And be quiet; you’re scaring all the fish. Gotta hook at least one more for lunch, since we apparently won’t be gettin’ any of that gourmet seafood Ignis has been promising until tonight.”

Ignis sighed. As Dino had been unable to secure them passage to Altissia for a couple of days, he had reluctantly moved their group from the caravan to the haven at the end of the beach in an effort to save funds. Though this meant that His Highness would have ample opportunity to hold the three of them hostage as he partook in his favorite pastime, his expressions of displeasure had hardly ceased since.

“We gotta save our funds for Altissia. Doubt there’s gonna be any spots to camp there, so we gotta be able to pay a hotel bill until His Highness can get hitched,” Gladio said with a smirk.

“I imagine the Accordion government, acting as the host for the celebration, will provide accommodations,” Ignis said, leaning heavily against the pylon opposite Gladio and crossing his arms. “Still, I’d rather not rely on assumptions, with the way our luck has run these past two weeks. I would prefer to have a cache of cash saved, just in case.”

“I think things’ve been pretty good, actually,” Noct answered.

“Yeah, I been sleepin’ amazing right on the beach like this,” Prompto added, letting his gaze drift over the gentle waves lapping at the white sandy shore. “Wouldn’t’ve thought the waves would knock me right out, but they do.”

Though he, too, had appreciated the stunning haven scenery and warm breezes these past couple of days, Ignis tutted disapprovingly and glanced over at Gladio, the only other person present who wasn’t completely oblivious to the precarious situation they were in, but he was staring blankly down at his trousers, having long grown bored with keeping Noct company.

Ignis didn’t wish to set Prompto or Noct into a panic, if such a thing was even possible, but it alarmed him far more than he let on that the Empire was no longer allowing ferries to land in Galdin from Altissia. For the past one hundred and fifty years, the Empire had built Galdin into a destination resort by allowing open trade with Accordo, and even though Niflheim had long ago shifted toward air-based transportation, the once tiny fishing village had grown dependent on regular shipments of goods and tourists alike from across the seas. He couldn’t see any strategic advantage to halting vessels just before the treaty was signed—the only explanation he could imagine for such a scenario would be for hostile reasons.

If they couldn’t make it to Altissia in time, if something were to happen and this treaty were to fall through . . . Ignis would personally be responsible for this treaty failing. He likely should ask Laura for her opinion on the matter, since she apparently had extensive diplomatic experience, but he’d grown comfortable with their distance these past few days, even if the desire to make reparations chafed at him every evening he would normally have spent with her. Besides, he needed facts, not conjecture.

It seemed that life out here in the wild was no different from back home—the fate of the Chosen rested in his hands alone, and he was responsible for pretending he wasn’t halfway unraveled. Only this time, he had been dumped in a world full of strange people and customs, new ideas and ways of thinking, aspects of life he’d long held to be true being questioned . . . it was beginning to overwhelm him. As much as he wished he could be the self-sufficient advisor he’d always been in Insomnia, he had decided that should this deal with Dino fall through, he would immediately use a landline at the hotel and seek guidance from his uncle or the Marshal for getting off the continent. If he recalled correctly, King Regis and his retinue had managed to do so in a time of full-scale war by means of a royal yacht and a secret harbor somewhere . . ..

“So . . . there’s something I kinda don’t understand,” Prompto said. “The Queen of Tenebrae’s dead, right? And Lady Lunafreya’s their princess, right? Like, the one who takes her place?”

“Yep,” Gladio answered.

“So if Lady Lunafreya just left for Altissia, who’s in charge of Tenebrae right now? Who’s gonna take over when she comes to Lucis?”

“The political situation in Tenebrae is complicated,” Ignis answered. He took a moment to distill his thoughts to their simplest elements, as he knew Prompto was likely to grow impatient with a thorough explanation. “House Fleuret had been permitted by the Empire for some number of decades to maintain a certain level of autonomy—until the assassination attempt that led to Queen Sylva’s death. The country is completely under the Empire’s authority now, House Fleuret reduced to no more than a figurehead, though the people still swear their allegiance to the monarchy. It’s why Lady Lunafreya is sometimes referred to as a princess—in deference to the titles recently taken from them.”

“Uhh, yeah, that does sound kinda complicated.”

“I didn’t know that,” Noct said. “Thought she just . . . I dunno, changed it or something.”

Of course, there was always the possibility that the Deputy High Commander Ravus Nox Fleuret, Lady Lunafreya’s elder brother, might take control of the government if the Empire trusted him enough to do so, but the people would still likely protest, as the ruling seat had always gone to the child blessed by the gods to become the next Oracle—male or female, eldest or youngest. But the very nature of this arrangement troubled Ignis the more he thought its consequences out to the future. The likelihood of the next Oracle coming from the union of House Caelum and House Fleuret rather than a pairing with Lord Ravus was strong indeed, which meant that the Empire would hold a loose claim over Lucis’s future monarchs. That claim would hold potential for slowly weakening the barrier between what was left of Lucis and Niflheim as their ruling family spread out to stake their toothless, symbolic claims over kingdoms that no longer truly existed—until Niflheim bloodlessly, silently absorbed their kingdom.

They couldn’t hold the future Oracle behind the Wall, surely, but they would certainly need to take precautions against such an undermining of the royal family.

One step at a time. The marriage first. The declaration of peace. Then he could worry about everything else.

“Things are actually more complicated than I thought,” Noct said in a low, distressed tone, not looking at any of them. “Turns out Dad isn’t that great a king here in the outlands.” He sighed deeply and looked out along the shoreline, watching the long, leggy palms sway in the ocean breeze.

Troubled, Ignis cast a quick look at Prompto, who bit his lip, then Gladio, who pursed his mouth disapprovingly, but made no move to say anything. Ignis took a step closer to the Prince, searching for an answer that would reassure him.

“There was much about the outlanders’ lives I regrettably didn’t understand when we first left the city,” he said gently. “So, too, do I believe that they likewise do not understand the burdens the royal family must bear. In this world where the Old Wall and the Kings of Yore are myth, how can they know the price your father pays to protect what he can?”

“Iggy’s right. Don’t let ‘em getcha down,” Prompto added.

“Just make sure you learn from your old man’s mistakes when it’s your turn,” Gladio said.

Ignis turned back to Noct, who was looking up at him with an unreadable, wide-eyed expression. “True. Though it may be too late to make reparations with outlanders, as they are due to become Niflians any day now, we'll approach the Council as soon as we return to ensure that these injustices do not continue within our walls. The fault lies with King Regis’s advisors for not informing him of the unrest, not with the King himself, surely.”

“Yeah,” Noct sighed. “You’re probably right. I just don’t like the way people are talking about him.”

“Maybe they’ll better understand his intentions when there’s peace,” Gladio said.

Prompto groaned a little as he stretched his arms up high over his head, effectively cutting through the morose atmosphere. He reached behind him for the bag of snacks he and Noct had brought out to the dock with them, where they’d done far more eating than fishing, in Ignis’s opinion. “In the meantime, since it’s apparently gonna be a while before lunch anyway . . ..”

With a violent crackling followed by a puff of fake fried seafood aroma Ignis swore he wasn’t imagining from this distance, Prompto opened the small mylar package and began obnoxiously crunching on an unnaturally orange cracker.

“You’re scaring the fish,” Noct mumbled, but he still reached down to snatch a cracker of his own.

“’Tesoro d’Altissia Crab and Fish Crackers.’ Seriously?” Gladio asked, leaning forward to squint at the package. “We’ve got fresh fish in the armiger and more on the way, and you’re eating this?”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Noct replied around his mouthful of cracker.

“Honestly, would it be so detrimental to the conversation if His Highness waited to swallow before speaking?” Ignis asked.

“Yes,” Noct shot back. “Where’s Laura, by the way?”

Laura—Noct’s preferred method of steering the conversation away from himself ever since Longwythe, but the tactic was rather effective, as the mere mention of her name bore with it the weight of Ignis’s mortification and the unsettled feeling that he hadn’t yet handled the situation to his satisfaction. He’d been glad for her absence, as it had given him time to grow accustomed to the creeping horror that would break over him with every moment he recalled spending with her—now colored with the knowledge that he’d made an absolute prat of himself in front of royalty. As it was, he hadn’t been able to manage a personal word to her since that night, knowing that he had slept, likely drooling, on the head a sovereign monarch the very first night they’d left the city. And that was to say nothing of everything else he’d allowed her to assist him with.

Her help had been a guilty relief at the time, freeing him up to increase his studies of the area and get more sleep—even engage in better combat, but the shame of knowing that a queen had been compensating for his indolence whenever she had found those secret spare moments to do so struck a severe blow to his pride.

He suppressed the scowl he wished to respond with and instead answered, “I’m not certain. Likely pussyfooting with that cat you two have taken a shine to.”

“She can’t even be here when we kill fish?” Noct asked incredulously. “I mean, one of these is for that cat, anyway.”

“Hey,” Gladio barked, pointing an accusing finger at him. “Watch it. That girl saved your life. She doesn’t wanna sit around and play adoring audience, she doesn’t have to.”

“Yeah, I know,” he sighed.

That evening in Longwythe had been the crowning event in the series of events Ignis would rather not be reminded of. Though he still believed her refusal to hunt to be somewhat ridiculous, he deeply regretted that she’d been forced to compromise her personal philosophies to compensate for their inadequacies. That she had been willing to take action despite her reservations in order to protect Noct, however, had earned his profound respect.

But how had he repaid her? By demanding she eat his meal as though he were a child throwing a tantrum to get attention. His memory would often cycle over that humiliating conversation, taunting him with how he hadn’t noticed the blindingly obvious staring him in the face. Yes, he’d noticed at the time that the foods she’d chosen tended to trend toward his lighter breakfast foods, but so engrossed was he in the game of figuring her out on his own that the thought hadn’t even occurred to him to ask after her typical diet when she wasn’t feeling ill.

Gods, the indignity of it all.

Fortunately, she seemed to have sensed his need for space these past few days and had chosen instead to assist Gladio or Prompto in their tasks, but he often found evidence of her labors on his behalf throughout the day—garlic that had already been peeled waiting for him on his prep table, a steaming cup of coffee sitting next to the camp stove in the morning, a fresh loaf of bread sitting on the counter when he was expected to make breakfast after a long night of hunting.

She couldn’t possibly know her quiet kindness merely added to the completeness of his disgrace.

“She’s agreed to meet with us after lunch to assist in taking the campsite down,” Ignis said. Pulling out his mobile, he checked the time. “Which was supposed to be ready to eat in fifteen minutes.”

“Can’t rush it if the fish aren’t biting, Specs,” Noct said. “I’m kinda not hungry anyway.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Prompto said, tossing the shredded wrapper back into the snack bag. “Weird.”

“Cause you two haven’t stopped eatin’ since you sat down,” Gladio pointed out.

“You know . . .,” Noct began mischievously, “you guys could go back to the haven and pack up while we finish here.”

“Better than sittin’ around here starin’ at the water all day,” Gladio said, hauling himself to his feet.

Ignis thought about pointing out that if they were skipping lunch, it would hardly be necessary for them to fish anymore, and they could all return to pack up the haven together. But he paused. At the very least, he owed it to Laura to take her foraging as Prompto had suggested the other day, particularly as the chef de cuisine at Mother of Pearl, where they were supposed to be dining this evening, was known for her seafood, not her vegetarian dishes.

Come to think of it, he should prepare her something filling before supper, if she was willing to eat it. He could attempt to make amends and ensure she was taken care of for the rest of the day without having to hear Noct’s disappointment at his choice in fare.

And to be honest with himself, he would be grateful for the reduced audience. She never reacted the way he expected her to whenever they spoke, and he thought it best that he prepare his simple veggie stir-fry and ask her to accompany him with as few people around as possible. He wasn’t completely certain whether she would be interested or insulted at his request, so it would be best to reduce the number of witnesses to his potential failure.

“Very well. Meet us at the Mother of Pearl at eight o’clock—sharp,” he said, already turning toward the haven. “And do be certain to dress appropriately for the venue.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

He’d made it off the dock and just past the fishing shack, scowling a little when his stride slipped momentarily on the silky white sand, when Gladio caught up with him and slapped him lightly on the shoulder.

“Hey. Hope all the ‘packing up the haven’ shit’s an excuse for you fixin’ whatever stick you got shoved up your ass about Laura.”

Ignis tilted his head to glare at him over the rim of his glasses. “I’m afraid I don’t take the meaning of your . . . rather colorful declaration.”

“I mean I’ll handle the haven while you take her for a walk and talk out whatever the hell this is. It’s gettin’ weird. And for fuck’s sakes, stop usin’ all that royal protocol shit on her. Guy as observant as you should notice she doesn’t like it.”

He had noticed, in fact, that light dying in her eyes every time he spoke to her as of late. But despite his behavior since leaving Insomnia suggesting otherwise, Ignis had received rigorous, specialized training as a child that would not allow him to treat a royal casually—particularly a guest of his liege. He really only used Noct’s given name because Noct preferred it and because they were raised together as children, and even then, Ignis often used his title from the sheer force of his upbringing. However, Noct had never displayed pain at its use, either, which made Laura’s case an anomaly in Ignis’s eyes.

“I'll handle it,” he said curtly, picking up his pace toward the haven, though he wished he had the confidence that his tone held. He could see the site just up ahead—as well as the dark-haired girl already beginning to disassemble the tent.

“You better—'specially since you’re the reason she’s still with us in the first place.”

He took his handkerchief out of his jacket pocket to wipe the light sheen of sweat that had formed on his brow despite the afternoon breeze before stepping up on the haven ramp and catching her attention, “Would you care to accompany me on a foraging trip?”

She looked up at him in surprise. “What?”

“I’m eager to find some rarer local ingredients which our armiger does not yet possess,” he explained, hoping he didn’t sound quite as inane as he thought he did, “and I thought you might still be interested in learning more about our kingdom.” 

He thought he could hear Gladio snort at his words, but he ignored his reaction in favor of the woman straightening in front of him.

“Yes, I think that’s a very good idea,” she enunciated carefully—almost warily. He somehow doubted it was the foraging that she thought would be a good idea. “Let’s go now.”

She had already stood and was heading toward him, so he abandoned his plan to make her lunch first and instead said, “Please, after you.” He gave her a small, courteous bow and gestured for her to lead the way off the haven ramp. She shot him a wounded look as she passed, but complied wordlessly.

For the next several hours as they walked together, he was a paragon of professionalism, instructing her on the finer points of finding chocobeans, sweet peppers, and aegir roots among the grassy, breezy cliff faces. Despite the tension, the walk itself was cleansing to him, as the fresh, salty air tasted invigorating on his tongue and the sweet relief of jagged green bluffs and whispering palms after so many days of desiccated brownness brightened his vision.

In the small hopes that she would reveal one of her unimaginable wonders and include him in the discovery, Ignis allowed her to lead them, and she did seem to be steering them in a particular direction—past the winding road leading down to the bay and up the natural stone bridges spanning the cliff edges. Even through his cool demeanor, he couldn’t hold back a secret shiver of anticipation at what she might show him next.

But for the moment, she was upset with him, and it was long past due for him to rectify the situation—somehow.

“Please, Ignis,” she huffed impatiently when he held out a hand to stop her from bending to collect several vibrant red peppers from a plant by their feet, “I know you didn’t bring me out here just to teach me the plants and not even let me lift a finger to harvest anything. Let me be of some use.”

He knelt to collect the peppers as quickly and efficiently as possible—just as she’d taught him, and replied automatically, “I wouldn’t hear of it, Majesty.”

He regretted his response the moment the word had left his lips, but it was too late to recall it. Surely, he ought to have found a more graceful way by now to handle the situation he’d found himself in, but he’d never allowed himself to develop such a close, casual rapport with anyone before being forced to recant like this. Her blatant dislike for royal protocol wasn’t helping matters as he frantically attempted to retreat to more familiar ground.

Honestly, this was what came of trusting people.

Furtively chancing a glance up at her, Ignis met her troubled eyes.

“Please,” she whispered, “please don’t do this—whatever this is.”

He looked back down at the plant and snapped off the remaining two peppers. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he inquired softly, not completely successfully concealing a hint of accusation from his tone. But for as much as he wished for an answer from her, he was careful to keep his inflection subservient, his eyes downcast. If he hadn’t had the right to ask questions of His Majesty’s emissary before, he certainly couldn’t demand anything of her now.

“Why do you think?” She bent to place her hand beneath his elbow, silently requesting him to stand. He obeyed, and when she moved into his line of sight to look up at him with a pleading expression, he didn’t avert his eyes. “I didn’t want this,” she said, gesturing to him. “I wanted you.”

He breathed in at the possible double meaning of her words, but immediately smothered that bubbling buoyant sensation rising from his gut. Of course, she hadn’t meant it in that sense. Dull and stiff as he was, he hadn’t managed to make friends back home, so what on Eos could he possibly bring to a friendship with her?

Perhaps a change in topic would be the best way forward for now. Based on her food choices thus far, he’d made several deductions regarding her diet, which he’d used in planning his meals the past several days to ensure that she needn’t resort to foraging like a bird. But especially with Laura, any shred of ambiguity must be quashed lest he embarrass himself further.

“Prompto alerted me the other night to the possibility that I may have overlooked your dietary requirements. I must ask for your forgiveness once again for my abhorrent behavior.”

“It was my fault for not saying anything. I thought I was making things easier for you, but I should’ve known you’d take this personally. Please don’t. I swear, I’m not offended in the slightest.”

“Just so we’re clear, you’re an ovo-lacto vegetarian, correct? If you would also be so kind as to inform me of your preferences, I shall endeavor to learn all I can to see to your needs.”

She seemed to wither before his eyes at his words. He wondered why these simple questions could trouble her so.

“Umm . . .,” she began. She closed her eyes and hung her head, cutting off her expression from his view. “Out here in the wild where we gather our own ingredients, I am, yes,” she said tonelessly.

“Very well then,” he said cheerfully in an attempt to get her to smile. “Cooking for a carnivore and a vegetarian will hardly be a piece of cake, but I believe I’m up to the challenge.”

When she looked up at him again, the wind beating the strands of her hair that had come loose from her chignon against her face, he could see plainly from her bleak expression that he’d failed.

“You’ve been cold and distant with me since Longwythe. Why?”

“I’m merely paying my respects to your station.”  In lieu of calling her by her title, he lowered his eyes to the long, stringy grass at his feet, but she placed a hand in his line of sight to obstruct his view, beckoning him to look up at her again.

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

“Perhaps not, but you are still royal. I have a lifetime of training regarding the treatment of royalty that, I’m afraid, is not easily cast aside.”

It pained him to say this, as traveling with her had made him almost happy these past weeks, dispelling the loneliness and filling that studiously-ignored hole in his heart with warmth. It wasn’t as though he were truly alone in life; he’d had His Highness and His Majesty, but the complications of their liege-vassal relationship kept him from feeling as though he truly belonged. His Uncle Caeli had always been kind, but distant. He’d grown closer to Gladio and Prompto these past weeks as well, but comrades though they had become, these were still relationships of circumstances. Still—he knew very well he was blessed to have these good people in his life.

But piece by piece, he had ceded too much of himself to her to revert so easily. The idea of returning to those evenings spent alone and the hours of extra chores disquieted him, even with the gift of his friends and patchwork family. For what seemed the thousandth time since his view of her had been shattered that night in Longwythe, he found himself questioning every principle his tutors had worked so hard to instill in him in order to keep her companionship, but he could see no other way beyond the obstacles that lay between them.

She frowned. “You don’t seem to have that issue with Noctis, and I don’t want you to be my servant.”

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

This, right here, was the crux of his discontent with his and Laura’s interactions. Impertinent though it was to ask this directly, he needed to know, “Then what do you wish from me?”

Her eyes turned hard as she lunged for his hand and began dragging him across the footbridge that arched over the main road.

“Come with me,” she said roughly.

Somewhat dumbfounded by her sudden change of venue and the rules of engagement in this conversation, he allowed himself to be pulled behind her, trying his best not to trip over the rocks hidden in the long grass.

Ignis couldn’t recall the precise moment holding her hand had become more about tugging him off somewhere than helping her realign. It had merely happened one day as naturally as breathing, though only when no one was looking now that it was no longer a matter of professional assistance. He’d grown accustomed to simply entwining his fingers with hers without a second thought each time she would grab him like this. It was almost as though they were friends. He’d never had a friend—someone the same age as he that didn’t need or want to be constantly taken care of . . . an equal. But of course, that particular illusion had come crashing down on him in Longwythe, as she wasn’t an equal, was she?

Without warning, she stopped short in the middle of the footbridge. She didn’t let go of his hand but instead flung her other arm out to the horizon.

“Look at that.”

Focused as he had been on his thoughts and his task, he hadn’t noticed that the sun was beginning to set, and she had just brought them into full view of the bay as the light was setting the choppy waters surrounding the picturesque quay on fire. In the distance, Angelgard glowed a dusky purple, curling into a sky of vibrant layers of color that looked like oil on water.

It was, of course, the moment he had been waiting for the entire afternoon, but her harsh tone contrasted too much with the breathtaking view, and he had to take a moment to decide whether to be amused, bemused, or awed. He decided on a combination of the three as he looked down at her cobalt eyes shining in the amber afternoon light.

“That,” she said in a voice like velvet. “That’s what I want from you.”

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

And though he was well-aware the entire time that she wasn’t reciprocating as openly as he, he had seen no harm in repaying her for her thoughtfulness by answering truthfully and thoroughly, telling her details about himself even the Prince didn’t know because he’d simply never asked: how he loved the grace, athleticism, and orchestral music of the ballet and wished he had more time to see the shows; how it would be his dream to travel the world and see firsthand all the cultures he had studied; his interest in fashion; his desire to learn anything and everything he could get his hands on; how he admired the quiet, restless beauty of nature—the beauty in all things, really; how he appreciated anything done with style, elegance, a flourish; even mundane things, such as his appreciation for a hot cup of coffee and a warm, flaky croissant on a crisp, fall morning. He’d confessed these knowing with absolute certainty that she wouldn’t laugh or ridicule, but join in his interest enthusiastically, and she had done so with all the knowledge of a young woman who had explored life extensively. And since that first night, she’d gone out of her way to show him any wondrous sight she’d found, including the view he was now taking in.

Laura pulled their entwined hands up to hover closer to their faces, her forearm wrapped around his, and he was instantly transported back to their first time together by the campfire, where he had held her all night as she slept on him. He had stayed awake for over an hour that evening despite his exhaustion, feeling her breath hit his chest through the thin fabric of his shirt and her pulse fluttering like a bird’s wings against his wrist, just as it was now.

She leaned forward on her toes and looked up at him so that their noses were nearly touching, and he sucked in a quiet breath, his mind wiped blank.

This . . . feeling was a new sensation, but he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that it meant anything. Attraction beyond taking aesthetic pleasure in someone, after all, was simply a matter of the compatibility of one’s pheromones. He forced himself to clear his mind of the hazy, heady feeling trickling down to his feet and focused on her face.

Astrals, but he could still smell her this close. She smelled wild. She smelled of adventure.

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

Ignis squeezed her hand in return, but his heart filled with apprehension. What on Eos could she possibly be implying?

“You see, that’s the issue. As much as this,” he gave their hands a little shake, “intrigues me, I’m afraid I don’t know what it entails.”

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

Why, oh why did she always say such enigmatic things to him? Her statement hardly cleared up the matter of what she wanted from him, and she couldn’t possibly be saying that he had the choice to take whatever he wanted from her, as any relationship beyond friendship would be unthinkable.

But with everything she’d done for him, at the very least, he couldn’t in good conscience continue to cause her pain like this. If she wanted to continue this friendship as much as he did, what was the harm? He had already been raised alongside a prince, after all.

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

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

“Very well, then, Laura,” he said, giving her hand a final squeeze before letting go, but he was pleased to see that sparkle rekindle in her eyes as she smiled at him. “But we should be returning, as we still need to ready ourselves for supper.”

“Are you certain you want me to come tonight?” she asked as they headed back toward the haven. “Four guys, bachelor party . . . I don’t mind making myself scarce.”

“Nonsense. We’d be happy to have you.”

 ***

“Seriously, Specs, I look like some kinda idiot er somethin’?” Noct asked, stumbling over his words a little as he held out his glass to Prompto, who sloppily filled it with the last of their wine. “That white stuff’s parsnip, not fish.”

Ignis was just sober enough to hold his tongue, but the comeback, “Do you truly wish me to answer that honestly, Noct?” echoed in his head loudly enough to make his temples throb a little. As a precaution to ward against feeling sick on the ferry tomorrow, he reached across his dish—scraped clean of the most fabulous sea’s bounty risotto—and took several long draughts from his water, emptying the glass.

He wondered—if he replaced the arborio rice with a variety that had a lower starch content, would he be able to recreate this dish in the style of a paella as could be found in the Saxham District of Insomnia? Was it, in fact, the lower starch that allowed the rice to absorb such an intense flavor from the other ingredients? He would need to experiment, but either way, he believed he could improve upon Chef Arlund’s work and coax an even stronger seafood flavor into the dish. He pulled out his notebook to jot down his thoughts, as he was likely to forget in his current, somewhat muddled state.

“Oh ho ho!” Gladio crowed, banging a fist on the table. “Looks like someone just came up with a new recipe!”

“Ooh!” Prompto grunted, leaping from his seat and nearly knocking an empty bottle of 735 Veldorian red on the floor. “C’mon, say it, Iggy!”

“No.”

“Say what?” Laura asked.

“What? You’ll only say it after we’re ripped apart an’ bleedin’ to death?” Noct said.

“You ‘member when that dualhorn almost gored Gladio?” Prompto asked.

The offended party leaned forward to point a finger at Ignis. “Shoulder drippin’ blood, Prompto screechin’ in my ear, and this one’d just come up with a new fuckin’ recipe.”

“Which, if you’ll recall,” he replied coolly, sitting up a little straighter, “you all benefitted from.”

Ignis still wouldn’t necessarily consider cooking to be a hobby of his—he didn’t believe. But these past weeks, he’d found that there was no more powerful memory than tasting a dish connected to his travels. His dish and chips recipe had instantly brought him back to that greasy plate of fries they’d tried at the Crow’s Nest in Longwythe, which to his bafflement, had absolutely thrilled Laura. He could smell that heavy old oil mixed with salmon on the air, could envision perfectly the black and white checkered tiles and grungy red leather booths. He swore he could even hear that obnoxious, ever-present song crackling through the ancient radio at the end of the finger-print-smeared counter.

So he’d decided that the most effective method for remembering their journey would be to collect recipes as they traveled, much as Prompto collected photographs. With each new discovery, he found he couldn’t wait to get to a kitchen to see if he could improve upon what he’d tried, and, up until that night in Longwythe, commandeer Laura to join him in his experiments much as she did when pulling him off on an adventure.

As a result, he may have gotten a bit . . . carried away in expressing himself once or twice.

Laura sat back in her dining chair with her glass of wine, placing her napkin off to the side of her leftover alstroom risotto. “Careful provoking the chef like that. That’s how you wind up eating nothing but flame-roasted toast for three days straight.”

“You . . . you wouldn’t let him starve us like that, would you?” Prompto asked in horror.

“If you deserved it? Without hesitation.”

Noct irritably pulled at his tie and shot her a betrayed look. “Damn. Guess we know where your loyalties are. Thought you were s'posed to protect me.”

“Careful Noct,” Gladio warned. “You’re gonna haveta do better handlin’ women when you’re a married man. Lady Lunafreya’ll wind up turnin’ on ya.”

“Give the kid a break,” Laura scoffed. “How could he possibly have learned his manners hanging around the likes of you?”

“He did have other role models, I assure you,” Ignis said.

“Who’re you callin’ ‘kid’?” Noct demanded. “R’you even old enough to drink?”

Ignis’s attention shot to her. He hadn’t thought of that. How would it look for them to be seen with an underage girl drinking . . . and with the press here no less? Diplomatic immunity would protect them from any legal consequences, but that would require very openly stating their identities.

She paused with her glass halfway to her lips, the loose tendrils of her long hair falling off her shoulder as she tilted her head, thinking. “What’s the drinking age in this country?”

“Twenty,” Ignis replied tersely.

She lowered her head to let out a snort that, to Ignis, sounded as though it had emanated from a sneezing anak. “Yeah,” she managed to spit out through another snort of laughter. “I’m good, mate.”

Prompto bolted from his chair again, this time knocking into a teenaged boy sitting with his family behind them. “Oof, sorry!”

“Watch yourself,” Gladio said in a low voice.

“We must maintain some semblance of civility, at the very least,” Ignis added.

Having righted his chair, Prompto turned to them. “I know! I just wanted to propose a toast!” He reached down to pick up his nearly empty glass of wine and raised it in the air. “To Lady . . . uh, Princess Lunafreya! May she run while she’s still got the chance!”

“Thanks a lot, Prompto,” Noct muttered beneath their laughter.

“To the wedding night,” Gladio added, winking over at Noct and elbowing him roughly in the shoulder. Noct shoved him away and ducked his head.

“To peace,” Ignis added gravely, though he was likely casting a pall on the celebratory mood. Still, he thought it important that they all were reminded of the greater implications of their mission.

Somewhat sobered, the five of them raised their glasses over the center of the table. “To peace.”

Ignis emptied his glass, allowing the dark, oaky wine to wash over his palate one last time before swallowing, and closed his eyes for a moment to fully appreciate the gentle electric thrumming from his head to his toes. He’d already made a note to pick up this vintage when they arrived in Altissia, as he didn’t believe he’d ever tasted anything so fine from a Lucian growing region—even Myrl. Again, he found himself lamenting that they wouldn’t have the time to visit Veldoria on this journey.

“I . . . think I need to turn in for the night,” Laura said in the wake of their silence.

He looked over at her, somewhat concerned by the quaver in her voice. Though the classic “little black dress” she’d worn this evening highlighted her naturally pale skin, she appeared suddenly unhealthily pallid, her eyes overly wide and dark in her face. He stood as she used the table to assist her to her feet, though he too had to hold still for a moment to steady his equilibrium.

“Allow me to accompany you back to the room.”

“Someone finally ‘bout to get laid?” Gladio muttered, smirking up at him.

Ignis tossed him a withering look before moving closer to Laura. “Don’t be vulgar. You’re welcome to accompany us if you wish.” After a beat, he realized how his statement could be interpreted and added to forestall any additional remarks, “To ensure for yourself nothing untoward happens, of course.”

“M’good here. Think we’re gonna order that chocolate cake thing if you wanna come back.”

He wasn’t in the mood for something so sweet and heavy after all they’d consumed and imbibed this evening, but still he said, “I’ll consider it.”

Though honestly, he was far more interested in the possibility of taking advantage of the mostly empty suite—filling that expansive white tub with scalding hot water, watching the sea sparkle in the moonlight through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and taking a long, luxurious bath as he rode out this tide of warmth buzzing through his blood.

As he gently led Laura through the dining room and down the steps by the elbow, he said quietly, “The onset of this is quite sudden. Are you experiencing complications with energy incompatibility?”

“No,” she replied. Was it his imagination, or did she sound somewhat breathless?

“Perhaps the wine has gone to your head, then.”

“I don’t get drunk.”

“My current observations suggest otherwise.”

Once he’d gotten the door of their suite open, he reached around the wall to turn the lights on in the dark room before leading her toward the en suite restroom. She seemed to hesitate when he followed her inside, but understood immediately when he reached for four glasses from the vanity and began to fill them with water from the faucet. When he’d finished, he gathered them in his hands and turned toward her.

“I’ll leave you to your preparations.”

“There’s no need to make such a fuss. I’ll be all right, Ignis. Really. You can go back to the party if you want.”

He inclined his head to give her a knowing look before returning to the bedroom. Honestly, she should have been familiar enough with his habits by now to know that he could handle only so much debauchery before he was ready for something a little quieter.

After placing the glasses of water on the nightstands, he moved to where he guessed Laura would choose to sleep that evening and set about turning down the covers. When she still hadn’t emerged, he decided to wait in one of the black leather armchairs in the lounge area and check his phone for any news on the signing. It was a long shot, as it seemed news from inside the Wall took a day or so to reach the outlands, and there were hardly ever evening updates.

He heard the creak of the door opening, but he didn’t look up until he heard Laura’s soft, “Ignis.”

She was leaning heavily against the doorframe, her pallor even more evident than before her change into her typical bedroom attire.

“What is it?” he asked, rushing to her side so he could grasp her elbow and lead her to the bed. Why did it feel as though she was always about to fall on him? “Your M—Laura? How can I assist?”

“I just need to sleep,” she gasped.

As he settled her between the sheets and pulled the heavy down comforter over her trembling shoulders, she closed her eyes and let out a long sigh.

“Thank you. You’re very kind. D’ya know?”

He laughed gently. “I’ve been called many things, but I don’t believe that is one of them.”

Her expression was pained when she opened her eyes to look up at him. “That’s criminal. Well, you are, anyway.”

“Not quite as flattering as ‘narrow-minded,’” he replied, turning his head away that he might hide the ridiculous smile spreading over his face. “But I suppose I’ll take it.”

“Narrow-minded, perhaps,” she sighed wearily, and he looked back down at her in time to see her close her eyes again, “but that doesn’t mean you’re not open-minded. You’re learning.”

He indulged himself in a long moment to closely inspect her face at rest, as he so rarely had the opportunity to do so without fear of her or one of the others catching him in the act. At the sight of her there in that bed, obviously ill and vulnerable, that now-familiar wave of déjà vu washed over him again. He’d stood over her like this before—he was certain of it. She silently stared up at him with those fathomless sapphire eyes, and never in his life had he felt the pang of his instinct so strongly.

“Who are you really, Laura . . .,” he began, but paused as he realized something. “Bloody hell, I don’t even know your surname.”

Perhaps the wine had affected him more than he’d previously thought. She ignored his slip of the tongue, fortunately, and favored him with a slow, half-hearted smile.

“It’s Ni’annen. Laura Ni’annen.”

It wasn’t her full name, of course, as all Eosian royalty possessed three names. But he let the omission pass, as a woman who despised her title as much as she was likely to downplay any mention of her station.

“Then who are you really, Laura Ni’annen? You’re no mere queen.”

Perhaps it was the loss of her people—it was the only reason he could think of to explain that look of utter devastation crossed her face, but a deep sense of foreboding settled in his bones at the sight.

“You’ll want to be careful asking me questions like that,” she mumbled, closing her eyes as her words grew less and less coherent. “Th’ answers’re usually more com’licated than anyone’s prepared for.”

Chapter Text

Regis hadn’t meant for his final moments with Princess Lunafreya to so strongly mirror his last memory of her twelve years ago, but as he released his hold on her fingers and watched her take several steps forward before she turned back to him, satisfaction flooded him that she would be the one leaving him behind with General Glauca this time.

Perhaps it was because of the wistful expression he couldn’t find the will to shutter in these last moments of looking on her fair, youthful, hopeful face, but she knew his intentions the moment their eyes met. House Fleuret had always possessed some indefinable gift of foreknowledge, almost as though they could see through time—Sylva certainly had. He wondered how much this child knew of the future . . . and how long she had borne that burden. He knew only too well the toll it took to bear the pressing weight of it year after year. And there was simply too much of duty about her for her not to know.

With the gravity of recognizing that this would be one of his last acts on this eos, he raised his hand and cast the shield that would stop the headstrong girl from returning to fight on his behalf. After all he’d done, he didn’t deserve such undying faith and loyalty, though her conviction touched him despite the guilt weighing heavy on his soul for all the heartache he had caused her family.  

“No, please. Stop,” Lunafreya pleaded, rushing forward to push through the shield before it solidified, but she was too late. Her image blurred as though he were gazing at her from underwater—a barrier to separate the living from the dead.

“Please. Don’t leave us,” she entreated desperately. Understanding his intentions, Nyx moved to pull her away, but she refused to leave Regis behind as he had once done her. Stubborn girl. His only option was to appeal to what had persuaded her to remain behind all those years ago—family.

“I know your mother would wish the same as me,” he said tenderly, faltering ever so slightly when heartbreak threatened to overtake him, “that you and Noctis . . . live happily.”

But what were the odds that fate would allow them to do so? Even his most trusted and powerful emissary could grant him no guarantee of success that she could circumvent fate and the will of the gods. Yet the future mattered not when it came to his current actions. He would never be able to repay House Fleuret for all they had lost because of his actions, or inaction, just as he could never repay House Amicitia or House Scientia, but as long as he had breath in his body, he could protect Sylva and Canus’s child on this terrible day.

Of course, even these actions were colored with motivations of self-interest. Luna would join the retinue in Altissia and become yet another shield against the dark that chased after Noctis’s every step. Would that he could join them to ensure she survived this, but at the very least, he could do her this final favor and free her from General Glauca.

This would be the last time he failed the Fleurets.

“All those years captive because I failed you. Not again,” he swore. “Locked doors will seal your fate no longer.”

“King Regis . . .”

A shuddering slam against the lift door behind him forced him to turn away to check its integrity. A cloud of dust rained from the ceiling to drift to the marble floor. They didn’t have long. He looked back to the last young Glaive he could trust with this final, most important task.

“Our hope goes with you now, Nyx Ulric. Godspeed.”

It wasn’t until Nyx ushered a reluctant Lunafreya away by the shoulders that Regis allowed himself to turn his back on them—just as the lift collapsed, and General Glauca crash-landed in front of him, smashing the stone beneath his sabatons. He crossed his arm over his chest and dipped into a mocking bow of fealty. Regis could do little but glare in response as the general drew his sword point in a half-circle at his feet and raised it in salute—a gesture to begin their duel. It had been several years since he’d been able to call on his Royal Armiger; he was shocked to have been able to summon a regular weapon once today already—even if it had been effective in sparing his own life and not Clarus’s.

Perhaps he would come to be known as the Failure King upon his death. It seemed as though his every endeavor since his campaign to Accordo had been plagued by it.

He threw his cane aside—he wouldn’t be walking from this room, drained as he was. It slid across the stone floor with a ringing clatter before coming to rest, and it was only when the echo had faded that General Glauca rushed forward. As much as he wished he could call upon the deadly weight of his preferred blade, it had been reduced to a mortal weapon the very last day he had called upon his Royal Armiger so that he would still have access to it well into the days of his . . . infirmity, and as such, had been left in the signing room’s antechamber as a symbol of the peace he’d known had been a farce. Astrals, he hadn’t thought to exit through that room in his haste. How would Noctis find it for his Royal Armiger when the time came?

It was too late for such thoughts now. Regis stood empty-handed—firm and unflinching until his enemy had come just within swinging distance of the glaive between them and raised his palm to unleash himself—a thick stream of lightning to throw the other man’s heavy armor across the room to crash into a fluted pillar and slide to the floor. His attack hadn’t the potency he’d hoped for, as Glauca seemed to recover after a mere moment, leaping to his feet.

Fatigue weighed Regis down, but he managed to meet Glauca’s sword with his last burst of crackling power when he advanced once again.

“Behold the King of Lucis,” Glauca sneered, his voice deep and unnaturally echoing in his Magitek suit, “who hoarded tranquility within his precious walls. Where is your tranquility now, king?”

Little did he know that Regis’s tranquility lay in knowing that though he had failed his father and his people by allowing this despicable invasion to occur, he had at least successfully drawn the Empire’s wrath from Noctis.   

Glauca continued to step forward, and Regis clenched his teeth in the effort of pouring himself into the spell, though he knew halting the general’s progress was a long-lost cause.

“Here is your peace, by steel’s swift descent,” Glauca declared.

No—not so long as he held breath in his lungs, but even dead, peace would elude him.

With a thrust of the flat of his blade to Regis’s injured hand, Glauca shoved his arm aside, spinning Regis’s body so that his back was facing his enemy and his spell knocked from him.

Never, ever, turn your back to the enemy, son, he recalled his father telling him on his tenth birthday after he’d knocked Regis to the floor in a particularly brutal sparring match.

This was it. He always had managed to let his father down.

Surprisingly, the force of the impact slamming into his back hadn’t hurt in the slightest, and he wondered for a moment whether Glauca had reneged on his word and decided to kick him just to toy with him a little longer. But as Glauca loosed a triumphant roar and drove the steel deeper through Regis’s back, he felt his hands close around the blade slick with his own blood thrusting forward between his ribs.

Regis raised his failing eyes to the middle distance, and the sight of Lunafreya and Nyx somehow still standing there protected by his final spell blurred and dripped away as ink splashed with water. Why had they remained behind to witness this? Truly, he didn’t deserve this loyalty.

“Go,” he pleaded weakly, though he doubted he had the strength with his last breath to reach their ears. He regretted leaving them behind in a city so completely under siege, but if his death and final spell could secure their passage, then the price would have been worth paying a thousand times over.

The forces the Empire had gathered for their attack had been even greater than Regis had expected, far greater than the skirmishes they’d only just managed to repel beyond the Wall. The last words he’d sworn to his father the day he died was that he would protect his people, and deducing from the impacts and explosions to the Citadel’s foundations, he’d managed to fail in that as well. For the first time in one hundred and fifty years, the new Wall would not safeguard his citizens from the terrors of the night tonight—all his fault. He wondered if it would have been safer for his people if he had simply surrendered as soon as Noctis was safely lost in the Lucian wilderness. But no, it had been vital that absolutely no one, save only his most trusted operative and his Shield, knew that he had already known of Niflheim’s plan, and if there had been any hope of keeping the Empire from laying their hands on the Crystal and the Ring, it was his duty to do all within his power to prevent such an occurrence.

The pain and seeping cold radiated from the points where the sword had pierced his back and chest, and he closed his eyes for what he knew was the last time in an attempt to block out the sensations. He was surprised to find that, instead of the blackness he expected to see behind his eyelids, the blue, green, and purple aurora of the Crystal space waved lazily in the most peaceful mockery of what was happening to his mortal shell. It was almost a tranquil sight, but this couldn’t be death yet. He could still feel his body back in the Citadel; could still taste the acrid smoke on the air, exposed by his slack lips; could still feel the shudders of his home as it attempted to withstand the barrage of the Empire’s might.

So, this is how it would end. His failures would continue to plague him—things he had omitted or neglected, what he should have given and hadn’t. He would feel the biting pang of every unfulfillment until those Lucii came to drag him to his destiny.

He supposed it was a just punishment for his deeds in this life.

“People are not punished for their deeds, but by them,” an accented, feminine voice said from behind him. He turned to identify the speaker.

She was standing in front of him, wearing that farce of a Glaive uniform he’d had no idea at the time would prove itself false when the war finally broke out.

It wasn’t as though he could find it in himself to argue with the traitors. There was much they didn’t understand. And as for how his actions had appeared to others . . . well, he could only hope they would someday.  

“You’re here. How?” But he realized it didn’t matter. He shook his head. “Never mind. Are you with my son? Is he safe?”

He had wanted to seek out reports on the five of them these past two weeks as they made their way through the Lucian outlands, but there had been so much to do in preparation for this day that he found he hadn’t the time to check his sources beyond getting a busy signal at Cid’s garage. The stubborn old man had always been difficult to get a hold of the handful of times Regis had contacted him after they’d managed to repair their broken friendship, but he couldn’t help but think this lack of tidings boded ill for the future.

“He’s safe—they’re all safe—for now. It’s going to be all right, Regis.”

“It’s time.”

Even as he said the words, he could still hear the echoes of faraway explosions in his body’s ears, and he sent up yet another silent prayer to the gods that whoever was left to remember him would someday understand why he’d done what he’d done. Too much of his life essence had drained away; he could feel himself fading, and for the first time since this entire ordeal had begun, he felt terror. Desperate to anchor himself to everything he’d ever known of this existence, he stumbled forward to clutch the girl’s forearms.

“Please. I don’t have much time left. Tell me everything. Tell me of Noctis.”

Instead of hearing a verbal response, he felt that same queer light break behind his eyes as the last time he’d communicated with her in this most strange fashion—only this time, instead of fire searing his synapses, she was gentle, warm, like a soft blanket. She held him in her thoughts as though he were a child, and the pain and seeping cold from his mortal body washed away in the comfort of her consciousness. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had comforted him, the last time he had allowed anyone to comfort him. But failure or not, his duty was done in the mortal world, and he saw no reason for the need to hold fast and steady any longer.

“I know, but I’ve bought you a little time. That’s why I’m here. I’ve been waiting, monitoring the connection with the Crystal so I would know when this happened. I’ll not let you go through this alone, Regis. I’m going to stay with you.”

“Will it not hurt as it did before?”

Searching her mind that day had hurt the both of them more than he could have ever imagined, even with both parties willing participants. He wondered why her mind wasn’t setting him on fire this very moment. Perhaps the sword in his back was distracting him from her wrongness.

The thought of having such an intimate connection like this as one of them died sent a shudder through him. But what did he know? He was no telepath. With his death and imminent transformation into a Lucii, he supposed he would be soon, however.

“It won’t hurt you in the slightest this time,” she said soothingly, stepping back to give him a somber smile. “I’ve been adjusting things since I left.” She gave him a gentle smile, but her eyes were wet with sorrow and pity he couldn’t bear to see. He turned away to shut it out.

Even after having searched for her motivations, he still couldn’t understand why she was doing this—why she was here when none of this had anything to do with her. But he couldn’t deny how useful she would be for this mission. If anyone could protect his wayward boy as he grew into all he needed to become without interfering too much, it would be her.

She reached for his hand, entreating him to look at her.

“I couldn’t even tell him, in the end,” he breathed out the confession with a shameful shake of his head. “I couldn’t find the words. Astrals know I tried.”

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

Longing blossomed in his chest—that Noctis could understand everything he’d done, that all the years of hiding his own pain and suffering from the boy so he might be spared the glimpse into his own future could be explained and forgiven. He should have told him everything that day, including how very much he loved him, but then how could Noctis simply leave him behind in that doomed city and do his duty? Regis was concerned about the boy’s resolve enough as it was, and he himself could barely cope with the burden of the foreknowledge he’d carried for so many years now.

He had always resented the way the future had turned their relationship cold. There had been days when his resolve had grown weak, and he questioned his ability to be the distant, calculating father he had become—so much like his own. But duty had always spurred him to do whatever was necessary, and the smallest voice in the back of his head was not quite afraid enough to wonder whether distance would make it easier for Regis to betray Noctis one final time in the last seconds of his life. Perhaps it had been guilt that had driven Regis to ensure that Noctis had lived as normal and happy a life as possible—so that when his day came far too soon and his own father joined in with the others to tear him apart, he might be able to look back on his short-lived days and know some happiness.

Regis hadn’t wanted to be Noctis’s king that day; he’d tried, for the last time, to be a father, but as with all things, he had failed to say so much.

“I should have told him when I had the chance. Please, will you tell him for me? Tell him everything, including who you are. This is a father’s final request and dearest wish.”

Asking this of her was no small favor. Her identity and her foreknowledge of tonight’s events could possibly shatter the fragile trust she’d doubtless toiled to cultivate between her and the four children, but even if she was not likely to phrase it in such a manner, he wanted Noctis to know that he had left him with everything he could—with the gift of her protection.

She nodded. “Yes, I’ll tell him everything. I just hope they can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”

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

“I believe Ignis already has his suspicions.”

Regis found it in himself to release a small chuckle. “I warned you about him.” He was surprised that the boy hadn’t confronted her already on the matter.

Her expression turned serious. “Is there anything else I can do?”

“No. The only thing I wish of you now is to prove true to the word you gave me when you left.”

It was as he closed his bleary eyes that he realized the pain from his mortal wound hadn’t just disappeared, he could no longer feel his body at all—could no longer smell or taste the iron tang of blood on his tongue, no longer hear the crashing of stone and the screams of his most devoted subjects who had remained to fight for their homes. His body had passed, and his consciousness was now drifting somewhere between the Crystal and her mind. Had any other man in existence experienced such a phenomenon? The peace that settled over him made death seem a much more bearable ordeal to endure—a comforting embrace indeed, in contrast to how long he had feared this moment.

As he knew his time was approaching, he would often lie awake in bed, alone for once, and allowed to be paralyzed with fear at the prospect of dying. Would it be slow and painful? Would he have enough time to settle his affairs? Would there even be enough strength afforded him that he could stand and face death head-on with courage? He wouldn’t even be offered the comfort of following his dear Aulea into the afterlife, for his essence had to be dragged to this place in order to become a Lucii, awaiting the day he would have to perform his final, most despicable duty.

Or would he be forced to endure the shame of growing so weak that he would be a bedridden husk by the time his destiny came calling? That unacceptable possibility had been only one of the driving factors of him accepting the terms of that treaty—which he knew from the moment of its proposal had been a farce, even if he had held the smallest of hopes that it wouldn’t be. Both sides knew that he couldn’t hold the Wall up much longer, and the fact that he had struggled the hardest to keep from potential enemy spies was that Noctis was far from ready to take his place.

He would beg the Astrals for forgiveness on those dark nights for binding the lives of three young men—children really, so very young and full of promise—to his son’s fate. He would plead to the gods for mercy on behalf of his people, knowing that no matter what plans he made, countless lives would be lost. The names of the good men and women who died serving him would forever be sullied for the sacrifices they had made to save the world.

Perhaps, had the girl arrived earlier, they might have had time to devise a better plan, perhaps to leave her behind to protect the city—and yet there was nothing in this world more important than seeing the prophecy fulfilled. Better that thousands die now than the entire world fall to ruin in the future.

Regis believed he could endure all these sins if the mission succeeded, but failure was the greatest fear that had permeated those final waking moments before sleep, ever since Somnus and the Crystal had shown him the vision of Noctis setting out on his own. Though he had averted that particular disaster, other possibilities had continued to plague him—until the day she’d suddenly appeared in his throne room as no one had in twelve years, and he’d tested her in his study.

“You have my most solemn word, Regis. I will protect him with my life,” she reavowed, her voice growing softer, “until the very end; I will protect all of them.”

Their astral bodies stood mere paces apart as she embraced his mind in that strange way only she could manage, but at her words, Regis felt those eerie yet familiar consciousnesses of his ancestors creep into the edges of his diminishing perception. Save for Somnus, who had made the occasional visit to deliver him disastrous news and directives from time to time, they had all hovered there just beyond his waking dreams—whispering, guiding, leading them all to their end and using his reluctantly compliant hand to dole out the will of fate.

And now they had come for him—to recruit him in whispering those same despicable tidings to lure his son to his death . . . once he had accepted his calling. The searing cold steel of their armored hands clawed at him, attempting to pull him into the depths of death, but she took a step forward to yank him from their grasp.

You will release the Father, Anathema, that he may meet his destiny, the Fierce commanded.

“Will you just wait?” she snapped. “You’re about to have him for eternity. I think you can manage a couple of minutes, and don’t think I won’t fight you for them either, because I will.”

A flash of amusement struck him at the sight of her scolding an entire line of immortal kings on his behalf, even over his fear that this encounter would descend into yet another vicious battle of wills. This was the reason he had chosen to send her on this journey; she was the only creature in existence with the power and daring to look a god in the face and defy him.

“Do not challenge them again on my behalf,” Regis urged, taking a step toward the Lucii. “You must conserve your strength for what is to come.”

We have indulged your request that this abomination accompany the Chosen, Regis. Why is she here now? the Tall demanded.

“A moment, please! You were all human once, were you not?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned to him with a pleading expression. “I cannot keep you here much longer. Will you come with me?” She held out her hand toward him as though offering him a lifeline. “There’s one last thing I can do for you, for the both of you.”

He didn’t truly understand what she was asking of him; he was only just aware of this unfamiliar astral body in this place. But he did as he was bid before the half-circle of Lucii shimmering over their heads changed their minds.

“Close your eyes.”

Once again, he obeyed, and he immediately felt as though he was being drawn away—over the burning destruction of his most beloved city, the only home he’d ever known; across the desert; and down to the deceptively peaceful shores of Galdin.

Memories of his own journey to this place thirty years ago washed over him—of the brotherly bonding slowly nurtured to a fierce love, only to fall to tense and distant relationships. Weskham had never left Altissia after being treated for his injuries, though Regis had heard the occasional word from time to time—updates on the Empire’s movements on behalf of Claustra. Disgusted with Regis for the strict new policy forbidding refugees to enter the city, Cid had also never returned, choosing instead to remain behind at the abandoned station where the Regalia had first broken down. Only Cor and Clarus had returned to Insomnia and remained by his side, and now Clarus was pinned to the wall of the throne room by his own glaive.  

It pained him immeasurably that he didn’t even know of what fate had befallen Cor after he’d left to protect the city as per Regis’s orders.

Well-accustomed to the practice as he was, he pushed onward, accepting the consequences of his actions. Though the never looking back portion of his guiding principles had always been an issue for him, he found he was able to focus on the present moment as the girl guided him into a suite at the very hotel he had once stayed in. She led him to one of the beds, where she, Prompto, and his own dearest son lay, so innocent and so very vulnerable.

“So—the plan succeeded, then. The Regalia broke down before you could make it to the ferry?”

It had been no simple matter to ensure the car was in good enough condition to get them out of the city before failing them, hopefully near Hammerhead so they could connect with Cid. He’d given them no funds and no way to reach them on the other side of the Wall so that they’d be forced to eke a living lost in the Lucian wilderness away from the Empire’s gaze—and perhaps grow up a little in the process.

“Yes, your scheme worked perfectly, though I wish you had told me beforehand. I did wonder why a royal vehicle was so poorly maintained until things started panning out. Of course, Ignis almost derailed everything by bringing gil along, but Cid pulled through for you,” she said fondly as she looked over at Ignis asleep on the other bed. “Took him forever to fix that car, and he charged us a fortune. Could use some acting lessons though. Didn't even look under the hood before telling us it would be a while.”

His gaze followed hers, and his heart fell at the sight of Ignis in repose, his arms wrapped around a spare pillow as he had always slept since he was a small child. His future was to be dark as well, almost as dark as Noctis’s, and it had only just occurred to Regis that for all that the boy had an impeccable skill for looking after others, Regis was beginning to have his doubts about his ability to look after himself. Ignis had become a second son to him as he watched the two boys grow up together from afar, but it had never crossed his mind until this moment that he’d never truly ensured that Caeli had been looking after him. Caeli was a good man, and a blood relation, after all—why wouldn’t he look after his nephew?

Regis likely wouldn’t have the time to say everything he wished to say to Ignis, who had who had taken care of his boy so completely and with so much love when he himself couldn’t. His silence was the source of yet more regret that he’d never breathed a word to the young man about just what that dedication had always meant to him. But surely—he knew.

“Dear Ignis, my boy . . . you have my blessing. Good fortune to you.”

“I’ll find a way to let him know,” she said urgently, “but you must hurry. I cannot keep you together much longer.”

Regis looked back down, his eyes lingering on his son’s sleeping face for the last time—at least for a long while. Those long, dark lashes laid against his cheek hiding those luminescent sapphire eyes had always reminded him painfully of Aulea. Would he even have the chance to see her when this dark endeavor was completed? Would she forgive him for failing to save her? To save their son?

“I think he’s been worried about you.”

“I never wanted that,” Regis replied, not tearing his eyes away from his sleeping child. “It is the parents' duty to worry about their children, not the other way around.”

“You can’t protect him from everything, you know. You told me that yourself.”

He reached down to lightly brush away Noctis’s dark bangs with his fingertips. “Not anymore.”

For all that his son had been reluctant to pursue his duty, Regis had absolute faith that when the time came, Noctis would ascend for the sake of his people. His heart was too gentle, too tender not to. But the Crystal had Chosen Noctis above the hundred and thirteen of his ancestors for a reason, and not because he was the most powerful of them all. Regis had always firmly believed that he’d been chosen for his heart, and in order to succeed, he must be allowed to find his own path. His will and his alone would hold the key to the world’s salvation. Perhaps, if Regis didn’t fail him in this stage of his journey, they could all be reunited as a family for good this time.

History could name him the Failure King—just so long as his efforts paved the way for Noctis to succeed.

“I shall be with you, always,” he whispered, replacing his fingers against Noctis’s forehead with his lips.

Gods, he wished he’d had more time.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but I have one more thing I must ask you now,” the girl interrupted. “There is much you’ve neglected to tell me, but we only have the time for the most important matter. An immortal man tracked us here the other day. He’s left and hasn’t returned, but I need to know what other supernatural players are in this game besides the Old Kings and the Six.”

He stood straight to face her, thinking furiously through the possibilities. There were no immortal men involved in this that he knew of. Gilgamesh had sealed himself away in his Tempering Grounds since Cor had faced him, awaiting the day that Gladio chose to seek him out. It was possible that one of the twenty-four Messengers representing the Six could be tailing them, just as Gentiana had looked after Lunafreya, but that idea brought him little comfort. Gentiana, after all, had been mysteriously and conspicuously absent during the events that had brought Lunafreya to the fall of Lucis.

There was one other option—a man, a border patrol agent by the name of Mars Sapientia who had thrown aside a lifetime of honorable service to House Caelum and infiltrated the Citadel with the means to murder “the fathers of the Chosen.” With him, he had brought to the outer edges of the Wall the strongest force Regis had yet encountered—more powerful than even those he’d failed against in Accordo and the skirmishes he’d attempted to quash after his father had scaled back the Wall to its current ramparts.

That day had been the focal point of their years of effort all along. It must have taken all that time to establish Altissia as a pinned ally and staging ground before moving on to take the outlands, building their despicable bases, and proceeding to slowly choke off what was left of the capital city. But their patient efforts representing decades of manipulation had paid off. One man had used his border patrol connections to break into the Crown City and murder King Mors Lucis Caelum—with the Royal Armiger only another of House Caelum should have been able to wield. Regis had barely managed to slink away with his own life after failing to save his father, and the city he’d sworn to protect as his father had breathed his last breath had nearly been breached that very day.

Somnus Lucis Caelum had refused any explanation beyond a fierce declaration that his was the only death he was looking forward to seeing one day, but that hadn’t stopped Regis from sending his historian on a lifelong search for answers.

“That’s not him,” the girl answered, seeing the image of the man’s face in his thoughts.

“Then I am afraid I can offer no other insight. Keep a whether eye out for that man. I have a feeling he is not yet finished with the fate of House Caelum.”

Regis, you must come now, the echo of one of the Old Kings’ voice inserted itself into his head. An unworthy petitions the Ring’s power.

He stood straighter, running his hands over his royal raiment and settling into that well-worn visage of a man fulfilling his duty.

“We’ll take it from here,” the girl said, reaching up to place a gentle hand on his cheek. “Try to find some rest.”

Though he wanted to close his eyes, he turned his head to look down at the bed beside him.

The pull of the Lucii became too strong in that moment, but he held his eyes steady on his son’s face. Just as it had with Lunafreya and Nyx, the image melted around him, this time into a white-hot, rippling blue flame that seemed to reach out and burn him from the inside out.

“Thank you,” he managed to call out one final time before his ancestors pulled him forward.

Chapter Text

The moment Ignis opened his eyes, he checked to ensure that everyone was safe and in bed as they should be, as he had every morning since they’d left the city. He needn’t have bothered confirming Gladio’s presence, as the oversized brute clearly had no concept of sharing a bed with anyone who valued personal space. Ignis politely shoved an arm and a foot out of his half of the bed and leaned up on an elbow to inspect the other bed.

Noct was, of course, sound asleep, even if his pillow appeared as though it had been trampled to death by a herd of wild dualhorns. He sympathized with Prompto, who couldn’t possibly be having an easy time of it resting next to the violent sleeper. Ignis himself had lost many an hour as a child from the Prince’s tossings and turnings—particularly during that horrible stretch of time after Tenebrae.

His greatest concern that morning, however, was Laura, which was why he had chosen the side of the other bed closest to her. He had checked on her before retiring for the evening and was concerned to find her pale as death and so very still. As rare a phenomenon as it was to even find her unconscious after she'd finished aligning, he would have expected her to stir when he tentatively placed the back of his hand against her cold forehead. Her skin had felt so chilled that he’d had no misgivings whatsoever in bringing his fingers down to touch her neck, where he’d found her pulse racing and irregular.

These weren’t typical signs of inebriation, and looking back on their conversation since leaving the table, her responses had remained perfectly coherent right up until the moment she’d fallen asleep. He might have grown alarmed enough at this point to wake her, except that he’d realized her pulse had always been erratic—he’d subconsciously noticed it every time she’d taken his hand.

From her appearance this morning, she’d only worsened in the night—her face still bone white but sporting dark, heavy rings around her eyes. He silently swung his feet to the floor and stood over her, checking her pulse to find it still racing, but her breathing was slow and steady. These must have been symptoms of her mysterious illness, which was clearly more severe than she had claimed if it was continuing beyond her realignment.

It certainly wasn’t the only thing she’d concealed from him.

Deciding that it would be safe enough to let her sleep until he’d gotten ready for the day, he made his way to the en suite to begin his morning grooming rituals—starting with a shave. As he worked, he began to gather together every piece of evidence he’d thought of last night during his bath that didn’t add up about Laura or her story. And even though his instinct was still telling him she could be trusted, logic had brought him to the sinister conclusion that she was hiding something from all of them—something profound.

Ignis was well aware of how much time was eaten away by the day-to-day business of a ruling monarch in wartime. Those duties left little time for pursuing other hobbies, interests, or skills—particularly when the monarch ascended at such a tender age as she. King Regis was a prime example of this, as he hadn’t even the time to raise his own son beyond a meal here or a trip there in his younger years, when the war hadn’t yet taken such a steep toll on his health. All his hobbies and interests were discussed with an air of nostalgia, cultivated during the more carefree days of his youth before he ascended.

Laura couldn’t have been a day older than twenty-five, and yet she was a master of the blade and elements—as much of a betrayal as it felt to say in his own head—even beyond the skills of those of His Majesty. And that was to say nothing of her ease in social situations; her breadmaking; or her skills in ballet, martial arts, construction, and machinery. When had she managed to acquire such a wide variety of abilities with such adeptness in the short time she’d been alive?

Ignis understood that he didn’t know much about the world outside of Lucis beyond a theoretical knowledge of any diplomatic tactics necessary to maintain relations with other countries—completely unused and untested so far. But Eos was an easy globe to memorize the geography of, at the very least. He’d never heard of the country Miriásia, and while it was possible it had been one of the smaller territories on Terraverde to be subsumed in the Empire’s thirst for more land, it was highly unlikely that a quick search on his phone would yield no results of its existence. The news of a kingdom, let alone multiple kingdoms, recently going extinct from the scourge as she had described would have no doubt reached even the deafest of ears on some news outlet or another.

It troubled him that a name as unique as Laura Ni’annen hadn’t yielded any results, either.

And then what had the young queen done after the death of her people? Made her way to the kingdom of Lucis, the land that caused her such pain, and pledged herself to the King? And His Majesty, after having witnessed her weapons prowess and her ability to sneak past his guards, decided it necessary to have her accompany his son to his wedding? These scenarios simply made no sense to him.

Yet this was the portion of the narrative that gave him pause. No matter what, Ignis trusted the King’s judgment without qualification, and he had clearly endorsed Laura the day she’d fought the Marshal and again the next morning when they left. Whatever the inconsistencies of her story, her secret couldn’t be completely damning.

As long as they made it to Altissia safely, Ignis could accept these discrepancies, though his somewhat personal involvement as a friend suggested that he could possibly coax an explanation from her, and he intended to try. Should matters with the Empire escalate, however, he would unfortunately be forced to demand answers for the safety of the Prince—a prospect he wouldn’t relish for many reasons. Challenging authority and appearing to question the King’s judgment were by no means practices he made a habit of.

Then, of course, there was the matter of settling these intense flashes of instinct he was experiencing, which only seemed to grow stronger and more frequent the longer he spent in her presence.

The heat from the bathwater and the wine electrifying his blood had still been buzzing through him last night, making him flushed and nearly dizzy, when his thoughts had turned toward that particular piece of her puzzle. He had leaned back against the warmed porcelain and closed his eyes, haunted by visions of kind, sapphire-lit smiles and a gentle, soothing voice. As he allowed his mind to drift halfway between sleep and consciousness, a memory—or perhaps a dream—fluttered across the surface of his thoughts. That indistinct voice morphed into a melody—haunting, melancholic, and comforting all at once.

He had bolted upright to look to his bedside table as realization dawned on him, only to be abruptly dumped back into reality as he splashed tepid water over the sides of the tub.

Shiva—Laura perfectly resembled the statuette of Shiva he’d kept on his bedside table since he was a child, one of the few personal items he had indulged in besides a single potted plant and all the cookware and books he had received as gifts over the years. It had been years since he’d examined it beyond a superficial dusting—the last time he’d packed it away in his room at the Citadel to take with him to his apartment.

He hadn’t understood at the time why he’d bought the art piece—perhaps he’d already noticed the way the goddess’s long black hair, glowing blue eyes, and sweet smile as she sang him to sleep on one of the worst nights of his life had begun to fade from his typically sharp memory. Perhaps his purchase had been influenced by how he could no longer quite recall what he had dreamed and what his imagination had filled in after the fact, and he wanted to remind himself. The foot-high statue wasn’t even a representation of Shiva’s astral form, but the artist’s interpretation of the goddess in one of her mysterious Messenger bodies. But as he’d stood in that shop and closed his eyes, he’d known then that the avatar’s face had been sculpted into stone miniature, crafted by an artisan who had also been blessed by her presence as he had.

The same face that sent a shiver down his back every time Laura smiled at him.

Here in the light of day, however, as he donned his Crownsguard uniform and fixed his hair, the notion seemed ridiculous. Obviously, his memory had been influenced by the wine last night and was filling in even more details than he had when trying to recall his dream as a child. Laura and the High Messenger’s descriptions were superficially similar, and he was likely pasting her image over that of a twelve-year-old memory based on recency.

Leaning over her prone, vulnerable body this morning, however, he wasn’t entirely certain which assessment had been correct. Surely an avatar of a goddess would be less vulnerable? Yet even her delicacy somehow seemed familiar to him. Was it possible that King Regis had sent with them none other than the Glacian herself?

He hoped not. The idea of it rendered his fragile desires from their conversation yesterday even more preposterous.

A sharp gasp interrupted his thoughts, and he looked back down at her in time to see her eyes fly open—wide, sightless, and rolling in her head as though she had just clawed herself back from death’s embrace itself.

“Laura,” he whispered urgently so as not to awaken the others.

She seemed not to notice his presence as her back arched dramatically off the bed, her mouth opened in a silent scream. For all the violence of her awakening, he was shocked that she’d hardly made a sound beyond that of her initial inhalation, but he nevertheless leaned in to gently hold her shoulders to the bed in case she began seizing.

Perhaps she suffered from night terrors, which might explain why she hardly slept.

“Laura,” he murmured soothingly, “it’s Ignis. You’re safe.” She hadn’t moved after collapsing back to the bed, so he released his hold on her to crouch down next to where she lay panting. She seemed not to see or hear him. “Everything is all right.”

Her darting gaze finally settled on his mouth briefly before locking on his eyes. Tears welled in her lower lids as she looked up at him.

“Ignis,” she breathed. “No. Absolutely nothing is all right.” He stood and backed away as she sat up on the edge of the bed. She seemed to search his face for some reassurance he wanted to give, but he couldn’t fathom what it was she could possibly want to hear from him. “Oh gods, how will you all ever forgive me?” she pleaded helplessly.

“You’ve only had a nightmare,” he said, keeping his tone steady and rational as he used to when he was soothing Noct as a child. “I recommend getting dressed. We can go for a walk to calm down so we don’t disturb the others, if you’re feeling up to it.”

With any luck, he could get her to confide in him for once, perhaps begin to pick at the mystery of where he knew her from—really. He was also eager to check the paper stand for news on the treaty signing, as he found the papers’ internet counterparts to be more of a hastily-constructed attempt at modernization than a true news source.

She stood up abruptly and dismissed her blanket. “Yes, get dressed. And while I do that, I need you to do something for me . . ..”

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

He hesitated just long enough to ensure that her expression was clear, coherent, and serious before he strode to the other side of the bed to carry out her directive. If her goal was to protect Noct, then he would of course obey without question, even if this did turn out to be a figment of her imagination.

As he picked up Noct’s phone from the bedside table, he asked softly, “If our lives are in danger, shouldn’t we wake the others?”

That they weren’t awakened by this conversation already was somewhat disturbing. Far from becoming vigilant after having spent the past two weeks in the wild, the havens had clearly given them all a false sense of security, allowing them to sleep through the yips, growls, and screams that typically accompanied the night. For his part, Ignis would always be a light sleeper and had never found decent rest when they slept outdoors, but exhaustion was a state he had long grown used to operating under.

But honestly, they weren’t nearly wary enough given their unfamiliar surroundings to still be sleeping after so much movement.

“Not yet. This may yet be the last moment of peaceful sleep they get for some time. I’ll be right back.”

Ignis paused in taking the battery out of his own phone and watched her retreating back. Despite the fact that she was likely reacting to a nightmare, her words sent a frisson of fear through him. He hadn’t known her to be wrong about anything thus far, and her expression as she’d left for the en suite combined with her bleak tone foretold of some great misfortune on the horizon. Did she know something of the treaty that he didn’t? He couldn’t see how, as she’d been unconscious since last night, as far as he knew.

He’d finished with Gladio’s phone by the time she emerged from the restroom wearing her Kingsglaive body suit and jacket, her hair pulled into a loose twist as always. Without a word, she hurriedly ushered him out the front door with a light touch to his arm.

It was only once the door had closed behind them that he felt free to politely express his growing impatience.

“Now—would you mind telling me what has you so agitated this morning? You could likely do with more rest; you still appear peaked.”

She tsked disapprovingly at him and hurried toward the front of the restaurant, where the boardwalk leading to the shore began.

“Where are you going? And why did we just take apart everyone’s mobiles? Prompto in particular will not be amused.”

“I doubt the Empire has the resources to commit to tracking us down just yet, given all that’s happened, but I thought it would be safer to remove the batteries, just in case. There’s already one person aware of our location I would rather wasn’t; I’d like to keep our chances of being tracked to a minimum.”

“Why would the Empire be tracking us?” he asked, keeping his tone calm, but he feared he already knew her answer. “What is it that you think has happened?”

His suspicions were confirmed when she reached the faded blue newspaper stand by the front entrance, but it was very conspicuously empty; even the paper usually stuffed haphazardly in the front window had been taken. As Laura headed back to the chef’s counter, Ignis glanced around at the now noticeably hushed dining room, observing the nervous-looking patrons huddled in small groups over their papers and speaking in low, urgent tones.

“Coctura,” Laura greeted as she approached the counter, where the chef in question was grating fresh cheese directly into an omelette still cooking over the low flame, “do you happen to have your paper this morning? You can keep your crossword page; I just need the front, please.”

Coctura didn’t look away from her work until she had poured the circle of egg onto the plate, folding it in half. After garnishing with parsley, she passed the plate off to a runner and frowned at Laura. “Here,” she said in a low, troubled tone, bending to a shelf by her knees. She bit her lip for a moment before handing the folded paper over. “I’m so sorry.”

Laura’s expression grew uncharacteristically hard as she locked eyes with Coctura. “Don’t breathe a word to anyone,” she said, leaning in to nearly growl the words into Coctura’s ear. “Let Dino know too, and anyone else who thinks they know who we are. Tell them they’ll have me to deal with if they let anything ‘slip’ to anyone.”

“But what if—”

“If they come calling and start putting pressure, we’ll deal with that when it comes. I don’t want anyone risking their lives or their families. All I ask is that no one reports anything. What’s the current rumor on us? There has to be one.”

“Th-that you’re Crownsguard decoys impersonating the Prince. No one thinks you’d actually take public transportation to Altissia.”

“Good. We can work with that. Pass it on that there’s no way the King would have sent the Prince off with a bunch of kids, too. We’re a bunch of recruits taking a joy ride in the King’s car, got it? Get Dino on it.”

“I can do that.”

“Ta,” she said, throwing a hand over her shoulder as she turned toward an empty table near the television screens, which were constantly flashing pictures of tourists overenthusiastically enjoying themselves in the very restaurant in which they were seated.

“You are beginning to try even my patience,” Ignis muttered—mostly to himself. No matter who or what she was, if Noct’s life truly was in some sort of danger, he needed to assemble a course of action, and this lack of information was putting him on-edge.

“I believe we’re safe for the moment, but that depends on which reckless thing you all decide to do after this and how much of a force the Empire can muster together to search for us.” She sighed and slid the folded paper in front of him. “Ignis, words cannot express how truly sorry I am, but know that I am here for you all—whatever you need.”

He glared at her briefly before unfolding the paper, and the headline written there in bold, black ink seemed to immediately seep into his eyes, through his pores, beneath his skin—shrouding him in darkness. His mind went still. He couldn’t think.

Insomnia Falls

Growing desperate for additional information, he skimmed the rest of the articles as quickly as he could, allowing his eyes to pass over the facts presented on paper but not truly taking them into his heart: the treaty failed, Insomnia under siege, the Crystal and the Ring stolen, the King . . . dead.

“This can’t be real,” he whispered, but as he glanced around at the other diners, the context of their solemn and frightened expressions came into sharp focus. “There has to be some misunderstanding.”

“I’m afraid not,” she said, her tone soft as though she were holding vigil beside a deathbed. “Are you all right?”

Was he all right? For the time being, he was. He couldn’t allow himself a moment to grieve for their losses based on speculation because the only way of moving forward was to immediately present this information to the others before finding some way to verify the facts. With a duty to perform, he could cast aside the grief threatening to push past his rationality and the surface of his composure. Extensive experience with handling himself under pressure also allowed space for his mind to work furiously and put the pieces together, coming to one, very obvious conclusion.

As he’d spent much of the previous evening poring over every interaction with her, it was only too easy to recall the instances where she’d displayed evidence of her foreknowledge: the look on her face when the girl in Hammerhead said what her father did for a living and her surety when she expressed that she was on the brink of another war. She’d known nothing of their society when she’d joined them, and yet she was so well-versed in their political entanglements.

His eyes shot to her face—ill, drawn, and devastated, but he could not find it in his heart to feel that sorrow with her. “You knew,” he accused, glaring at her. “You knew all along this would happen.”

She looked down to the place setting between her hands, and after a moment, she closed her eyes and nodded.

Gods damn it all, she hadn’t been involved, had she? As a loyal member of the Crownsguard, it was technically his duty to remove any and all threats to the Crown. Could he kill an unarmed woman right here, right now, in the middle of a restaurant? A woman he’d grown to admire in their travels these past two weeks? No—he didn’t believe he could . . . at least not until she pulled a weapon.

And he couldn’t act on supposition. The King had tested her and ordered that she accompany them, which meant that there had to be some grander scheme to all this. He kept still and silent, waiting for her explanation, but his hands were tensed and ready to summon his daggers the second she made a sudden movement.

“I did know, yes. As did Regis, and perhaps one or two others. I think Cid suspected—he’s nearly as brilliant as you are, if a lot more experienced—but I’m not sure.”

The veil of disguise had truly been lifted at this point, if she was referring to the King so familiarly, but he ignored the change for the moment and focused on checking the information she’d presented with what he remembered in the days leading up to their departure. To the untrained eye, His Majesty had appeared perfectly composed, if a bit weary, but to Ignis, he seemed resigned and distracted. Everyone in the Citadel had attributed this to the draw on his strength from the recent battles between the Glaives and the Empire’s forces, or perhaps to having his hand forced to accept the treaty and formally capitulate so much territory to the enemy.

Ignis had assumed this as well, but there had been something particularly odd about the way His Majesty had chased after them on those front steps with his infirmity bared for anyone looking through the gates to see. Ignis had taken his time walking to the car when the others had left, and he had lingered within earshot just long enough to catch the weight in King Regis’s tone when he asked if Noctis had been “ready to leave home behind.” There had been heavy emotion behind the words that hadn’t quite sat right with Ignis, but he’d dismissed it at the time.

So evidence of her truth existed, but it was hardly enough to draw a conclusion.   

“Did he order you to keep your silence?” It was an obvious question, but he would infer nothing from a conversation with such high stakes.

She nodded. “Yes, but no longer. He feared you would all grow too suspicious about this mission if you knew my true credentials, but it would be safe to reveal them once this happened.” She stopped suddenly and inhaled a small, sharp breath. “You . . . do know where this is headed, correct? You know how this ends?”

If this isn’t all some sort of misunderstanding, then yes, of course I know.” If the King truly was dead, then Noct would have to take back the Crystal, regain his rightful place on the throne, and ascend to become the Chosen King at last.

If this was real, it meant that Noct’s destiny had finally caught up with them all, which meant that her history and experience was no mere coincidence. Was she in charge of their mission now? He didn’t care for that idea, but would concede if it was somehow proven that those were His Majesty’s intentions. Authority was a complex matter for Ignis. He would obey his orders without question or hesitation—and his deference to those above him was strictly adhered to until Noct’s safety was called into question. He had also been thoroughly trained in taking charge himself, though he had only infrequently exercised this tactic over Noct, choosing to save such drastic measures for when he was being unreasonably reckless. He preferred the idea of being the one calling the shots during such uncertain times, but now he was unsure. Could this girl be taken at her word?

“So the King’s aim was to leave you in charge of ensuring Noct takes his rightful place. You’ll forgive me if I suggest to His Highness that we not defer to your judgment until your story can be corroborated.”

Her eyes grew wide. “No! That wasn’t his aim at all. Let’s make one thing clear right now—Regis’s final words to you still apply. Noctis still has the final say on what our next move should be.”

“And you? What is your purpose in this mission, then?”

“You saw it that night in Longwythe. I am nothing more than a safety net.”

The heat in his face threatened to rise at the mention of their poor showing that evening, but he ignored it for the moment. “Forgive me, but you seem a rather powerful piece in this game to act as a mere safety net, Your Majesty.”

She blanched at his honorific, and though he showed no outward signs of weakness, he regretted allowing his temper to get the best of him. Tentatively, she reached across the table to place her hand over his, but she stopped short, likely unsure of his reaction. She settled for letting her hand lie near his as she steadily met his eyes.

“I know you don’t owe me anything, but I beg you to keep silent about your suspicions of me, whatever they are, for just a while longer. Trust in your king’s judgment for now, and know that your silence is for Noct’s safety alone. I’m going to need the group’s trust for whatever insanity is likely to result from this news, and I need to be the one to control who knows what and when. Please, Ignis.”

Her hand did finally brush against his fingers, and he allowed the contact, though not as a showing of support of her words. She stood and leaned across the little table, her eyes arresting his.

“I swear to you, on everything I am, on anything you wish me to, I mean you all no harm. And when this day is over, I promise I will tell you all who and what I am.”

He had no choice but to trust her—for now—given her actions towards them thus far and the fact that it was his king’s wish. He pulled his hand away and spoke in a voice like ice.

“Very well, you have my silence, for now. But know that I shall be watching you very closely today, and if any part of your story proves untrue, if you have in fact betrayed us, know that I will find some way to put a blade in you, despite your skill and supposed station. And I will take great relish in it.”

Her expression remained calm at his threat. “I understand, but remember this: if I had wanted you all dead, I could have simply stood back and watch it happen that night.”

He clenched his teeth and lowered his gaze to the worn, wooden floorboards next to the linen table. Taking a slow, steadying breath of the salty breeze and wondering how it was possible to process such devastating news in such a stunning locale, he nodded once in acknowledgement.

“Let us go tell the others, then.”

Though his composure held fast as he made his way back to the suite, his eyes now darting to every table and catching sight of every paper with similar headlines glaring across the front, his mind was racing through the possibilities. Where would they go now? What would they do? How could the five of them manage to take back the Crystal from the Empire—alone? Where were their allies in all this, and could they be recruited to help? How many had survived? Was it even safe to contact them and give their position away?

“What’s that look for?” Noct asked when Ignis had closed the door and fixed him with a stare that probably held too much of his desolation for all to see.

Most pressing, how could he tell Noct that his father was possibly dead? That it was time for him to take up the standard as he’d been avoiding all his life? The idea struck him to simply stand back and allow Laura to handle this, as she’d apparently known it was coming all along, but no. He wouldn’t be petty in a moment like this and shirk his responsibilities.

Gladio took the paper from his nerveless fingers. “It’s in all the papers,” he explained as Gladio brought it up to his face to read.

Prompto leaned over his elbow to look, and Ignis closed his eyes briefly at his hesitant, “Insomnia . . . falls?”

“Wha—?! This your idea of a joke?” Noct demanded, rounding on Ignis.

“I need you to calm down so I can explain.”

Noct took several threatening steps in his direction, clenching his fists at his sides. “I’m as calm as I’m gonna get!”

“There was an attack,” he stated passionlessly, hoping he could somehow pass his control onto the one who would now be expected to lead them all. “The imperial army has taken the Crown City.”

“As treaty room tempers flared, blasts lit the night sky,” Gladio read, pacing slowly across the suite. It was only as Noct dashed away to read over Gladio’s arm that Ignis allowed himself to hang his head. He felt rather than saw Laura take a step closer to his side, but he didn’t acknowledge her presence, nor did she make any move to touch him. “When the smoke about the Citadel had cleared, the King was found . . . dead.”

“No, wait, hold on . . . but the wedding! Altissia!”

“That was the plan. Yet the reports of the invasion are all the same,” Ignis said. “How could every headline in the kingdom be wrong?”

The surface of Noct’s eyes grew shiny with unshed tears as he looked out to the tranquil turquoise waves shimmering in the new morning sun. “Lies . . .” he let out on a shaky breath.

“. . . if only,” Prompto muttered from the corner of the room, his head hung low.

Gladio looked up from his reading, his face hard. “What else do we know?” When Ignis shook his head in response, Gladio turned to Laura. “You?”

“I have no contacts in the city. I’m not truly with the Kingsglaive, as you already know, so I know what you know.”

Technically true, and yet she had left out the most important bit of information regarding her foreknowledge. Ignis had always known her to be particularly cautious about what she said to them, but viewing this conversation from the other side had him wondering just how much truth she’d been feeding him while leaving out the rest.

“Then we can’t be sure until we see it with our own eyes,” Gladio answered.

Prompto nodded in agreement and turned toward the four of them. “And that means we go back to Insomnia.”

“Are you insane?” Laura asked coldly, her eyes darting wildly around at the four of them. “You can’t go back.”

“Might not be safe for us there,” Ignis said.

“Might not be safe for us here,” Prompto argued.

There was absolutely no logic to that particular argument, as, if Laura’s story was to be believed, the King had died to get them out of the city they would be returning to. However, there was some small measure of safety in the rumors now being spread around about them, and surely, the last place the Empire would expect to find them would be heading toward the disaster? The Crown City wasn’t without its own extensive defenses, including the Kingsglaive and the Crownsguard, so Laura’s assessment that the Empire’s forces would have taken a devastating blow was a point in favor of taking the risk. It would likely take a day for them to rally and begin concentrating on tracking Noct down, at the very least—longer if Insomnia had put up a greater fight. And since King Regis had been prepared for this, Ignis was wagering that the battle had likely been vicious.

But that particular thought brought him little comfort.

Keeping a low profile, however, would be paramount, which meant holding Noct’s temper in check. Could they manage such a feat?

Ultimately, no matter how vehemently Laura disagreed, the decision lay with Noct. This would be the perfect moment to test whether she would hold true to her word.

“Turn back?” Gladio asked solemnly, looking over at Noct, who had collapsed into one of the lounge armchairs and was staring blankly at the slate tiles beneath his boots.

Noct shook his head slowly, but his voice was rough with repressed emotion as he responded, “Yeah.”

***

Though the radio kept flipping through channels of static and the whine of the windshield wipers glided smoothly over the rain pattering on the windshield, Ignis felt the weight of the silence in the car from each of his four passengers sitting stiffly in their seats. He squinted into the haze of rain on the horizon, his senses on high alert for any blockades or ambushes as they drew closer. Not once had he witnessed rain in Leide since they’d left—why had the weather chosen today, of all days, for this downpour?

“We need to stop in Hammerhead and see if we can get at least one burner phone,” Laura advised. “If the Empire has the means to track your phones, none of them will be safe to use again.”

“Perhaps it would be prudent to consult Cid on the matter,” Ignis replied. He glanced up in the rearview mirror briefly to gauge her reaction. As far as Ignis was aware, His Majesty had kept in touch with Cid over the years, and if anyone could confirm or deny her story here in the outlands, it would be him. Would she grow nervous at his mention they speak to him?

“While getting Cid’s advice is a good idea, it’s actually Cindy you want to talk to about the phones. She’s a mechanic by day, but a hobbyist engineer by night. From the way she talks, that woman could probably cobble together a working phone with a tea kettle and some string.”

“I didn’t know that about her,” Prompto murmured.

Gladio continued to flip through the staticky channels as the silence took over again. It was another several minutes before Laura said, “I can’t believe I haven’t thought to ask. Do you all have family in the Crown City?”

No one seemed eager to answer, but after several moments, Gladio finally said, “My dad’s the King’s Shield. You might’ve met him the day you sneaked in—Clarus Amicitia, Duke of Myrl. If King Regis is dead, then so is he. Got a little sister and some servants who’re like family though. Soon as we get a phone, I need to track ‘em down.”

“My mom and dad do some kinda research downtown,” Prompto said, “but I never really ever see them. I kinda have no idea if they made it until we can make some calls.”

Ignis had mentioned once to her that his parents lived far from the Citadel when she’d asked, and that he hadn’t seen them since he was three years old, when he’d been taken to the Crown City to attend school. Still, he answered, “My parents may have survived. My uncle is an advisor in the Citadel, however. If the rumors are true, he is likely passed.”

How many years had he worked alongside his uncle and not taken greater advantage of that familial connection? Until he’d unexpectedly begun receiving the occasional letter from his mother, Uncle Caeli had been the only source of updates on his parents. It seemed ridiculous now that a couple hours’ drive fighting traffic to the outskirts had kept him away since she’d established contact, but then he had to keep in mind just how all-encompassing, how very all-consuming his duties had been. Until they’d left the city, Ignis had never had what the others referred to as a “day off.”

He cherished those few letters he’d shared with her over the last three years, even if it often took him an entire month to write a response in the spare seconds he could find here and there. He vowed to himself that, when his duty was done, he would track them down to learn of their fate.

Laura seemed to know exactly what was on his, and likely all their minds. “I promise, I’ll help you find them all when this is over.”

Ignis caught her somber eyes in the rearview mirror and nodded his thanks, though her promise would mean little to him until she had given a full confession and cleared the air between them. Under orders or not, royalty or not, his trust in her had been shaken, and though she’d held true to everything she’d said thus far, he needed her inconsistencies resolved before he could fully trust her again.

Gladio and Prompto muttered their half-hearted thanks before it grew silent, and Ignis began to grow more and more concerned for Noct’s stillness in the back seat as the miles flew beneath them.

“Noct—” he began, but Gladio’s exclamation and a voice from the radio cut him off.

“Got one.”

“No one has yet been able to grasp the extent of the damage, but what can you tell us about the situation in the city?”

A second newscaster answered the first’s query. “Occasional outbursts still occur around the Citadel, but the imperial forces have successfully quelled most sources of unrest.”

“Why does it sound like they’re reporting from the Empire’s side?” Prompto asked.

“Shh!”

“Nevertheless, the streets bear the scars of war.”

“Reports have now surfaced that Lucis was itself arming for an offensive ahead of their clash—”

“That’s not true!” Noct burst out.

“SHH!”

“This battle may be remembered as the most violent in history. We’ll be airing more updates as they become available. Now over to Phil to tell us what we can expect of today’s uncharacteristically wet weather.”

“Looks like it was a good idea to keep a lower profile,” Gladio said, turning the radio down. “Think we should ditch the car?”

“No way,” Noct interjected before Ignis could respond.

“Conspicuous though it may be, the Regalia affords us a more reliable source of transportation capable of fitting all five of us, not to mention her bulletproof windows—all features which can’t be attributed to the models found out here,” Ignis answered.

“Don’t be surprised when that decision gets us chased across the continent,” Laura warned.

Prompto voice trembled as he asked, “You think people’ll turn us in?”

“Difficult to say. The general populace trusts the Empire about as much as they trusted Insomnia, from what I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean we don’t stick out like sore thumbs in this ride. We may be able to get away with the Guard and Glaive uniforms now that the King’s forces are leaving the city, but the car’s another matter.”

“Let them come. They’ll wish they’d never found us,” Noct growled under his breath before growing sullen and silent once more.

It wasn’t until they had left Hammerhead with four of Cindy’s doctored SIM cards inserted into their phones that Noct had begun to rant, which was honestly a relief to Ignis. After witnessing the death of his nanny in his youth followed so closely by the assault on Tenebrae, Noct had retreated into himself so deeply that Ignis feared for his ever fully recovering. It had taken years of gentle coaxing with a dash of discipline to lure Noct from his shell of apathy, and even after all this time, Ignis felt that he had only been partially successful. Should Noct retreat to that place where no one could reach him today, he feared they would all be doomed.

“You mustn’t lose faith,” Ignis said emphatically. There was still the possibility that the reports of King Regis’s death were mistaken, even if it appeared more and more likely that the invasion itself was truth the closer they drew to the city. He wished Cid had been present at the garage when they’d stopped by. It would have been a comfort to have Laura’s issue behind him, but it seemed he would be forced to wait a little longer to have her loyalty verified.

“Really. Can faith stop a fleet of imperial dreadnoughts?” Noct asked, his voice rising in volume as he gestured to the sky, where yet another dreadnought vibrated the windows as it flew overhead to the plume of smoke rising on the horizon.

“Just give it a rest,” Gladio muttered.  

“MY OLD MAN HAD PLENTY OF FAITH,” Noct cried out in a hoarse voice.

Ignis noted Noct’s use of the past tense in his outburst, and he had to take a moment to wrestle down his own grief. Though just as distant as his uncle, King Regis had been the closest thing to a father Ignis had ever known. If Noct believed him to be dead . . . but no, there was still hope. There had to be some hope.

“Enough.”

“But the Empire lied,” Prompto argued. “They betrayed us.”

“Conjecture gets us nowhere,” Ignis cut in before Gladio could grow impatient. “We’re searching for truth.”

“And all you’ll find are lies—like that ceasefire,” Noct said.

Laura let out a long, weary sigh. “You can’t really be that naïve.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean your father knew from the moment the Empire brought the treaty forward they were going to use it as a means to infiltrate the city. It was all he could do to get you out and make plans to save as many citizens as he could.”

“What are you talking about?” Noct demanded. Ignis glanced up to catch a glimpse of them, but Laura must have moved, for he could only see one of Noct’s eyes, a hard expression on his face as he stared in Laura’s direction.

“Use your head. Why would Niflheim even offer a treaty when they were slowly wearing Insomnia down?”

“They weren’t—"

“They wanted the Crystal and the Ring, and what better way to get them than to receive a handwritten invitation through border patrol? It’s how that man got in to kill your grandfather; it’s probably how that daemon got in to attack you as a kid. Security at the ramparts was your weak point, and I’m betting it was only too easy to take the Wall down once they got inside. And now they have everything they want.”

Ignis couldn’t understand why she’d begun this now, with them so close to the city and so very close to meeting whatever obstacles they would have to fight past to learn what they needed to learn. Though he disagreed with her tactics, as well as her surprising lack of tact, he remained silent and listened carefully to her words. Privy as he was to Lucis’s precarious situation in the war, why hadn’t he reached these conclusions himself? Had he been so completely blinded by his loyalty that he’d lost the ability to see the situation objectively? Had it been his hope for peace that had kept him ignorant? The thought that he had somehow failed to see this coming despite his suspicions regarding the treaty troubled him greatly.

“Then why the hell would my father agree to the signing? Just how many did he sacrifice in the name of protecting me? What kind of coward was he?!”

A violent shuffling came from their direction as both Gladio and Prompto yelled, “Hey!”

Ignis slammed on the brakes, skidding the car to a slippery screeching halt in the middle of the road, and turned in his seat to raise the dagger he had surreptitiously summoned to his free hand. But as he took in the scene, he lowered the blade to his lap before anyone noticed its sudden appearance.

Laura had grabbed the edges of Noct’s jacket into her fists and pulled him close to her blazing eyes, where she was currently staring him down—hardly an offense worth killing her for. Ignis himself had often entertained the fleeting fantasy of doing the very same thing as a teenager, which had led to many a private moment taken in the parking garage—collapsed against his car’s steering wheel in an attempt to collect himself.

“Do you think for a moment you can pull your head out of your own ass and imagine what it felt like for him to send you off knowing he wouldn’t live to see you again?” she hissed. “You might not realize what your life means to this world, but he did. And if you ever grow up to become even half the man he was, you might have a chance of pulling this off.”

As she released her hold on Noct, she met Ignis’s eyes and nodded subtly. You see? I didn’t hurt him, she seemed to say with her expression. He wondered if she had heard the crystalline sound of his summoning over the commotion. He hoped the threat of it implied that she didn’t have his complete, unreserved trust just yet.

Noct, for his part, sat pressed sideways against the back window, gaping wide-eyed at Laura.

“It’s all right, Ignis,” she said, gesturing toward the road for him to continue.  

He turned back without a word and pressed his foot down on the gas pedal once more. The Regalia glided smoothly down the rain-soaked asphalt, and he silently thanked the Astrals that one aspect of this dreadful journey home could be depended on. It wouldn’t be much farther now until their fears were confirmed.

He heard Laura take a deep breath behind him before reciting in an almost robotic tone, “Regis agreed to it because he had no choice. He knew he had to use your marriage as an excuse to get you out of the city so you could fulfill your greater calling and save the world, even if it meant sacrificing Insomnia itself.”

“And how did he know all that? How do you know all this?”

“The Crystal showed us both.”

“You can only connect with the Crystal if you’ve got the Ring, and for that, you have to be a Caelum,” Noct argued. “Who are you really, Laura? I’m not stupid, you know. There’s so much about you that doesn’t make sense, including whatever went on between you and my dad to make him want to send you with us so suddenly.”

A surge of pride brought a smug smile to Ignis’s lips for Noct’s assessment. Ignis may have been the source of the rational, well-planned ideas between them, but people often overlooked the quiet, brooding royal. There was more going on beneath the surface of those tired eyes than anyone could know, and when pressed, he was capable of proving that he had a keen mind.

“Yes,” she acknowledged in a low voice. Ignis looked over to see Gladio turn nearly completely around in his seat to watch her. “I had always planned to tell you at some point. I wasn’t trying too hard to hide myself, you know. I wanted you all to know and trust the real me, but I was to keep my silence until you were safe.”

It grew quiet in the car, with each occupant hanging on what her next words would be, but none came.

Noct finally said, “And?”

Ignis heard her scoff. “And we’re about as far from safe as we possibly could be. You’ve all decided that the best course of action is to drive into an invasion in the Crown vehicle dressed in Crownsguard fatigues. All you need is a fracking crown on your head and a royal fanfare to play your entrance. But I’ll abide by your wishes and protect you, even if I think it’s a stupid idea. Just remember what I told you that night in Longwythe. Decide if it’s worth it.”

“Oh yeah,” Noct growled, and even Ignis was surprised at the vehement violence in his tone. He wondered what the “it” they were referring to was that could evoke such a response. “It’s worth it. But how do we know we can trust you?”

“Because despite my reservations, I’m still going to stand by your side and help you fight your way into whatever mess is awaiting us. Because I’ve already saved your life once. And because your father trusted me.”

“Does this mean that your refusal to kill does not extend to MTs, and possibly human imperial soldiers?” Ignis asked.

He’d been trying not to think about what he may have to do in mere minutes, as it could possibly be the first time he would ever have to drive a blade into human flesh. Despite his private reservations, however, he had no doubts that he could do his duty in retribution for his homeland and king; he’d been allowing the ruthlessness and desire for vengeance to build inside him since the moment he’d read that headline.

He wasn’t certain about Laura, however, until she answered.

“Oh yes,” she said, her voice full of venom. “We can’t take back the city, but we’re sure to run into a few soldiers as you look for whatever it is you’re hoping to find. I’ll be there, right beside you all.”

Ignis’s gaze flickered over to Gladio for a moment, who narrowed his eyes suspiciously back at Laura. He maintained his stiff, twisted posture the rest of the drive, seemingly intent on leaping into the back seat should Laura prove treasonous, and for once, Ignis gave no indications to dissuade him.

As Ignis approached the imperial inspection point that had been set up at the first barrier to Insomnia’s ramparts and saw that it was crawling with Magitek armors and soldiers, he prayed to Shiva for the first time in years that they would be able to keep Noct safe through this day.

Chapter Text

Even if he lived to be a hundred years old, Ignis would never forget a single detail of that hour he stood on that cliff and watched as the only home he’d ever known burned itself out. Ash and billowing black smoke veiled the once familiar skyline, and the heavy stench of charred flesh was thick enough even from this distance to make his eyes water as it clawed its way down his raw throat. Maddening impotence flooded him as he stood there staring up at the dark underbellies of Magitek engines and dreadnoughts making their way into his city.

He did his best to swallow the loss he felt hollowing him out.

A small, tinny voice from Prompto’s phone ripped him away from the waking nightmare. As to ceasefire discussions between the two nations, all provisional terms have been suspended in light of recent developments. Moreover, in the wake of the news of King Regis’s death, we’ve now received word that Crown Prince Noctis and the Oracle Lunafreya have also been pronounced dead.”

He went still, holding his breath to hear more as his hand paused over the call button on his own phone, but a soft cry from Noct had Prompto immediately turning off the broadcast.

“Keep it on!” Gladio instructed.

In his haste to obey while protecting his screen from the rain, Prompto fumbled awkwardly with his phone, dropping it to the rock below. As he chased after the skittering plastic, Noct turned to snap over his shoulder.

“DON’T BOTHER!”

Uncertain as to whether Noct was referring to the phone or the broadcast, Prompto froze in indecision.

Honestly, despite the bleak nature of the report, Ignis’s hopes for the King weren’t quite obliterated yet. Noct was clearly not dead, after all. Perhaps reports of the King’s death were just as false. As to Lady Lunafreya’s fate . . . he wasn’t even certain why they would be reporting her death along with the fall of Insomnia. Had the Empire attacked Altissia as well?

With a soft sigh, Ignis leant to pick up Prompto’s mobile and hand it to him, keeping his eyes locked on his own phone’s screen and wishing with every ounce of his hope that it would display a connected call.

His mother had been conspicuously unresponsive when it came to establishing an open, two-way line of communication. It hadn’t particularly upset him at the time, but standing on that overlook and realizing that he had no means of contacting her or his father only intensified his powerlessness. The only family who’d never seemed to mind associating himself with Ignis and who might have had the information he needed was just as certainly dead as Gladio’s father. His may not have been a family of Shields, but any Scientia in service to the Crown would die for his liege just as surely as an Amicitia; there was no doubt in his mind.

Astrals, he’d promised he would finally schedule a lunch with his uncle when he returned. He’d given his word.

Uncle Caeli and King Regis—both gone forever. It couldn’t be possible, and yet the evidence . . ..

Any family the three of them had remaining had either perished or were about to with the Wall now nonexistent and the city open not only to MTs and soldiers, but also to the incoming hordes of daemons when night fell again. Lady Iris had some small amount of combat training, as did his uncle, but Prompto’s parents and his own had none to speak of. Ignis could only hope that enough Kingsglaive and Crownsguard had survived to protect the people tonight.

Another wave of imperial air forces passed over them with a deafening roar, low enough to kick up a cloud of wet mist and splatters of mud, which stuck to his soaked clothes and sent another shiver through him. They would need to leave this place soon, and not only to clean up and change before they all got ill. It would only be a matter of time before someone spotted the dead Prince of Lucis standing on an isolated cliff overlooking his home.

That nearly suffocating sense of helplessness was chased away to be replaced with hope when Noct suddenly brought his phone to his ear, nearly simultaneously to Gladio doing the same. It was who Noct was speaking to that interested him most, so he turned his attention in that direction as Gladio strode closer to the edge of the cliff face to speak privately with whomever had answered his call.

“H-hello? Cor? The hell’s going on? Outside the city, with no way back in.” There was a brief pause before Noct spat, “’Makes sense’? Are you serious? What about ANY of this makes sense!?” He clenched his free hand at his side, his knuckles turning white as he jabbed at the air in frustration. “The news just told me I’m dead—along with my father and Luna.”

Ignis’s heart dropped when Noct sucked in a sudden breath before going still. He spun around to face the battered city, but Ignis had already seen the empty, wide-eyed horror in his eyes before his back had turned.

“Right,” he said in a low, defeated tone before letting the arm with his phone go limp at his side.

Ignis stepped up quietly behind him, waiting for the words that would confirm his fear, but Noct merely stared vacantly out over the Allural Deep to the skyline.

“What did the Marshal . . . have to say?” he asked carefully.

“Said he’d . . . be in Hammerhead. He’s uh . . . gathering our forces or somethin’. Tryin’ to figure out what happened.”

Having finished with his own phone call, Gladio drew closer. “And the King?”

It was clear Noct didn’t wish to say the words aloud, so when he merely turned back toward the stacks of black smoke bleeding into the grey sky, the four of them did the same, silently holding vigil for all they had lost. Ignis ignored the rain dripping from the tips of his hair, onto his glasses, and down his cheeks as he silently wondered what on Eos they were to do once they’d met with the Marshal.

“Got a hold of Iris,” Gladio sighed after several minutes of silence had passed between them. “She’s with refugees bound for Lestallum.” His voice grew low and husky as he added, “Can’t get ahold of anyone else, but I’m pretty sure Dad didn’t make it.”

“You have my deepest condolences, Gladio,” he replied, meeting his eyes, but his words felt empty. He felt empty. “And Master Jared and Talcott?”

“Yeah, they’re with Iris. Dustin and Monica got ‘em all out safely.”

“Prompto?” Laura asked hesitantly, looking back to where he’d resumed his pacing and dialing behind them. “Have you been able to reach anyone at all?”

She’d kept quiet and out of the way up until this point, likely knowing that her presence was salt rubbed into the bleeding wound of their loss. At the sound of her voice, however, Ignis took a moment to indulge that terrible, ugly inner voice that whispered to him that she could have prevented all of this, but logic held it fast in the darker depths of himself.

He made a half-hearted attempt at taking the high ground and imagined that if she was truly loyal to Lucis and as respectful of life as she appeared, the guilt of her involvement must have been tearing at her. Something had certainly summoned a feral ferocity in her as they’d engaged the MTs and soldiers guarding the shattered rampart, as Ignis had never seen her move that quickly or viciously against an enemy. She had blurred gold around the edges as she flashed through the Wall’s old passageways, warp-striking and slashing at men and MTs alike with near reckless abandon—a cold, almost inhuman expression twisting her features in the moments she’d paused long enough for his eyes to focus on her. The bloodlust he’d worked so hard to gather within himself had been released unsatisfied—for which he wasn’t certain whether he was grateful or resentful—as the four of them had merely needed to finish a few MTs off before jogging to catch up with her.

At the very least, she’d proven she could be trusted with a weapon near the Prince, but then, he’d known that already.

“No,” Prompto replied, his lower lip trembling. “Guess they’re busy with other things.” He let out a half-hearted chuckle and raised his shoulder in an attempt at a shrug.

Laura’s expression crumpled as she strode forward and threw her arms around his neck. “I’m so sorry, Prom,” came her muffled voice from his shoulder.

Prompto bit his lip, his eyes filling with tears. He cast the three of them a guilty glance before bringing his arms up to return the embrace. “I don’t think it’s your fault.”

“Night’s falling soon. What now, Specs?” Noct asked softly, looking up at him with a lost, helpless expression that unnerved him.

Loath though he was to drive in the dark, he offered, “I can take us to Hammerhead this evening. Our first steps should involve assessing the situation before we determine a course of action—identifying the state of our allies. For that, we’ll need to see Master Cid and the Marshal.”

A snarl curled Noct’s lip up as he glared over at Prompto and Laura pulling apart from their embrace. “Yeah. Identifying our allies. Starting with her.” His frosty eyes didn’t waver as he marched past the two of them in the direction they’d parked the car. “Sorry Prompto, but there’s no point standing around here anymore.”

“Oh . . . kay?” Prompto said hesitantly, glancing down briefly at the mobile still clutched in his hand.

“We’d best make haste,” Ignis added as he followed behind Noct at a brisk pace, ignoring the chafing of his wet jeans against his thighs. “Noct won’t be dead forever. And now that the Wall has fallen, I imagine communications between the city and the outlands will remain open to you.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Guess I can keep trying,” Prompto muttered. “No going back—only way’s forward.”

“No going back,” Noct agreed. “Let’s go.”

Ignis did his best to shake the mud from his shoes before stepping into the car, but keeping the carpet and leather clean was going to be a lost cause today with their wet clothes. He would either have to have it detailed before they left Hammerhead or, if they didn’t have the time, ask Cindy if she had time to spare while they were otherwise engaged with Cid and the Marshal.

He immediately turned the heater on full-blast as soon as he shut the door behind him, hoping to thicken the air enough to chase the chill from recent events. As he executed a three-point turn over the muddy ruts of the path, Ignis felt two light taps to his shoulder. “We shouldn’t do this in Hammerhead. The rain’s letting up. Take us to the closest haven, Specs.”

“Will we not be seeing the Marshal today?” Ignis asked toward the rearview mirror. “There’s still work to be done, and a caravan might be more comfortable for cleaning up.”

“No. I want this taken care of right now,” Noct growled.

Though it was unwise to do so, given the bumpy terrain and the possibility that they could still be ambushed at any second, Ignis flicked his eyes up to meet Laura’s. They shared a quiet moment, both knowing full-well what ‘this’ was referring to, before Ignis said, “Of course, Highness.”

Spending the night at the closest haven to the city while enemy forces were still pouring into the area—it certainly wasn’t the wisest course of action, but he supposed that a campsite would be a less likely place to look for a dead member of the Royal Family than the nearest point of civilization.

Dusk had fallen by the time they reached the main road, and as they turned right, Ignis imagined that it wasn’t just his eyes lingering to the left, where a wall of glowing red brake lights were stopped at the imperial inspection point. Flashes of eerily-lit clothing passed between the vehicles—shadows of outlanders seeking information and refugees wandering aimlessly, likely looking for a ride to the nearest safe place.

Would that they could help them. Ignis’s parents might even be among them, given that they lived near the south gate. But the five of them couldn’t afford to draw attention to themselves just now.

“Don’t suppose the Crownsguard is still active,” Gladio said, turning to look through the back window as they reached full speed.

“Wouldn’t count on it—not with the Marshal out here.”

“Yeah . . .. Wonder if any of the Glaive made it.”

“Captain Drautos has my number. I would expect him to at least attempt contact as soon as he is available—assuming he survived, of course.”

“Right. Just wondering how many we got left on our side.”

“You aren’t alone in that regard.”

A thoroughly unsatisfying sponge bath from a bucket of hot water followed by a set of clean, dry clothes were the first order of business for everyone when they arrived at the rain-soaked haven, though it had at least stopped actively falling from the sky by then. The night quickly grew cold and still—even the daemons and wild animals were far quieter than was usual for this area. The silence was fortunate, in Ignis’s opinion, as they were disturbingly close to the imperial inspection point, and he appreciated the ability to clearly hear the slightest of movements for leagues in all directions.

As much as he hoped everyone would stay safe this evening, he also wished the five of them wouldn’t be disturbed.

Ignis shivered a little in his jacket and turned to his kitchen tables as the others set about assembling the campfire and sleeping areas. Gladio had wordlessly taken it upon himself to watch Laura as though she were a fugitive about to turn on them at any moment, but Ignis saw no need. The longer she remained in their company, the more he realized that he would have done the same in her position, which was to obey the word of his liege, no matter the order, to protect the Chosen King.

Master Cid or the Marshal would verify her loyalty in the morning. As to the rest of her confession . . . well, that was to come.

At a complete loss as to what to serve that would comfort Noct while simultaneously feeding Laura and satisfying his own nutrition requirements, he finally decided that he would cede his own desires and focus on the first two goals for this evening. As he began slicing up potatoes to make dish and chips for them all, he sighed to himself and made a mental note to pick up more supplies while they were in Hammerhead. If they were to be on the road and on the run for an indefinite period, perhaps he should look into what it would take to begin making his own cooking oils. Perfecting his dish soap recipe, after all, had not only been a diverting challenge, but had also proved to be an excellent avenue for saving money.

There was another thought—they would need to be even more cautious with their funds than before, now that they had no end date to this journey.

He couldn’t help but notice the way the chairs were arranged this evening as they sat down with their meal. Instead of placing hers next to his as she'd done every evening they had camped, she’d settled across the fire from them as though she were on trial. The four of them sat with their plates held stiffly in their hands, waiting, while she folded her legs in her chair and set her supper in her lap. She quickly plucked a still-steaming chip from the plate and popped it in her mouth.

It was difficult to tell, given her distance, but he thought he heard her mutter, “God, these are gorgeous.”

They waited in stony silence.

After nearly two minutes of them watching her inhale her meal in heavy and awkward stillness, she looked up at them. Why on Eos had she chosen now of all times to suddenly gain an appetite for his cooking? That was, if one could even consider simple fried potatoes “cooking.”

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly, looking down at her plate. Her tone took on a soft gravity as she continued, “I don’t even know where to begin. You’d think I would after having this conversation so many times in my life, but I never do.”

“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” Noct retorted. “Who are you, Laura? If that’s even your name.”

Her gaze grew flinty as she pointed a stern finger at him. “First of all, that’s going to stop right now. I admit—I’ve kept . . . oh, so many things from you, but I have never lied to you.” She relaxed her posture, and her voice grew gentler as her eyes found his as though she were speaking to him personally. “Every moment you saw of me was real.”

Ignis allowed himself a small, cleansing breath. Of every possibility he had imagined over the course of this day, her confession would already be far less sinister than the worst of his fears. In the moments between wrestling his grief beneath his composure, he’d pondered what it would mean to him if the bright, vivacious woman he’d given so much of himself to in these last two weeks had never been anything more than an illusion to trick them all into trusting her.

“So . . ..” Noct trailed off.

She cut him with words that cut through the air like steel, “I’m not human.”

“The fuck does that even mean?” Gladio demanded.

Ignis could only sit back in his chair and assess her—from her bare feet tucked beneath her legs to her haunted eyes. He crossed his legs and rested his plate on his shin. If she wasn’t human . . . he thought back to his suspicions in Galdin. Astral. She simply had to be the avatar of Shiva. Even in this human-like Messenger form, her appearance seemed almost otherworldly—when she wasn’t ill. She’d reminded him of Shiva on that very first night, with her skin glowing blue in the moonlight. He wondered if the Messenger that had accompanied Lady Lunafreya most of her life exhibited any similar signs of divinity.

“You’re a High Messenger, are you not?” he asked, leaning forward. “An avatar of one of the Six?”

“What?” Noct asked. “I thought she was a Caelum. What she said about connecting with the Crystal—and the way she looks.”

Ignis glanced quickly at Noct before returning his attention back to Laura. He hadn’t thought of that possibility, but there was an issue with that particular assumption. "House Caelum is human, last I checked."

The intensity of his confidence in his own explanation faltered as her expression grew bewildered. “No—to both those. Remember? I was the Queen of Palomia? I mean that I’m not from this planet at all.”

Astrals. In his haste to explain her past, he’d completely forgotten to assume her every word as truth and take into account her royal status.

“So you’re like, an alien?!” Prompto gasped. “Whoa!”

She grimaced. “That’s not the word I would prefer, but essentially, yes.” Her bearing transformed as she straightened and lifted her chin, and for the first time since meeting her, Ignis caught a glimpse of the shadow of the monarch in her. “My full name is Laurelín Tildari Haránathat Ni’annen, and I am the last living Lliamérian, which was the name of my species.”

“You don’t look old enough to be queen of anyone. You look like you’re about my age,” Noct said.

“Looks can be deceiving. To be honest, I’ve lost track of how old I am. I’ve spent time on planets where days last anywhere from five minutes to a hundred years. I could leave now, spend a thousand years on a planet three universes away and two thousand years in your future before returning to you tomorrow morning. I’ve lived years that have been undone for everyone but me. How could anyone keep track?”

“Give us a guess, then.”

“Noct—” Ignis interjected in response to his brusque tone. No matter the severity of situation, it was in their best interest to keep the conversation as friendly as possible while she was openly offering information.

“If I were forced to make up an estimate, I’d say I’m somewhere in the region of 7200 years old, give or take a couple hundred years.”

The wake of her declaration was followed by several seconds of silence, filled only by the popping firewood between them and the cut-off yelp of some unfortunate nocturnal creature likely being torn apart by a daemon.

“Dude . . . no way,” Prompto said under his breath. “You’re immortal?”

She nodded. “Though I can be killed.”

Ignis could only sit back in his chair, stunned. He couldn’t even begin to fathom the span of it. How much could a single person learn in seven thousand years? And all that power—for all they’d witnessed her do, Ignis suspected that she had been concealing from them the extent of her abilities so as not to draw too much attention to herself. And yet she had also confessed that the Crystal limited her magic here. What feats was she capable of on another world?

He’d been right—she was no mere queen; she had essentially just confessed to being a goddess, no different from an Astral.

As it had after Longwythe, horror flooded him anew at every memory of their nights by the campfire, where he had so foolishly shared those childish little pieces of his insignificant human life as though they were precious ingots of mythril. How incredibly dull he must have seemed to her as she sat there by his side and feigned interest in his yearning to see the stars or some drab little city across the ocean when she had walked on other worlds? To her, he must have seemed a dim, inexperienced child.

My, how the tides have turned, he thought to himself mockingly.

“As I told your father when I first arrived in Lucis,” she said, looking over at Noct. “I’m a traveler, just passing through, searching for the universe in which I grew up. While I can control where I land if I’ve been there before, I lived in that universe before I learned I had these abilities, so I can’t find it. It’s . . . complicated. I’ve been searching—for thousands of years now. There’s often trouble in the places I land, so I help when I can.”

Noct leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “What about what you said earlier? With the Crystal?”

“The moment I landed in Lucis, your Crystal reached out to me, actually to set me on fire at first. It doesn’t seem to care for my energy any more than you first did. But after a bit of a struggle with it, I saw a vision of your father being attacked, the city burning.”

“I told you,” Noct snapped. “The Crystal doesn’t work like that. It only speaks to the King. I don’t think it would even speak to me without the Ring.”

“That’s because you’re not telepathic. The Crystal is; the Ring merely assists the king with the connection. But any telepath could theoretically connect with the Crystal in a similar fashion as the Ringwielder. Gotta have one ‘elluva telepathic defense though.”

They’d asked for this—demanded her full confession and wanted her to hold nothing back. As ferociously as Ignis had always sought the truth in his life, there were moments such as these when he questioned the consequences of his guiding philosophy—even if the next moment’s puzzle never gave him pause.

But this. Astrals, she’d played them all for fools.

If she was telepathic, then every moment Ignis had spent with her as he’d felt and thought things for the first time in his life had been laid bare to an audience without his permission. Even in this very moment, she could possibly be reading his thoughts. No moment was safe any longer if she was near.

He did his best to shut his mind off. Was such a thing even possible?

“Sweet Six. Someone tell me this isn’t happening,” Prompto pleaded.

Gladio rose slowly from his chair and took a threatening step closer to her. The shimmering outline of his sword flared in his hand before the steel solidified—cold and deadly.

“Put the sword away, Gladio,” she said calmly. “I’m not here to hurt any of you.”

“You could’ve done something. You could’ve said something,” he growled. “The King. My dad. All those people. We could’ve done something. And then you’ve been spying on us . . . gods damn TRAITOR.”

The end of his word was cut off in a pained gasp as he raised the blade to her throat. She stiffened, but met his gaze steadily.

“Would you kill your king if he were the one sitting here?” she asked deceptively softly. “Your father? This is what they wanted. Your lives—Noctis’s life—for theirs.”

“RAH,” he snarled, taking another threatening step forward, but Ignis noted that he was careful to hold the blade still.

“Gladio—” Ignis warned.

Laura’s eyes fell closed, but her knuckles turned white as she gripped her chair arms tightly. “You’ll have to strike me unarmed, I’m afraid,” she said, so gently it was as though she were soothing an infant to sleep, “because I will not raise a weapon against you.”

“Please, don’t do this,” Prompto whimpered. “Gladio, c’mon, man. This is nuts. Think what you’re doing.”

Gladio hesitated. He turned toward Noct, looking for confirmation, but Ignis could only read indecision in Noct’s eyes. Sure enough, Noct twisted his mouth in doubt before looking to Ignis.

Whether Gladio had any intentions of striking or not, it was hardly good form to hold a blade’s edge to the throat of an unarmed woman, who had, as of yet, confessed to no crime. “She has a point. Our duty, first and foremost, has always been to protect Noct, as it was theirs,” he answered. “Actions made in haste for revenge’s sake will not make reparations for all that has been lost.”

“What about your uncle? Your parents? Your king?!” Gladio demanded.

“My personal feelings on the matter hold no bearing on this decision. Nor should they for any of us. Duty comes first the same for us as it does for her. It is merely our responsibility to ensure that her actions were not treasonous. Given that Noct has survived a devastating blow to the kingdom, I can only surmise for the moment that she is telling the truth.”

Gladio deflated immediately at his words, lowering his weapon and taking several staggering, retreating steps backward toward Noct, but he remained at the ready with the blade gripped at his side, his manic glare not leaving Laura. Ignis was somewhat surprised at his lack of control, even considering the extenuating circumstances. Untried though they were, Gladio had been raised for duty as he had. He’d always allowed his temper to rule his head in times of stress, but never to the degree that he’d threaten to make his first kill in such a dramatic fashion—as though he truly wanted revenge on her.

Laura let out a long, shaky breath and opened her eyes to Ignis. “Thank you.”

“I’ll have you know that I still intend to verify everything you’ve said with the Marshal and Master Cid, and I still have questions for you myself.”

“Of course. Ask me anything you wish.”

“Have you been spying on us this whole time?” Noct shot at her before Ignis had the chance to gather his thoughts to ask her a question. “Manipulating us?”

Ignis had read the odd science fiction book to Noct here and there in his youth and was aware that, at least in the realm of fiction, there were several types of telepathy. Perhaps she didn’t have access to their thoughts in every moment. A pernicious idea wormed its way into his imagination, and though he was loath to poison what were once the happiest nights of his life any more than had been already, he needed to know the truth.

“Was that your true motivation for wanting to touch us? To gain access to our thoughts?”

She huffed angrily at Noct’s inquiry first, but when she turned her eyes toward Ignis, they seemed to die a little in the same way they had in those days after Longwythe. “This, right here, is why I don’t make a habit of telling people. I began this conversation stating that all you’ve known of me has been the truth. Setting aside the fact that I’m not the sort of person to do such a thing, which you all should know by now, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. The moment I touch your mind, you’re aware of it. Of course, I could break into your mind and take anything I wanted, but believe me, you would know very well what I was doing the entire time.”

Gladio looked to Noct as though verifying whether this was an acceptable answer. When Noct nodded, Gladio dismissed his sword with a violent jerk of his arm and threw himself into his chair, but he still sat stiffly, ready to jump to his liege’s defense at any moment.

“And let me remind you,” she continued, “you were the ones who offered yourselves, so the accusations of manipulation are quite unfair. I will warn you, though, that I do possess a sort of passive telepathy, which allows me to locate you if you’re nearby and tell the general state of your mood, but I swear to you, it tells me no more than anyone else can tell from looking into your eyes.”

By the grace of the gentle goddess Shiva, he didn’t want to believe her, but he did. Omissions or not, her word had thus far proven true, and it wasn’t as though His Majesty would have hand-chosen a loyal emissary willing and capable of violating them so intimately. He relaxed somewhat into his chair, relieved to be able to think freely within the confines of his own head again.

“After the vision, I needed to gain context for what I saw, so I did some research at the palace and the library. We saw each other there, Ignis,” she said, nodding at him. “Afterward, I had to sneak in to warn Regis, but it turned out that he already knew, and had for some time.”

“Then why didn’t His Majesty simply escape with Noct as soon as he’d learned?” Ignis dared to ask.

“He was convinced he was being watched. Had he alerted the Empire he was aware of their plans, he assumed they would have merely escalated the violence in order to kill them both before they escaped, catching more people in the crossfire. But I don’t believe he imagined the campaign they pulled off would be so utterly devastating. He likely would’ve tried for that plan had he known.”

Ignis shook his head. “There’s an issue with your story. If you met the King on the day we met in the throne room, as you’ve implied, then it’s impossible for you to have gained his trust so thoroughly and so quickly. He knew he was on the brink of war. You could have been an enemy spy.”

“Ignis,” she sighed. “Did you honestly believe Regis would just have me wave some swords around and then send me on my merry way with the greatest hope for the world into enemy occupied territory? I allowed him to use the Ring and the Kings of Yore to search my mind to determine my loyalties, so he would know my intentions. Only then did he ask me to protect his son and his friends.”

“See, but that doesn’t make sense either. Why would you do that?” Noct asked.

“Because your father was a good man. For all the pains he took to spare his people, he didn’t deserve his fate.”

“That’s not enough. I mean you. Why would you protect us? This isn’t your world. Hell, this isn’t your universe.”

A shadow passed over her eyes as she considered her next words. Her tone was wistful as she replied quietly, “I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.”

Countless questions had just been buzzing through his thoughts, hadn’t they? But he, nor, it seemed, any of the others could think of a single thing to say as the campfire continued to crackle merrily in defiance of the five mourners surrounding it. It also appeared as though the reprieve they'd been given of the daemons of the night was to be rescinded, as in the distance, Ignis heard at least five of them cut through the skin of the world and bleed into existence.

“He wasn’t alone, in the end,” she whispered, a sheen of tears making her eyes sparkle in the firelight. “That telepathic connection with the Crystal alerted me when it—when it happened. I was able to hold him as he . . . passed. Then I brought him to Galdin Quay, where he was able to say goodbye to you, Noctis.”

Noct delicately placed his fingertips to his forehead. “I remember,” he gasped. His eyes, too, grew wide and shimmering. “Last night, I dreamed of him. He . . . touched my face.”

Ignis’s heart began to beat a little faster when Laura nodded in confirmation. If she was capable of staging a farewell between Noct and his father in a dream, could she herself appear in one’s dreams? Perhaps through time? He’d never received confirmation that his vision had been of Shiva; the High Messenger had only identified herself as Rose, but at the time, who else could he have determined his gentle guardian to be but one of the Six?

His question was far too personal to ask in front of the others, and certainly inappropriate in this moment of mourning. He decided to wait until they were alone.

“He might not have said it, but he loved you dearly, Noctis. He wanted me to tell you how sorry he was that he never took the opportunity to tell you himself. Everything he did, including distancing himself from you, was borne as a result of his desire to protect you from all you would face one day. He wanted so much to tell you everything that day we left, but he couldn’t find the words.”

“Ahh,” Noct gasped, gritting his teeth and shaking his head as though clearing it. Though it took several more seconds before he was able to look up at her again, his face held no expression as he asked in a dead tone, “Are there any other secrets you’re keeping from us?”

She scoffed and shook her head in disbelief. “Noctis, I just told you that I am seven thousand years old. Of course I have secrets that would likely upset you just as much as tonight if you knew I had them.”

“Then tell—”

“And I hate being that person, because I’ve been on the other side of this equation before, but you need to trust that I will tell you everything you need to know when you need to know it. I am sorry, but there’s just too much of me to share all of, especially since I shouldn’t be the focus of your thoughts tonight.”

Noct hung his head to stare at the rough stone at his feet. A somewhat shaky sigh escaped his lips before he got to his feet and fixed her with a cold stare.  

“Fine. I’m done. You guys coming?”

Gladio and Prompto stood to follow Noct toward the tent, but Ignis remained where he was. “I should like to clean up first, but I’ll be along shortly.”

“Whatever. Come inside when you’re done. We have things to talk about.”

“Of course, Highness.”

Ignis locked eyes with Laura as the others passed by, but he waited until they had all settled in the tent and zipped the door closed before he stood and walked over to where she was seated. He stopped and looked down at her. Still, she didn’t say a word. Her chair was farther from the fire than theirs were, and he shivered at the sudden drop in temperature.

“Allow me to take your plate.”

“Please, tell me what you’re feeling right now.”

His mouth parted in surprise before he could suppress the reaction. Why should his mortal opinion be of any importance to her?

“I’m not sure what to feel. I think I believe your story, if that’s what you’re asking.” He paused for a moment before continuing in a harsher tone. “Besides, can’t you tell for yourself?”

She shook her head. “I can see your mental ‘facial expressions’ now; you’re all feeling betrayed and grieving, but that’s no more information than anyone else could tell, really. Anything deeper, and I’d have to be inside your mind.”

Her words stirred something in him, a wild thought that he wished to know what that would feel like—with his permission—her kindness nestling in his brain and filling him with warmth just as her company had these past two weeks, but he had no true context for contemplating the sensation.

She looked down at the rune-marked floor, her voice growing pained as she murmured, “After everything that’s happened today, you all have to sit here and deal with my baggage. I’m so sorry.”

“Well, you certainly provided us with a distraction, Y— . . . Your Majesty,” he let out on bitter, breathy chuckle. “Even that isn’t correct, is it? How does one refer to a goddess on your world?”

“So help me, if you do something stupid like prostrate yourself at my feet, I will never forgive you,” she said bleakly to the stone below, her expression hidden by a veil of her hair, but when she raised her head to him again, her eyes were wide and distraught.

“I’m not a goddess, Ignis—just a woman, subject to the same feelings and wishes you are. I know it’s hard to believe after all you’ve heard, but every second of the last two weeks I’ve spent with you has been real. I’m still the same person I was in Galdin, begging you to call me Laura.”

“I have a question.”

“Please—ask it. There’s so much more I can tell you now that you know about me.”

“Have you ever, at any point in my life, infiltrated my dreams?”

Her eyes went wider as her mouth fell open. Shaking her head jerkily, she answered in a tone that almost sounded offended to Ignis, “Never. Without your permission, that would be a violation of the highest order.”

“Very well,” he said, bending to take the empty plate from her limp hands. He couldn’t decide from her answer whether to feel relieved that she hadn’t been manipulating him since he was a child or disappointed that she hadn’t been his guardian angel, but he thought it would be best to retreat for now and clean up while he considered all he had experienced today.

“I’ll leave you with your thoughts for now. Come and find me when you’ve finished,” she said to his back. He turned to find her standing from her chair. “Regis wanted me to say some things to you—privately. If you’re ready to hear them . . .”

His king’s final commands—he wondered what they could be. “Allow me to finish cleaning up, and I’ll be with you shortly.”

She nodded and stepped further into the dark, toward the lower outcroppings of rock on the edge of the haven.

Ignis rushed through the dishes he hadn’t managed to take care of before serving the meal, not bothering to reheat the water in the dishwashing bucket—just this once. But his ear and his thoughts were focused entirely on the conversation currently taking place in the tent without him and the two possibly lifechanging ones he was about to have. As he dried and dismissed each dish, he gazed up at the stars peeking through the dark clouds and organized his thoughts in preparation.

“If she’s not human, can she even feel pain, love, loss? Does she even understand what today means to us?”

“We can’t assume anything anymore.”

“What if she’s lying about everything? We should leave her behind while we still can.”

“You sure we still can? We might have to kill her.”

“What if she’s reading our minds right now? She’ll know that now!”

“She hasn’t done anything to us though. You really think you can kill her just like that?”

“What if she’s the one responsible for all of this?”

Shocking though it was to hear them voiced aloud, Ignis couldn’t blame the others for their doubts, as he’d experienced every one in some form or another. But as his heart reacted automatically to the words, he realized he’d already made his decision—pending confirmation tomorrow, of course. They were all missing key clues regarding her character that would have a considerable impact on the outcome of all this. They needed to keep her—not just for her wondrous revelations and all she could teach them, but also because she was a powerful ally in what had now become a war.

As far as his personal rapport with her . . . well, his previous hopes had been rendered utterly absurd, of course. He may as well attempt to court Shiva herself. Her species didn’t matter to him in the slightest; the issue was her godhood. He couldn’t even begin to contemplate all she had seen and done in her long life. He felt so small and insignificant in comparison—no matter what he accomplished from this moment forward, he would never earn or become enough to ever be anything more than a dull servant and a child in her eyes, even if he still felt his position to be one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon someone like him.

Oh, but what would his life be like if he dared to reach for more?

This silly moment of self-indulgence was getting him nowhere and distracting him from more important business. Ignis was and always would be an advisor to the future King of Lucis—nothing more, nothing less, and the time had come to receive his final commands from his former master so that he might guide his current one to victory. With a satisfying clatter of plastic on stone, he dropped the bucket unceremoniously next to his prep table and left in search of his orders.

He found Laura perched on a ledge, her bare feet dangling off the haven and her toes brushing the dirt. As he drew closer, he could just make out her soft, sweet voice carried on the breeze, and like everything else with her, the sound of it insistently plucked at some chord of instinct in him. He stopped, watching that silver stream of light trickle from her hand and disappear into a shadow by her feet. Curious, he took a few steps closer to see what sort of magic she would be sacrificing her energy for at this time of night when she was already so clearly ill.

But the glow faded and her voice halted at the sound of his heels against the stone. She looked up at him as he approached, but he brushed past her and leaned down close to find the focus of her magic. As his vision adjusted to the darkness, he could just make out the tender green tendrils of a sapling reaching up in the dim glow radiating from the haven runes, stretching for her knees like a devoted pet.

A single blossom unfurled before his eyes—white, luminous, and delicate in the halo of blue light, with hundreds of overlapping ruffled petals like a jagged tulle skirt of a ballerina. Ever so carefully, he reached out and brushed the edges of the velvet petals with his fingertips, grateful he hadn’t put his gloves back on after doing the dishes. As the little tree shivered at his touch, that floral scent that had enticed his nose so many times since meeting her wafted towards him.

“It’s called a kithairon,” she said when he’d turned his admiring gaze toward her, but he couldn’t help but frown at her increasingly haggard appearance. “They were one of my favorite flowers where I was born. It’s for Regis.”

That familiar bite of irritation when Noct would do something particularly reckless forced him to clench his teeth to hold his tongue, but honestly, a seven-thousand-year-old goddess should have known better. He searched for the most delicate words that would express his displeasure without overstepping his station.

“While I understand your desire to mourn him, I don’t believe he would appreciate you wasting your precious resources on something as trivial as gardening for his sake—particularly after falling ill in order to be with him last night.” 

“Of course you would’ve figured that out.”

“You were particularly peaked that first day in the throne room as well, where telepathy was also involved, if I’m not mistaken. I’m quite capable of putting two and two together.”

“The two incidences aren’t exactly the same thing,” she sighed wearily, curling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. “S’not like telepathy in and of itself makes me sick.”

“Then for the sake of our future success, I do humbly request you refrain from performing any acts, telepathic or magical, which incapacitate you so thoroughly.”

“It’s not always evitable.”

“As your actions at the Wall today? You had the support of three soldiers at your back and another with a gun, and yet you ran yourself ragged while we were forced to follow behind.”

“That was different,” she replied, her tone growing hard.

“I would be most grateful if you would explain to me how so, particularly if you are to continue working with us and I am to include you in our battle strategies.”

Her arms tightened around her knees as she looked away from him. “I’m not stupid, you know,” she said in a small voice. “I know you’ve never killed anyone before.”

Dread washed over him. “That’s true,” he admitted.

“I couldn’t allow you all to take your first life—not today, of all days. As it is, I certainly failed Gladio in that regard.”

Seeping cold fury iced his dread over. “You had . . . no right—”

“I know—you’re absolutely right. I’m sorry. I’m not supposed to interfere like that, but I just couldn’t bear to face that haunted look in all your eyes on top of everything that’s happened—”

“We’ve trained for this all our lives. With all due respect to your status, do not do us the disservice of infantilizing us.”

“Aren’t you listening to me? I won’t do it again, I promise. I just wanted you to have one more day with your innocence intact.”

“I am no saint,” he said harshly, “and neither are the others.”

“Oh yes you are. You won’t realize it until you aren’t any longer, but you are.” With a sigh and a slight groan, she teetered to her feet, and he reached out to grip her elbow and steady her. The expression that crossed her face turned hollow—mask-like in a way that forced those seven thousand years to become suddenly visible. “Besides, you’ll get your fill of blood before this is over,” she said bitterly.

“How many have you—” he began, but he found he hadn’t the courage to complete his hasty remark as her eyes widened in horror.

“If you . . . care anything for m—please . . . don’t ask me that. You think me some sort of supernatural assassin; star-crossed queen; or, by the light of the stars, a fracking goddess. But that’s not who I am, Ignis. I despise those images of myself. This,” she pointed violently down at the blossom, “this is what I am. This was who my people were. I’m a poor testament to their legacy, I admit, but those two hundred years I spent singing and growing and studying were some of the best years of my life.”

His attention fell to the fledgling tree, so vulnerable and alone in the dry, cracked soil. He wondered if it would even be able to flourish in this harsh environment, as lush as it looked.

“I sang a house once, did you know?” she said in a subdued voice laced with wistfulness.

He hadn’t known, of course. And he couldn’t fathom exactly how one “sang a house,” but he imagined it had involved something similar to what she had just been doing to that tree.

“I brought a redwood seed from Earth and crossbred it with one of our Arkhein trees from Lliaméra. I scouted the spot—deep in the Palomian forest next to a lake surrounded by kithairon trees. For two hundred years, I studied and poured myself into that house.

“Gods, you should have seen him—intricate carvings in dark wood, walls lined with shelves bursting with books—enduringly peaceful. His upper floors broke through the forest canopy and overlooked the lake. You could stand outside in the afternoons and touch the quiet in the air. In the fall, the leaves would set the forest afire with a mosaic of color that would reflect the water, coloring the light streaming through the balcony the most breathtaking gold. In the spring, the kithairon would bloom and turn the entire shoreline pink, white, and crimson, and the cool breeze would waft their scent right inside. Their petals would fall from the branches like rain, and I would dance in them, bathing myself in their scent. It was times like that I knew, for just a moment, that I was exactly where I belonged.”

She turned to face him. “That, Ignis Scientia, is who I am. That,” she gestured to the little tree at her feet, “is who I am. Let me have it, if only for a moment.”

Her description of home sounded like paradise to him, which seemed appropriate, given her status. He wondered whether it still existed, or if, like his home, it too had been destroyed in a war. He wished with all his heart that he could have seen such a stunning sight, but whether it had survived or not, her home lay in a realm that would forever be denied to him.

“Forgive me. I’ve spoken carelessly more than once this evening.”

As always, she waved her hand in a dismissal. “I’m fortunate you all aren’t vivisecting me right now. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

His eyebrows shot up at her words, but to cover his surprise, he chuckled down at her. “Well . . . more due to the lack of proper tools and facilities—perhaps a lack of imagination on behalf of the others.”

Astrals, had he just inadvertently threatened a deity?

Fortunately, she seemed to have understood the intention behind his remark and lowered her head to snicker, but when she looked up at him again, her expression had grown grave. “I’m sorry too—for everything. I have far more to beg your forgiveness for than you do of me, but I won’t ask for it. It wouldn’t be fair to any of you.”

“It would be foolish not to verify your story with every source available to us, but pending tomorrow, you have mine.”

“Thank you,” she said, closing her eyes. “I can’t tell you how much that means. I—but we’ve discussed me more than enough for today. Did you come to hear Regis’s message?”

Ignis also closed his eyes for a moment and nodded, silently praying that whatever his king’s final commands were, he would be able to see them out successfully. He feared he’d already failed too many times in watching over Noct and couldn’t bear the thought of letting the King down further.

A warm hand tentatively inserted itself into his cold one, the fingers entwining with his, and he opened his eyes to see her gazing at him.

“There were many things he regretted not saying in his life before it was too late, but there were only two people in the world he wanted me to pass a message on to. Ignis, he thought you were the most intelligent, dedicated young man he’d ever met, and he wanted me to thank you personally for looking after Noct so lovingly when he couldn’t. You became more than he could have ever hoped to find in an advisor, and as he watched the two of you grow up together from afar, he came to see you as a second son. He loved you too, Ignis, and he was so very proud of you.”

Though he clung to every syllable that issued from her mouth, he couldn’t continue to look at her as she spoke. This wasn’t a command at all. This wasn’t at all what he was expecting. He raised his eyes to the sky, hoping that gravity would keep the tears from falling as he began to retreat from his day-long battle with anguish.

“I can see you all smothering your grief,” he heard her say. “And while the ability is necessary because it allows you to do what needs to be done, you all need to take a moment, even if it’s only just a moment, to feel it. It’ll tear you apart in the end if you don’t. Believe me. You won’t like who you become.”

She released his hand then, and he tried to grasp after it while still looking up at the peaceful sky. But the top of her head came into his view, and he felt her body press against his, her arms wrap around his shoulders, her hands come to rest at the base of his neck and in his hair. He shivered at the sensation—and at that of her warm breath hitting the chilled skin of his neck just beneath his collar—and he finally let go, bringing his arms around her body, fisting his hands in the soft strands that hung at her back, and gripping her as tightly as he could without hurting her as he buried his nose in her sweet-smelling hair. Every thought and fear he’d been studiously avoiding all day today suddenly poured from him like blood from a fatal wound.

Oh gods, it was gone—all of it. The only home he’d ever known, most of the people he’d ever met—gone forever. Everything he had prepared for—the briefings, the inner workings of the royal court, the endless nights spent studying everything Noct might need as King—all his devotion focused on preparing for a future that no longer existed had been rendered meaningless. It was all washed away, abandoning him alone in the wilderness with what little family he had left and nothing but their steel to protect them—and her.

And His Majesty—of course he would never presume himself a member of the Royal Family, but his heart ached knowing that the King had felt the same as he and that he would never again hear him refer to him as “my boy.” He’d been so kind to him his entire life—taking him in, seeing to his education, paying him a salary in addition to room and board in the Citadel—and even if His Majesty’s fond regards had made life in court more difficult for him, Ignis had no regrets. He had loved his king as deeply as he did his prince, and he would continue to protect Noct with his life as testament to his fealty.

He pulled away, removing his glasses so he could wipe away the two tears that had managed to escape despite his best efforts. Placing them back on his face, he raised his eyes to the cloudy but glittering sky one more time to take a deep, shuddering breath, filling his lungs to the brim with cold night air to cleanse himself of his inner daemons.

“Forgive me—yet again,” he said, finally daring to look down at her, but her answering expression was fathomless.

She carefully placed a hand over his heart. “Don’t ever ask forgiveness for feeling, Ignis, especially with me. As I told you this morning, you have my sword as well as my ear any time you need it—and that goes for all of you.”

The words reminded him yet again that this gentle kindness, no matter what it made him feel, didn’t make him special. She was a goddess tending her sworn flock, and he was merely her charge—at the very, very most, a friend. And now that she had done her duty, it was far past the time to tend to his.

She seemed to notice the change in his bearing because she stepped back from him suddenly, dropping her hand. “Go on, then,” she said with a nod toward the tent. “Do what you need to do, even if it means supporting him and denouncing me. I’ll understand.”

“Thank you,” he said with a slight bow of his head. “And goodnight.”

Once he had removed his shoes, socks, and garters and stepped into the tent, he sat cross-legged at the end of his sleeping bag and allowed his eyes to adjust to the weak light emanating from the lamp in the corner. Despite the magazines Gladio had left lying splayed open, curatives Noct had created and abandoned without dismissing, and the deck of playing cards strewn wildly near the door, there was far more space between their four beds without the fifth tucked between Ignis’s and Prompto’s bags. He knew Laura wouldn’t be joining them tonight and, after the conversation the others had been having this evening, he wondered if she ever would. Too many events today had been out of his hands—his private excuse for that disgraceful display of weakness just now—but this, at least, he had some measure of control over.

“Like, after Cor, I don’t even know what to do,” Noct was saying in a hushed, frenzied tone. “Do I get what’s left of the Glaive and Guard together and take back the city? Or do I . . . I dunno, march on Gralea? Am I gonna have to power the magic users now? Put the Wall back up? I can’t even do that! My dad never told me anything—never prepared me for this.”

“Noct—” Ignis began, “calm down.”

“It’s gonna be okay, man. We’ll figure it out,” Prompto said.

“Figure what out?” he snapped. “He held up that wall with his life, and it slowly brought him to his knees. By the end, he could barely stand on his own two feet. The cane wasn't merely for show, you know.”

“For all his efforts, the Wall couldn't hold back fate,” Gladio said gravely.

“Yeah, and now it’s my turn. I’ve gotta—”

“Noct,” Ignis said sharply, cutting him off before he could work himself into a panic. He softened when Noct looked over at him with wild eyes. “There’s no sense in getting worked up in the face of the unknown. Tomorrow, we’ll see the Marshal, where we’ll gain a clearer understanding of what lies in store for us. No matter what, you must remember that you are not alone in this.”

“And Laura? What do we do about her? Is she safe to trust, you think?”

Ignis took a deep breath. This is who he was—the logician, the strategist, the advisor. He suppressed every emotion that had built up over the past two weeks and spoke from a place of calm, cool rationality.

“When one is bereft of trust in another person, one must rely on character and actions to judge them rather than speculation, opinion, or emotion. Stripping away every interaction we’ve had with her to the mere facts, we can see the shape of her person all too clearly.

“She lends a hand to those in need, whether for mundane or extraordinary tasks, and sees the value in those individuals that others, including myself, often overlook. She respects life, perhaps slightly too much in my personal opinion, but that’s irrelevant for the moment. Not to mention, she could have allowed us all to die in Longwythe. If our demise is her goal, she has done a most poor job of it.

“Besides,” he lifted the corner of his mouth in a small smile, “If we left her behind now, I have a feeling she would just follow behind us regardless. She vowed to the King that she would see you through this, and I don’t imagine she would cast that aside simply because you told her to.

“Given all this, I shall, of course, Your Highness, defer to your decision, whatever that may be.”

“Umm, wow,” Prompto whispered.

Gladio grunted in disapproval. “You already heard my say.”

An eternity seemed to pass as Noct looked between Ignis and Gladio, the indecision written plainly on his face. Finally, he said, “Hell, Specs. How could I do anything but keep her after an argument like that?”

“My apologies, Highness. It wasn’t my intention to manipulate your decision, but I felt that someone should defend her if she couldn’t be here to speak for herself.”

Noct’s expression softened into a smile. “You know what? You’re actually a pretty good friend.”

“Thanks,” he said dryly.

But Noct’s reply was as serious as it had been that night in Longwythe when he’d returned to the hotel room, nearly shaking from the emotion of whatever secrets he and Laura had shared. “No matter where I am, Iggy, I hope I’ll always have you by my side.”

Ignis let his lips slacken, momentarily at a loss for a response. As far as he was aware, Noct had never once used Prompto’s nickname for him, choosing instead to refer to him by his full name or the moniker he’d assigned Ignis as a child. He’d seemed off since that night in Longwythe, but Ignis couldn’t imagine what they could have shared in that conversation of theirs that would explain this behavior, even considering all he’d endured today.

But as the shadow of that lively, loving child shone through his eyes for just a brief moment, Ignis could only return the sentiment.

“To hell and back again, Noct, there is nowhere else I would ever be.”

Chapter Text

When Prompto opened his eyes the next morning after hearing Gladio groan and mumble his way through getting dressed and leaving the tent, he was almost surprised there even was a next morning to open his eyes to at all. After everything that’d happened the day before, it sure felt like the rest of the world should’ve ended too, right? And then all that stuff with Laura—it was all just nuts. The whole world had gone insane.

He hadn’t slept a minute the night before, instead letting all the crap that had happened roll over and over in his brain like clothes in a dryer. His home was gone, along with every place he used to love going: his room with its carefully-curated collection of comic books, videogames, and random half-done model train engines; everything he’d ever taken a photo of, plus all his photos; the shooting range that was three blocks down from where he’d taken his Crownsguard self-defense training; the arcade where he and Noct would hang out and let the hours pass by in a blur of color and sound. And the people. Prompto might not’ve had many . . . okay, any actual friends back home, but there was still the cute girl he’d always try to get in line for at the grocery store checkout and his running buddy he’d still sometimes pass on the street even after all these years. Sweet Six . . . Lady Lunafreya herself. Were they all seriously dead now?

It was at that point he’d realize he’d stopped thinking about them again, and what kind of selfish bastard was he for not thinking of them first? His mom and dad had barely been in his life since he was adopted, and even though it wasn’t their fault, he’d spent most of his life alone until Lady Lunafreya’s letter had finally convinced him to get his ass in gear—literally—and introduce himself to Noct. Actually, being out on the road like this had been the closest Prompto had ever come to the concept of family, even if he did always feel like the youngest, least useful one of the bunch.

But with his parents probably dead, the four of them were all he had left now.

Which was why he’d decided he wasn’t gonna care that Laura was an alien. Sure, he’d freaked out at first like the rest of them, but as the night wore on and the topic went for another spin in his head, he figured she was the same as him, really. She was a stranger in a foreign land with no one to turn to but the four of them. She didn’t belong. She was one of “the bad guys,” even if she wasn’t. Plus, how cool was it that he’d held an actual goddess in his arms? According to legend, the Six hadn’t been seen since the War of the Astrals, which made him the only guy in the entire world to have a deity use him as a pillow. It did kinda suck that she was yet another OP friend that made him seem ordinary in comparison, but he’d take it.

When the heat from the sunrise started turning the tent into a pizza oven, he groggily pulled on his Crownsguard fatigues, persuaded his hair into its usual style before he got too sweaty, and rolled himself outside, leaving Noct alone with his head buried underneath his pillow. Prompto wasn’t sure what things would be like when he woke up—Noct tended to avoid stuff like the scourge until it clobbered him. But at least they had important things to do today to keep them all distracted.

Not that all of them really needed the distraction. When Prompto found Iggy at the camp stove as usual, looking perfectly put together like the world hadn’t fallen apart, he remembered that not all of them had been as affected by what happened. He wished he could be as calm and unruffled as Ignis had been last night—it was like he always knew exactly what to do. As he flipped a fried egg over with a little frown of concentration before reaching over to the table to take a swig of coffee, Prompto wondered how he managed it. Insomnia had been his only home too; why wasn’t he more of a mess?

It must’ve been the training. Gladio didn’t seem to be affected much by losing his dad and home besides being pissed at Laura.

Prompto did his best to plaster a smile on his face before skipping up behind Ignis and leaning over the table.

“Morning Iggy!” he said brightly. “Whatcha got cookin’?”

“I thought croque madame would be suitable this morning,” he said quietly. “And do keep your voice down, if you please. Laura is still asleep.” He nodded toward the campfire, where that lump of hideous brown blanket lay like an old, oversized turd.

Prompto raised his eyebrows in surprise. “She okay? She never sleeps unless she’s used magic.”

Ignis pursed his lips, but he didn’t look up from the stove. “I believe she was involved in more than one reckless enterprise these past two days. Best let her sleep until we’re ready to leave.”

“Yeah, good idea.” As Ignis removed the last of the garula ham from the grill and began putting the sandwiches together, Prompto leaned his elbows on the prep table and looked up at him. He really seemed okay. There were dark circles under his eyes, but when weren’t there? He expected to see some kinda sign that Iggy’d been affected by all this—then maybe he wouldn’t feel so shitty about not handling it so good himself.

“Were you able to reach anyone?” Iggy asked without making eye contact.

He ignored the feeling of his lungs shaking as he took in a quick breath. “Nah.”

And at this point, he didn’t expect to—not that he would stop trying, but his mom and dad hadn’t worked far from the Citadel. He bet most of the fighting had taken place right there.

“I am very sorry. If I can assist with anything—”

“It’s cool, Ig. We’re all in this together.”

“Indeed we are.”

They didn’t say another word—even when Gladio returned from his morning exercises all sweaty and surly, or when Noct crawled out of the tent with his eyes still half closed. Prompto hoped those words had seeped into Iggy’s skin as much as they were for him right now—they all had something in common: no matter where they were all from and what secrets they were hiding, they’d all lost someone in this war, people important to them. He hoped with all his heart they would all remember that if it ever got out where he was really from.

The death of that treaty was more of a loss to Prompto than it’d been for any of them, really. Not only had he probably lost his mom and dad, he’d also lost any chance at becoming accepted for who he really was.

Now that Lucis officially belonged to Niflheim, he wondered if all the citizens would have to start getting barcodes tattooed on their wrists, too.

Prompto gave Iggy a grateful nod when he handed him the still-steaming egg and ham sandwich. The four of them sat in a half-circle around the barely-smoking campfire in that uncomfortable silence and ate, awkwardly trying not to look at the unconscious pile of brown fabric moving up and down like it was breathing. It wasn’t until they’d finished eating and Prompto started folding up and dismissing their bedding that Iggy finally decided to wake Laura.

“Please eat this.” He crouched down near her head and held out a plate of eggs and toast.

She sat up shakily, rubbing at her red-rimmed eyes. “Ta,” she said in a voice still hoarse from sleep. “M’starving.”

“Would you care for more? I need to know before I begin packing up the kitchen.”

“No . . . thank you. But let me help.”

“Not this morning. Take this time to rest.”

And then more silence. It felt like each little request to roll up the tent cords or make sure the fire was put out all the way were made with as little sound as possible so that suffocating blanket of quiet wasn’t disturbed. As they hiked to the car, Prompto tried to fish for a topic that would get Noct talking or Gladio to stop guarding Laura like a criminal for a sec, but everything that popped into his head sounded lame. Things got even worse when they started down the road to Hammerhead, with Gladio twisted in the seat and Noct pressed against the window to get as far away from Laura as possible, even if she had conked out the second the car had started. The awkward quiet pressed against his ears—made even more noticeable because of Iggy keeping the top up due to the blanket of gray clouds hovering way too close to the ground this morning. He shifted a little in his seat, making the leather creak.

He couldn’t leap out of the Regalia fast enough when Ignis pulled up in front of the gas pump at Hammerhead, but as he headed inside the convenience store with Laura, Ignis, and Gladio, he found that their sucky morning wouldn’t be cheered up with a little shopping. Clusters of Hunters stood in front of the shelves murmuring urgently, and while they waited for Noct to finish pumping the gas and Ignis went to check on their Ebony supply, Prompto decided to sidle up to one of the groups—three men and a woman all dressed in dark green and black Hunter garb.

“Still can’t believe they took Insomnia,” the woman said, frowning nervously out toward the main road.

“Was only a matter of time,” said the oldest guy, whose face was so scarred up it was difficult to tell what had been an injury and what had been wrinkles. “Walls are made to fall.”

“Now that Insomnia fell, are things gonna change around here?” one of the two younger Hunters asked.

“Not at all. We may be Lucian in name, but we’ve always lived under the Empire’s thumb. Just you wait and see. Everything’ll go back to normal tomorrow.”

Prompto didn’t like it—this sense of mixed loyalties everyone seemed to have out here. It made him jittery, like a man on a wanted poster casually walking out in the open. Maybe it was because he felt like his loyalties were practically screaming where he stood on the matter even as he stood there in the middle of that convenience store.

He might not’ve known what an MT really was, but he’d had to make a decision on the drive to the overlook yesterday before he’d started killing his first ones. It wasn’t at all surprising how easy it was to side with Lucis in this war—it’d taken all of ten seconds for him to think that the parents who’d taken him in had been Lucian, that Noct had been the only friend he’d ever had until they’d left Insomnia together, and no way would he ever betray that.

He’d made his decision then and there, and he was gonna stick with it no matter what happened.

“Hey, Iggy, need some help?” Prompto asked as he spotted him heading toward the cashier with his arms full of black cans stacked in layers of cardboard holders. “Whoa . . . you buyin’ the place out?”

“The driver requires petrol just as the car does,” Ignis sniffed, placing the cans on the counter next to the cashier. “And due to recent imperial embargoes, I predict these are about to become difficult to obtain on the Lucilian continent.”

“Means you’re not allowed to say a word the next city we stop in, Specs,” Noct sighed, leaning over the counter to put his chin in his hand. “You guys seen Cor?”

“Nah, bet old Cid knows though, if he’s back from wherever he went yesterday,” Prompto answered. “Can we go visit Cindy and find out?”

Gladio hit him on the shoulder and nodded toward the front door. “No need. Here she comes.”

“Where?!” He rose up on his tiptoes to see over the clusters of Hunters, but he didn’t catch sight of that glowing bronze skin and golden hair until one of the groups parted to let her pass—like the goddess she was.

“Hey Cindy!”

“Hey,” Gladio greeted.

Cindy tipped the edge of her cap a little in response. “Glad y’all made it. No weather for drivin’ yesterday, that’s for sure. We were worried ‘bout you boys when ya didn’t show up agin after leavin’.”

Ignis turned from paying the cashier and nodded. “Our thanks for your concern. We had a business matter to attend to before we returned.”

“Lucky y’all didn’t run into trouble last night. Rain usually stirs up the daemons like a behemoth with his snoot caught in a beehive.”

“It was an uncharacteristically quiet evening. I’d also expected to encounter more refugees as they fled the city.”

“They wouldn’t come this way unless they had no choice. Most folks’d leave through the West Gate ‘n head for Lestallum. Ain’t much to offer here ‘sides hospitality.”

“That would explain why the haven stayed empty last night,” Gladio said. “I’d wondered.”

“Where’s Cor?” Noct asked.

As Ignis lifted the flats of coffee and began heading for the front door, Cindy eyed the Hunters, waiting until their group had passed them before speaking in a low voice. “Left to see to business, and left y’all a message with Paw-Paw.”

“Yeah?”

They all paused long enough for Iggy to hide his haul in the Regalia to dismiss it before they made their way across the sweltering pavement to the garage. Prompto scurried close behind Cindy, hoping to get close enough to find out what her perfume might smell like, but Gladio elbowed him in the ribs before he could get close enough, stared pointedly at her swaying short shorts, and waggled his eyebrows.

Dude . . . he just didn’t get it. She wasn’t some random piece of meat. Prompto loved her.

“Boss ain’t sat still one second since he heard y’all were comin’ back. Well . . . ain’t hardly sat still since the news came in.”

But contrary to Cindy’s word, Cid was sat slumped over on a couple of tires stacked by one of the work stations in the middle of his garage. He didn’t look up as they entered the dark, grungy room, but he let out a long sigh and set a silver frame on the rusted-out rolling table beside him.

“Crystal and the king’s ring—what they been after all along . . .”

So . . . Cid had known too. Had they been the only ones who felt like the ground had been yanked from underneath their feet? It sounded like everyone in the entire damn universe—and even beyond, apparently—had known this was coming. It made Prompto feel kinda stupid.

“So all talk of peace was merely a pretext,” Iggy said heavily. Prompto looked up from staring at his boots to see him run his fingers up the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses and close his eyes in defeat.

Prompto guessed if someone as smart as Iggy hadn’t seen this coming, he shouldn’t beat himself up too much.

“They played my father for a fool,” Noct muttered breathlessly, his gaze still blankly locked on the oil-stained floor.

“Don’t kid yourself,” Cid snapped. He idly reached for a heavy pipe wrench holding down that cursed newspaper and set it across his lap, toying with the handle. “Reggie wasn’t born yesterday. Lucis got dealt a losin’ hand, and your old man played it the best he could.”

Cid might still have been looking down at the wrench in his lap, but the four of them all had their eyes locked on Laura, who was watching Cid with a heartbroken expression. Prompto wasn’t all that surprised that Laura’d been telling the truth, though. He’d said some pretty awful things in that tent in the heat of the moment, but Iggy’d had a point last night—she’d always been good to them. It was good to have someone out here confirm her story, though. Maybe Noct and Gladio would chill out a little. Prompto wanted to show his support as defiantly as Iggy had, but he didn’t really wanna chance those two getting mad at him. Besides, it wasn’t like he was in a position to defend someone the others felt didn’t belong.

“He saw this comin’ a mile away, and he wasn’t gonna go down without a fight,” Cid continued. Noct let out a soft gasp of surprise as he looked over at him. “In the end, though . . . well, it just wasn’t enough.” His eyes found the picture frame on the table next to him, and his voice grew small and thoughtful. “I cain’t even remember the last time I saw Reggie. Feels like a lifetime ago. After he became King, I only ever saw his face in the paper.”

“Wait—weren’t you at the coronation?” Gladio asked.

“Nah, I was long gone from the city. Had a fallin’ out o’ sorts with your old man,” he replied, nodding toward Noct. “Right at the end of the trip. He sided with his paw to scale back the Wall an’ let Keycatrich hang out to dry. What he an’ Reggie did with the border policy never sat right with me, neither.”

“Turned out he was doing them a favor, since he let ‘em all hang out to dry later,” Noct muttered under his breath, but luckily, Cid hadn’t heard him.

Still think it was a damned fool idea walling it off like that. Look what it’s done to you boys. Made yeh soft—not like my Cindy. Little wilderness is good for yeh.”

“So you stayed here and started the garage?” Laura asked, shooting a glare at Noct.

Cid nodded. “Ol’ fool had already ordered the damn sign fer this place with a damn crown as the logo,” he scoffed. “Hammerhead Thickskull—never did git the chance to git ‘im back fer that nickname. But I wasn’t ‘bout to let a perfectly good sign go to waste.”

Iggy eyed Laura significantly before facing Cid. “I was given to understand you stayed in touch.”

“We buried the hatchet years later, but never talked face to face again. Shoulda paid a visit while I had the chance. Figured the plan when he called the week before you left, then you boys show up. Why wouldja need lookin’ after if you was headed straight to Galdin? Well, no use dwellin’ on it now.”

“Cindy said you had a message for us from Cor?” Noct asked.

“Said he’ll wait for ya in the tombs. They’re to the northwest of here, just a short ways past the outpost. Find that first.” With another sigh and glance behind him toward the photo, he slapped the wrench back on top of the newspapers. With a pained grunt, he got to his feet and held a hand to his famously aching back. He’d already begun hobbling toward the open garage door when he said over his shoulder, “You need something else, you talk to Cor.”

Prompto waited until Cid had gone around the corner before turning to everyone. “So . . . we’re s’posed to just . . . find this outpost somewhere? By a random tomb? Why didn’t he show us where it was or . . . I dunno, give us more info?”

Noct sighed and started dragging his feet toward the garage door. Prompto leaned in real quick to look at the photo that’d had Cid so interested—was that the King? And a younger Cid? Cor the Immortal? He didn’t recognize the fourth guy, but he figured this must’ve been taken on the trip Gladio’d brought up the other day.

“Another test from the old man,” Noct said tiredly from just outside the garage. “C’mon, Prompto, let’s make tracks.”

“There in a jiffy!” he called out, rushing to catch up and nearly tripping over his untied boot laces in the process. He caught sight of Cid’s red jacket ahead of them as he headed toward the diner. “You know, he sure is hard on us.”

“I think he’s worried about us,” Iggy said.

“Yeah, well, he’s got a funny way of showin’ it,” Prompto shot back. “We just gonna ask around for this outpost? Ooh! Maybe Cindy knows!”

“He wants us to prove that we can make it out here,” Gladio answered. “I guess making connections is part of that now.”

“Well, you can ask around if you prefer,” Iggy said, unlocking the car doors, “but he gave us all the information we needed.”

Noct opened his door and slid into the back seat. “Oh yeah? Where’re we headed then?”

As Prompto shut the door on his side, he leaned forward, noting that Noct wasn’t cringing into the door anymore. Even Gladio had relaxed a little—still turned to the side but at least flipping through the channels of static in search of any new reports on the city. Maybe things would be better now.

“The only outpost that is both nearby and to the northwest of here would be the Prairie Outpost,” Ignis answered, starting the car and pulling away. “It’s a few hours’ drive, so I recommend taking this opportunity to catch up on your rest, Highness.”

“Thank Six!” Prompto sighed, slumping against the door. “I’m wiped.”

Laura leaned forward and placed a hand on Iggy’s elbow. “Are you all right to drive? I do know how to drive if you’re tired.”

“I’m quite all right, thank you,” Iggy replied politely, but there was an edge to his voice that made Prompto wonder. For as much as he always claimed he preferred staying at a haven to save money, he never seemed to sleep much out in the wild. He was always making these little comments about sleeping easier with civilization nearby or starting to feel “unkempt” when they went too many days in a row on nothing but sponge baths. Prompto was starting to wonder if Iggy liked camping at all.

Laura threw herself back in her seat with a huff. “Stubborn jackass,” she muttered under her breath. Prompto looked over at her in shock, and even Noct smirked without opening his eyes or lifting his head from the window.

With the whispery roaring sound her magic made now that she’d aligned herself, she summoned a can of Ebony, popped it open, and leaned forward again to hand it to him.

“At least drink this then, you frustrating creature,” she grumbled.

“Oh, I’m the one who’s frustrating, am I?” Iggy replied airily, taking the can from her. “I’m not the one who—this is hot.”

“What?”

“This Ebony.” He paused to take a sip. “It’s hot.”

Laura sat back again, shaking her head. “Of course it’s hot. Why would I give you a room temperature can of coffee when I know you prefer it hot?”

“Do you guys mind? Trying to sleep over here,” Noct mumbled.

When it fell silent again, Prompto leaned further into his window, silently holding his arm up to invite Laura to lay against him. She looked like crap, and he knew she’d probably need to sleep more after whatever she’d done. After a second’s hesitation, she leaned over to rest her head on his shoulder.

“Thanks, Prom,” she whispered.

She smelled like campfire and flowers.

Laura didn’t use their armiger much—mainly for her clothes and camping supplies—so maybe she didn’t know that theirs would only summon things at room temperature, even if they’d put it in hot or cold. It actually made drinking stuff like sheep’s milk kinda gross. He bet the second they got to the outpost and were allowed to talk again, she and Iggy were gonna have some long, in-depth discussion about the science behind pocket universes.

It was the bright sun and the heat radiating through the tinted window that forced Prompto to open his eyes, but it was a close thing to keep from falling back to sleep. The fact that he hadn’t expected to find the scenery unmoving when he looked out the window made him sit up a little, careful not to jostle Laura. Looming high above his window, surrounded by more brown, dry dirt was another gray glowing rock of a haven.

“Iggy?” Prompto heard Gladio ask hesitantly. “You all right?”

Prompto turned his head to see Iggy staring wide-eyed out Prompto’s window.

“Ehh!” Prompto squeaked before he could stop himself. As Laura lurched off his chest, he looked out the window to search for whatever had freaked out unflappable Ignis. But everything looked normal—a burly Hunter in a sleeveless shirt even strolled behind the car toward a rusty old shed across the street, a dusty dog panting by his side. “What is it?”

“The hell is going on?” Noct demanded in a gravelly voice.

“Ignis? What’s wrong?” Laura asked.

Ignis frowned, his eyes raking over everyone and lingering last on Prompto. Prompto swallowed. It’d been his fault he’d woken everyone up, but it wasn’t like it was any kind of normal thing for Iggy to make that face at something.

“Apologies for the fright.”

“Yeah, sure, but what’s the problem? Are we at the outpost?” Noct asked.

“Yes, we’ve arrived. But an uncanny familiarity stirs in me as I look at this place—as though we’ve been here before.”

Noct turned in his seat to take in the dirt road they came in on, the cloud of dust they’d kicked up still hovering over their tracks. “Course we’ve been here before. It’s just like Hammerhead and Longwythe and every other hot, dirty inch of Leide.”

“More run down though, from the looks of things,” Gladio said, opening the door.

“Certainly.” Iggy waited until Noct had gotten out before shutting both doors while Prompto and Laura stretched and joined them. “Still—we’re likely to be more comfortable staying in the caravan this evening than the haven.”

“Fine by me,” Noct said with a yawn. “Guess I’ll go pay.”

“Supper requires preparation ahead of time,” Iggy said, eyeing the crumbling shell of an old brick building before crossing the road to the camper next door. “I’ll see to it.”

Prompto and the others threw themselves into the lawn chairs out front while Iggy summoned a large bowl. As Laura leaned forward and put her head face-down in her arms, Iggy tossed her a sharp frown, but stayed silent as he summoned a jug of water and began to fill the bowl.

This place just didn’t feel right—he didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was the old rotting shacks, the bombed-out houses . . . or maybe the crackling electric spire rising high into the air like a red beacon in the distance. It looked to be coming from a walled off area over the ridge, which screamed “fort” to even Prompto’s inexperienced eyes.

“So this place used to be Keycatrich?” Gladio asked doubtfully.

Ignis looked toward the north, where through an old twisted tree and on the other side of a cliff, a mass of twisted metal reached for the blue sky in the distance.

“The outskirts, perhaps,” Iggy answered. “The city was once a wealthy intercontinental trading post, interestingly enough, where the gil was introduced to Lucil, and I imagine some of that was accomplished via sea trade on Lucinia Sound.”

“So you think the ruins are near the sound?”

Ignis summoned a bag to his hands and began pouring what looked like red beans into the bowl of cold water. “I would imagine so. They say the Founder King’s statue is the only evidence of the once vibrant city. Not even the relics from the Astral War remain undamaged. I do hope we have the opportunity to see them on the way to visiting the Marshal.”

Sensing the beginning of one of his long, boring history lectures, Prompto changed the subject. “So what do we do now? Search every one of these shack things until we find Cor? Where are these tombs?”

“Nah,” came Noct’s voice from a ways away. Prompto looked over to see him approaching from behind a Culless arms truck identical to the one they saw in Hammerhead. “Monica’s waiting for us back there. Said she knows where Cor is.”

Laura lifted her head from the table. “You guys are just going to talk to Monica for now, right?” she asked, reaching for the bowl of beans Iggy had placed in the middle of the table. “Nothing else?”

“Yeah, for now,” Noct said as he drew closer, narrowing his eyes at her. He handed Iggy the keys to the camper. “Why?”

She looked down at the gravelly ground between her feet and bit her lip for a second. “I’m not . . . well today,” she said with a grimace. “If you’re just meeting her and exploring the outpost, it should be safe enough for me to stay behind.”

“You sure it’s that?” Gladio asked suspiciously, clenching his fists at his sides as he stood and put himself between her and Noct. “Sure there isn’t some other reason you don’t wanna see anyone from Insomnia?”

Iggy turned from handing Laura the keys to the camper and frowned. “Gladio. Enough.”

“No, I wanna hear this too,” Noct said. “Cid only confirmed my dad knew the war was coming, not that you weren’t a threat. You’re only still with us cause Cid and my dad haven’t talked since he met you.”

“I have full confidence Cor will back me up just as much as Regis would have,” Laura said, raising her chin defiantly, “so when you find out where this tomb is, come and get me.”

“Are you gonna be okay?” Prompto asked. She always came along, even when she had no intention of hunting with them. She’d seemed sick since the night of Noct’s bachelor party thing, but even though she’d done nothing but sleep and fight since then, it looked like she wasn’t getting any better.

“It was that tree,” Iggy said accusingly.

Prompto didn’t know what he was talking about, but Laura must’ve because she shook her head. “It wasn’t the tree. It was a subtle spell that let me do what I needed to do yesterday at the Wall. Turns out some types of magic are worse than others to use on this world.”

He thought back to when they’d fought their way through the Wall to get to the overlook yesterday. She’d moved way faster than a person should be able to, almost like she’d been constantly warp-striking in a blur of gold. They’d all had trouble keeping track of where she was at any given time and had to follow the golden trails of mist and bodies just to find her. He hadn’t thought too much about it at the time because he’d been relieved not to have to handle the soldiers, and after that, their entire world had fallen apart and he’d forgotten about it.

“I’ll be fine—just need some more sleep,” she said with a soft look at Prompto. “Just come and wake me if you’re leaving the outpost, okay?”

“Yeah,” Noct grunted and turned to leave. “Sure.”

Talking to Monica didn’t exactly put their minds at ease about what the city was like inside. When she mentioned that most of the Crownsguard didn’t make it through the first round of the battle, Prompto couldn’t help but look up at Gladio and Iggy standing stiffly on either side of him. Would they have died in the invasion? As much as he hated to admit it, probably. Gladio and Iggy might’ve been amazing fighters on the field, but there’d been way more experienced guards on duty that had fallen that day, he bet.

It was selfish of him to think it, but he was glad they’d been out here when the city was attacked. Prompto would’ve lost them too.

“It was all we could do to escort Lady Iris out of the city. Dustin is with her as we speak, seeing her the rest of the way to Lestallum,” Monica said.

Gladio rubbed his hand over his mouth before replying, “I owe you guys big time.”

Monica nodded an acknowledgment and faced Noct, bowing. “Be sure to head for the royal tomb immediately, Highness. The Marshal awaits.”

“Right.”

Without even glancing toward the camper, Noct marched out the sliding rear door toward the rusted-out gate that led to the path Monica had said would take them there.

“So um . . . Noct?” Prompto asked hesitantly.

“Yeah?”

“If this tomb isn’t in the outpost, shouldn’t we go and get Laura before we head up? She told us to wake her if we left.”

“No,” Noct said, quickening his pace to a loping jog. Prompto sped up to stay alongside him as the other two took up the rear guard. “We still got the four of us. This shouldn’t take long.”

The path to the tomb was a long, winding, uphill run along a dusty path that kicked up little clouds as they ran, covering them all in a fine layer of golden dirt and a light sheen of sweat like a gritty, unwelcomed blanket. Leide had been a huge change from Insomnia, but he was ready to move on to somewhere else—somewhere cooler and less filthy—if they couldn’t go home.

“So this tomb thing we’re headed for,” Prompto asked easily, glad for all the years he’d spent running, “does he mean one of the Old Kings’ tombs? Are we doing your tour now?”

“Dunno.”

“Sounds like it to me,” Gladio said.

“Well, what’s a tomb doing all the way out here, anyway?” Prompto asked.

“The tombs are said to be erected across the provinces as a memorial to the king or queen who claimed that land in the name of Lucis,” Iggy answered. “As the war began to escalate hundreds of years ago and the population began to dwindle, those locations have slowly been lost to time, though I imagine legend of their protective enchantments endure locally.”

“Always got the impression House Caelum encouraged everyone to forget,” Gladio said.

“If one reads between the lines, one could draw that conclusion. The Marshal and Master Cid should be aware of those which they visited on His Majesty’s Bonding of Souls tour, at the very least.”

“A first step to taking back the kingdom?” Noct asked. “If Cor’s even there when we get there.”

“Yeah. Can’t keep up with this guy,” Gladio said.

“First, the Crown City. Then Hammerhead? Then the Royal Tomb?” Prompto said, drawing a three-pointed line in the air in front of him. How many places were they gonna have track this guy down to before they could get some answers? It’d be nice to have someone who knew just what the hell was going on to tell them what they were supposed to do now, maybe even help them out.

“His nickname should have been Cor the Restless,” Iggy muttered.

“Yeah, somehow not as catchy as Cor the Immortal,” Gladio said.

“And making it out of Insomnia only adds to his legend,” Prompto said in awe. If most of the Crownsguard hadn’t made it out alive, then Cor must have been an incredible warrior to manage it. Prompto had seen him several times around the Crownsguard training facility, but since he’d only been there for self-defense training, he’d never gotten the chance to see him actually fight. Iggy and Gladio were ranked high enough to spar with him though, and listening to Gladio do a play-by-play of all their matches while Iggy detailed his “tactical brilliance” made him sound more like a god than a man.

The path had thankfully transformed from dirt to rock, but the incline got steeper as they turned off a fork in the path toward the left. High, rocky ledges stretched above them on either side, making him feel restless and jittery all the sudden. If something attacked them here, there wouldn’t be a lot of room for them to fight it, and there were only two ways to escape. His fingertips twitched a little as they jogged, but he tried to shake the feeling from his mind and concentrate.

Noct, beginning to get a little out of breath, tried to let out a sigh, but it came out more like a huff. “Good to know we still have people we can count on outside the city. Cor and Dustin and Monica.”

“Speaking of Cor the Immortal, wonder if he knows about our extra passenger,” Gladio said bitterly.

“You mean really?” Noct asked. “Dunno. Guess we’re about to find out. Cor’s got a lot to answer for.”

“Do keep in mind that Laura’s secrets aren’t ours to share,” Iggy said with a frown. “Enough of her story has checked out that she should be considered an ally. Should the Marshal prove unaware of her situation, it isn’t your place to inform him.”

Noct was about to reply—and judging by the angry look on his face, probably with some kinda smartass remark—but Iggy slapped a hand to his back and pushed him to the ground.

“Prompto, look out!” Iggy called up from the ground just as a set of black, sharp claws closed over where Noct’s head had been seconds before.

“I gotcha, buddy!”

Oh man, he knew they were gonna be ambushed here—he’d just known it. He summoned both his handgun and the cocytus he’d picked up in Galdin Quay, alternating shots left and right at their flying attacker’s white breast—so some kinda giant bird, he guessed.

“They’re daggerquills,” Iggy said in answer to his thought. He stood and pulled Noct to his feet. “Weakest to daggers, firearms, and fire. Highness, you may want to switch your usual weapon.”

Ignis flung a hand over his shoulder, summoned a dagger to his fingers by the tip, and hurled it at the bird Prompto wasn’t working on. He followed through with the momentum of his throw, hopping forward a couple of steps on one foot. The blade buried itself into the bird’s ribs, and as it let out an ear-piercing shriek, Iggy held out a hand, summoning the dagger back to his palm. Prompto never could figure out how he always managed to summon and dismiss from a distance like that. Even Gladio could only do it if he was touching the weapon.

“Ignis!” Noct called out in that specific tone he always used when he wanted one of them to do their special move.

That kinda sucked. He’d been hoping to be asked to use his piercer technique, but he guessed the better call would be to have Noct warp up there to the enemy. He did his best to chase his inner daemons away with a few more shots to his bird.

“On your mark, Noct,” Iggy replied, flinging a dagger at each creature with practiced, almost cocky movements.

Prompto stopped shooting for a second while Noct warp-struck both daggerquills with a thunderous whoosh-clang, burying his own daggers between their ribs. The bird Prompto hadn’t been working on fell to the ground, where Gladio raised his massive sword above his head and struck with all his strength, decapitating it.

Eager to make his own kill and prove himself, Prompto summoned a fire spell just as the bastard dove down at him, its vicious black claws extended. He ducked for cover, but it wasn’t low enough.

“Prompto!” Gladio shouted.

“Ahh,” he gasped as burning pain slashed across his arm, but when it became clear the daggerquill wasn’t gonna snap him in half or carry him off, Prompto looked up and hurled the spell at his target. The flask of fire hit its mark and shattered against the daggerquill’s neck, frying it in midair with a bloodcurdling scream. The sickening stench of burned feathers and flesh washed over him like a wave as the bird landed at his feet with a sizzling thud.

“Heh, would you look at that, Iggy? You don’t even have to cook it,” Gladio chuckled, clapping Prompto on the back.

Iggy slapped daggers with Noct in celebration before strolling toward Prompto to inspect the kill. He placed a gloved finger to his lips, tilted his head, and stared down thoughtfully at the corpse as Gladio poked it several times with the tip of his boot.

“Yes, well done, Prompto. A little too well done, in fact. Burned to a crisp, but no matter. There’s plenty of meat on the other.” His eyes fell on Prompto’s arm. “You’ve been hurt.”

“It’s fine,” Prompto shrugged, looking down at the scratch. If he was being honest, it did really hurt. It felt like his entire arm was on fire. “Not serious enough for a potion.”

Iggy held out a hand. “Allow me?”

“Um . . . okay?”

Iggy gently took his elbow in one hand and positioned the other so it was hovering over the still-bleeding gash. He closed his eyes. Prompto was about to ask what he was doing when a sparkling green light floated from his fingers and landed on Prompto’s arm. An intense itching bubbling over the wound made Prompto grit his teeth, but he forced himself to watch as it sealed itself up, leaving behind unmarked, bloody skin just as it did when he took a potion.

“Whoa! You can healcast, Iggy? Like a Glaive?”

He took a step back, rubbing at the hand that had cast the spell. “Not with their potency, but I can manage minor scrapes.”

“That’s awesome! Thanks!”

“Think nothing of it. The opportunity presented me with the chance to practice.”

Gladio held up a fistful of vibrant blue and gold plumage and nodded down at what was left of the corpse. “Got the goods,” he said with a jerk of his hand, dismissing the feathers.

“Hope we’re almost there,” Noct said. He began hiking toward what looked like the top of the hill they’d been climbing, and the three of them followed behind.

Prompto slowed as they passed between two enormous stone pillars reaching high above them, craning his neck as far as he could to see the tops. “Whoa,” he breathed, pulling out his camera to take a shot of Noct dwarfed by the insanely huge masonry. “You see that, Noct?”

“The huge columns?” Noct said, shaking his head and following Iggy and Gladio up the stone steps to the three-quarter-dome shaped tomb. “Yeah, I see ‘em. Come on, Prompto.”

“Don’t rush it! Even more important to document everything than before!” Because when they took back Lucis, he was gonna be the only one with photographic evidence of their journey every step of the way.

The building was decorated with black stone ribbing that rose to the sky in three sharp points, and over the door to the tomb, a sentinel statue in long flowing robes stood watch. As Noct pushed open the ornately carved door, Prompto snapped more photos of the three of them, framing the shots so that the most interesting parts of the architecture would be in the background.

“This is so cool!” he muttered softly. “How many people’ve seen this place, d’ya think?”

“No one,” Noct grunted, pushing harder on the door, “if this door’s anything to go by.”

Gladio rolled his eyes and stepped forward to help. “Door’s just heavy. Cor must’ve made it in here somehow.”

The inside was just as amazing—stone carvings with swooping flourishes, statues that looked like knights standing guard on either side of a stone king lying on a gilded table in the center, and a carving of a lone woman in long flowing robes standing watch behind none other than Cor Leonis, Marshal of the Crownsguard. He took one more shot with Cor the Immortal in the frame before putting his camera away. He didn’t wanna look like he wasn’t taking this seriously in front of Cor, of all people.

“Your Highness,” Cor said gravely, stepping up to the stone sarcophagus. “You made it.”

“Where’ve you been?”

Cor frowned deeply, but answered, “Gathering intelligence. Interviewing survivors. I have put together a full report, which I will send to Ignis once I’ve completed my investigation of the lead witness.”

“And?” Noct asked tersely. “Give us the short version.”

Cor pulled himself straighter, clasped his hands behind him, and lifted his chin. “A report from a Glaive by the name of Libertus Ostium—the Empire was able to overtake the city because approximately seventy percent of the Kingsglaive turned against Lucis and fought on their behalf, including Titus Drautos.”

What?!” Noct demanded.

“Drautos was serving Niflheim for over a decade under the name General Glauca.”

“The guy who killed Luna’s mom?!”

“Marshal,” Iggy said, stepping forward, “does Captain Drautos still pose a security threat? He has information on the retinue, including a general idea of our location.”

“Doubtful, though it can’t be discounted. Approximately seventy percent of the Glaive are now unaccounted for—they’ve gone missing. And according to Mr. Ostium, another Glaive by the name of Nyx Ulric fought Drautos the night of the invasion—with the Old Wall and the Ring.”

“Shit,” Gladio muttered under his breath.

“What is it?” Prompto asked in a whisper, looking over at Gladio’s and Iggy’s shocked faces.

“He’s dead,” Iggy answered. “No one not of royal blood may use the Ring of the Lucii and survive.”

“Nyx . . . I remember that name,” Noct said softly. “He’s the guy who drove me home the day before we left.”

“One more thing,” Cor said. “Ostium also reports that Lady Lunafreya is alive. He escorted her through the West Gate the morning after the invasion. She was last seen with a group of refugees bound for Lestallum, but her intended destination was Altissia.”

“Luna? What was she even doing in Insomnia when we were supposed to meet her in Altissia?” Noct asked in a panic. “What about my dad?”

Cor shook his head. “The King had entrusted the Ring to her before they were separated. As to why she was in the city, I cannot say.”

Noct looked down at his boots, his shoulders hitching on a sigh. “So you wanna tell me what I’m here for then?”

“In a time unknown, only a prophecy keeps hope alive in people's hearts: ‘When darkness veils the world, the King of Light shall come.’”

“I know the prophecy,” Noct growled. “Been hearing it since I got back from Tenebrae.”

Cor’s voice grew sterner. “Look at the facts: The Crystal has been taken, the enemy remains standing. Many are dead, but more are alive still. What hope is there for them? The darkness has arrived, Highness. The time has come for you to gather your powers that you may become what you were destined to be.”

He held his hand out over the statue lying in front of him. “The Power of Kings—concepts passed from the old to the new through the bonding of souls in the form of spectral weapons of light. One such soul lies before you—the Wise King. To claim your forebears’ power is your birthright and duty as King.”

“My duty as King of what?”

The defeat in Noct’s tone didn’t sound like him at all. Even Gladio’s and Iggy’s eyes snapped to the back of Noct’s head, visibly shaken by his words. Iggy especially looked disturbed, his mouth falling open to reveal clenched teeth as he took a hesitant step toward Noct. Prompto knew that Noct had been having a hard time since that overlook, but he’d had the distraction of figuring out what to do next. Now that they’d arrived at “next,” his break was supposed to come soon. Prompto just hadn’t expected it to be in front of Cor and everyone else.

“How long will you remain the Protected?” Cor demanded impatiently, taking a threatening step toward Noct. Prompto took a nervous step back. “The King entrusted the role of Protector to you.”

Entrusted it to me?” Noct spat. “Then why didn’t he tell me that? Why did he stand there smiling as I left?!” he roared hoarsely, slapping a hand down on the sarcophagus. He gripped the gilded edge until his knuckles turned white. “Why—” he took in a deep, shuddering breath, and for a second, Prompto thought he was actually gonna cry right there in front of all of them.

It looked like he was trying to compose himself as he brought his other hand to the table’s ledge and looked down at the floor. Prompto couldn’t stand to see his best friend like this. He turned away and hung his head, fighting the burn in his eyes as he listened to him grieve. Gone—home really was gone, and Cor wouldn’t be the one to bring it back.

“Why did he lie to me?” Noct whispered in anguish.

“That day, he didn’t want you to remember him as the King. In what time you had left, he wanted to be your father. He always had faith in you that when the time came, you would ascend for the sake of your people.”

It was then that Prompto heard it—the tiny gasps and hitching breaths of Noct in tears. He couldn’t help himself; he had to turn around and make sure he’d heard right. He couldn’t see Noct’s expression from where he stood, but he could see his shoulders shaking with silent sobs. Gods, what a nightmare. And now they were expected to just . . . move on and do what, exactly? Hopefully, Cor or Iggy had a plan for them for getting the Crystal once they’d finished Noct’s Bonding of Souls thing.

“Guess he left me no choice,” Noct sighed. He straightened—his eyes still shimmering, but hard. He held his hand out over the King’s statue, and the Sword of the Wise glowed with a brilliant blue light, so bright that Prompto had to throw up a hand to shield his eyes for a second. It raised high into the air before plunging itself into Noct’s chest. A cry of denial rose in Prompto’s throat, but he swallowed it as the ghostly sword disappeared. A bright, glowing outline of the sword circled Noct a couple of times like it did in all the artwork depicting the King’s Royal Armiger before that too, disappeared.

As Noct stood clutching a fist to his chest, staring off with a pained look on his face, all Prompto could think was that this was it. It’d finally started.

“What would be the best course of action now, Marshal?” Ignis asked. “We must come up with a plan for visiting the remaining tombs.”

“Calm and collected as ever, I see,” Cor said, shaking his head with a curl at the corner of his lips. He looked over at Noct. “That’s not the only power your forbears left you. Your journey’s just begun. Another tomb is close by. I suggest you head there next.”

“So just how many of these ‘powers’ are out there?” Noct mumbled, still staring down blankly at the Wise’s statue.

“I know the location of only the thirteen your father visited. I’ve enlisted the Hunters. They comb the land in search of the lost tombs.” His eyes drifted over the three of them standing behind Noct before he asked, “Where’s the girl?”

“We left her at the outpost. She wasn’t feeling well,” Noct said.

Cor squinted disapprovingly at him. “Go get the girl before you head to Keycatrich. Your father assigned her to protect you so I could be free to protect the people. Let her do her job.”

Noct looked up with a snarl. “Did you know she knew too? Did everyone but us know?”

“The signs were there. Those of us paying attention felt something coming,” Cor said. “Given the nature of her assignment, she would need to know to do her duty.”

“Do you even know what she is?” Noct asked.

Iggy took a step forward. “Noct.”

But Cor only shook his head. “She’s wrong, I know. I felt it when I fought her and told the King, but he was already aware. Your father trusted her with your life. Don’t leave her behind again. We don’t yet know what other allies we can depend on.”

“Right,” Noct said on a defeated sigh. He nodded once, turned, and left the tomb without another word, not even bothering to check if the three of them were following.

Prompto wasn’t sure if he was supposed to bow or what—he and Iggy actually hadn’t covered greeting the Immortal himself—so he glanced over to see what Iggy and Gladio did, which was pretty much zero help.

Iggy, of course, stood stiffly and bowed nearly in half. “I’ll be in touch, Marshal,” he said before straightening and striding out.

Gladio just nodded once before leaving.

Which should he do? He wasn’t a super formal kinda guy like Iggy, but he didn’t think he could just play it cool and bob his head.

“Uh . . . t—thanks,” Prompto said, sort of nodding and half-bowing at the same time. Sweet Six, that was dumb, but before he could make an even bigger idiot of himself, he jogged out the door to catch up with the rest of the group.

They took their time returning to the camper, engaging anything they passed in battle so Noct could work out his frustrations—except for the coeurl, which Iggy recommended they steer far, far away from. By the time they caught sight of the outpost, it was late afternoon, and Iggy was itching to get dinner started.

“After all, it takes quite a while to cook the beans down,” he said.

“Does that mean we’re gonna have the burly bean bowl? Whoo!” Prompto cheered, pumping a fist in the air. The spicy stuff he made was the best.

“Ugh, why’s it gotta be beans?” Noct complained. “You know I hate beans.”

Iggy looked over at Noct, the corner of his lips quirking up into a smile. “Apologies, Highness, but I cannot cater to your every whim. We have a convalescing comrade to nourish as well.”

He hopped lightly up the stairs and carefully opened the door, but on taking a single step inside, he froze. “Forgive me; I tried not to wake you.”

“No, s’alright. I was awake anyway.”

As soon as Iggy started working in the kitchen and Noct collapsed onto one of the free bunks, Laura got up from her bed and headed past Prompto out the open front door, nodding silently to both of them. She stopped for a moment at the outside table, and, seeing Gladio sitting there playing on his phone, she kept walking, her feet dragging in the dirt with each stride and kicking up clouds of dust and gravel. Iggy had paused in his work to watch her go, holding the pot of beans and water over the glowing red burner and staring out the window with a deep frown.

“I’m just gonna go check on her,” Prompto said as he jumped up from his seat. He leapt past the stairs, stumbling a little when he landed weird on his left foot, then jogged to catch up with her. It didn’t take long—she was moving so slowly.

“Hey!” he said with a smile and a little shove at her arm. “Where ya goin’?”

When she didn’t acknowledge him but kept trudging past the building with all the huge complicated transceivers and toward the massive lookout tower, he began to get a little nervous. Was she mad at him for how he’d reacted yesterday?

“Thought I’d climb up there and check out the sunset,” she finally mumbled, pointing up to the tower platform.

“Can I come with?” he asked, but then he realized—maybe she wanted to be alone, and here he was forcing his company on her. He winced and rubbed at the back of his neck, waiting on her answer.

They both turned sideways to sidle between two rusted-out, abandoned cars, and when she’d cleared them, she smiled gently at him.

“Not at all,” she said. “I’d love your company.”

“Really? You mean it?” he asked. The guys always seemed okay having him around, but no one had ever straight-up told him they’d actually enjoyed him there.

“Course—else I wouldn’t have said it,” she replied, her smile growing to a grin, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

“Hey—you feelin’ any better?”

Her smile fell, and she let out a long sigh. “Yeah. Probably need to sleep some more, eat something a bit more nutritious than chips.”

“Think Iggy’s got ya covered tonight!”

“Hmm.”

When they’d made it to the top of the tower, she plopped down on the floor, scooting so her legs dangled beneath the railing and over the side. As Prompto made to sit down next to her, she threaded her arms through the second railing and rested her chin on it. Together, they silently looked over the desert to the darkening sky.

“You don’t have to avoid us, you know,” he said, leaning to bump her shoulder with his.

Her eyes fell closed. “I thought you guys could use some space—especially Gladio.”

“Ha ha, yeah,” he chuckled awkwardly and looked down to pick at his fingernails. Gladio’d been saying some of the worst stuff in the tent last night, but they’d all said some things Prompto wasn’t proud of. He didn’t think she’d overheard them, but what if she had? “Really though, I dunno why he’s so mad at you. He’s normally a pretty accepting guy.”

The light was starting to turn the sky all kinds of colors: molten gold, dusky orange, and sylleblossom purple as the sun sank below the horizon, so he summoned his camera to try and catch some of the colors to keep with him forever. After a few snaps, he changed the shot to include her face in the sunset, so maybe he could keep this moment of friendship with him forever too. It would serve as a reminder. He was gonna be a better friend from here on out—to all of them.

“Because it’s too much,” she finally said, opening her eyes to look at him. “The world is ripped away; there’s nothing and no one to fall back on, and I’m an unknown variable. He can’t protect Noctis from me should he need to, and he knows it. And then there’s his father—I could have saved them, it’s true, but then you all would have died in Longwythe.”

“He should come around soon, maybe? Cor totally backed you up at the tomb.” He winced and looked away, hoping she wouldn’t notice what he’d said, but he felt a hand settle on his elbow.

“It’s all right. I already knew. Woke up to find your minds too far away for me to locate, but the Regalia was still here. I just had to trust that Ignis could keep you all reined in for the afternoon.”

It didn’t really matter that she’d known already. He’d still messed up. He was always messing up. No matter how hard he tried, he could never be as good at anything as Gladio or Iggy, so how was he gonna help Noct collect all those weapons and get the Crystal from the Empire? And then what? It wasn’t gonna resurrect all those people that’d been killed—by his people. Six, if anyone was the traitor among them, it was him, not her, and if they ever found out? Well, now he had firsthand knowledge what they’d do to him. Gladio would take a sword to his throat.  

He hadn’t noticed that his breathing had picked up until she did. Laura made a soft sympathetic sound in the back of her throat, which only made it harder to hold his shuddering breath steady. She scooted closer and wrapped her arm around his shoulder, and he leaned into the contact, desperate for any kind of reassurance that there would at least be someone who still cared if everything got out.

“Hey,” she said softly into the top of his head. “Are you all right?”

“Not really,” he chuckled. He wasn’t gonna tell her the real reason he was upset, but he did have some things on his mind. “I feel like crap that I miss home more than anything when other people have lost so much more. But it’s like, we’re not kids anymore; there’s no safety net, cause home’s gone. I just wish I could be brave like you.”

I wish I could tell you all who I really was, and you all would be okay with it.

He felt her body expand and slowly deflate as she sighed and squeezed him tighter into her side. “You know, it’s easy to be brave with all this experience at my fingertips. I’ve been doing this for longer than some civilizations have existed.”

“Still—wish I could have some of that.”

“But you do. You’re sitting here beside me with none of that to back you up—that’s true courage. Just a regular guy leaving home for the first time to face the wild with nothing but his guns and his friends? I find you incredibly brave, Prompto.”

“You really believe that?” A goddess thought he, Prompto Argentum, was brave?

Her response was halfway between a laugh and a hum. “Like I told you before, I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t believe it.”

She gave him one final squeeze before she kissed the top of his head and let him go. “Come on,” she said with a bright smile—this time it made even her tired eyes sparkle. “Now that the sun’s gone down, we don’t want to make everyone worry.”

“Heh, right,” he said, jumping to his feet. He reached down for her hand to pull her up. “Thanks for listening, Laura.”

“I’ll always be here if you need it.”

Chapter Text

Relations were still delicate between the five of them when they set out for Keycatrich the next day, though Laura hardly expected them to be otherwise given all they’d gone through and how much she’d concealed from them. Gladio’s anger would come in waves—his mind would flit from thought to thought until jagged scarlet would suddenly wash over her, making her wonder whether he wouldn’t abruptly turn on her mid-stride to take her head off as he’d fully intended to the night of the Fall. Noctis was doing his best to ignore her existence, but mourning for his father and his plight constantly leaked from him like blood from a fresh wound. While it seemed as though Prompto had forgiven her for her role in the destruction of his home and the probable death of his parents, he still handled her with a hesitancy he hadn’t displayed before, as though he were afraid to be too friendly with her in front of the others.

And Ignis—it was still difficult to tell. The duality that existed between what was going on in that head of his and what he actually expressed aloud was impossible to decipher with such a shallow reading on him.

But she would never argue that she deserved any less from them. It was a miracle this tenuous forgiveness existed at all—perhaps a testament to the goodness in their hearts that Regis had spoken of. All things considered, she was fortunate her confession hadn’t gone as badly as some of those she’d given in the past. What they’d done to her on the Galactica when she’d been forced to make similar revelations about her heritage still sent a shudder through her when she allowed herself to recall it.

“Where exactly is this entrance s’posed to be, anyway?” Noctis whinged, slapping at one of the spindly bushes growing between the barred windows of a half-shattered brick wall.

Gladio reached out to poke the back of his head. “You’re the one with the map.”

He stopped and summoned the folded paper to peer at it. “Think we’ve gone too far.”

“Yes, we passed where it should have been about ten minutes ago,” Ignis said serenely, but as with nearly everything he expressed, his tone belied that fire burning in his eyes and mind. He was nearly bursting with interest in something.

“What is it?” she whispered, but his expression only brightened as he shook his head.

“Then why didn’t you say anything?!”

“Yeah! I’m dying of a heat stroke over here!” Prompto complained.

“Good thing there’s a tomb nearby to put you in,” Gladio said.

“It wasn’t far to the end of the ravine. I was under the impression you wished to take a moment to explore,” Ignis replied innocently, pointing to the ramparts that had likely once formed the Wall that protected the city from the sea side yet still allowed a small portion to be exposed for trading. “This should be the perfect location from which to view a very rare relic—an artifact dating back to the Astral War that was sadly damaged in the battle with the Empire. Judging by the architecture, this must have been near the seat of their local government.”

“How the hell do you know all this?” Gladio asked.

“Hey, guys. Is that the statue of the Founder King?” Prompto asked. He was turned in the opposite direction of the rest of them, pointing to the tall, ornately-armored man standing on a plated plinth, his sword grasped in his hands and the tip resting on the stone in front of him. “Got one of those back in Insomnia, don’t we?”

Ignis’s eyes flicked briefly to the statue, somehow still standing proudly in the middle of the wreckage of what had once clearly been the largest city in Leide. “Nearly identical. They must have been created at the same time. But that isn’t what interests me. Have a look.”

He nodded to a spot high above the ramparts, to the top of the towering cliffs that had loomed over them most of the morning as they’d hiked up here, where the ghastly bronze figure of a hooded man lay broken and corroded, a single hand reaching out as though begging for help, or perhaps warding off a blow.

Keycatrich Statue

“That’s . . . really creepy,” Noctis muttered under his breath, his eyes locked on the statue.

Laura couldn’t blame him. There was something unsettling about the demonic face that had been watching over them as they crept through Keycatrich—the teeth filed to sharp points, visible through the mouth wide open in a scream; the sunken eye sockets; the almost bird-like hooked nose. His stony eyes had been cast at sharp angles facing downward, as though he were enduring some great suffering. The statue’s appearance alone was enough to put a chill in the bones, but she wondered how the four of them would react if they could feel exactly what she felt. She was almost grateful that this creature had been turned to stone, because it no doubt would have come to life to kill them all, with the way circumstances often turned out for her.

Despite the eeriness of their discovery, that rush of excitement at the possibility of the new flooded over her, making her hearts beat a little faster in her chest. Exploring ruins would always be like opening a time capsule, even if she could always go back and see it living and vibrant once again. They were glimpses into an age gone by—little pieces of a life that had once meant something to someone left behind to be ravaged by the slow but vicious assault of time.

She looked over at the other four in the hopes of sharing this bubbling effervescence with one of them—any of them—but only Ignis tore his attention away from the sight, his eyes alight with that same life.

“Uh . . . that thing’s been above us this whole time?” Prompto said nervously. “How’d we miss that?”

“Holding your gaze fast to the ground only makes you more likely to miss what is around you,” Ignis pointed out with another significant glance in her direction, but then conceded, “Though our view of him has been blocked by the cliff face and the ruins for most of our journey.”

“What makes you so interested?” Gladio asked—Ignis specifically. She noted he was careful not to let his eyes fall on her as he spoke. “It’s impressive, but it’s just a statue.”

“It is a piece of history that reaches deeper into the senses than words in a book—it can be seen and touched. It stirs the imagination, does it not?”

“Tell me more about this Astral War,” Laura said.

Noctis rolled his eyes. “Ugh, here we go again. Can we start walking while you do your nerd thing, Specs?”

Ignis’s lips barely twitched into a frown, but Laura could still feel his disappointment in Noctis’s lack of interest. “Of course. The entrance to the tomb is just beneath the statue—a trench that leads into the cliff.”

“Great. Let’s go.”

Laura and Ignis fell back as they picked their way over the uneven rocks, stealing glances at the scene above them. “Original written record of that time is nonexistent, so much of what I know is recorded from stories passed down through the generations,” he warned in a low voice. “There isn’t much to tell, and someone of your experience will likely find it trite.”

She wasn’t sure where he’d gotten such a negative opinion of her, but she shook her head before he’d even finished speaking in an attempt to make her position clear. “Not at all. Besides, even in legends, there’s a grain of truth.”

Ignis’s attention drifted back up to the statue still silently calling out for help above them. “Mankind were still primitive savages when Ifrit, one of our six gods, gifted them with fire—to the very first recorded ancestor in my family, according to my mother.” He glanced down at the ground and smiled a little, rolling his eyes doubtfully. “From his generosity, they used that spark of knowledge to build a mighty civilization over the course of thousands of years, far more advanced than what you see today.”

“Like Atlantis.”

He frowned, and she could tell he was working up some way to admit he didn’t know what she was referring to.

“Sorry. Never mind that now. I’ll tell you about it later. You were saying?”

“They worshipped all of the Six, but none more than Ifrit, who was said to love them as dearly as children.”

But she knew where this was headed—she’d asked him about the Astral War, after all. “What did they do?”

He shook his head. “History doesn’t say. Only that Ifrit turned on mankind. When he attempted to wipe them from the face of Eos, the others intervened to protect the balance of the planet. The Six and their twenty-four Messengers engaged in battle, mankind nearly went extinct in the crossfire, and the civilization was utterly destroyed.”

“I’d wondered about that. This world’s population is sparse compared to others of its size and technological advancement. All this wide-open space, dotted only with primitive, beleaguered settlements.”

“I fear the disappearing disease has had a greater effect on the people beyond the Wall than previously discussed in the capital. Texts led me to believe that we were once far greater in number.”

“So they recovered from the war and declined again?”

Ignis pursed his lips and tilted his head in thought. “In a manner of speaking. The human race lived on, but the ancient civilization fell to ruin, along with nearly all its technology and infrastructure. That statue and a few sites around the globe are all that’s left of its existence. Lucian archaeologists have recently discovered more, but I confess I haven’t had the time to read the article recently published.”

Laura had followed behind Gladio and Prompto into the rocky trench that led to the dark, gaping passage in the cliff wall, and as a deep sense of foreboding tickled across her instinct, she noticed that Ignis was no longer by her side. She turned to find him frozen just inside the entrance to the trench staring up at the statue, his mind still, but she could taste the faintest tinge of fear emanating from the color of it.

“Ignis?” she whispered, hoping not to attract the others’ attention. “What is it?”

“I read about this place so many times as a lad in my studies. Something about the story always drew me to it,” he murmured almost to himself, “but there were never any photographs. This place has stirred something in me since we arrived yesterday, yet no sight has hit me quite like this particular view.”

He’d been saying queer things like this since they’d left the city, and each time that odd expression would cross his face, she would wonder about that instinct of his—whether it rivaled her own. He did seem to be more magically gifted than was typical for a human on this planet, which often went hand in hand with the ability to perceive beyond the physical. Though they needed to catch up with the others before they noticed how far behind they were, she had to test her hypothesis.

“Can you feel anything from that statue?”

He looked down at her and frowned. “Nothing in particular. Another perturbation of instinct—familiarity, much like your presence.”

“Perhaps you can sense the future and saw this moment,” she suggested.  

“Perhaps,” he said in a distracted tone. But he seemed to come to himself and suddenly took several hurried steps forward to catch up with the others. “Why? What do you feel?”

She pursed her lips, unsure of how to explain it. “Shadows of life and power.”

“Do you mean to say that it’s alive?”

“I don’t think so. Not anymore.”

“Then—”

Prompto’s shrill exclamation cut him off. “We’re not seriously going in there, are we?” He pointed to the brick-lined archway set into the stone. “What even is this place?”

“Yep,” Noct said.

They passed beneath the arch, immediately plunged into a darkness even her eyes couldn’t pierce. As the other four turned on their travel lights to reveal rough-hewn, sand-colored stone that formed a sort of antechamber connected to a narrow passage, the varying levels of discomfort from all four of them distracted her for a moment.

Not surprisingly, Ignis’s unease was second only to Prompto’s, but his voice was calm and steady as he inspected the anteroom they’d found themselves in. “It appears to have been a shelter.”

“People lived here?” Prompto asked.

“Those seeking refuge from war, most like.”

“Wars,” he scoffed, “what’re they good for?”

Laura couldn’t help but smile in amusement. She doubted the song existed on this planet in any form, but she still added, “Absolutely nothing.”

“Huh . . . wonder if anyone’s still living here.”

Laura’s and Ignis’s eyes met as they stepped into the narrow passage together, but as they took another step into the dark, her time sense slammed against the back of her eyeballs with bruising force.

A fixed point, an unavoidable occurrence in the very near future, had just announced itself with all the subtlety of a freight train.

***

Laura sucked in a sharp breath as the spectral Axe of the Conqueror sliced through Noctis’s chest, and her hearts broke a little to see his eyes dim as that small piece of him died to make room for the power he’d just received. This entire procedure was sickening to watch happen to a child so young, but then she had to remember that she’d been a year younger than he the first time she’d been hollowed out. Perhaps there was something about the pliancy of youth that made this process easier to bear—or perhaps the older were just wise enough to fully understand the cost.

But as she watched that pained expression take over his face and his hand reach up to grasp at his chest, she wondered if he truly did understand what was happening to him. His eyes held the suffering of a boy who knew he had just taken one step closer to the threshold that separated man from something more akin to a god—one step closer to the veil that would eventually close around him.

Ignis had told her in Galdin that he’d known where this was headed, but did Noctis? Did the others?

“Let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps,” Prompto said with a shiver.

“Best idea I’ve heard all day,” Ignis agreed as he followed Noctis back into the dimly-lit shaft, and Gladio let out a “Yeah.”

Intent on not drawing too much attention to herself and souring the mood, Laura nodded, though the boys were likely unable to see her in the dark tomb without a travel light on her. The motion made her head spin as though someone had shaken it like a snowglobe—stirring up her heightened sense of the timelines as they coalesced into a seething, writhing mass in her skull.

“I wonder how those moths manage to thrive down here,” Ignis mused from just ahead of her. He pointed toward the cone of flickering amber light up ahead, where a fluttering cloud of yellow moths hovered close, soaking up the illumination. “And what their food source is. I’ve seen several hovering around the lights down here.”

“You’re welcome! Generator that old wasn’t easy to fix, ya know,” Prompto said proudly. “Just wish they’d strung the bulbs all the way to the tomb.”

An ecosystem thriving this far underground was only one of the things about this shelter that made Laura uneasy. There was something wrong with this place. She gritted her teeth in frustration and sighed, exacerbating the pounding headache that had resided behind her eyes since their trip to Insomnia.

Ignis stepped to the side and turned to face her. “Are you all right?”

Laura looked up at him, searching his face for the matching emotion she felt roaring in his mind. He despised being here in the dark, she could tell, but the only hint of that emotion was buried deep in those viridian eyes of his. The number of times she’d seen him perfectly composed, even cocky, while the color of his mind nearly blinded her with some sort of conflicting emotion was staggering. That sort of contradiction was common among liars and spies, but Ignis’s particular brand of it seemed to stem from somewhere deeper, somewhere darker, somewhere she had a feeling that if she delved too deep into would break her hearts. What would a man have to endure in order to have developed such an expertise in hiding his true feelings at such a young age? Given all she’d learned about him thus far, she had her suspicions, but she hoped she was wrong.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” she hedged, not wanting to lie to him. But now wasn’t exactly the best time to inform him that the timelines she could see in her head were doing “weird, non-specific, indecipherable things.”

“I can feel eyes on us,” Prompto murmured melodramatically. “The second we turn our backs, BAM!”

“Wuss,” Gladio muttered.

Laura frowned a little as Ignis held a hand out, indicating that she walk in front of him. She brushed away that slight prick of irritation (honestly, did he think women were incapable of walking in the dark?) but complied without making a fuss. Taking care of others was obviously deeply ingrained into the core of his personality—and it was terribly sweet of him, really—she just wished he’d make an exception with her.

“There is something ominous about the atmosphere of this place,” Ignis noted mildly.

Ominous was a good word for it. Things were about to get as bad as things could possibly be with another added suitcase full of bad—she could feel it writhing in her head like a serpent. And as usual, she couldn’t say a thing to anyone until it happened—at the very least until she knew more about what had caused her time sense to rear up and swallow her whole. She hated holding things back from these boys in particular, as she still remembered all too well being young and naïve, following behind her mad Doctor and trying her best to read the secret significance of his words as he blathered on about nothing of substance. But with age and experience came wisdom, and she found herself sympathizing for the ride these boys were in for with her as she adopted the very same practices.

If it could be at all helped, she’d rather not have to reveal her time sense to them. It was difficult enough for her to understand herself with no training, and it might completely shatter their fragile trust in her if, in addition to being able to “read minds,” she also had to confess that she could sort of, sometimes, in the murkiest way, also see the entire nexus of causality.

They had ascended about halfway through the meandering passageways and half-collapsed tunnels and were about to enter one of a series of larger rooms when a hissing whisper floated on the thick, stale air from just ahead.

“Wait,” she whispered, reaching out to stop Noctis from stepping into the room. “Do you hear that?”

They wouldn’t be able to, and she knew that, but she needed them all to be still so she could identify just what they were dealing with. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the typical pools of darkness she associated with daemons before they appeared. This was something else, something non-native.

“Did you hear something?” Prompto shrieked.

“Quiet,” Gladio growled.

A sharp pain lanced through Laura’s temple, and the knot that was the timeline ahead of them lodged in her throat. Her hands shot to her head in an attempt to keep herself grounded, but her knees grew weak as the room began to spin.

“Laura,” Ignis whispered, placing a hand at her elbow as though to catch her.

Why was he always present for her weakest moments? It only cemented that helpless image of her he’d somehow conjured their first day out of the city.

“Fuck,” she ground out around the drum circle being performed on top of her temporal lobe. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

She’d identified the problem the second the writhing mass turned jagged in her head; this was so much worse than any daemon they could have found down here. She hadn’t encountered one of these creatures for about four thousand years now, where a paradox had come within a hair’s breadth of destroying that entire universe, but their rarity clearly made them no less deadly.

Didn’t this world have enough to deal with without interdimensional predators threatening to rip the seams of the universe apart? There couldn’t have been a more vulnerable time for this to happen, which she supposed was kind of the point, as the creatures were drawn to grief. Actually, given that thought, she should have expected this, with the way her luck tended to run.

They would have been in less danger if she’d been given more time to explain, but there was nothing for it. Their experience in battle with her meant that they all trusted her instincts enough to ready their weapons and look to her for guidance, and her hope swelled that perhaps they all could learn to trust her again.

But here in this moment, their gesture didn’t matter. Their weapons would be no good here.

“Put those away. No questions, no time,” she said in a low, clipped voice. “We need to run. If it appears, keep running. Don’t try to fight it. If you get hit, know the effects are temporary, but above all, you must prevent a paradox, no matter how much you might want to change things.”

“What’s a—” Prompto began, but the whispering had grown so much closer in just the time it took for Laura to say those words.

“Run!” she whispered fiercely, grabbing Noctis’s hand and dashing toward the surface. The potential damage to the timelines would be so much worse it ended up hitting him, so she did her best to angle her body between the sinister whisper she could barely register over their pounding strides and the young prince. She hoped with everything she was that it would hit her instead of any of them. Not being native to this universe, she was in a unique position in that she doubted it would have an effect on her—probably. Well . . . maybe. If it could at all be helped, she’d rather let it get its one shot off and disappear without it hitting anyone at all, but that fixed point still clawing its way up her throat with the potential for a world-ending paradox suggested that this was all going to happen a certain way no matter what she did.

They hurtled up the roughly-hewn stone inclines, passing through primitive doorways and corridors, evading dusky purple clouds of daemons emerging from the ground, and nearly making wrong turns three times as Noctis mistook the route, but Laura continued to yank him along the correct path. And all the while, just below the sound of their labored breathing and frantic steps, that sinister whisper grew ever closer.

“Shouldn’t we almost be there?” Gladio called out from behind Prompto.

“Nearly!” she heard Ignis reply from farther back.

But as soon as the word had passed his lips, all the ambient light was sucked from the tunnel as the creature rippled into view, and the faint whispers grew to a gasping chorus that combined with the roaring timelines, nearly deafening her. It was vaguely humanoid in shape, with shredded grey skin that sagged off skeletal limbs. Its mouth was open in a grotesque silent scream, but instead of an orifice, moist enflamed flesh glistened in the group’s travel lights. Sickly green irises stared sightlessly through them, its lack of pupils suggesting a lack of sentience.

And stars, the smell of it—sickly sweet fetid meat that seemed to wrap itself around a person’s throat and choke off the lungs.

Yet for all its horrifying appearance, the creature was only the size of a garden gnome. Its size belied the doom it could bring on them all, but it was also some small mercy. Should it hit one of them, the effects would only last a couple of days at most, maybe less. But could Laura trust any of them with what they would have to do over the next two days, especially after all they’d just been through? It didn’t seem like Time would give her a choice, and as the pieces of the last couple of weeks fell into place, she had a hunch how this would end.

The creature sucked in a great, wheezing breath, preparing to attack.

“Duck!” she cried, already pushing Noctis to the ground and falling on top of him. She felt her hair flutter as the pus-colored ball of energy passed dangerously close to their backs, then an explosion of air as it hit its mark. The creature, having fulfilled its purpose with its one and only shot, disappeared from in front of them with a cracking sound like breaking wood.

“Laura,” Noctis said after silence had taken over the cavern again, “you can get up now. It’s gone. We’re okay.”

She wanted to tell him that they were most certainly not okay, but she was drowning in a cyclone of frothing timelines that were forcing themselves down her nose and throat, choking off her air. They and their entire world could disappear into nonexistence any second, so no. It wasn’t okay. For a fleeting moment, she wondered what would happen to her if this universe suddenly ceased to exist. Would she simply be shunted off to the nearest parallel, or would she fade into nonexistence along with them?

It really didn’t matter what the universe tried to do; she’d stay with these versions of them until whatever end. She had made a promise. Groaning and holding her head in both hands, she slowly sat up.

“H-hey, you okay?” Prompto asked tremulously. That was two checking in.

“No.” She gripped her head more tightly to keep the mineshaft from spinning. “Who got hit? You guys all right back there?”

“Yeah, all good here. Iggy?” Gladio said, grunting as he got to his feet.

But Gladio’s reply answered her question; his voice had eliminated all other options. Of course it would be Ignis—the one with the most potential for this experience, should they live through it, to be emotionally scarring for all parties involved. Still, all things considered, it could be worse. Of the four of them, Ignis was the one she trusted most to return to the Citadel and act responsibly.

“Ignis, gods damn it, answer me!”

She opened her mouth to protest Gladio’s demand, but the timelines gave another almighty lurch. Blackness threatened to overtake her as her vision diminished to a pinprick. Wherever Ignis was, he’d just done something dangerous—already.

No! They would all die right here in this tunnel if she couldn’t keep a hold on consciousness.

She bit hard into her lip and breathed, hoping the pain would be enough to keep her awake. When she was finally able to open her eyes again, it was to find Prompto breaking a potion over the head of a terrified child sprawled on his back in a muddy patch near the passageway’s wall, his trousers and white linen dress shirt smeared with black muck, his black-framed glasses sitting askew on his nose, and his overly-large viridian eyes darting wildly around at the situation he’d found himself in.

“Ohmygods, ohmygods, ohmygods—it’s gonna be okay, Iggy. You’re gonna be fine!” Prompto muttered, his voice breathless with panic. His trembling hands fluttered just above the child’s chest before he sat back on his knees and looked to Laura for help. “Shit. It’s not working!”

“We sure this even is Iggy?” Gladio asked from behind him.

As the boy sat up and straightened his glasses, Laura could finally access her telepathy enough to feel his mind shifting frantically, assessing his surroundings.

“Of course it’s not working,” she sighed and hoisted herself to her feet, careful to hold her fingertips to the wall for better balance as she picked her way over the loose rocks. “There’s technically nothing wrong with him.”

“What do you mean, ‘nothing wrong with him’?” Gladio demanded. “What’d that thing do?!”

“All of you, hush for a moment.” Laura slowly crouched down in front of the boy that was now subtly shrinking into the stone behind him. “Ignis? Hello!” she said in a bright voice, wiggling her fingers at him.

Far from succumbing to her charms, the boy looked up at her, his eyes narrowing in suspicion and the prickling of his mind increasing. She should have known that even at the age of . . . eight? . . . ten? . . . a boy as intelligent as Ignis wasn’t going to fall for that.

She modulated the false cheer a little. “You were . . . sort of brought here by a wild bit of magic. We’ve taken care of the problem, but we’re still in a dangerous place. Would you mind coming with us so we can get to safer ground?” She held out a hand to him and smiled warmly, hoping that her demeanor, at least, would earn enough of his trust to get them out of there.

He tilted his head, and she had to fight the urge to burst out laughing as those shrewd eyes assessed her carefully as they had so many times as an adult.

“If you please, how do you know my name?” he asked in a soft, melodious tone.

This was going to be a difficult couple of days. He was just too inquisitive, too curious, too damned observant—which were normally things she loved about him, but traits like those were rather inconvenient at a time like this.

“Well, everyone knows the Royal Family,” she said. “And you’re always around the Citadel with the Prince. You’re pretty easy to recognize.”

He frowned, a deep wrinkle forming between his brows as his gaze dropped to his muddy palms. “That won’t do. It is a servant’s responsibility never to draw attention to oneself.”

A thousand different denials leapt up in her throat, but they didn’t have the time for this just now. “Please,” she pleaded, hoping to connect with that chivalrous, logical side of him, “won’t you come with me? We really are in danger the longer we stay in the dark like this.”

The gentle urgency in her voice seemed to reach him. He glanced around at the circle of light the other three were providing, then at the pitch-black tunnel that led deeper into the shelter. He seemed to agree with her assessment, for he tentatively reached for her hand, but stopped halfway.

“I’m afraid my hands . . ..”

“Don’t worry about that,” she said, grasping his fingers. “We’ll get you cleaned up when we get to safer ground.” She helped him to stand, and with Gladio, Noctis, and Prompto taking up a somewhat unsure formation around them, they shuffled toward the arched entrance.

She schooled her features to hide the wave of dizziness that washed over her and smiled down at him. “There are many dangers lurking about—daemons, imperial soldiers, and even wild animals. If anything should appear, I need you to stay by my side. Do you understand?”

Gladio spun to face them, frowning. “Uh uh, Iggy should stay with me. I can carry him to safety if something shows up.”

Gladio—it might not have been obvious to everyone else, but unwilling to turn to anyone for support, he’d taken his losses the hardest since the Fall . . . his innocence and his father. The military training ran too deep with him, and she was all too familiar with the sort of man who felt he needed to be strong for the others. Ignis himself was such a man, though the foundation of trust he and Laura had built—apparently since he was a child—had allowed some small leeway for that nearly impenetrable reticence of his.

Regardless of whether that shell could be broken, Gladio was more than the sum of his training, and this right here was the evidence. Each time she caught him sitting alone looking out at the landscape, reading a book, or protecting one of the boys, she caught a true glimpse of him. Despite still being somewhat limited by his aristocratic upbringing, he could be a thoughtful, gold-hearted brother, and as soon as she had seen that, she’d made it her mission to preserve that hidden nugget of warmth in his heart through this war.

Of course, she’d already failed him once, but it wasn’t as though their innocence could be preserved through this.

In this moment, however, she couldn’t afford to be gentle; this needed to be handled. As much as she wanted to make the point that she could pick Ignis up and run with him much faster than he could, she refrained. It was probably for the best that he’d forgotten to take into account her inhumanity when it came to comparing their abilities, and now wasn’t the time for posturing anyway. And if her suspicions about Ignis’s past were correct, Gladio was the last person that needed to be around the boy.

She fixed him with a stony glare. “You know very well that your place is beside your . . . commander.” He furrowed his brow down at her, perplexed by her phrasing, then at Ignis. “That hasn’t changed.”

She looked deep into his eyes, hoping the significance of her gaze would pass some sort of nonverbal message to him that this was beyond the break in their personal relationship—they were currently in grave danger, even if they didn’t understand that yet. He must have understood, because he nodded reluctantly and took his place by Noctis’s side.

As she passed by them with Ignis trailing just behind her, she murmured so that he couldn’t hear, “I mean it, if you want to live through this, do not utter a single word.”

The five of them stepped through the arch into the blinding sunlight, and believing that most of their troubles lay behind them, the other four, including little Ignis by her side, let out long sighs of relief. Laura, however, took careful stock of their surroundings, including the tactical defensibility of the location. Seeing that they were relatively sheltered by the high rock walls of the trench, she turned to Ignis.

“I’m sorry, Ignis, but I’m going to have to ask you to wait here for just a moment while I talk to the others about something important. We’ll be right over there.” She pointed farther down the trench, where a wall of half-decomposed sandbags lay stacked against the rock. “Nothing can come in without us noticing, and the daemons won’t leave the cave with the sun still up. Just don’t go near the arch, okay?”

His eyes were calm but glassy as he looked up at her and nodded, but his mind was flashing with silent fear.

“Hey,” she said gently, bending over so she was at the level of his eyes. “Everything’s going to be all right, sweetheart, okay?” She smiled sweetly, hoping to put him at ease.

The pulsing red eased somewhat, but he still didn’t say a word as he continued to gaze up at her with that relentless mind of his prickling in thought. Sighing, she gently caressed his cheek with the back of her hand in reassurance, but he sucked in a quick breath through his nose and stiffened at her touch. Right—she’d forgotten he hadn’t been the touchy-feely sort when she’d first met him.

She took a step out of his personal space. “M’sorry. We’ll be right back.” As she passed by Gladio, Prompto, and Noctis, she said, “Come with me.” The three of them cast a nervous glance at Ignis before turning and following behind her.

When they had gathered around her several yards away, Noctis leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at her. “You wanna tell us what’s going on? Why haven’t you fixed him yet?” His expression loosened, his mouth dropping open a little before he said more hesitantly, “He can be fixed, right?”

With the fading of the adrenaline in her system, Laura’s headache had returned in full force to pound at the backs of her eyeballs. “I’m sorry, I need to sit,” she said as she eased herself onto the closest sandbag, but she realized she could no longer see Ignis around the bend in the rock wall from her position. “Gladio, keep an eye on Ignis for me?”

He nodded, glancing in the boy’s direction. “And anything else that’s coming to get us. You wanna get to the point soon? We gotta get out of here. Is Iggy gonna be all right?”

She nodded. “Ignis is fine, for the moment, and believe it or not, is currently the least of our worries right now.”

Prompto bounced on the tips of his toes, looking back and forth between Laura and Ignis farther down the trench. “But . . . how’re we gonna fix him? What was that thing?”

“You’ve probably figured out that that creature wasn’t a daemon. It’s called a paradoxis, an interdimensional wraith that feeds on the destruction of entire universes. When that ball hit Ignis, it sent him back in time to Insomnia, I’m guessing to around the time he was eight to ten years old, and brought his younger self here. Luckily for us, it only has one shot before it disappears, otherwise we’d all be scattered in different points in time right now.”

“What’s the point of that? Why would switching us destroy the universe?” Noctis asked.

“It was likely drawn here after the Fall, at a vulnerable time when people of power would be more likely to want to change their past. You were probably its primary target. It hopes that the swapping of people in their own timelines will cause a paradox, which will tear apart the fabric of reality. Then it feeds off the energy from the destruction.”

“Yeah, about that . . . what’s a paradox? I tried to ask earlier,” Prompto said.

“Say you go back in time and keep your parents from meeting, and you were never born.” They all nodded their understanding, so she continued, “But if you no longer exist, who went back to keep your parents from meeting? That’s the paradox. Adult Ignis could change his past, or we could say something to young Ignis that he could remember and bring back with him to change his past.

“Don’t say anything to him that will reveal your identities. Try not to use names at all. If you must, agree on pseudonyms before doing so.”

They stared at her in shocked silence for a moment but eventually nodded mutely.

“But what about Specs? How do we get Ignis back?” Noctis asked.

“We’ve had one stroke of luck on this, at least. That was a very small paradoxis. The effect should last a couple of days at most, and then their places will switch back on their own. To minimize timeline corruption, I suggest you leave him with me at the haven near the outpost. You guys can stay in the camper in case we need you.”

Gladio said, “You all work this out, I’m gonna check on things,” and headed back in Ignis’s direction.

“Why does it have to be you?” Noctis asked suspiciously. “He didn’t get to know Prompto really until he was like, seventeen. Prompto could stay with him.”

Prompto flung a hand up in the air as though to volunteer. “Yeah, I could do that.”

Laura shook her head. “It has to be me, because of all of you, Ignis knows me the least and has met me the latest in his life. And of all of you, I’ll know what’s safe to say and what isn’t.”  

“Why’s that?” Noctis challenged.

Laura took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Because I’m time sensitive.”

A hundred thoughts—probably questions, accusations, and insults—flitted across the surface of that typically placid mind of his, but she cut them off before they could escape his lips.

“Look, we don’t have time for me to sit here and explain the madhouse that is my brain right now, but suffice it to say, I have a running probability in my head at all times for everything that did happen, is happening, will be happening, has to happen, and must never happen. On a cosmic scale though; I can’t tell you what you’re having for breakfast tomorrow unless your breakfast choice determines the fate of all mankind—which actually has happened, come to think of it. Anyway, it’s not as liberating an ability as you would imagine, quite the opposite.”

Though she had to admit to herself that in this world, for all her skills acquired over her too-long life, she’d never felt quite this weak and helpless—almost like being human again. She wondered, not for the first time, if she would be able to help this group reach their full potential and save the world or if she was just an extra source of complications in an already bleak situation.

. . . It was his mind she noticed first. She’d spent so much time with him these past weeks that she felt as though she was tuned in to that restless prickling of undefined thought, even, it would seem, as a child. That constant fluttering against her mind went suddenly still as it only did when he was either in awe or extremely upset. A scrape of shoes taking hurried steps in the crunchy gravel met her ears as she whipped her head in Ignis’s direction, and pushing past her vertigo, she hurled herself toward the source, not bothering to see if the other two had followed.

Gladio raised both his hands in the air as she approached. “I dunno what happened! He was freaking out about not being home in time for a meeting. I swear, I just reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, and this.” He nodded down at the child pressed against the far wall, who was making a quiet, frantic attempt to disappear into the stone behind him.

“Damn it,” she muttered under her breath. She’d been afraid of this, and she cursed herself for not saying something to Gladio before assigning him to watch over the boy.

“What the hell kinda kid has meetings at his age?”

Laura ignored him in favor of focusing on Ignis, who had his wild eyes locked on Gladio’s feet as he struggled to pull in a ragged lungful of air. His face had grown chalky white, and with each breath he couldn’t catch, he seemed to grow more panicked, his breaths coming in quick gasps.

“Ignis? It’s all right,” she said soothingly, taking slow, careful steps toward him. “Just breathe.”

Those frightened eyes flicked to her briefly, his mind screaming for help, before he collapsed to the dirt.

By the light of all the stars, he didn’t know what was happening to him. Disoriented by the rough trip here and experiencing what appeared to be his first panic attack, he probably thought he was dying.

“Eh . . . what’s wrong with him?” Prompto asked. “Does he have asthma or something?”

Laura looked back to the three of them crowding behind her and held a hand up. She was careful to keep her voice gentle for Ignis’s sake as she said, “Everyone, please back away.”

Gladio hesitated a moment before stepping backwards with the others, his hands now wrapped around the back of his neck. “I swear—I didn’t mean to scare him.”

She turned back to Ignis, whose eyes were rolling in his head, his hands frantically clutching at his rising and falling chest as he struggled to breathe. He would surely pass out any second if she didn’t calm him now. She approached slowly, her hands spread wide in a gesture of benignity.

“Ignis? It’s just me, sweetheart. It’s going to be all right,” she murmured.  

Ever so slowly, she knelt in the dust by his side and reached a hand out to his shoulder. His condition didn’t change in the slightest, but even through his abject terror, the color of his mind shifted somewhat to recognize her as a friend seeking to help. With his nonverbal acquiescence, she carefully maneuvered him so that he was leaning back against her chest and ran her hands down his arms to entwine her fingers with his. Careful not to restrict his breathing, she brought their joined hands to his diaphragm.

“It’s all right. I’ve got you,” she whispered into his ear. “I promise you’re going to be fine. I’m going to talk you through this, all right? Just listen to the sound of my voice. Focus on your breath. Try to match it with my hands.”

She began to hum a soothing song from her childhood in London, a sweet, haunting melody from one of her favorite princess movies, as she rocked him gently back and forth in time with the slow, rhythmic pressure and release of their hands on his diaphragm.

“Hey, I know that song! Ig—” Noctis began, but Laura shot him a sharp look and tilted her head to silently tell him to shut up.

But so many answers to her questions were already falling into place—why Ignis had felt like he’d already known her when they first met, why the identical view of the statue he was blindly staring at right this second had inexplicably sent a shot of fear through him, why Noctis knew a song that no one on this planet should be familiar with. Clearly, Ignis would retain at least some memory of this experience, which meant the timelines had been contaminated since the day she’d arrived in this universe. She reached inward to check the time sense that was still screaming to make itself known, only to find a knotted mass of indecipherable tangles.

Well . . . they hadn’t died yet, she supposed, so this had to have been a part of the fixed point.

After several minutes of humming and rocking as the others looked on in silence, Ignis’s gasps had slowed to long, hitching breaths. Most human children would have begun sobbing hysterically at this point, usually sending them into another fit, but Ignis remained silent beyond his breathing and the strobing red fear in his mind.

“I know you’re frightened, but look at our uniforms. Do you recognize them?”

He nodded against her shoulder. “C-C-Crownsguard.”

“That’s right, we’re Crownsguard, which means we’re here by order of the King. That means that you’re now here by order of the King. Your meetings, your lists, your school—they can all wait, dearest. You’re safe here with us. None of us will hurt you, and you have my word that nothing will harm you so long as I am near. Do you hear me, Ignis? I swear to protect you.”

The little body in her arms gave a violent shudder and let out a whoosh of breath. “Yes, My L—” He stiffened in her arms again. “Your Gr—”

Her hearts broke a little for his distress. In a voice loud enough for the others to hear, she said, “No titles here. You may call me Rose, or Miss Rose, if that makes you feel more comfortable.”

How long had it been since she had last gone by that name? Not since the day her dear James had died and she’d left Earth for good. It had once been the only name she’d ever known, and yet it felt foreign on her tongue as she’d given it to him.

Careful, warned the mind that had, up until Ignis had been transported, been slumbering around her neck. These reckless schemes of yours always nearly kill you when you become personally entangled.

I think it’s far too late for that already.

Foolish child. You never learn. You should not have used that name. It means more to you than your others.

There’s nothing for it now.

Shaking her head free of grief-filled memories long past, she got an idea. Laura remembered Ignis’s words as they’d lain against that anak in the Weaverwilds about his relationship with the sky as a child, a habit he was only just beginning to outgrow. She infused her voice with a wondrous sense of awe and adventure and leaned in to whisper into his ear.

“Ignis, look up, sweetheart. You’re free.”

His head pressed deeper into her shoulder as he raised his eyes further to the sky above him, and his mind went still, the terror turning to wonder and freezing. She wished she could see his expression from this angle. What must it be like for him, after living beneath that ever-present translucent haze shifting over him his entire life, only to suddenly find nothing between himself and endless, clear cerulean?

“It’s the sky,” he whispered in amazement.

She chuckled. “Mmm hmm, and we’ll get a better view of it as we walk to safety. But we really do need to get going now. Are you able to walk?”

As though suddenly realizing he was lying in her arms, he shot upright and tried to stagger to his feet. “Yes, of course,” he said in a soft-spoken tone. “Forgive me.”

“Hey, easy there.” She stood to catch him as his knees wobbled, and as the other three shot forward to do the same, Ignis staggered back a step, throwing himself off balance. She caught his trembling shoulders and helped to steady him.

“Apologies.” He shot her an uncertain look before bending to brush off his trousers and the back of his linen shirt. His flinch was nearly imperceptible as she pulled a towel out from the boys’ armiger to give him, but he accepted the offering with a slight bow and quiet “thank you.”

She waited until he’d finished futilely attempting to return his half-spiked hair to its original state, but he froze when she bent to look him in the eyes.

“I thought I might take this time to—I couldn’t appear so disheveled alongside His Majesty’s—please, I beg of you not to fall behind schedule on my account. Please forgive me if I’ve caused any inconvenience.”

“Take all the time you need, please. It’ll be a long walk back. Are you certain you’re all right?”

Ignis took a deep breath and nodded, his glazed green eyes still appearing too wide with fear as he looked down at the ground between them. “Yes, Miss Rose,” he almost whispered. “If I can be of any sort of assistance . . ..”

She couldn’t help herself. Touch had always been a source of comfort to her—hugs, holding hands, pecks to the cheek—they had always been used to express friendship, connection, compassion. She reached out slowly to graze the tips of her fingers beneath his chin, gently entreating him to meet her eyes.

He didn’t flinch as he looked up at her, and she gave him her kindest, gentlest smile. “All right then. Let’s get going, shall we?”

Chapter Text

“Ignis and I will follow behind,” Laura instructed the other three. Though the journey through the time vortex with what minimal protection a paradoxis offered a human tended to glaze memories somewhat, she thought it best that the boys spend as little time with Ignis as possible—just to be on the safe side. “I recommend you three keep the path ahead of us clear, but stay close enough that I can jump in if needed.”

“Got it,” Noctis said with a firm nod.

“And when we get close, one of you needs to go on ahead and move the car.”

“Ehh . . . huh?” Prompto asked, frowning in confusion. “Why do we need to move the R—”

“Right,” Noctis cut him off with a wide-eyed glance down at Ignis. “I’ll take care of it.”

That—right there—was why they needed to stay away. Prompto might not have been aware that Ignis would be well-familiar with the name of the King’s car, but a slip like that would reveal far too much about their identities before she had the chance to stop him.

They had taken less than ten steps beyond the protection of the trench when the muffled sound of a mobile beeping met their ears. They stopped in a wary huddle and waited for Noctis to pull his phone from his pocket. On checking the caller ID, he looked up at Laura hesitantly.

“I should probably take this.”

She only raised her eyebrow in response—a silent warning to watch what he said.

“Yeah?” he said once he’d raised the phone to his ear.

With her sharp hearing, she could just barely recognize Cor’s voice on the other end of the line. She was able to catch just enough to understand the gist of the conversation—he wanted them to take out a new imperial base going up nearby—and she groaned inwardly. Honestly, she understood that the Crownsguard had been devastated and what loyal Kingsglaive left scattered, but was there no one else to handle these chores? Their schedule was quickly filling up with enough life-threatening tasks to handle at the moment.

“Yeah, we can do it, but it’s gonna take a few days. Something’s come up,” Noctis answered. He paused, and Cor’s voice grew loud enough for her to hear clearly.

“There is nothing more important than handling this now. If this base is allowed to come to full operation, we could lose access to the western side of Lucis—and all of the tombs located there.”

“We kinda don’t have a choice. Listen, I can’t talk about it right now, but we’ve got our own problems.”

A softer murmur sounded from the phone, and Noctis’s eyes met hers. “She agrees. This needs to be handled first.”

Laura nodded.

He finished the call and cast a quick glance down at Ignis, who had silently regarded the entire conversation from his vantage point just to the left and behind Laura. He let his tense expression relax enough to give Ignis a soft smile. “Ready to go?”

“Yes, sir,” Ignis replied.

They took up Laura’s suggested formation, with Noctis, Gladio, and Prompto several yards ahead while Ignis and Laura took up the rear. In any other situation, the arrangement would have left Ignis and Laura vulnerable to attack from behind, but she was confident she could handle anything that tried to make a go at them out here, even in her present condition. She might not have mastered all the Crystal’s powers enough to create a shield just yet, but if necessary, she could always resort to her own magic.

The faraway sound of voices from the other three carried on the hot Leiden breeze and floated back to them, but it was low enough that even she couldn’t pick out the words. Were they discussing this latest assignment? She doubted it. Given that Ignis as an adult had always placed a seemingly impenetrable shield of aloofness between himself and the others, they were likely discussing the details of this most recent development of seeing Ignis at his most vulnerable.

Having allowed the other three enough of a lead to get started, she smiled down at Ignis and held out her hand.

“Shall we?”

He stared down at her fingers with a perplexed expression, as though this were some complex puzzle that needed solving, but he eventually slowly reached out to take it. As best she could now that she was a foot taller than him, she wrapped her arm around his and entwined their fingers.

“Fantastic! Let’s go.”

As she began leading him in the direction of the outpost, he looked up at her with a troubled expression. “It sounds as though my appearance has inconvenienced you.”

“I don’t want you to worry about that in the slightest. While you’re here with us, consider yourself a welcomed guest, all right?”

“If it pleases you, Miss Rose,” he added in a thin, small voice as he lengthened his stride to keep up, “you needn’t keep a hold of me if you’d rather not. You have my word I will remain by your side.”

She minutely tightened her fingers around his. “Is this all right? Does it bother you?”

He frowned, and a cloudy sort of confusion spread over his mental expression like fog. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I’m not holding you hostage, sweetheart. This is just what friends do.”

The fog thickened, but a thread of muddy-green suspicion seemed to penetrate it for a moment. “Friend? You consider yourself . . . my friend?”

“Of course. And you can be mine, but only if you want to.”

“What precisely does it entail?” he asked carefully.

It appeared as though some things didn’t change through the years. Hadn’t they already had this conversation? But he was so much younger this time. She simplified her response.

“It entails anything you wish. Friendship requires no obligation—only that we be kind to one another.”

He broke eye contact with her to let his eyes wander over their wild surroundings, but though she held his hand loosely that he might more easily let go, he didn’t. He also didn’t respond, and after several seconds, she feared she might be asking too much of him. She was about to let go of his hand and tell him it would be all right if he chose not to be her friend when his grip tightened ever so slightly.

That fragile trust he’d placed in her with that one tiny movement slammed into her just as forcefully as it had the day he’d closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep against the back of an unknown wild animal. She only hoped she could live up to it this time.

They fell into an easy rhythm of walking—past the crumbling, bombed-out buildings and half-eroded brick walls of the former city of Keycatrich, interspersed with evidence of the cause of its destruction in the broken tanks and moldering Magitek engines slowly sinking into the sand over time. She wondered if he’d studied this place yet, if it would provide him clues to his whereabouts. Between visual and diminished telepathic sweeps of the area searching for potential danger hidden behind the ruins and among the crags in the cliff faces, she would glance down and notice that Ignis’s sharp, evergreen eyes seemed to miss nothing. They lingered curiously on the ramparts, the machinery, and the ruins in particular, and even past her headache, she could feel the burn of a deluge of questions in his head.

But he kept silent.

To put him more at ease, she filled the silence with friendly chatter about some of the more benign bits of scenery that had nothing to do with the history of his kingdom: the little patches of dried grass dotting the sandy brown soil in a way that almost looked like a river, the striated patterns in the high rock walls shrinking into a narrower and narrower passageway as they left the ruins behind, or how the few trees in the area had adapted to the climate by growing long and spindly branches with dry green brush. With each discovery, that prickle of interest and questions would increase in pressure against her enflamed synapses, but not once did he open his mouth to put voice to them.

It was only when his hand had grown sweaty with the heat that he let it slip from her grasp, but he remained close to her side, his dress shoes seeming to float silently over the gravelly dirt as though he were a phantom that could disappear at any moment.

“You can speak freely, you know—anything you want,” Laura said gently. “There’s a lot I can’t talk about, but I promise not to get upset at anything you say.”

His eyes shot up to hers immediately, narrowing ever so slightly as he weighed the truth of her words. “The commander . . .,” he began hesitantly, “is he the dark-haired man? Is that his true rank? Is he titled?”

This wasn’t where she was expecting the conversation to begin. Having prepared to field a thousand variations of queries on where he was and what had happened to him, she found herself merely blurting out, “Does that matter?”

His eyes grew wide. “Of course it matters. Royal protocol must be adhered to—whether I know the courtier’s title or not.”

“But we’ve volunteered none of that, so how could you be expected to adhere to anything?”

His expression suddenly went calm and placid, his mind retreating in on itself somewhat, and she realized she’d said something wrong. He looked down at his feet and said in a soft voice, “Ignorance is no excuse for failure to comply. I make my best effort to know everyone and everything as a result.”

Seething fury at his insinuation washed over her, though she kept the emotion from her face. The longer she spent in his presence at this age, the more she feared her assumptions to be true, but this was too much. Whoever had forced him to feel the need to hide his true emotions behind a wall had also played mind games with titles, had they?

But he was still walking beside her, his head hung low—silently, patiently waiting for an answer. She let her anger go and attempted to infuse her voice with calm.

“He is the commander, yes, though that isn’t his true rank. I am sorry, sweetheart, but the less you know about them the better. They’ll be leaving tonight anyway, but you have my word they won’t mind if you call them whatever you wish.”

“You’re a member of House Caelum, aren’t you?” he said in a trembling rush, still not raising his head. “You and the commander. I wasn’t aware there were any branches of the family left beyond the ruling lineage.”

“Interesting observation,” she said in an attempt to give her time to come up with an answer that wasn’t technically a lie. “What made you reach that conclusion?”

“High ranking in the Crownsguard—you must be higher than he, as they all seem to defer to you—and your coloring.”

Laura had heard nearly nonstop since she’d arrived of her resemblance to the royal line. With the exception of Regis’s green eyes, many of House Caelum possessed the same hair, eye, and skin color as she, and it was more than inconvenient for keeping under the radar. This predicament had disappeared since leaving the Crown City, where hardly anyone recognized or cared about the monarchy, but she’d forgotten how identifiable this would make the two of them to a young, far too observant Ignis.

She chose to focus on herself in the hopes he would forget about Noctis. “It’s true that they defer to me, but I’m not as highly ranked as you might think. Their deference is to my experience alone. And as far as my lineage—people tell me that all the time. It’s not true.”

“I see. Please forgive my impertinence.”

“Nonsense,” she replied lightly. “I promised I wouldn’t hold anything you ask against you, and I meant it.”

His tone held a measure of surprise as he said, “I appreciate your courtesy.”

She took advantage of the quiet moment to turn in a circle, casting her gaze and mind out for any creatures that might be following. As always, it was a frustrating endeavor, as her sensitivity seemed to be stifled by something in this planet’s atmosphere. But just up ahead of the boys—was that a scattering of light that could indicate life? It was difficult to tell from this distance.

“May I ask how you know about my lists?”

Laura looked down at his soft and too-innocent tone, pausing to think her answer over carefully. He’d emerged from his last query with her unscathed, and now that he was feeling more confident, the games would begin. But deliberately waiting until she was distracted to ask so her answer would be more candid? Child’s play. She’d never been particularly talented at these games as a child, but he couldn’t know that her species had made a lifestyle out of twisting words to speak with hidden meaning and playing games to extract information. As much as she hated the practice, she couldn’t deny that the skill had come in handy since meeting him.

She beamed down at him. “I have a friend like you. He’s very important, very intelligent, and he makes a lot of lists too. I figured you were the same way.”

By the light of all the stars, look at him glow, she thought happily. What she could only describe as a smirk-smile had kindled a matching glittering fire in his eyes in response to her words.

Of course the child is happy. You honor him, Eilendil said in a tone that, had he still had a body, would’ve likely been accompanied by a roll of his enormous silver eyes.

But it was more than that. Beneath the subservience and ever-present loneliness, she’d seen glimpses of that self-assured version of him as an adult. It was only too easy to coax it out of him—he secretly flourished under sincere praise but tended to brush it off outwardly, as if unused to receiving it and unsure of how to accept it. Even more difficult was persuading his quietly passionate side to reveal itself, typically only when they were alone and she’d managed to get him talking about himself. He would stumble for what seemed like forever over her questions until she would suddenly strike the correct one, and he would wax poetic about his desire to see the world or his newly-discovered interest in mixing poisons for their weapons, combining chemicals for dish soaps and laundry detergents, and creating new recipes for them to enjoy. And all while he spoke, that very same expression would light his face up.

Laura had missed him these past few days. He may have offered his forgiveness the night of the Fall and had been cordial with her since, but she longed for those nights by the campfire when he’d been truly open and uninhibited in a way that he hadn’t since before Longwythe. They’d made some small progress that night on the haven, but god, there couldn’t have been a less appropriate time as he grieved, and she’d been giving them all space since then.

And now, he wasn’t even here anymore . . . sort of.

“Are you all right?” the boy by her side asked melodiously, eerily reminiscent of his adult counterpart.

Dumped back into the present, she remembered that she needed to check on the status of those possible telepathic contacts she’d felt before. Reaching out, their closer, brighter minds scurrying back and forth up ahead between remnants of the old ramparts were far easier to identify—a pack of sabertusks on the hunt.

Placing two fingers to her lips, she let out a shrill whistle—there was little point in attempting to skirt quietly around them in such close quarters—and Noctis and Prompto turned around as Gladio kept watch ahead. She pointed and held up ten fingers moments before Gladio summoned his greatsword to meet the first of the sabertusks headed toward them.

“You two stand back,” he shouted. “We got this.”

“This way,” Laura said, placing a hand on Ignis’s shoulder, retreating several paces, and backing him up against an outcropping in the side of the cliff. She could feel him growing afraid behind her, and though she wanted to turn and reassure him, she had to keep watch in case a sabertusk broke free of the fray and came for them. His sharp gasp was nearly obscured by the psithurism of her magic whooshing over their ears as she brought her falchions to her hands and crouched in front of him. She held them out at the ready. It still felt unnatural to be using them again after all these centuries, but when in Rome . . ..

At least the air was no longer shrieking every time she tried to access them anymore.

“Miss Rose?” Ignis whispered.

“It’s all right. The boys can handle this, but I need to concentrate just in case. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”

“Okay,” he whispered even more softly, “though it isn’t me I’m concerned about just now.”

Tenderness for his thoughtfulness washed over her, but she brushed it aside in favor of concentrating on their current predicament.

She hoped with all her might that she wouldn’t have to kill an animal right now. The last thing she needed was to experience death in her mind with her time sense still rolling like an angry surf in a storm and her head still pounding from her time spell in Insomnia. As it was, the pain of the animals’ last moments tore at her ribs and chest even from this distance as Gladio, Noctis, and Prompto began thinning the pack, but she had no choice today. They were one man down, and she needed to stick close in case they couldn’t handle things on their own again. Three against ten weren’t the best of odds at their level of experience.

It was a delicate balance—allowing them room to fight so they could grow and yet knowing when to step in or stop holding back before they got themselves killed. Regis had been abundantly clear in his instructions that she not interfere with their development unless their lives were threatened, but he had to know how impossible a task that was, even for her. It already tore at her to sit back and allow them to injure themselves so grievously in their battles—especially Ignis, who needed to take potions so often while protecting Noctis.

This potion system of theirs was ridiculously bizarre—everyday energy drinks bought from petrol stations and random vendors to be supplemented later by Noctis’s healing power. The magic itself worked as hers did, though unlike her own magic, the wound had to be recently inflicted for it to work. She feared their safety net made them, especially Ignis, more reckless on the battlefield, which honed the already sharp edge between life and death where she needed to step in even finer.

Just—whatever happened, she couldn’t fail them.

She watched with pride and regret in equal measure as the three men took the pack out, quipping and casually wielding their weapons as they protected and supported each other. They had come so far in such a short time, their practical experience increasing their skill exponentially. The little boy behind her who would grow up with the potential to be more skilled than all of them was currently missing from their party, but they persevered nevertheless.

Did they know how much potential there was in all of them, really? How much the loss of their homes had affected their dynamic already? Had they realized yet that all that protection and support and friendship was really love? They would find out soon enough, if they hadn’t already.

She didn’t dismiss her weapons until after Gladio had felled the final sabertusk, and only then did she turn around to check on Ignis. Though his back was pressed against the rock precisely where she had put him, he had leaned forward to reach out a hand as though he were checking on her. She scrutinized his wide-eyed expression, perplexed to see awe color his mind a brilliant gold that seemed far to potent given their situation. What was going through that head of his now?

“Are you all right?” she asked him gently.

He nodded, whispering, “Thank you.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” she said, bringing a hand up to fix the hair he hadn’t quite managed to grow into the shape of his name just yet, “all I did was stand there. It’s the boys who did all the work.”

He turned toward the other three watching them from a distance and bowed his thanks before she reached for his hand. He took it with a tentative smile, and together, they passed through the corroded wire fence that provided minimal protection to the outpost beyond.

“I’m going ahead!” Noctis called back, pointing toward the settlement, and she nodded, slowing her pace to so that they wouldn’t be too close by the time Noctis managed to make it to the Regalia and hide it.  

Ignis squinted against the bright sun, his attention zeroed in on the weather-worn water towers of the outpost, then to the arcing ray of red electricity crackling high into the sky off to the west.

“That’s . . . an imperial base, is it not?” he asked, his voice growing breathless with trepidation.

“Now you understand why we’re keeping a low profile.”

“Where are we?”

“Leide,” she responded immediately with her prepared answer. He’d likely already surmised as much for himself, anyway. She simply had to trust that he wouldn’t remember this part of his journey well, because the odds were slim there existed such a dry region with evidence of a city devastated by a war with the Empire, an imperial base nearby, and oh yeah . . . that statue made the area stand out just a bit.

“That encompasses a rather large area,” he said, suspicion tightening his features, but he smoothed them over immediately before looking around with a practiced, casual air. Honestly, he believed himself just as inscrutable as an adult as well with his tendency to smother his true emotions with calm words, but to anyone actually paying attention, he was surprisingly expressive and easy to read. The only difference between him and the other three was that he hadn’t the tendency to put voice to his thoughts, but to her, he may as well have spoken aloud that he was making his best attempt to finagle information from her.

“I suppose the Ostium Gorge is far enough from the Insomnian checkpoint to truly be considered Leide,” he replied loftily, and if she listened for it, she could hear the barest hint of the patronizing tone that was meant to provoke her into getting defensive and correct him. Again, she fought the urge to laugh. It was a small mercy, she supposed, that he lacked a pair of daggers to threaten her with should he grow more suspicious in the coming days, because he was far too similar to his grown-up counterpart for history not to repeat itself as it was now.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than I have—only those with clearance can know our location.”

“Oh, my apologies, Miss Rose,” he replied, his voice growing softer in disappointment at failing his mission.

“It’s quite all right.” She raised a hand in front of her eyes and looked up in the direction of the late afternoon sun. After such a severe anxiety attack, Ignis would be well prepared to sleep through the evening no matter what time he’d been pulled from his timeline. Would he have the energy, however, to remain awake until sundown? “We’ve nearly arrived, but we still need to set up camp before we can rest. Are you tired?”

“No, My L—Miss Rose,” he lied.

“Mmm.”

The other three had already begun their setting up camp routine by the time Ignis and Laura arrived, and with a significant glare to the adults, she allowed Ignis to do as he pleased. What he pleased, however, was to follow each of the three men around the site, asking questions and volunteering his help in a veiled attempt to work his own subtle brand of magic on them, clumsy though it still was at this age, and learn more about his situation. It was clear he made them all somewhat uncomfortable with the restrictions she’d set, but none more so than Noctis, who seemed to be almost afraid of the quiet child attempting to be visible enough to be of assistance but invisible enough that he wasn’t in the way, as any good servant knew to be.

Heartsbreaking though it was to watch, perhaps this experience would be good for the both of them.

Still fighting the pounding headache and nausea from the churning timelines, Laura elected to set up Ignis’s kitchen equipment. They may not have had the chef himself to help her make supper, but she thought, perhaps, a relaxing chore like cooking might soothe her mind.

Rather than invading Ignis’s supplies, she opted instead to access her own pocket universe for ingredients. She was rarely surprised these days, after having traveled to a new world nearly every day for centuries, but when she learned that the Crystal allowed them access to dimensional technology so similar to what James had made her and she had later modified, she couldn’t help but be amazed. She’d never had a name for where she stored her things besides the Pocket, but “armiger” seemed a limiting term for all hers could hold. Perhaps when Ignis returned, they could discuss in further detail the differences between their versions of such a rare and advanced technology.

She decided on ochazuke for dinner—a simple, comforting, nourishing green tea and rice dish that she’d discovered while visiting Japan about a hundred years ago. Given how ridiculously similar Insomnia had been to 21st century Tokyo, the dish itself, if not necessarily the ingredients, should've been familiar to the boys. She boiled the rice, pressed and grilled the tofu, and set about preparing the toppings, but all the while, she kept an eye and an ear out to the somewhat awkward interactions taking place across the haven.

“Hey. Why don’t you sit down or somethin’?” Noctis asked with that same irritation in his tone as when Gladio would try to ruffle his hair.

Ignis placed his hands behind his back and took a step closer toward the recently-erected tent. “I beg your pardon, sir, but it would be improper for me to sit while there’s work to be done.”

“Yeah, sounds about right,” Noctis chuckled. “And I betcha that prince you look after is always leaving work for you.”

“It is my duty—the highest of honors that can be bestowed upon any subject of the Crown—to look after His Highness.”

Laura watched carefully as Noctis’s hands paused over the sleeping bag he’d just summoned, his stricken expression freezing on Ignis. She’d once heard Ignis describe his caring for Noctis as his royal duties per His Majesty’s assignment, followed by Noctis’s teasing jab that it had more likely been his hobby. The flippant remark had incensed her at the time, but as with this very situation, she held her tongue.

Though she did her best to help where she could, Laura still had trouble with the part of traveling that involved maintaining that careful distance, of withholding judgment on other times, other cultures. She could hardly flit from world to world, recreating social mores in the image she desired, but in situations like these, it was difficult to quell the desire to defend all four of them from any injustice that plagued them—none more so than Ignis.

Perhaps this was more effective than any lecture she shouldn’t but so dearly wished to give Noctis—for him to watch with the eyes of an adult as those same words left the lips of a child.

Gladio let out a booming guffaw and slapped Noctis hard on the back. “Yeah, bet it’s a high honor all right, takin’ care of that sorry excuse!”

“Hey!” Noctis complained irritably, giving Gladio a little shove, which was followed by Gladio retaliating by locking Noctis’s head beneath his arm.

Boys.

“Hey, um . . . guys?” Prompto said hesitantly, interrupting what was promising to be lengthy wrestling match, perhaps even morphing into a full-fledged spar.

Gladio looked up first, his hand still spread wide over Noctis’s forehead as Noctis attempted to get at him with his shorter arms. After a few more swipes, Noctis turned his head as well. They both dropped their arms to stare at Ignis.

His chin was raised high in the air, his jaw and fists clenched tight, but his face had gone bloodless. “You would do well to remember, sir,” he said in a cold, formal tone Laura knew all too well, though it was higher in pitch and trembling beneath the surface, “that you speak of your liege lord. Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum is to become the King of Light that will save you all.”

“And you . . . really think he can do that?” Noctis asked softly, sincerely.

Ignis’s icy gaze shifted in Noctis’s direction. “Without the slightest doubt.”

“And you’re gonna help him do it, huh?”

“I was tasked by His Majesty King Regis himself to stand beside the Prince—as friend and brother. I gave my word, and my word is my bond.”

“I—”

“Commander,” Laura said sharply.

Noctis’s vacant gaze slid to her, and he seemed to remember himself.

“Right.”

Picking up Ignis’s discarded sleeping bag from the haven floor, he stomped into the tent to finish setting up. Laura gave Ignis a small encouraging smile before returning to her own work.  

She had just finished separating and thoroughly rinsing her enoki mushrooms and had retrieved the nori and scallions when a small voice inquired in a genteel tone, “May I be of any service to you, Miss Rose?”

“Do you know how to cook, Ignis?”

He flushed. “I’m afraid not. I’ve only just started learning, but I can chop things,” he offered hopefully.

“Great! You can help me chop up these vegetables.” He seemed to swell at her enthusiasm and the prospect of being of help, his back straightening and his chest puffing out a little. She placed a cutting board, a chef’s knife, and several sheets of dried nori in front of him. “Make sure you slice these into very thin ribbons, because one of my friends doesn’t really like vegetables.”

He nodded sagely, picking up the knife with a confidence identical to that of summoning his daggers to his hands. “His Highness doesn’t like vegetables, either. He’s the one I’m learning to cook for.” Turning to the cutting board, he exclaimed in a high, ringing voice, “Very well. Chop chop!”

Laura huffed a laugh, and he grinned up at her with bright, sparkling eyes. A mechanical click drew her attention to Prompto lowering his camera.

“Oh. Em. Gee. That—was adorable.”

“Heh, yeah, kinda,” Noctis said from just inside the tent flap. He opened his mouth to say more but seemed to think better of it.

With half an eye dedicated to ensuring Ignis could handle the task—and of course he handled his knife as proficiently as any chef at Arpège—she’d only had the time to check the rice before Laura felt Gladio’s tentative mind approach. He leaned suddenly into their field of view, and though Ignis’s hand merely tightened around the knife handle, both she and Gladio noticed and shared a glance.

“Can I talk to you for a sec?”

“Sure.” She turned to Ignis. “This won’t take long. Go ahead and finish what I gave you, but don’t worry about having to watch anything else. If anything burns, it’s my fault, okay?”

He nodded, looking down to the knife in his hand. “Yes, Miss Rose.”

Leading her to the edge of the haven, Gladio ran a hand uneasily through his hair. “What did I do? I swear I didn’t mean to scare him like that, and now he goes rigid every time I get near him. I’m usually really good with kids.”

As much as she despised becoming yet another link in the chain of people who’d probably kept this quiet, adult Ignis was obviously a very reserved and private man, and if they didn’t know his secrets, nothing could be gained by her telling them what she suspected. This was already in the past, and there was nothing any of them could do to change it—if her suspicions were even true.

Laura placed a hand on his shoulder. “He’s just endured a very rough journey. He’s been pulled from everything he’s ever known. He might not show it openly, but he’s terrified.”

“But it’s worse with m—”

“Hey, Ignis,” Prompto called out from behind them. “You all right, buddy? You got blood on your shirt.”

Laura turned around to see him pointing at a stripe of blood about six inches long slashed across the mud-smeared linen covering Ignis’s back. She thought furiously to when he may have injured himself in that specific manner since meeting him and came up blank.

Ignis spun to face Prompto, his eyes as wide as saucers. “Do I?”

“Didn’t we just give you a potion? Did an old injury open up or something?”

The color drained from his face at the mention of an old injury, and Laura’s hearts sank. Bloody hell, up until that moment, there had still been the slimmest of chances that she’d been wrong, but the evidence was stacking up to suggest that circumstances were far worse than she’d feared. Regis had been a stern but fair man, described by his marshal as a kind, optimistic soul—surely he hadn’t . . . surely she would have seen in his mind . . ..

“Forgive me for appearing in such a state,” he let out in a rush. His voice was calm and his expression neutral, but even from this distance, she could see the tremor in his little hands betraying him as he carefully set the knife down on the cutting board next to his perfectly ribboned nori. “I must have fallen and scraped myself. Might you point me in the direction of your washing equipment? I can clean it immediately before the stain sets.”

Laura let her eyes fall closed for a moment, wishing with one last hope that this wasn’t what it appeared, but all the signs that had whispered to her instinct as an adult were far more obvious in a child that hadn’t yet perfected the means to physically suppress every emotion she’d felt roiling in his mind and smother in that goddamn courtesy. God, no child deserved this, but Ignis’s heart was so gentle, so kind, so special.

She opened her eyes to see Noctis clench his jaw and take a step toward Ignis. “To hell with the damned shirt, Ignis. You’re hurt!”

“Noctis, don’t—” Laura called out, but he ignored her, summoning a potion and advancing on the child that had already taken a small step back and gone still. Ignis’s eyes slammed shut, but he held his chin high and his jaw clenched tight, ready to face whatever he thought Noctis was going to do.

But as Noctis registered Ignis’s reaction, he stumbled to a halt, nearly dropping the potion at Ignis’s feet in his haste to pull himself upright. All three men fixed Laura with shocked expressions, all silently wondering what they were supposed to do now.

She let out a quiet sigh. Carefully approaching the prep tables, she slowly reached behind Ignis to turn off the heat on the camp stove before he took another step back and burned himself. Then she crouched in front of him, searching his face. It was carefully blank, his slight body still, but his thoughts were frantically scrambling like a skittering mouse. Searching his eyes, she saw that fear made manifest in his contracted, darting pupils.

“Hey there, it’s all right,” she soothed, running her fingers up and down his forearms. “I’ve got this stuff that can take out any stain, any time,” she said, thinking of Ignis’s own homemade stain remover sadly. “But we can’t have you bleeding out here in the wild. It might attract dangerous animals. They may not be able to get onto the haven, but we certainly don’t want them surrounding us all night either.”

She summoned one of her smaller black t-shirts from their armiger. Turning around and snatching the potion from Noctis’s limp hand, she hissed, “You all should leave now.”

“No way. We’re not going anywhere until I know what the hell is going on,” Noctis growled. Behind him, Prompto and Gladio nodded furiously.

“On your own heads . . .,” she muttered darkly. Honestly—though this would be mortifying for Ignis when he returned, if he even remembered, it was probably long past time for this darkness to be brought to the light—for both Ignis and Noctis. It was time for Ignis to learn how to share his burdens, and most importantly, it was time for Noctis to grow up.

It seemed that despite Regis’s best efforts, the weight of Noctis’s destiny had affected him far more than Regis had intended. His mind was always clouded over with a heavy haze to the point where she could read little more from him—until he’d returned from the Tomb of the Wise reeling with heartbreak, anger, and resigned resolve. That haze had blinded him to all but his own lot in life, but with circumstances pressing in on him, now might be the opportune time for him to open his eyes to those suffering right beside him. She could see clearly how much he cared for each of his friends, fiercely so, but damn it, he never said a thing and was too wrapped up in his own admittedly prodigious problems to notice. Like father, like son—if Regis’s ignorance of Ignis’s upbringing was anything to go by—and she didn’t want Noctis to experience the same regret Regis had.

She turned back around, settling on her knees at Ignis’s feet. “Don’t mind them,” she said gently. “They’re just concerned for your wellbeing; they don’t like to see people hurt. Unfortunately, they have all the manners of a herd of galloping garulas.”

He let out a tiny, half-chuckle, but his smile fell as she asked, “Can you turn around and take off your shirt for me? I can crack the potion and get it soaking. Then I have this one here for you to put on.”

He hesitated briefly, but nodded. “Yes, Miss Rose.”

His long fingers made quick work of the row of pearlescent plastic buttons before he turned around, but he paused momentarily before shrugging the shirt from his shoulders.

As the skin of his back was revealed, she couldn’t help but exclaim softly, “Ohhh, Ignis . . ..”

He’d spoken of his younger years often with her, usually describing times spent with Noctis or the extent of his education. She could tell from what he hadn’t said that he’d felt terribly alone, even with the Prince as a near constant companion when he wasn’t in school. Still, he’d never spoken about anyone in his life with the kinds of feelings that would give her a clue as to who might have done this to him—likely because it just wasn’t in him to hate. For certain, he could be driven to violence and even ruthlessness when the situation called for it—but never hatred. All that pain and misery and loneliness, and it had just made him kind.

“What the hell?” Noctis ground out, and Ignis twitched a little at his tone.

“Oh my gods,” Prompto said in a low, tremulous voice.

“Fuck,” Gladio muttered.

It was difficult to tell beneath the mottled canvas of black, blue, pink, and yellow bruising, but the crisscross of red scarring and angry scabs still puffed up like biscuits in an oven indicated that the violence against him had recently escalated.

The largest of these was seeping blood along the edges, where it looked like he had, in fact, reopened the old wound.

“Please, accept my apologies. I’m so sorry,” Ignis whispered heavily.

Laura looked up at the darkening sky to hold back the tears threatening. “It’s not your fault, sweetheart.”

Taking a deep breath, she cracked the potion over his back, which stemmed the flow of blood but did nothing to heal the older injuries. She turned him around and handed him her t-shirt, which he took with a small bow of thanks and quickly pulled on. He looked down, idly toying with the hem.

“You have my thanks,” he murmured.

“Ignis.” She held her arms open to him, but he frowned, confusion clouding his mind. When he hesitantly mirrored her, she pulled him into her arms and squeezed him as tightly as she dared, careful to keep her hands near his neck so as not to touch his back.

“It’s all right. It’s going to be all right.” The only indication that he gave that he’d heard her was a tremor running down his body. Then, knowing the boys would ask him anyway and likely be none too gentle about it, she said, “May we please know how you got hurt?”

He stiffened in her arms and took a step back, hanging his head to stare at the glowing runes at his feet. “The fault is entirely mine. Unfortunately, I make errors sometimes, but you have my word I shall do my very best as long as I’m a guest here.”

“But who—” Gladio began, but stopped as Ignis clenched his teeth shut. Of course, whoever had done this to him would’ve instructed him to keep his silence, and wild sabertusks couldn’t pull an answer from Ignis he didn’t wish to give.

“His tutors,” Noct spat. “Only explanation. My— . . . uh, king would never . . ..”

Ignis’s eyes widened—enough of a confirmation for her, but she turned to Noctis with a cold expression. “And what would you know of palace staff?” she asked, pointing out Noctis’s slip in a way that Ignis wouldn’t question. No matter how shocking this discovery, he needed to keep in mind that they were all still in very grave danger. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter right now.”

“The hell it doesn’t!” he roared.

“Please don’t be upset,” Ignis whispered. “The error was mine.”

Only Ignis’s quiet words stilled Noctis’s outburst, which allowed Laura to step toward the stove.

“Here’s what’s going to happen.” She poured warm water through a strainer full of gyokuro leaves until she had a potful of electric green tea. “My friend here,” she motioned to Prompto before turning to assemble a bowl of rice, tofu, and toppings, “is going to hang out with you while we go over there and have a chat.” She poured the tea over the bowl and set it on the prep table. “I’ve set you up with dinner, so after you’ve changed into some clean trousers, why don’t you go sit by the campfire and eat, hey?”

“I would rather you didn’t fight on my account,” he pleaded, looking up at her with overly large eyes, but he still held his hands out to take from her the smallest pair of pajama trousers she owned as she summoned them and held them out to him.

“No, sweetheart. These guys always could use a good lecture on manners.” She cupped her hand to his cheek, running her thumb along his cheekbone to wipe away a smudge of dirt. “You sit and eat, and when I get back, we’ll see what we can do about those older injuries of yours.”

Grabbing Noctis’s sleeve, she led him away, jerking her head for Gladio to follow, but she stopped next to Prompto before they’d stepped onto the haven ramp. He gave her a tight, sad smile.

“If he finishes his bowl, get him another, even if he says he’s not hungry. And for gods’ sakes, do not say a word to him, no matter how politely he asks for information. He’s not quite a master at manipulating people with those manners of his, but he’s getting there.”

Prompto frowned but bobbed his head in understanding. “Yeah, I gotcha.”

“I’m sure the others will catch you up after.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, hoping she could touch that so very insecure part of him with her words. “I don’t mean to exclude you. I just need someone to keep an eye on him, and you’re the only one I can trust not to intimidate him.”

His response was a more genuine smile that made his sapphire eyes light up a little. “Thanks,” he whispered.

When they were out of earshot but still close enough to see the haven, Noctis spun around to face her.

You don’t seem surprised. How long have you been keeping this from us?”

“I’ve had an idea as long as I’ve known him, but I didn’t know for certain until I saw his back. Honestly, I’ve known you all for over two weeks. What was I going to say? ‘Hey, Noctis, your friend there seems a little on the submissive and obsessive side. Is it possible he was abused as a child?’”

He paled at the frank way she’d named his condition. “He never said a word,” he whispered, “I just—I don’t even know—”

“Of course he never said a word. Protecting you is who he is. Protecting those he loves is what makes a man of his heart willing to summon a blade and force it into flesh. You should know yourself the inclination doesn’t come naturally.”

“I guess. We’ve trained our whole lives, but it’s different out here—more real. He just did everything so perfect. Was always getting on my nerves to be perfect too.”

“He gets on your nerves cause he knows you can do better,” Gladio said, folding his arms over his chest.

“He’s more complex than just being a stuffy perfectionist. Don’t you understand what it takes for a man to become what he is? To anticipate every need around him to the point of obsession? What did you think drove him all those times he sat up escorting us merrily around Leide, even though he’d just undergone every trial that we had? Where did he derive the energy to forage, plan, and cook all those meals even after that? To stay up after you all had gone to bed and work on laundry and finances? It certainly wasn’t inspired by the Ebony!”

Noctis looked down at his boots. “Guess I didn’t really think about it like that. Just thought he was . . . I dunno, picky. Thought he liked it.”

“A good deal of it stems from his love and duty to you, but people don’t tend to enjoy dedicating their lives to chores, Noctis. It’s a testament to the strength of his will that he’s as well-adjusted as he is, but those monsters undermined the foundations of his spirit, wresting away his self-worth so they could re-mold him into a servant. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true of the others as well, in some form or another,” she said with a motion to Gladio.

Gladio raised his hands and took a step back. “Hey, leave me outta this, thanks. I mean, I got knocked around a little, but nothing like that. I had a good childhood.”

“Thank goodness that’s so. But has Noctis ever taken a moment to wonder what it was like to be raised with the entire city believing you were nothing more than a meathead used to protect the life of your king? Forgive me, I know you value your position more highly than that, but I also know what it’s like to be judged for what you are destined to do and not who you really are.”

“Who I am doesn’t matter when I have a job to do.”

“Yes it does matter, Gladio! Of course it matters when that which protects the King is a man and not a piece of armor. When was the last time someone asked you about your other hobbies? Those books you’re always reading? A dull soldier certainly doesn’t study the tea ceremonies of ancient Lucis or Silence of Knowledge. It says that the man who shields the King has a mind as well. It makes you a more formidable opponent, Gladio.” 

Gladio fell silent, and Noctis could only gape up at him—a painful, stabbing sort of revelation washing over his thoughts. At their anguished color, Laura softened. He was so young, his future so dark. He wasn’t supposed to have all the answers to life yet—none of them were. But as usual, fate was giving him little choice.

Laura continued in a gentler tone, “I told you to cherish them, Noctis, and I know you do. But you’re still not getting it. Ignis always takes care of you, and he truly does enjoy it because he cares deeply for you. But when was the last time you took care of him? You weren’t the only one dragged into this fucked up destiny of yours, and you need to stick together if you’re going to succeed. Cherishing them means taking a look around once in a while and noticing.

Noctis stared down blankly at the ground and intoned, “He always noticed everything—everything about me. Even now . . . it’s like he can see through my every move. No way I could stay here two days and him not figure me out.”

“You know as well as anyone that Ignis doesn’t tolerate ambiguity. If he didn’t perceive all the details, he didn’t know enough not to make a mistake, and he got punished.”

Understanding and horror overtook his expression as she continued, “Yes, see what I mean? Every aspect of his identity has been influenced by this. I shudder to think how he must be cursing my name at my scant instructions back in Insomnia right now,” she chuckled bitterly. “Talk about ambiguity.”

Gladio cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t worry about our Iggy. If any of us could figure out how to prevent a paradox, it’d be him.”

“Well, I doubt his education exposed him to much in the way of temporal mechanics, but he is an intelligent, resourceful man.”

She grew quiet, looking back up at the haven where Ignis sat in his own camp chair, his bowl of ochazuke balanced carefully in his lap as he dabbed daintily at his mouth with a handkerchief. Even grown up—deep down, he was still that little boy with a mind sharper than any blade and a heart that loved more than all of Eos and so desperate to be loved back. He just hid it better than most.

“You love them all, Noctis,” she said in a low voice, not looking away from where Ignis sat. “But you need to show them now and then.”

“All right,” he sighed irritably, running both his hands up through his bangs, “I get it. And I’m noticing now. So what do we do? We can’t just send him back.”

“But we have to,” Gladio interrupted. “If he doesn’t go back, he doesn’t grow up to come with us. Paradox. And we can’t tell him anything or prepare him or teach him to defend himself . . . shit.”

“Or the world will end,” Noctis finished.

Laura nodded. They seemed to be catching on faster than most. “Welcome to the world of being time sensitive. I ask that you please keep this moment in mind the next time you scream at me for withholding information.”

She sighed heavily, looking back toward the haven. Plans were going to have to change. She considered what she was about to do and how much energy it was going to take up. Was it even possible? Reaching out to the mind around her neck, she said, Eilendil, I may need your help on this one. Can you keep watch?

Worry and irritation in equal measure prickled in her mind before he replied, And ensure that you do not kill yourself? You know I do not have much energy to give should you need it. Are you certain the child is worth it?

Yes, he’s worth it, she growled at him. They’re worth it, and you know it.

Idiot girl. Your hearts have always ruled your head.

Not always, as you well know. But it’s a positive trait, in my opinion. I’ve worked long and hard to get it back, so you may as well get used to it.

I have my doubts. It is going to get you killed one of these days.

You’ve been rather one-note lately. Does that mean you won’t help?

He huffed at her. Yes, of course I shall keep watch, but for you—not them.

Thank you, dearest. I do love you, you know.

No need to remind me. I am not a twenty-year-old child.

Satisfied she at least had his reluctant support, she considered her spell and reached out to the twisted, writhing timelines, which still felt unnatural and nearly unreadable in her head. But there, in the middle of all the chaos sat one, very simple, almost smug-looking fact: this was supposed to happen—had already happened. She couldn’t see the exact path of the lines, but there was some sort of time loop that needed to be closed, which left her path forward very, very clear. If she didn’t complete the loop, she could end the world in much the same way Ignis could—a potential paradox hidden within a potential paradox.

“I heard Cor mention a base. Is that our next destination?”

“Y-yeah,” Noctis said hesitantly, confused by the change in topic, “he wants us to take it out.”

“Is that something you can do without my help once Ignis is back?”

“Yeah, Cor’s gonna meet us there. But where will you be?”

“Out of commission, most likely. Listen, I can heal his back—”

“But what does that matter if we’re just gonna send him back to his tutors?” Gladio interrupted.

“Let me finish. I can heal his back. I can also craft a spell that will protect him in a way that won’t disrupt the timelines. They can still hurt his soul, though. And by the stars, if there was anything I could do about that and still leave him Ignis, I would in a heartbeat.” She looked between Gladio’s and Noctis’s alert, hopeful faces. “He’ll just have to rely on you to pull him through as unscathed as possible.”

“I was there, once I got to know him,” Gladio said emphatically. “Still am. All he’s gotta do is ask.”

“And therein lies the issue,” Laura pointed out, because it wasn’t only Noctis who tended to take Ignis’s servitude for granted. “He may imply, but he’ll never ask.”

“Do whatever you need to do to protect him,” Noctis said. “And I promise, I’ll do the same from now on, for all you guys.”

“I’m going to hold you to that, you know,” she warned.

“So you’re gonna do your thing and heal his back. Then what?” Gladio asked.

“I’ll be exhausted after using such a powerful spell. You should leave as soon as you’ve eaten, but I’ll need one of you to keep an eye on the haven during the day. I’m afraid I won’t be able to watch him as closely as I’d like. Stay out of sight, though, especially with the camper in full view of the haven.”

“Will you be okay?” Noctis asked.

Honestly, she had no idea, but she replied without hesitation, “I’m always all right. Let’s get on with this, shall we?”

Chapter Text

Prompto was looking distinctly nervous by the time Laura returned to the haven with a marginally more composed Noctis and Gladio in tow, fidgeting restlessly under Ignis’s scrutinizing gaze.

“Hey! You’re back!” he exclaimed, leaping out of his seat.

“Hey!” Laura called back cheerfully. “Let’s eat.” As she passed by Prompto, who was taking Ignis’s empty bowl from him to refill, she whispered, “Thank you.”

Prompto nodded as he followed her to the prep tables and said under his breath, “Anything for Iggy. You guys find a way to help him?”

“Sort of. You’ll see, and they can explain after you’ve all left.”

Fortunately for her, she’d had the accidental foresight to use ingredients this evening that hailed from a universe more amenable to her digestion. The spell whose logic she was currently running through with Eilendil in her head was going to drain her considerably, and she would be needing as much help with recovery, miniscule though it was, as she could get. She’d grown to tolerate food from this world since aligning her resonant frequency to match this discordant universe, but no matter how hard Ignis tried to entice her palate, it still sat heavy in her, making her feel sluggish.

The effect was lessening with time, thank the stars. But though the meal itself wouldn’t be an issue tonight, disappointing Ignis was still what held her focus.

There’s no way I can integrate the timelines to take the energy from me every time he gets hurt. It would drain and kill me instantly. 

What if you used the boy as a source of energy as well?

Come now. You know if it would kill me, it would certainly kill him—kill the both of us together. You saw what the time magic did to me in Insomnia. What if I created a reservoir in him with Lliamérian magic?

With the energy drawing from him? That would work, but for how long could you sustain the spell? You cannot protect him until he meets you. That is too long—too much.

Ignis was twenty-two years old now, and judging by his comments about learning to cook, his past counterpart was ten years old. That made twelve years to cover. Eilendil was right; she couldn’t sustain the energy for that long—not on this world, anyway.

However—he’d attended university at fifteen and joined the Crownsguard at sixteen; perhaps then would be safe?

I could survive six years.

Are you attempting to convince me, or yourself? I do not like this. These humans will be the death of you, Laurelín.

Laura ignored his comment, already well-versed on his opinions of her more harebrained schemes. She pulled away and glanced around the campfire.

Ignis sat quietly in his camp chair, the waistband of her buffalo-checked pajama bottoms bulging around his middle where it had been folded over several times to accommodate his shorter height. He took in every detail of his surroundings as he slowly worked on his second bowl of soup—from the flames dancing in the ring in front of them, to the flash of movement of a wild sabertusk his eyes couldn’t quite identify in the distance, to the crude glowing runes that spelled out the surprisingly complex messages that protected them from daemons and wild animals alike.

“If you’re still hungry,” she said, nodding to the bowl he’d just finished, “please help yourself to as much as you would like.”

“Thank you, Miss Rose, but I’ve already had two helpings. I couldn’t possibly eat another bite.”

“This stuff’s different,” Noctis grimaced, stabbing at the bowl with his spoon. “A little too . . . healthy.”

“How’d you make that broth? Never tasted alstrooms that strong,” Prompto said.

Gladio took another bite, swallowed, and nodded appreciatively. “Yeah, what in the name of Bahamut’s balls is this stuff, anyway? It’s actually pretty good.”

Laura cast an amused glance at Ignis’s wide-eyed, scandalized expression. Choosing her words carefully, she replied, “It’s called ochazuke. I dipped into my ingredients stash to make this, so I’m afraid you won’t find anything like it around here. The broth is actually a tea called gyokuro konacha, and though the soup does contain a type of mushroom similar to alstrooms, it’s the tea you’re tasting. Everything else should be identifiable to you.”

“Well damn, girl, gonna have to have you cook more often for us, eh Iggy?” Gladio said with a smile and a wink at Ignis.

Ignis tilted his head, his lips subtly parting to form the shape of the word “Iggy” with a questioning look. “Me, sir? I wouldn’t want to presume . . . it was the most delicious meal I’ve had in recent memory, however,” he added diplomatically to Laura.

“Thank you.”

When they had finished eating, Laura was the one to wash the dishes while Ignis dried. Sensing that the atmosphere had grown tense once the food had disappeared, Ignis remained silent by her side as she worked over the final wording and logic of the spell for the reservoir. A single word, a misconjugation, a fumble in pronunciation, and she could wind up killing them both and destroying the world in the process. Unfortunately, if she didn’t even try, the timelines were implying that the result would be the same. Either way, she had to go through with this.

Indistinct murmurs from the other three huddled close in their chairs around the campfire added to the tension. Laura could tell from the color of their minds that Gladio and Noctis were bringing Prompto up to speed on the plan, but she didn’t quite understand the reason for Noctis’s aggressive anguish—not here in this place where there was no enemy on which to seek revenge. The third night they had camped in Leide, when Ignis had felt far more exhausted and irritable after so many days in the heat without decent rest or a real shower, he’d sighed deeply into his hand and reluctantly admitted that he never really understood what went on in Noctis’s head, even after all their years together. She had to say that even with the advantage telepathy brought, she was no better off. Noctis handled stress in a way she would never understand—remaining sullen and silent until it was suddenly bursting from him in a flurry of anger and yelling, as though he’d never learned to handle negative emotions properly.

She didn’t envy Gladio and Prompto’s task these next two days.

She closed her eyes as she dismissed the last dish. They needed to get this over with. The boys had already lingered for far too long, and every moment increased the chance of a slip of the tongue. Taking Ignis by the hand, she led him to her chair and sat down, pulling him to stand close in front of her so she could look up into those almost eerily aged eyes of his. Somehow he knew—this tension was centered around him.

“The boys are going to leave soon. Then it’s just going to be you and me until you go back. Will you please allow me to heal your back before they go?”

He pushed the bridge of his glasses up his nose with a finger and frowned. “You needn’t waste more potions on my account, Miss Rose. His Majesty’s magic is not a resource to be used lightly—and certainly not for my sake.”

“This won’t be a potion. Please?” she pleaded, hating herself for manipulating him like this, but it wasn’t as though she could ignore the potential paradox, either. “It would make me feel so much better if I knew you were completely healed.”

He paused to consider her words for a moment before replying, “I shall do anything you wish if it pleases you.” For what seemed the millionth time that day, she smiled as her hearts broke for him. Subservient Ignis was not someone she ever wanted to see again, and she would spend the next two days chasing him off if she had to.

But with his acquiescence, a spark of apprehension had appeared in his eyes and mind that she wished she could quash along with her own fear. This Ignis had not yet grown accustomed to her energy signature, and while she had adapted her touch to the people of this world, she doubted her magic had been similarly affected. This might hurt him, a lot, but she had no way of knowing.

Yet with the memory of those first nights by the campfire arrived an epiphany—but of course, her spell in his body for six years was what had made it so easy for him to help her acclimate when they’d first met. There had been a moment as they’d walked in the Weaverwilds that she’d suspected he hadn’t felt that burning murderous instinct the others had, but when he’d stepped away from her touch, she’d read his discomfort as due to the intimacy of the act as well as the pain. Still—he’d managed to hold her hand with far greater ease than Prompto. She’d thought at the time he’d simply endured to be polite.

She had been wrong. This spell she was about to cast, and the timeline resulting from it, was part of the time loop she had to close. At the very least, this meant he would survive this intact and with only a vague memory of these events. It was no wonder he’d asked her the night of the Fall whether she’d ever infiltrated his dreams—this had probably all seemed a dream to his scrambled mind after the return trip to Insomnia.

Somewhat bolstered by the evidence of her future success, she reached up to take both of his hands in hers.

“Okay, here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to put my hands on your back and cast a spell. It might feel tickly; it might itch. It might hurt, Ignis. I wish I could say that it wasn’t going to, but it’s different for everyone. If it does hurt, it should only be for a second, and then you’ll be as good as new. All you have to do is hold still.”

A bolt of significant thought shot through him when she’d mentioned casting a spell, similar to that shimmering golden awe he’d experienced earlier today, and she wondered at its meaning. But as she continued to outline what he should expect and what was expected of him, he focused on the task with a single-minded determination, nodding seriously.

“I understand, Miss Rose.”

“Very good. Then would you please turn around and lift the back of your shirt for me?”

He didn’t hesitate this time as he complied, lifting his shirt so that his injuries were bared to her. The indirect light from the campfire flickered against the lashes, casting eerily undulating shadows against his vulnerable back, and she clenched her jaw, closing her eyes to look away from the sight for a moment. The crack of Gladio’s knuckles reached her ears even over the wood popping in the fire, followed by Prompto’s troubled sigh.

Scooting to the very edge of her chair, she summoned the magic to her palms and brought them to the skin of his lower back. His torso expanded to inhale as she touched him, but he didn’t make a move otherwise. All was still and silent except for the wild nocturnal goings on outside their circle of light. Taking her own deep breath, she began to cast the spell of knitting, blending, healing, and renewal.

“Náranath araīm, logara oá lliana. Mumúren ath narathat, la thana.”

As though being siphoned into her palm beneath the silver light of her power, the mottled bruising, scabs, and scars slowly disappeared, leaving pale, unmarked skin as she moved her hand upward and repeated the spell. He had stiffened the moment the magic had begun its work, but his mind indicated he wasn’t enduring a great deal of pain. The draw on her energy and the burn from the Crystal was bearable. Things were going well so far, but this was the easy part.

When the last scar had faded to his natural skin tone, she paused with both her hands placed vertically along his spine. Here, she switched to song, which was more effective when casting complex, emotional spells. The quiet, wild melody she chose had originally been composed by one of their finest songweavers to describe the untamed, boundless highlands just to the north of the Kithairon Mountain range on Miriásia. Laudation for the buttery yellow wildflowers that would grow in the meadows in the summer became an ode to Ignis’s kind and gentle heart. Poetic descriptions of the jagged pewter rocks decorating verdant rolling hills like jewels morphed into praise for his indomitable spirit, his fierce and beautiful soul.

Next, she sang of the darkness he would face, but also of the family he would one day find in the three men currently watching them—infusing a message of hope enduring. Then she sang of her protection, vowing that she would always watch over him. Strictly speaking, these words would not affect the spell, but she hoped that by adding them, they would bring him some comfort over the coming years and preserve his mind, even if the effect would only be subconscious.

Turning to the heart of the spell, she built the foundation for the reservoir that would lie dormant in him for the next six years—filling with his own energy as he could spare it and activating when he needed protection from pain and healing of his injuries. As she sang, she held the power back in her hands, letting it build until a blinding silver light had gathered to hover between her palms and his skin. With her final phrase, she released the magic, and a silver glow enveloped him—starting at the point of contact before spreading over his entire body and disappearing in a flash.

Laura threw her head back and sucked in a stabbing breath of air, the searing pain too much for her to hide as she felt her life force transfer from her to Ignis. Beneath her hands, she could feel that Ignis had gone rigid as well, and somewhere in the depths of her mind where there was still room to think, she hoped she wasn’t hurting him too badly. God, she’d never wanted to be the one responsible for hurting him.

Her energy continued to drain to cover those six years, and for the second time that day, she struggled to maintain her hold on consciousness as angry tongues of lava licked at her every nerve.

Come on, damn it. She gritted her teeth to keep from screaming.

Laurelín, stop this!

Why would he even bother saying such a thing? He knew as well as she that once the spell was released, the energy was committed whether it killed her or not.

It’s almost done. Don’t give me any energy unless you must. We may need it later.

The mental cadence of his voice grew rough and anxious. If you die here, you leave me alone in this world for eternity, without even eyes to see. Please, do not die.

I won’t, Eilendil; I promise.

After what seemed forever but was only seven seconds, the drain slowed, then halted as her hands slipped from Ignis’s back. He stepped away the moment he felt them leave him, but with that maneuver, she discovered that she was weaker than she’d thought. Her vision began to darken as she sagged forward, nearly tumbling out of the chair and into the fire, but Gladio appeared in a flash to catch her.

“Easy there,” he said in a low, deep voice, wrapping her in his arms and lifting her high in the air. She sucked in another breath of cool night air to keep the vertigo from pulling her under. “I’ve gotcha.”

“My hero,” she said breathily.

By the light of all the stars, you are the stupidest creature I have ever encountered. I cannot condone this. Wake me when we leave this forsaken world.

I love you too, dearest.

She reluctantly opened her eyes to try and locate Ignis somewhere below, but she couldn’t spot him around Gladio’s massive arm holding her head up.

“Ignis, are you all right?” she called softly.

To her relief, he responded immediately. “Yes, Miss Rose. Please forgive me!”

“S’alright, little man,” Gladio called over his shoulder. “Stay out here for a minute, will ya?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is he really all right?” Laura whispered, doing her best to ignore just how sick the jostling made her feel as Gladio carried her to the tent.

“He looks fine,” Gladio said, but there was a warmth in his tone that had been lacking since before the Fall. “Can’t say the same for you though.”

She didn’t answer, choosing instead to seal her mouth shut as he did his best to gingerly place her on top of her sleeping bag. As she let her body sink into the plush fabric, he summoned her favorite blanket from the armiger and draped it up to her shoulders. He sat cross-legged by her side, looking her over with a tense expression. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something.

“Keep your voice low so he doesn’t hear,” she reminded him.

“Right. You sure you’re gonna be okay by yourself tonight?”

“Yeah. Ignis should sleep through the night. I should be conscious by morning.” She forced her eyes open. When had they fallen closed? “Don’t come back until the third morning, but stay close. I’ll send Ignis if he comes back sooner.”

“Will do. We’ll be nearby if you need us. Bet we could even hear ya if you shouted loud enough. Just keep your cool if you see a spider or something, got it?”

“Pfft. What would I call you for then? Bet you’d scream like a little girl, Princess,” she mumbled.

She felt a hand settle on her shoulder, and she forced her eyes to open to look up at him.

“Thanks,” he said in a low, rumbling bass, “everything you did for Iggy—everything you said about both of us. You uh . . ..” He took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “You were right.”

He stood without waiting for her to respond, shuffling to leave the tent, but he stopped when she said, “Gladio? I know I’ve only known you guys for a couple of weeks, but I just wanted you to know—I would’ve done the same for any of you.”

His solemn amber eyes shifted just to the left of her face, his nostrils flaring. He swallowed. “I know I’ve been kind of a shit to you, but gods damn, if you don’t make it hard.”

She let the weight of her tone speak for everything he didn’t want to hear from her. “I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”

“Naw. Iggy was right. You were doin’ your job. My dad was doin’ his. Just like I’m gonna do mine. After everything you’ve done? You’re family now. We don’t got much left.”

“Gladio . . .,” she said softly, touched, but unsure of what else to say to ease the pain she could still feel radiating from him.

“G’night, Princess. See ya in a couple of days.” He turned back toward the tent flap. “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing with us. You just take care of Iggy.”

“Night, Gladio,” she sighed.

It could have been a minute or an hour later—her time sense seemed to have abandoned her for the evening—when the rustling of the tent flap and hurried feet slipping across fabric roused her from unconsciousness. She opened her eyes in time to see Ignis fall to his knees by her side, spreading his hands wide to hover reverently over where she lay.

“Miss Rose, please, I must beg for your forgiveness,” he breathed. “Had known I would incapacitate you, I never would have agreed to this.”

“Then it’s good you didn’t know. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

He settled his hands in his lap and shook his head sadly. “Forgive me, but I’m a mere servant, and you . . . I cannot be worth—"

“Listen to me. Station doesn’t mean anything at all in this world. It’s all nonsense, dear. Your worth is measured by your heart, and you have the most incredible heart, Ignis. You are worth more than the stars. Promise me you’ll remember that.”

He wouldn’t remember, she knew, but she had to tell him that once—to try—at least. 

“I’ll remember; I promise.”

“Good.”

“Miss Rose?”

She hummed in response.

“Are you an Astral?” he asked breathlessly.

“Ha!” she barked before she could stop herself. So, this was the source of that awe she’d felt glowing in his mind a couple of times today. Really, nothing had changed in twelve years at all. But she softened when he recoiled a little, an anxious frown bringing a wrinkle out between his brows. “Sorry,” she sighed, “but no. I’m nobody, really.”

But it was quite clear from the impatience brewing in his thoughts that he’d been sitting on his observations quite long enough and wanted answers.

“But your magic is nothing like that of the Crownsguard. You can hardcast. And it glows such an ethereal silver-white. I saw it shining behind me when you healed me and when you summoned your weapons. And the Crystal’s magic doesn’t work through song. And I didn’t recognize that language you sang. And the way you summon things is different. And I’ve never seen swords like yours before. And—”

“You notice far too much for your own good,” she said on a sigh. This conversation needed to end, and soon. “I’m sorry, but I really can’t tell you.”

A frustrated expression flitted across his aristocratic features. He remained silent, but that fluttering increased like a curtain flapping in a gale. She chuckled.

“You must be tired,” she said, closing her eyes. She sure as hell was. “Lie down and go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Yes, Miss Rose,” he said reluctantly. With another rustle of cloth, he settled into his sleeping bag and let out a small, shaky breath.

It was the last thing she remembered before she lost her tenuous grip on consciousness.

***

She was adrift in a sea of primal savagery—yelps and screams and suffocating, oppressive darkness. She was alone and frightened. Where was Noctis? Where was the quiet, soothing comfort of her safe quarters?

She must stay strong. She’d already imposed enough this evening, but the dark . . . she couldn’t breathe.

Laura’s eyes shot open, but the gauzy cobwebs of sleep threatened to hold her head to the sleeping bag as she slowly rolled to her side and sat up. Waiting for the wave of dizziness that washed over her to dissipate, she attempted to get a measure of her surroundings. It was far too early for her to be awake—the moon was still shining its ethereal blue light through the tent’s dark fabric.

It was several more seconds before she registered what had reached into her dreams and yanked her to consciousness—a heavy exhale followed by a deep, sucking inhalation.

“Ignis?” The tent was spinning as she crawled forward to reach him. She closed her eyes until she felt his sleeping bag underneath her fingertips. “Hey, I’m here,” she called softly.

“Miss Rose! I—”

Without pausing to consider what she was doing, her hands found his shoulders and pulled him close. To her surprise, his trembling little body gravitated toward her, his face burying in her neck and his thin arms wrapping around her shoulders.

“I’m so sorry; I’m not usually like this,” he said between pants, his voice muffled in her hair. “I don’t know what’s come over me. I can’t seem to control it.”

“Shh,” she soothed.

She held him, rocking him a little as she gently combed her fingers through his hair. She knew precisely what had come over him. Even as an adult, Ignis got very little sleep on the havens. Well—he seemed to have an antagonistic relationship with sleep no matter where he laid his head, but she noticed that after he’d run out of excuses not to go to bed each evening, he would lie awake deep into the night, his mind prickling in thought and feeling, snapping to attention each time a sound alerted him to what might truly be taking place in the dark beyond their circle of safety. She doubted he’d admitted to himself that his behavior was considered fear, but there was no questioning the label in this child who hadn’t fully learned to suppress it just yet.

“It’s all right. A nightmare’s to be expected after all you’ve gone through today, and I imagine this is your first time sleeping outdoors. It can be disorienting after life in the city, especially all those strange sounds out there in the dark. But we’re safe here on the haven.”

He chuckled wryly as he pulled away from her—a small, terribly adult sound in the back of his throat that made her sad to hear. “That’s really no excuse for my behavior today.”

She flopped back down into the pile of bedding, pretending it was exasperation for his response. “It is to me, and I have just the cure. Lie down on your stomach for me, will you?”

She heard his movement to comply, but he still asked, “If the question isn’t too presumptuous of me, Miss Rose, may I inquire why?”

“There’s something my gran used to do for me when I had bad dreams. Perhaps it’ll help you.”

It was about time someone did something kind to this child’s back.

When the sound of his movement stopped to indicate that he’d lain back down, she reached out to place her hand under his shirt and ran the very tips of her fingernails gently over his new skin, beginning across the tops of his shoulder blades and working in slow, swirling patterns down to the middle of his back and up again. His lungs expanded his torso as he took a deep breath, and his body slowly collapsed under her hand as he sighed and snuggled deeper into his sleeping bag.

“This was my favorite thing in the world when I was your age. I loved how it gave me the chills,” she said softly.

“I like it,” he whispered, but he sounded pained, as though it were a dark and shameful confession. “No one has ever . . ..”

She waited for him to finish, but no more words came. “Well . . . we’ll just have to make certain it isn’t the last time then.”

After a few moments of silence, she began humming absent-mindedly, already beginning to drift in the space between sleep and awake. Eventually, she felt his mind slow, and she allowed herself to join him.

***

The headache and searing timelines thundering through her brain were still sending streams of fire down every fiber of her being the next morning when she refused to open her eyes. Paradoxis notwithstanding, there was just something about this world that seemed to despise her existence. Several planets scattered throughout the universes had required her to realign in the past, and plenty of time anomalies existed that prevented her from using her abilities, but never had she experienced such a constant stream of burning agony from so many sources before. With any luck, this would be the last to hurdle to clear before she could breathe freely again.

Stretching out a hand, she reached out to where Ignis’s sleeping bag lay, only to find cool fabric beneath her fingertips. She bolted upright to search the tent and found it empty, but any plan after that had to be put on hold for a moment as she held her head between both hands to keep the tent from spinning. God, she felt like she’d been hit in the head with a troll’s club—again.

“Ignis?” she called out, hoping he was nearby, hoping the boys were keeping watch. Her voice sounded far weaker in her ears than she’d intended, and she didn’t think she’d have the strength to leave the tent this morning.

“Yes, Miss Rose. I’m coming,” came his reply from just outside. Relieved at his quick response, she flopped back down onto her sleeping bag.

Another two seconds passed before the tent flap was brushed aside, and Ignis ducked in, carrying a carafe full of sheep’s milk in one hand and balancing a tray with two bowls full of what looked like Cotton Alley Monster Flakes—Prompto’s favorite breakfast discovery here in the outlands.

“Apologies, Miss Rose, but it took me longer than anticipated to properly lay out my shirt near the fire without getting it soiled. I’m afraid I couldn’t locate an iron substitute.”

He’d been busy with more chores than that this morning, as his hair was wet, but styled, his trousers damp, but clean.

“You started a fire?” she asked with some concern. “And how did you manage to make breakfast? You don’t have access to the armiger.”

He shook his head and set the items down between their two sleeping bags before folding his legs beneath him. “The fire was already going when I woke up, and these were sitting on a chair that had been moved in front of the tent flap. Doubtless it was one of your company.”

“Yes,” Laura sighed, the corner of her lip twitching into a fond smile. “They can be very thoughtful at times when they think about it.”

“Are you all right?” he asked earnestly. She looked up at him, carefully inspecting his face for any signs of lingering pain or trauma from the night before. The green of his eyes was bright and his expression alert and calm in the morning light streaming into the tent. If she cut through her own nausea to brush against his mind, she found that even his thoughts were calm, though still prickling incessantly.

“Yes, I’ll be fine,” she said, doing her best to sit up slowly.

Ignis lunged forward to steady her when the tent began to spin again. “You’re far from fine. Here.” He reached behind him and one-by-one, brought each of the boys’ rolled-up bags to tuck behind her back and prop her up.

“Thank you,” she said sincerely, though she hated that she was likely setting the tone for his inexplicable need to coddle her as an adult. “I’m afraid I may need some additional help today.”

After pouring the milk over the cereal, he handed one of the bowls to her and nodded seriously. “Leave everything to me, Miss Rose. I’ll take care of you.”

Laura shook her head. “No. It doesn’t work like that.” Because there was only one way she could even begin to accept his solicitude at any age. “We take care of each other, all right?”

The smile that spread across his face was sweet and boyish, enough to crinkle his eyes at the corners. “All right.”

Once Ignis had cleared and even washed their dishes, they spent the rest of the day in leisure together. He was a bossy little caretaker, insisting that she not lift a finger to assist him adjusting her bedding or straightening the clutter the boys always seemed to leave behind whether they had slept there or not, but she indulged his miniature authoritarian streak despite her distaste for being nursed.

As the sun rose higher and the heat grew unbearable, Laura pressed a small crack into one of Noctis’s ice spells, and she managed to convince him to lounge with her in the crumpled bedding in the cool tent for the day. She found The Little Prince in her Pocket and figured the absurdity and the alien in the story would explain away anything that would point to its non-native origins, so she read to him. Several times, she would open her eyes to discover that she had fallen asleep, and he had taken the book from her to read in a soft, dulcet voice.

She only left the tent twice that day—her arm wrapped around Ignis’s shoulders as he supported her weight long enough to guide her to the outhouse. Each time they emerged, Ignis’s eyes would widen in surprise at the refreshed fire and tray of Cup Noodles waiting for them, and she could almost hear him wondering how he’d managed to miss Gladio’s covert visits. But a rush of tenderness washed over Laura each time she’d felt him arrive and pick his way around the site as quietly as though he were stalking a bounty.

As night fell, Ignis reluctantly led her out to the fire per her request and helped her to sit before settling into his own chair by her side.

“You should be resting,” he said with a frown of disapproval.

“I am resting!” she argued, sticking her tongue out at him. He tossed a dubious side-eye at her childish behavior, and she gestured to her lap. “See? Sitting down and everything!”

“It’s my fault you’re hurt,” he replied softly, gazing into the fire.

She leaned over to wrap her arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer to the chair arms between them. “Hey, now, none of that. I brought us out here so we could watch the sun set and count the stars as they come out.” She looked up at the darkening sky, covered with a thick layer of swirling clouds. “The best laid plans . . .,” she sighed.

“The sunset was breathtaking, particularly through the clouds, and with the mountains in the distance—stunning.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose and raised his eyes to the sky. “I do regret not being able to see the stars, however,” he murmured sadly. “I often read my astronomy book to Prince Noctis, but to see them in person would have truly been an experience to remember.”

“We’ll try again tomorrow, if we can.”

He sat back with a sigh, crossing his legs and placing his hands neatly on top of his knees. Though his lips pinched down in a wistful sort of melancholia, his eyes slid to her—open wide as though he were trying to communicate with his expression alone just how moved he was in this moment.

“This was more than enough.”

They didn’t need to say a word to each other as they took turns readying for bed. He settled down in his sleeping bag on his stomach, and Laura reached out immediately, spreading her fingertips wide between his shoulder blades and humming soothingly to cover up the rustling and howling of wild animals and the creaking and shrieking of daemons appearing nearby. She dearly wished she could put him to sleep telepathically so he could get an uninterrupted night’s rest, but there was no possible way to obtain his permission without explaining what she was doing. So she remained awake with him, brushing her nails over his skin and singing softly until she felt his mind drift off.

Ignis was still asleep when she forced her eyes open the next morning, his arms wrapped around one of the spare pillows she’d summoned the day before to make their little fort more comfortable. Hesitantly sitting up, she found that her surroundings remained where they should, and though she still felt as though she could lie back down and sleep for the next week, she decided to get up and prepare Ignis a proper breakfast. Her first thought was to make something simple like eggs and soldiers, as adult Ignis personally preferred an uncomplicated breakfast. But then she remembered.

Given their history together, there was really only one choice. The timelines needed to be preserved, after all.

Just as Ignis never took shortcuts no matter how exhausted he was, Laura began from scratch, using the finest ingredients she could find in her Pocket—the largest, juiciest encore peaches, picked at the very end of the season after spending the summer soaking up the sun to create the perfect balance of sweet, tart flesh; the very finest Gatarthian vanilla bean, harvested on the driest night of the first of the cold season to produce a potent, almost floral flavor; a dash of maple syrup; nutmeg; cinnamon; ginger—all went into the pot to simmer down to a softened, fragrant compote while she prepared her favorite mixture of nutty grains and oats from six different planets in five universes.

Her knees were beginning to tremble from fatigue when Ignis emerged from the tent, dressed in his day clothes but his hair still in disarray as he searched the haven and spotted her assembling their bowls.

“Miss Rose, I didn’t hear you awaken. Please, allow me to—” He took the bowls from her and ushered her to the chairs.

“Ignis, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine; your entire face is ashen. I beg of you, please sit.”

She huffed as she complied, and he handed her one of the bowls with a chastising glare before taking his to his own chair.

“I can’t bear to spend another day cooped up in the tent like that, but we’ll have to apply sunblock to your face as soon as we’re finished with breakfast. I left it by the water. Can’t have you going back with a holiday tan.”

“Honestly, you’re as stubborn as His Highness,” he mumbled, but then he seemed to remember himself and shot a wide-eyed look at her. “My apologies, Miss Rose!”

Laura laughed merrily. “You’re not quite as yielding as you let on. Good for you.” Though really, she’d already known that.

He ducked his head bashfully, a delicate flush spreading over his cheeks as he took a bite of his breakfast. His eyebrows shot up to his messy hairline as he chewed.

“This is delicious. May I inquire after the orange bits?”

“It’s a fruit called ‘peach.’” With a flash of silver light, she pulled a full peach out of her Pocket and handed it to him.

He brought it to his nose and sniffed experimentally before handing it back to her. “The aroma is intoxicating, the flavor complex, cutting through the sweet nuttiness of the grains just so. My thanks for sharing it with me, even if you risked your health to do so.”

“You are very welcome, sweetheart. It’s far more fun to enjoy something when it’s shared.”

“Indeed.”

Standing to take her bowl to the dish bucket, she smiled cheekily down at him. “Now, hurry up and eat. I’ve got a very important lesson planned for today.”

She took a step forward to ruffle his hair, but she felt the blood suddenly drain from her head as the knee bearing all her weight buckled beneath her.

Just before the darkness wrapped around her spinning head, she heard Ignis’s frightened cry drawing closer.

“Rose!”

***

Gentle, hesitant fingers were probing at her cheeks, and she reached up to brush them aside. “Miss Rose,” a small, worried voice entreated, grasping her fingers and squeezing tightly, “please wake up.”

“I’m here. I’m awake.”

“Can you stand with assistance? I need to get you to the tent.”

Laura opened her eyes to find herself staring up at a bright blue sky scattered with puffy white clouds. Perfect. The weather would be perfect this morning.

Ignis’s anxious face inserted itself into her peripheral vision.

“No, really. Just tried to do too much this morning, I think.” She sat up, stretching her neck experimentally and running her fingertips over the back of her head.

“I was able to catch you before your head hit the stone,” he explained. “Now please, return to the tent.”

She shook her head and summoned her blanket to her hands. “Told you, I have a very important lesson planned. Did you happen to find the sunblock I left out for you?”

“I’m afraid I was a bit busy,” he said guiltily, but he stood and rushed to the spot she’d indicated, hurrying to comply. She waited until he’d covered his hands, face, and the back of his neck before she attempted to stand.

Even Laura knew at this point that she was being obstinate, but she only had until tomorrow morning at the latest to take him on a life adventure, and they’d already wasted so much time yesterday lying around.

“At least allow me to do whatever it is you intend to do with that blanket,” he huffed impatiently, grasping her elbow and ducking under her arm to support her as she stood.

“We’re just lying it down over there near that boulder.”

He led her to the stone she’d pointed out and leaned her against it before taking the blanket and spreading it out as she instructed, curling one edge up so that it formed a makeshift pillow on one side. When he had finished, she crawled up the blanket and stretched out on her back, patting the space next to her, but she stopped when she felt his mind color with unease. What might she have done this time to upset him so?

“What’s wrong?”

“My apologies, but I haven’t any paper or pen with which to take notes,” he said calmly, but a crease had formed between his brows. “Might you have a spare I may borrow?”

Laura shook her head and gave him a reassuring smile, patting the blanket by her side again. “It’s not that kind of lesson, sweetheart. Not all lessons are about memorizing facts and being graded. Now come lie down. This is supposed to be fun!”

“I suppose you are lying down, at the very least.”

His mind relaxed as he came to lie down next to her, but only once he’d settled and looked over at her for additional instructions did she allow her expression to grow glittering and euphoric.

This was her favorite part of spending time with him—at any age, it would seem—showing him the wonders of his own planet. She’d tried a few times with the others: Noctis was only mildly interested; Prompto preferred a landscape based on its photographability and the presence of wildlife; and Gladio appreciated the scenery, but preferred to be left alone to contemplate it. With Ignis, however, his mind would go still with wonder and amazement before looking over at her with those viridian eyes lit up with delight. It reminded her of those days, so long ago, when she was nineteen and being stolen away from Earth by the Doctor to be shown the wonders of all of time and space.

Would that she could do the same for Ignis. But without a temporally shielded vehicle, she couldn’t pull corporeal beings into the time vortex along with her, so she would have to settle for showing him this, which seemed enough to him for the time being.

“My skin feels all tingly,” he said, a grin lighting up his face to match her expression. “Feels as though my skin will go crispy like in an oven.”

“Yeah, ain’t it lovely?” She beamed at him. “Wouldn’t be able to stay like this for long, but the shade from the rock’s gonna cover us up soon. But we’re not here for the sun. Nah, we’re here for that sky,” she said, pointing at the never-ending stretch of cerulean sprinkled with hundreds of puffy white cumulus clouds above them.

His eyes slid up to where she was indicating, and as usual, his mind went still for a moment before he said reverently, “I don’t believe I shall ever tire of that sight. It’s so different every time I look up. One could always see the daylight sky in Insomnia, of course, but not like this. It’s clear of the haze of the Wall, the pollution of the city.”

“And with the clouds, ya get to pick out the shapes. Come on, whaddya see?”

It took some time convincing him to use his imagination, but he was eventually able to relax into the exercise and master the concept with his usual level of skill. In no time at all, he was pointing out clouds and comparing their likenesses to objects from his daily life: cars whose makes and models she’d never heard of, the Citadel, a ballerina doing a pirouette, a subway train, a steaming bowl of soup, a violin, one of Noctis’s favorite television characters.

Apprehensive about inadvertently saying something that would draw attention to her foreign status in this world as she had their first day out in Leide, she stuck to mundane objects she knew existed in his world—a toothbrush, a stack of books, a cat—but the exercise grew somewhat boring after a while. Then she changed tactics.

Pointing at a thoroughly ordinary-looking cloud, she said, “I see a grand banquet table, big enough to seat fifty, with a full set of fine dishes and silver, a soup tureen, and, see that little piece in the corner there? That’s the fish course.”

The look on his face was priceless as he turned to her; he gaped for a moment before arching a single eyebrow, his mouth tightening in a frown to keep from laughing in case she was serious.

“Either that, or a dualhorn . . ..” She turned back to the sky to inspect the cloud again, careful to keep her expression serious. “Yep,” she nodded sharply, “a very complex dualhorn.”

An undignified, piggish snort sounded in her left ear, and she looked over to find him grinning like a madman up at the sky, his entire body convulsing with silent laughter. She let a smile grow wide across her lips and giggled like a child herself, elated to see him acting his age for once, and his eyes scrunched tight as his convulsions grew to full, unashamed snorts.

“This is the most absurd lesson I’ve ever had,” he gasped between breaths.

“Those are the best, most important kind, you know,” she replied with a tongue-touched smile.

He squeezed her hand tightly when she reached for it, and together, they dreamed and laughed up at the clouds.

Their lesson ended as it grew too overcast to pick out any shapes—unfortunately, it would be another night she couldn’t give him the stars—but they remained on the blanket for most of the day, watching the clouds grow thicker and greyer as she told him stories about a sad, old alien in a blue box who found a friend in a nineteen-year-old shop girl from London and traveled the universe together causing all sorts of trouble. It had been millennia since she’d allowed herself to recall those days, but even if he never remembered these pieces of herself she’d given him, they were her way of repaying him for his invaluable friendship and all those nights he’d given himself to her without any expectation for reciprocation.

Perhaps when he returned, he wouldn’t mind hearing them again.

As evening approached, Laura could feel the timelines beginning to unfurl in her head, easing the clenching tension and allowing the headache and nausea to subside somewhat. A bolt of pride flashed through her as she thought of adult Ignis, wherever he was and whatever he was doing at that moment. It seemed that everything was going to turn out all right as soon as she was able to properly rest from this ordeal.

To her surprise, Ignis requested more ochazuke when she asked him if he had any preferences for supper, but of course he wouldn’t allow her to stand long enough to prepare it herself. He let her start the rice and the tofu, but he insisted she sit down while he handled the nori and scallions and followed her directions for putting the bowls together. When it came to brewing the tea, however, he paused.

“May I please try some of this on its own?”

“Of course.” She summoned an ancient purple mug and got up to pour some from the pot.

His eyes widened when he took a sip. “This is remarkable. Why does it taste so much like mushrooms if there aren’t mushrooms in it?”

Ignis was a gifted child, obviously well-read and well-learned far beyond his years, so she didn’t speak down to him as she answered, “The leaves are grown in the shade just before they’re harvested, which reduces the rate of photosynthesis and increases theanine levels—that’s the amino acid that creates the savory flavor.”

Ignis frowned for a moment, but then he nodded his understanding. “I see. And why does the reduction in photosynthesis increase theanine levels?”

“Sorry, I don’t know everything about everything, you know!” she laughed.

He grew quiet as they sat around the fire and finished their supper together, almost as though he knew that his time left here in this place was fast coming to an end, but she still made her best attempt at keeping up the cheer as she taught him to make s’mores and every cheesy, pun-related joke in her repertoire that was safe for him to know until his sad eyes sparkled with mirth.

But not once did he laugh as freely as he had while watching the clouds.

The spell wasn’t completely broken until they readied for bed, when she regretfully handed him the shirt he had arrived in. “You might be going back tonight. You should wear this, just in case.”

And just like that, the leisure of the last two days was washed away as though she’d doused him in frigid water. His expression didn’t noticeably change, but his eyes grew dull and his posture more rigid.

It was then that she realized he hadn’t once asked her when or how he was getting back to Insomnia.

“This has been a most enchanting dream, Miss Rose; I hope to have it again sometime. But I do need to get back. His Highness needs me.”

“I know, dearest,” she said sweetly, drawing him into a fierce hug. She wished with everything she was that she could be there to protect him when he returned. Who knew what his tutors would do to him when he reappeared after going missing for two days? Adult Ignis might have thought to pull some strings somehow, but if not, she would have to do some finagling before she left this universe. “I wish we could keep you here with us.”

He pulled away from her embrace and searched her face as though he were trying to memorize her features.

“Will I ever see you again?”

She gave him a slow, beatific smile. “You will, someday. I promise.”

***

Ignis lay down beside the strange woman who had been his guide to this dream world for the past two days and closed his eyes. He was no fool; he knew she’d lied to him about being nobody, but then, what vision would freely admit to being an Astral?

He couldn’t seem to help the deep sigh that escaped him as he felt her nails whisper against his back, sending waves of tickling chills down his spine as she hummed that melancholy melody. As soon as he awoke, he was going to research the name of it, along with every other odd aspect of this illusion that had arisen. Ignis knew the scope of his own imagination, and while it was considerable, it was hardly this extensive or absurd.

Dream or not, he remained awake for as long as he possibly could, soaking in the goddess’s affection until he felt her hand fall limp across his shoulder blades. It was only then that he allowed himself to weep silently.

Chapter Text

If you get hit, know the effects are temporary, but above all, you must prevent a paradox, no matter how much you might want to change things.

Those words had been a refrain playing over and over in his head for the last two days, with perhaps her expletives acting as the hook. But it was regret that had become the verses for Ignis as he settled into the more deserted stacks of the Royal Library. He’d spent many a night here in his university years at the tender age of fifteen, dusting off faded obscure texts on the mysterious origins of the Lucian language or scrolling through microfilms of older war coverage. At the time, the quiet solitude inside his own mind had suited him, for he had owed no one anything in those hours of silence.

But now that he had come here and verified that a paradox was precisely what he’d thought, his duty to keep the world intact bound him there—no matter how much he wanted to run to the King and tell him everything, no matter how much he wanted to fling himself into the nearest cab and visit his parents, no matter how much he wished he could summon every weapon at his disposal and protect every last man, woman, and child from what lay ahead.

A dark part of him wished that he had explored the city before rushing out of the Citadel entrance and winging his way here, just so he wouldn’t have felt obligated to obey her final instructions, just so he could claim ignorance. What would it have felt like to walk among the bustling streets of his home once more and revel in those echoes of life? But it would have been merely a mirage—he would have been the last truly living man walking among the dead, gagged against uttering a single word of warning to any of them, including his king. No, it was best that he remain where he was. He’d already come too close to destroying his future world when he’d bumped into an eleven-year-old Gladio and his father quite by accident not a minute after he’d arrived.

Looking back on his life thus far, he knew he couldn’t have fit more into it than he had already, but that regret burning in him made him wonder if he’d always prioritized the most important things, especially knowing now that much of that which he’d spent so much time on was no longer useful after the Fall. Would it have been so awful if he’d found some graceful way to let the King know of his fond regards? Could Noct have gone a single day without an escort, or even gone with another, such as Gladio, so he could have visited his mother and father? He most certainly should have never cancelled a single meal with his Uncle Caeli.

But it hardly mattered reviewing how he could have done things differently in the past, even if his past was currently in the future. The most necessary and effective action was making plans for his present, which also happened to lie in the future. Ignis had spent his entire life preparing for a future as Senior Advisor to the King of Light, which no one had truly understood the scope of, so he’d spread his considerable cognitive resources thin to encompass as many subjects as possible. That broad scope was what had convinced him it would be necessary to join the Crownsguard despite it not being required for his position. He could assist Gladio in fighting whatever darkness was coming for Noct, whether it was an entire army of Magitek or the mysterious Starscourge that no one besides Lady Lunafreya seemed to know anything about curing.

Now that his scope was beginning to narrow, Ignis found that his time could be far more efficiently spent in his research. He had taken advantage of this free time in the library these past two days to review any information which may prove useful in traveling to the different regions of Lucis to collect the Royal Arms—including foraging, tactical strategies for daemon hunting, area history, offensive and defensive magic, healing magic—though he knew he would never be able to make headway against the scourge as Lady Lunafreya could—Niflian geography, and even some small amount of mundane field medicine for Laura. But as it had been his entire life, details about the outlands and other countries beyond a superficial overview were difficult to find, particularly information regarding the vanishing disease that had proved so much more prevalent than previously assumed.

After hours of sitting still, he would stand and stretch, extending each muscle in his long and lanky frame until they burned and tingled as he reached for the ceiling. He’d thought he’d been missing the cool cleanliness and comfortable luxuries of civilization, and really, he had. But he found that sitting in chairs all day no longer suited him. He missed using his body and brain in equal measure. He missed the thrill of the hunt and tactical planning on the wild, open plains of Leide. He missed Noct, Prompto, and Gladio. He missed Laura. Astrals, he hoped they were all safe from that horrible creature after he’d been . . . transported.

He had no idea how long the “temporary” effects would last, so Ignis had convinced the café owner downstairs that he was a starving student and would trade a few hours’ food preparation work in exchange for a sandwich or two. The café owner, a grandmotherly woman with a careworn face and bright brown eyes, had pinched at his collarbone, declared him entirely too thin, and sent him on his way three hours later with six enormous sandwiches and a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies. Doing his best to brush aside the no doubt inadvertently implied insult to his physique, he’d stashed his bounty in the back of the refrigerator in the employee break room and still had enough provisions to last a while, at least.

This wasn’t a long-term solution, however, so he settled into one of his favorite sections of the library—the linguistics section—to make his plans. Not only was this area always deserted because the majority of even the most scholarly academics were unaware of the true nature of the discipline, it was also located in a corner with a window overlooking a picturesque courtyard, with trees dropping their vibrant gold and scarlet leaves onto the benches below as the sky darkened beyond the Wall. He settled into the plush black armchair that he himself had likely moved to the window as a boy. This concept gave him pause, but he knew it was safe enough to be here now, as he’d never had the time to visit on the weekdays.

He would have to leave Insomnia should this “adventure” last longer than a week. There was too much of a chance for him to run into someone, anyone, he knew from the future, as well-connected as he was. But without access to Insomnian crowns or a functioning mobile, he would need to find means for purchasing provisions, finding places to stay, smuggling himself out of the city at the very least. How would he know what was safe to say and do? He thought of Laura walking through all those periods of history. How did she always know what was safe? She must have some innate sense or an item in order to move freely about the worlds in which she traveled, else she’d cause destruction wherever she walked.

Pushing his second and third fingers up under his glasses to rub at his eye, he settled deeper into his armchair, arranging his notebook and tome on offensive field magic in his lap so it wouldn’t fall if he fell asleep. Anyone happening by and seeing him in this state would likely think him yet another overworked intern and leave him be. He turned to his book, unconvinced that anything could be found in it that would help Noct in strengthening his connection to the Crystal and thus the hold he would have over all magic wielders once he took his place as King.

As for Ignis’s personal arsenal, he’d been satisfied with what he had accomplished thus far with his natural talents in spiritual and healing magic—his recently-mastered regroup and new overwhelm techniques had proven extremely useful in more difficult battles these past few days. But of course, there was always room for improvement. He’d been toying with the idea that he could possibly use the new spells Noct had put into flasks, with their ability to spare allies from the damaging effects of their magic, to place a boost on Noct’s sword, but he had to run a few more tests before he could inform Noct that the technique could be safely relied upon in battle.

As he’d been developing the theory, Ignis had believed only Noctis would be able to sustain the elemental magic using his power endemic to the Caelum line, but he was beginning to wonder—was his connection to the Crystal through Noct powerful enough to fuel an element under his own magic as some of the Glaives were capable of? The ability this book described to imbue one’s blades with the capacity for sustaining an element for short periods at will seemed promising, but he could likely only make it work with a single element, if at all.

Perhaps he would begin experimenting with fire. There had always been something about tossing a fire flask that he’d found particularly satisfying, something about the element itself that spoke to something deep in his blood. Was it the way the heat and light burned away the darkness and consumed all obstacles in its path? How it burned away all imperfections and purified anything that could withstand its inferno? Perhaps it was how fire could be warm and comforting as well as raging and ferocious.

Perhaps he was simply growing weary after another long day buried in books and was growing fanciful.

***

Something soft brushed against his back, and his entire body jerked as his eyes shot open. Ignis didn’t recall falling asleep, but the lack of light combined with the warmer temperature and change in atmosphere indicated he was no longer in the library.

He . . . had been in the library, hadn’t he? Surely, that hadn’t been a dream, had it? Reviewing the past couple of days, he found that he only had a vague sense of what he’d been doing, as though his research had been a dream recreated after the fact, the details filled in so that his well-ordered mind could fully make sense of the experience. The fact that he felt as though he’d simultaneously been hit by a bus and recently experienced the flu contributed to his uncertainty.

Whether laid up in bed experiencing a vivid fever dream or traveling back in time for the last two days, he had to be somewhere now. He began to raise himself to his elbows to peer into the dim, but that touch that had startled him awake in the first place made itself known again. It felt as though a hand were resting on his bare shoulders beneath his shirt.

He froze.

“Shhh, Ignis,” came Laura’s sleepy mumble in the dark from just beside him, “I’m here.”

He sucked in a quick breath as he felt fingernails scraping lightly between his shoulders, sending familiar tendrils of pleasant chills down his spine. All right, so he was in the tent alone with Laura, who had apparently felt comfortable enough with him to touch his bare skin in sleep. This sudden escalation in their interactions, though as comforting a sensation as crawling into bedding fresh from the dryer on a frigid winter’s evening, was beyond bewildering. If he had indeed been in Insomnia for the past two days, what had been happening here? Clearly, he had still been here in some capacity, or Laura wouldn’t be so . . . solicitous with him right now. Had his body lain here while his mind had traveled back in time? That didn’t seem likely, as he’d needed a corporeal form to affect events.

He began to grow somewhat alarmed when he heard Laura half-heartedly hum several notes of an impossible melody before drifting back to unconsciousness.

He’d only heard that melody once before—the last time he’d experienced such an intense hallucination. Had she lied to him when he’d asked whether she’d ever infiltrated his dreams? Or perhaps it had been accidental, an unconscious reaching out that she’d been unaware of at the time. But then that would mean Rose had been neither a figment of his imagination nor a vision from Shiva.

He wasn’t quite ready to face the consequences of that line of reasoning just yet when he wasn’t even certain what exactly had happened. The answers wouldn’t simply appear before him; he had to wake her to discover the true nature of recent events and, most importantly, learn where the others were.

As he shifted to his side to face her, her hand slid down his back and around to his ribs. He shuddered at the intimate touch and guiltily met her eyes as they snapped open wide—though this entire scenario was hardly his fault. As quick as lightning, she snatched her hand from beneath his shirt and sat up.

“You’re back,” she said shakily. “I’m sorry; I thought I’d feel it when you returned and could move away in time.”

He ignored her response, as well as the shiver still singing down his nerves, in favor of the most important information he needed. “Are the others all right? Where are they?”

He could just barely make out her expression in the dim moonlight, but he grew concerned when she closed her eyes. “Everyone’s fine. You were the only one hit by the paradoxis, the creature you saw. The others are staying at the camper just across the road. You’re welcome to go and wake them now, but seeing as how it’s the middle of the night, I doubt even Noctis’s relief to see you again will eclipse his grouchiness at being awoken at this hour.”

“I don’t believe there exists anything in this world capable of such a feat,” he replied with a crooked smile, but he grew serious as she leaned forward as though searching his expression.

“How much do you remember?”

“I—I’m not entirely certain. I thought I was dreaming when I found myself standing in the middle of the entrance of the Citadel, bumping into a young Gladio.”

“Yes, I felt that. You were right to get away. And after that?”

“I had a vague notion of what a paradox was, but I went directly to the library to verify. Of course, it was difficult finding reliable sources, time travel being a theoretical construct on our world. Afterward, I may have haunted the stacks of the more deserted wings, making plans in case I had to settle in for a longer stay.”

“Hmm,” she hummed warmly, “at the risk of sounding condescending, I’m so proud of you. Not everyone handles their first time traveling experience with as much resourcefulness and level-headedness, you know.”

He let out an indelicate snort. “First time traveling experience? I should hope it was my last, thank you. Standing on a blade’s edge of the world ending for two days is not something I care to repeat.”

He felt her hand settle over his gloved one. Odd—he hadn’t been wearing them in the library. “Are you all right? I know that can’t have been easy for you, being back there.”

He looked down at his lap, pushing down his grief and regret for a moment before nodding. But this wasn’t what he wished to discuss. “I must ask, what has transpired during my absence? There are indications that I was here in some capacity.”

“You should remember some of it, don’t you? The paradoxis switched you for your younger self. I’ve been playing host to you as a ten-year-old for the past two days.”

He stiffened, letting his eyes wander to a loose thread sticking out from the seam of her sleeping bag. He’d have to trim that before they packed up in the morning, else it would unravel before long.

But he could no longer shut out her words. There it was, confirmation of the source of the vision he’d carried with him for the past twelve years—a kind and gentle seraphim offering him respite from the Prince’s convalescence with reading and sleeping and watching the clouds and oh. So much of his adult life had been shaped by that day. He had thought her to be Shiva in his youth, sent to him as a lodestar to guide him through his difficult school years. And though the Royal Family—and by reluctant, obligated extension, Noct—historically tended to offer their prayers to Bahamut at shrines of trinkets and onyx statues, Ignis had spent the rest of his childhood offering his own quiet devotion to the Glacian in gratitude for her kindness. He had never been as strict a follower as he’d heard was the case with those living in the southern regions of Tenebrae. Not once had he stepped foot into her singular glass temple in Insomnia—not even to appreciate the breathtaking crystalline structures and stained-glass sculptures the priests and holy artisans had crafted in her honor. But he had devoted a considerable amount of his precious time studying what little could be found on Messenger lore and, more practically, the art of healing magic in deference to all she had done for him.

A half a life’s worth of dedication to the ideal of the Ice Mother, and this entire time, it had been a case of mistaken identity. His goddess Rose had been real—flesh and blood and standing right in front of him. He recalled awakening in his favorite chair in the library with bitter tears stinging his eyes, thinking it had all been a dream paired with a bizarre case of somnambulance. The fact that no one, not a single tutor or even Prince Noctis himself, made mention of his absence contributed to his theory.

But as he’d lain awake in his bed later, the scent of fresh wild air already beginning to grow hazy in his memory, he had decided to treat the goddess much as Noct had treated Carbuncle in his own vision and hold her as a talisman against the dark. Shiva—his Rose.

“Oh, my word. That really happened. All these years, and I thought you had been a dream.”

Laura tilted her head and inspected him carefully. “It did really happen. How much do you remember from that time?”

As the years progressed and the power of his vision had faded, he grew more proficient in his duties so as not to need his Rose as often, and he’d slowly let her slip from his mind to the point where it had been years since he’d last thought of her, until Laura had appeared and stirred his memory of the experience. It was a relief to have the mystery of where he knew her from solved, at least. It had been a most irksome inconvenience, that puzzle insistently poking at his mind like an angry, buzzing fly.

But he shook his head at her, not willing to try too hard to recall the details so he wouldn’t feel obligated to discuss it. For so long, he’d held his Rose secret in his heart, and he wasn’t quite ready to speak of it with anyone—not even the source—until he was no longer reeling with the aftershock of this discovery. “Not much. Flashes of your face, mostly.”

She hummed in affirmation and closed her eyes, leaning back into her pillow. “And the song,” she whispered.

“Yes. I confess to spending a great deal of time trying to learn the name of it in my youth. I even wrote a composition of it when I could find no evidence of its existence. How did you know?”

“Noctis almost let something slip in front of you. Implied you used to sing it to him when he was young. It’s called ‘Once Upon a December,’ by the way, but you couldn’t find it because it isn’t from this world.”

She let out a long, slow yawn, then said, “M’sorry.”

Ignis squinted into the dark, attempting to see her face in greater detail. She seemed exhausted, and he wondered what she’d had to do to save the others from the paradoxis. Knowing that everything had turned out all right in the end and that everyone was safe, he could wait until later to hear more. He himself was rather fatigued after spending two days catching a few minutes here and there in an armchair as he contemplated what, precisely, it would feel like to be the one responsible for ending his entire world.

“No, I should have waited until morning to inconvenience you. Please, go back to sleep.”

He settled down on his side facing her and allowed his gaze to roam over her already sleeping form—her eyelashes laid against her pale cheeks, the angle of her jaw, the curves of her silhouette in the diffused moonlight. Suppressing the desire to graze his fingertips over the line of her cheekbone, he removed his gloves and glasses, placed them above his pillow, and closed his eyes.

In between taking notes and ruminating on all he’d regretted not doing in the past, Ignis was able to recall a potential regret in his future that had kept surfacing in his mind as he’d sat in that library, like one of Noct’s sea bass breaching the surface of the waves just to tease him.

Laura. He was afraid he was developing feelings for her. His heart couldn’t identify them, but his head was screaming that could possibly be love, and that was terrifying. He couldn’t possibly . . . enamored, perhaps—attracted, most certainly. It wasn’t as though he’d never been drawn to the sight of the occasional man or woman from a distance, but he’d certainly never followed up on the matter. Besides, Ignis was the sort to prefer the aesthetics of a beautiful body combined with a sharp mind and a kind heart, and the chances of encountering such a person who found him equally attractive in return were absurdly low. These emotions of his, however, were far more than an enticing flash of a stranger from across the street. He found her rare and extraordinary beyond anyone he’d ever met in his life.

But he should have known, really, when his heart fluttered as though he were a character in some silly romance novel that first night she had sat in the moonlight at the haven. And there weren’t just feelings there. In the deepest recesses of his mind, he wanted her; he’d wanted her since the moment he’d contained his longing to run his hands over her skin as he held her hand by the fire. That sharp, spicy scent of warm pine sap had settled in his veins and set his blood on fire, and though he still believed his reaction to be due to the science of pheromones, he found himself contemplating for the first time in his life what it would feel like to put his mouth on another person’s skin, whether she tasted as intoxicating as she smelled.

Ignis had always been the sort of man who decided on what he wanted or needed, or what Noct wanted or needed, and went out to obtain it as efficiently as possible: his cooking skills; his degrees in military science, political science, and economics; his rank of sergeant in the Crownsguard and all the accompanying skills that went with it. But this was different. This wasn’t the simple matter of crawling into the pits of hell and forcing his blades into the hearts of his foes as he’d been training for since he was sixteen. This was his heart, over which his head had always taken precedence. He didn’t know how to balance the two and wasn’t equipped for it, and when he was around her, he would find himself swept away by one or the other in any given moment. Even now, he was torn between ignoring the matter of romance as he always had or waking her and asking to press his lips against that mouth of hers, Six damn the consequences. More and more, he found he wanted to be swept away for once in his life. He wanted to be the one to be carried, to be carried off. He’d let go before with her and trusted her to be there to catch him, and she’d thus far never let him down.

In a way, she was far safer than any other choice he could make. His duty to Noct wasn’t in jeopardy, as their goals were the same in that regard. But she was still a goddess—his own personal goddess, in fact—and he was still a mere servant to the Crown. His own meagre title was still nothing in comparison to divinity. Was he daring enough to pursue a goddess despite being unworthy? It was better than regretting that he’d never even tried. And, if he proceeded with caution, he could strike when he was certain of her reciprocated feelings without risking their friendship.

He had been wrong in front of her. He had been weak in front of her. Now she could watch as she inspired him to be audacious. This was folly, but he couldn’t help himself. Gods damn it, he wanted to live, just this once, and see where it got him.

***

From beneath his closed eyelids, Ignis could tell that the light had only just begun to change, but he was loath to open his eyes and break the spell he was under. Astrals, he was so warm, so comfortable, with that enticing scent of pine and kithairon enveloping him and the delicious sensation of her body breathing against his. But he needed to get up and see for himself that Noct was safe, so he opened his eyes to face reality.

She was still there when he looked down; he had migrated toward her like a lover in the night, and somehow, he held her head cradled in his left arm. His right hand rested perfectly in the dip below her ribcage and around to the small of her back, but he wasn’t the only one displaying physical affection in this embrace. When he realized that her hands were curled up against his chest, he sucked in a quiet breath, savoring for a moment the heat of her body seeping through her shirt and into his palm. He could feel his face and neck growing flush, but he had to remind himself that he couldn’t take any true meaning from this moment. Not only was she currently unconscious, she was the sort of woman who was free and open with her affection.

However, she never seemed to cross a certain line when she was friendly with Gladio and Prompto. Perhaps, if he subtly expressed his interest in touching her in a friendly manner when she was awake as Prompto and Gladio had, she would become more demonstrative with him and perhaps cross that line if she were interested. Yes, that seemed to be the most sensible way forward while he thought of a more comprehensive plan.

As carefully as he could, he disentangled himself from her, noting that her brow furrowed as they separated, but she made no other indications of stirring. He hastily arranged his hair before she could awaken, intending to change out of his filthy rumpled uniform and take a full shower in the caravan as soon as he prepared breakfast as a peace offering for rousing them all this early in the morning. But when he emerged from the tent, he immediately spotted Gladio almost comically tiptoeing up the haven ramp with an armful of firewood.

“Gladio,” he called softly.

Gladio started and, on spotting Ignis, dropped the armful of firewood at his feet with a clatter.

“Fuck. Iggy!”

So much for his caution in not waking Laura.

Gladio jogged up and yanked him into a hug, resting his chin against Ignis’s shoulder and slapping his back roughly. “It’s so good to see you man.”

“Good morning to you, too, Gladio,” he said mildly, patting Gladio’s shoulder in return and attempting to mask his surprise at his overenthusiastic greeting. “Was the lack of proper nutrition these past two days really that distressing?”

Gladio pulled away and inspected his face closely. “How long’ve you been back?”

“Only a couple of hours or so.”

Gladio seemed to be searching Ignis’s face for something; the expression in his eyes reminded him of Laura always doing much the same. When he spoke, his enunciation was careful and earnest. “You okay? Do you remember being here with us?”

Ignis frowned. He hadn’t recalled any time spent with the other three, but either way, he preferred to keep the entire experience to himself much as he had these last twelve years.

“Flashes here and there, nothing more.”

Gladio hesitated, opening his mouth as though he wished to say something, then nodded before tilting his head to scratch at his scalp. “Yeah, makes sense, I guess,” he said on a sigh. “You were pretty young then. And you? I mean, damn, this time thing’s confusing. Were you okay back in the Crown City?”

“Quite all right. Once I realized what had happened, it was only a matter of avoiding everyone.”

His voice dropped in pitch and volume, growing soft and gruff. “How was it, being home?”

Ignis let his eyes drift to the dead campfire and kept his expression carefully blank. “Exactly how you would imagine, I suppose.”

“This is all some fucked up shit, you know?”

“Indeed.”

They stood together in silence for several moments, shoulder to shoulder, staring at the blackened logs and piles of ash. Ignis wasn’t certain he could put a name to what he was feeling, but it felt like camaraderie, solidarity. He wanted to say something to Gladio—words of comfort, perhaps that his father would have been proud of him for picking up and carrying out his duty after experiencing such a profound loss, but any words he could have given would have merely broken the moment and cheapened the experience, so he allowed the silence to speak for him.

He heard Gladio take in a deep breath, then felt the light slap of a hand against his shoulder.

“Tell you what, I’ll go wake up Spazzy and Sleepy and get ‘em back here to help take camp down. Cor’s got an assignment for us we better get movin’ on.”

Ah, yes. Nothing focused the mind better than a task on the horizon. “Very good, though I’d ask you not to return the keys until Laura and I have gotten the chance to use the facilities. In the meantime, I’ll start breakfast and wake her.”

Gladio looked toward the tent and frowned. “Naw, best let her sleep in. We’ll take the tent down last if she sleeps through the cleanup.” Before Ignis could ask after her condition and the circumstances behind it, Gladio turned and headed down to the camper.

Eager to catch up on the news, he managed to find a radio station on his phone, which he set on the table next to him and turned down low so as not to disturb his sleeping companion. Then he set about pulling out a large stack of Mama Eden’s garula ham and arranging the slices on the preheated grill as he listened. Reports on the imperial occupation, the people plunged into anarchy, the installation of a provisional government—with each announcement, disquiet would tear at him. They should be there now in the thick of things, taking back what was rightfully theirs, but he knew it wasn’t a tactically sound plan until they had acquired Noctis’s Royal Arms and the Crystal.

Particularly curious was the report of Lord Ravus Nox Fleuret’s promotion after his involvement and severe injury in the invasion. Ignis’s hands paused briefly over the bowl of cracked eggs when the newscaster announced that the new high commander now carried His Majesty’s personal glaive.

The high commander insisted that the late King Regis gifted him with the glaive as a gesture of goodwill before the signing, denying claims it was taken as a spoil of war afterward. With armistice talks tabled indefinitely, suspicions of the high commander run high, many alleging he pilfered the blade after the king was slain. But official media deems this version of events to be false.”

Ignis was unfamiliar with Lord Ravus’s character or precisely where his loyalties lay—whether with Niflheim or with his sister and Lucis—but he was certain that the more benign version of events was untrue. Upon his death and transformation into a Lucii, His Majesty’s glaive would likewise transform into a spectral weapon made concrete to house the soul of his power, to be fully wielded by another of the line of Lucian Kings alone. It would be possible to steal, as King Regis had been forced to store the sword out of his armiger for years, but as a gift? That weapon was part of Noctis’s heritage and not something His Majesty would give to anyone under any circumstances.

Perhaps King Regis had given it to Lord Ravus for safekeeping. Perhaps it was just another part of Noct’s rightful inheritance that the five of them would have to take back by force. Time would tell.

It had been nearly a half an hour since Gladio had left to fetch Noct and Prompto. The ham had long since finished and was growing cold, but fortunately, he’d waited to start the eggs. He sincerely hoped the delay meant they’d discussed his memory of what happened amongst themselves, as he wasn’t relishing the idea of them all fussing over him.

“Iggy,” came Noct’s rasp from behind him, and Ignis turned to see him staring up at him, some intense, unidentifiable emotion behind his wide eyes.

“Highness, good morning,” he greeted with a nod and made to pour the eggs into the hot pan, but Noct stopped him with a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“It’s really good to have you back, Specs,” he croaked.

“Y-yeah, we’re really glad to see ya, Iggy,” Prompto said from behind Noct, and Ignis looked over to see the typically spastic man standing stock still for once, his arms crossed over his chest and his expression troubled.

Ignis furrowed his brow, puzzled by everyone’s reaction to his return—almost as though he’d died. “It’s good to be back. Is everything all right?”

Noct took a retreating step and allowed his expression to morph into a cheeky grin. “Yeah. Just missed havin’ you in charge is all. Gladio’s a pain in my ass.”

Ignis let out a long sigh. Honestly, he resented being the one to constantly remind Noct to mind his manners. It gave him the unfair reputation for being ill-tempered, but Gladio certainly never assisted in keeping him in line unless it had to do with pugilistic or dueling activities. Who else would keep them all from descending into chaos?

“Clearly, he’s already influenced your language in a matter of days. I shudder to think what other manners he’s managed to undo in my short time away,” he replied, turning back to the stove.

Fortunately, Gladio seemed to have shared what he knew because, aside from their unusual greetings, they displayed no signs of wanting to speak of the matter further. They allowed him to finish with his work, though they all seemed to hover, offering assistance or engaging him in idle chatter. Several times, he found himself side-stepping an ill-placed foot or maneuvering to avoid an errant elbow as he moved back and forth between squeezing the fresh Duscaean orange juice and stirring the eggs. He appreciated the company, but honestly, he wasn’t so delicate that two days away from his duties warranted such solicitude and change in their usual patterns of behavior. They needn’t have troubled themselves for his sake. And he’d grown accustomed to working with Laura, who always managed to assist without getting in the way.

The meal itself was spent in awkward silence. Ignis would look up from his plate to find one of the other three casting him a furtive, curious glance before looking away quickly. Had his younger self said something to warrant such behavior? For the past twelve years, he had never recalled a moment spent in their presence, but he found himself attempting to force the experience to the forefront of his memory to remember—all for naught, it would seem.

Prompto was still nibbling on the last of his ham and Ignis was finishing the dregs of his coffee when a dark head poked out of the tent—hair sloppily pulled back into a bun and face grey with fatigue, but smiling. Gladio leapt from his seat, hastening to Laura’s side to offer her a hand up.

How odd. It seemed as though he wasn’t the only one being treated delicately this morning.

“Morning, guys,” she yawned, rubbing at her eyes. “Are we heading out?”

“Yeah, Princess. Gotta drive down to Galdin Quay for a quick stop. Dino called and wants to see us for something—and it better be pretty damn important, far as we have to drive for it, but it’ll give everyone another day to recover from . . . stuff. Then we’re coming back up here to kick some Nif ass,” Gladio said, putting his arm around her shoulder and pressing his lips briefly to the top of her head. To Ignis’s surprise, Laura responded by leaning into his side, wrapping her arms around his middle, and squeezing him in a side hug.

What on Eos had happened between the two of them while Ignis had been away? They hadn’t even been speaking before Keycatrich—it had been mere days since Gladio had threatened to behead her.

“You think you’re feeling up to a drive?” Noct asked softly. He stood and, one-by-one, began collecting everyone’s plates to bring to the kitchen area.

“Yeah, think I can manage to sit on a cushioned seat for a few hours, but only if one of you rubs my feet,” she said with a wink.

“Anything,” Prompto said, completely serious, but she shook her head and laughed.

Ignis’s eyes shifted to each member of the group in turn, lingering longest on Noct, who was placing the dishes in the wash bucket, and Laura, who was still leaning under Gladio’s arm. The fleeting thought flitted through his muddled head that he’d been returned to the wrong universe, but there simply had to be a less complex reason for this behavior. Evidently, they had experienced something profound in his absence, and not only had Gladio and Noct forgiven Laura for her secrecy, they had all bonded deeply. He felt a slight prick of jealousy in his heart, and the corners of his mouth tugged down at the feeling. They’d likely grown closer working together to eradicate the paradoxis, and it was his own fault for being too distracted with Noct’s safety to get out of the way himself. Still, he wished he could have been a part of whatever they’d experienced together.

Ignis assisted the others in taking down the haven as Laura went across the road to shower. He swore he could feel three sets of eyes burning into his back the entire time, even as he took his turn to head to the caravan to clean up. Odd morning though it had been, it was with a fresh set of clothes and clean-shaven face that Ignis joined the other four to walk down the main road through the Prairie Outpost to where Noct had apparently moved the Regalia behind a rusty old storage shed. He automatically reached for the driver’s side door handle, but a hand came into view and rested on the door, stopping him.

“Hey Iggy,” Noct said. “Why don’t you sit in back today?”

Ignis suppressed the desire to let out a frustrated huff. “I assure you, I am sufficiently rested—”

“Yeah, but I wanna drive. You take a load off.”

He narrowed his eyes, inspecting Noct’s face carefully. It wasn’t terribly unusual for him to want to drive for short stretches here and there, but the almost guilty expression and the insistence that he rest was atypical, particularly in addition to his cooperative behavior this morning. Had Ignis’s younger self said something to the Prince to unsettle him so?

With any luck, this behavior would resolve itself as soon as the shock of the experience had passed. He decided it was best to let the matter pass, for now, but he would certainly need to ask after a full account of events from Laura the next time they were alone together.

“Of course, Noct.”

As the others settled into their usual travel routine, Ignis took the opportunity to watch the scenery fly past the window . . . and perhaps to keep a sharp eye on Noct’s driving. Gladio immediately pulled out a book, and Laura began an apparently controversial discussion with Prompto on the pros and cons of filter pre-settings versus doing the work on photos in post-production. Ignis half-listened to the conversation, but when the two grew quiet after a while, he noticed from the corner of his eye that Laura had leaned her head back against the seat, crossing her arms over her middle to make herself as small as possible before sighing and closing her eyes. A flash of movement drew his attention, and he turned his head to see Prompto waving his hands wildly at him.

He cocked an eyebrow in response.

Hold her, Prompto mouthed, miming putting an arm around her shoulder.

He glared at Prompto. Was he seriously suggesting that he just . . . manhandle her? He shook his head furiously, but Prompto only nodded back with equal vehemence.

Looking down at her stiff posture, it did appear as though she would be terribly uncomfortable after the day-long drive to Galdin in that position. Perhaps . . . though he didn’t relish the prospect of doing this in front of the others, this opportunity provided him with a legitimate reason to touch her, as he’d only just this morning proposed to himself. This was no different than holding her hand to help her adjust her resonant frequency, really.

And Prompto’s affections hadn’t yet been met with disdain. Ignis should trust his social instincts, at the very least.

He adjusted his frame closer toward the door in preparation for what he was about to ask. Hesitantly reaching out, he placed a careful hand on her shoulder.

“Rose?” he called softly, and she snapped her head up sharply at him, too sharply to be appropriate for the situation. Perhaps she didn’t wish to be pestered. He dropped his hand and leaned further away from her. “My apologies, it wasn’t my intention to startle you. I was only going to inquire, should you need the extra space, you are welcome to lean on me.”

What was she staring at? Was she disgusted by his offer? He couldn’t see how, as she had slept against Prompto in the past. He couldn’t fathom from her expression what she was trying to read in his. His mind flashed briefly to telepathy, but then he didn’t feel anything in his head—not that he knew what he was supposed to feel at a telepath’s touch. He wondered what her passive telepathy was picking up in his mind this very moment, besides bemusement.

Without any additional input on his behalf, joy blossomed across her exhausted face, and his ridiculous heart fluttered in response.

“If you wouldn’t mind. I’m having trouble keeping awake.”

Suppressing the desire to allow a foolish grin to spread over his face, he stretched his arm along the back of the seat and reclined against the door.

“Not at all. Please.”

Still smiling, she draped herself along his side, resting her head where his shoulder met his chest. A curious sort of tingle tickled at his lungs when she brought her arm across his middle as though she were embracing him and sighed peacefully. She appeared so content there tucked into his side, he wondered whether it would be considered taking advantage if he were to . . .. Removing his right hand from the back of the seat, he patted her shoulder gently before returning his hand to the back of the seat.

“Ignis,” she sighed into his shoulder, barely loud enough for him to hear over the wind blowing over his ears. “I’m so glad you’re back.”

He had to close his eyes against the swell of affection that rolled over him. As it was, all he could manage as a response was a slight tightening of his fingers around her arm. Before he could glance up at Prompto to make certain that someone besides him was there to witness this and ensure he wasn’t imagining things, the click of that damned camera sounded overly loudly even above the wind.

“Thanks, Prom,” Laura muttered into his chest. “Just what we need to see as we look back and reminisce: a picture of me drooling all over Ignis.”

“Heh heh, gotcha!” Prompto laughed. He locked eyes with Ignis—biting his lip melodramatically, bobbing his head, and giving him two thumbs up. Grateful though he was for Prompto’s encouragement that led to this situation, he couldn’t help but roll his eyes.

Another moment of silence passed before he heard Laura say in quiet wonder, “You called me Rose . . ..”

Had he? He didn’t recall. He’d been thinking about Rose all morning, so he supposed it was possible he’d accidently used her alternate appellation. Still, he didn’t know how to respond to that wonder in her voice.

Chapter Text

Gladio made one more minute adjustment in his seat—one of a series of about twenty—which completed his slow, covert maneuver to keep an eye on Noct and Ignis without anyone noticing what he was doing.

He’d thought with Iggy’s return that Noct would loosen up a little, but after his first words spoken in two days, he’d sunk back into brooding as he sped down the highway down to Galdin. At least he was actually doing something useful now instead of curling up in the corner of the camper’s rear bunk and staring out the window at the haven. Maybe Iggy wouldn’t have to end up straightening him out, after all.

But it wasn’t like Ignis himself was the finest example of dealing with things, since he’d chosen to pretend that what they’d all seen hadn’t happened. Gladio wasn’t expecting a heart-to-heart with tears and hugging and shit, but if Iggy wouldn’t even acknowledge it as reality, there wasn’t much to be done about it. That staunch silence had probably been fostered in him from the beginning to protect the bastards responsible. It didn’t matter to Gladio that they hadn’t really known each other yet; if Ignis had come to him all those years ago, he would’ve done something—even if he was only four years old at the time and couldn’t beat those guys to a pulp himself. He would’ve told his dad. He would’ve told the King. It would’ve stopped right then and there. No kid’s life was easy growing up as a courtier and servant to the Crown—Gladio himself had the snot kicked out of him on a daily basis in the sparring arena until he’d gotten big enough to do his own kicking, but to’ve just been silently beaten like that . . . and who knew what else he’d gone through they still didn’t know about?

But they weren’t gonna discuss it because Iggy knew they didn’t have time for sitting down and crying, and Gladio respected the hell out of him for that. What he’d experienced was so much worse than Gladio losing his mom to cancer eight years ago or his dad in the Fall, but he’d still managed to harden himself against the pain better than even Gladio could—something his dad had been telling him to master for years. And that pretty much made Iggy his hero. No wonder that subservient, courteous exterior of his had been perfectly ice cold since he’d known him. He’d been pushing all that shit down and hiding it behind his schedule and his manners flawlessly since he was three years old, what the fuck.

Gladio wondered which of his tutors had been the one to do it. He happened to know a lot of them, having taken a few lessons here and there from most of them in between classes at the private school most of the Citadel kids went to. But no way in hell would anyone have had the gall to treat the young Marquess Amicitia like that. They would’ve been terrified his dad would’ve had them beheaded before they’d laid the whip down.

How lonely it must’ve been for the little guy, with no one to protect him, no one to turn to. For the first time ever, Gladio was beginning to understand just what it had probably cost Ignis to be in his impossible position—charged with ensuring a reluctant kid became a king while somehow keeping him happy. It kinda made sense now why Iggy had always been even more of a hardass on Noct than Gladio had been when they were teenagers . . . until they’d gotten older, and he’d suddenly transformed into an overly-indulgent parent.

How many times had he gotten into trouble when Noct’s moping ass didn’t perform to standard? Gladio had heard Iggy’s reports to the King from time to time—they’d always been unflinchingly honest. Did he catch hell for that? Why hadn’t his uncle stepped in and done something? From what little Gladio had seen of the guy, he seemed to be all right, not the kinda guy to sanction that sorta thing.

Come to think of it, where had his parents been? Gladio had been just as shocked as Noct to hear that not only did Ice Cold Scientia have parents, they had probably survived the Fall. He’d never really given any thought to House Scientia after King Regis had caused that upset a couple of years ago—turned the entire system upside down and changed Iggy’s peerage.

Whether Ignis had moved on from his childhood or not, that wasn’t going to stop Gladio from tracking down every single asshole that had laid a hand on that boy. Like he’d told Laura that night—the four of them were family now.

He turned the page of his book, using the motion to cover up the fact that he was trying to sneak another glance at Iggy snuggled up in the back seat with Laura. His mouth was pulled down into a serious frown, but that flush of color on his cheekbones proved this arrangement wasn’t as all-business as it appeared. The expression in his eyes was enraptured intensity as they followed every shift of her hair against his shoulder, every breath of movement.

Damn, the kid had it bad. She definitely seemed to be the crack in that frigid façade of his.

Gladio and Laura may have been a different place now, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t concerned for Ignis, especially after what’d just happened. Iggy didn’t fall easily, didn’t fall at all, and here he was obviously whipped by someone who may or may not return his feelings. He was the smartest guy Gladio had ever met in his life, but first loves could make anyone an idiot. Laura was pretty free with her affection, just like Gladio. Did Iggy realize that her getting all cuddly didn’t necessarily mean she was into him? Then again, a girl wasn’t up at three o’clock in the morning to sharpen a man’s blade because they were good friends, either. She’d never done that for Gladio.

He’d just have to learn to trust her better. Their king had with all their lives—even if Gladio hated how things had gone down. She’d already proven she’d die for any of them, same as Gladio would, and she was obviously perceptive enough to come up with all that stuff to defend him against Noct. She probably knew enough about this dance going on to handle Iggy’s heart with care.

He returned to his book. Ever since Laura had served ochazuke the other day, he’d been looking for the tea she’d used in his book, but he couldn’t find gyokuro anywhere. Gladio had never really advertised the fact, but he actually loved the pomp and tradition of a good tea ceremony, and each country had strict and vastly different rules, making it even more interesting. There was something calming and peaceful about sitting down with a good cuppa—watching the steam curl over the surface of the water, contemplating the flavors, and really taking the time to explore his own head amongst the quiet tinkling of porcelain. There was something philosophical about ceremony for the sake of it—taking the extra care to make the tea correctly, coaxing the different flavors out of a single type of tea with different brewing times and temperatures. The delicacy of the dishes and the way each person’s personality could be reflected in the intricate patterns was pretty cool, too.

“Prompto?” he heard Ignis ask quietly, interrupting his search. “I never asked, were you all able to defeat the paradoxis all right?”

“Oh, the paradox thingy was no trouble. Disappeared as soon as it hit you. We got back to the haven no problem.”

“Then what has happened to make her like this?” Gladio looked up to see Iggy frowning down at Laura, craning his neck to get a better look at her face. “She appears waxen with exhaustion.”

Oh fuck. Had their conversation been vague this morning not because Ignis hadn’t wanted to talk about it but because he really didn’t remember what’d happened?

“She’ll be all right; don’t worry about it, Iggy,” Gladio said.

Ignis’s frown deepened, his keen eyes narrowing dangerously at him. “I suspect, given that you all have been acting most strangely toward me this morning, that I should very much be worrying about it.”

“It’s no big deal,” Prompto said pleadingly. “She said she’d be all right.”

“As this has something to do with me, I believe I have the right to know.”

“She healed your back, Ignis,” Noct said tersely, his knuckles tightening on the steering wheel.

That cold resting expression of his didn’t change, but Ignis grew white as a sheet as his jaw clenched hard enough to crack stone.

“So,” he said almost conversationally, like they were discussing the fucking weather, “you all saw, then.”

“Yeah, we saw it. We saw it all,” Noct growled, glaring up at the rearview mirror. “And you should’ve said something.”

Ignis stretched his neck to peer over Noct’s shoulder, doing his best to keep still for the girl still passed out halfway on top of him. “Do watch the road, Highness, you’re beginning to drift.”

“Fuck the godsdamn road, Ignis. You should’ve said something!”

“That would’ve been inappropriate. A chamberlain’s duties require discipline and discretion at all times—”

“Don’t give me that crap. I’m not just your prince, and you know it. I’m your friend. I’m your brother. And you should’ve said something.”

At the word brother, Iggy’s eyes widened a fraction—the first real response he’d had since this fucked up conversation began. Did he really not know? Yeah, Noct sucked at expressing himself, but Iggy had practically raised the kid for gods’ sakes. Did he really still see himself as a servant after all these years? Even Gladio knew they both meant more to Noct than that.

“Oh, let’s not be dramatic, shall we? I received an unparalleled education so that I could do my duty with grace.”

Noct slammed his hand hard against the steering wheel. “You’ve been brainwashed! All this time—”

Ignis’s expression turned dark. He leaned forward slightly and opened his mouth to speak, but glanced down when Laura stiffened, her hand tightening into a loose fist in his shirt. They all went still, but after several moments, she relaxed into him again. Gladio wasn’t surprised. Iggy was right; she looked like a sickly wax figurine, even after a couple of days’ rest.

“What about those first seven years, Ignis?” Noct hissed. “Did you forget she had to heal you in the first place? We all saw it. Your back was covered in bruises and scars. And you can’t just tell me they . . . stopped after that.”

“Well, you’re welcome to look when we reach Galdin Quay, Highness,” he said airily, his chin raised in defiance and his expression cold. “There is not a mark on my person.”

Gladio had had enough. Did he really think it was normal to be whipped like that and not feel pain, to not bleed? From the looks of things, Laura had almost died for him, and that arrogance in the face of her sacrifice was starting to piss Gladio off.

“That’s because of her, idiot.”

Ignis went deathly still, and for a second, Gladio could see that terrified kid again, standing in front of that fucking stove and ready to take a blow from Noct that would never, ever come. Now that he knew what that stillness really meant, the sight made him sick.

“What,” Iggy said in a flat, dead tone.

“When she healed you, she added something so you wouldn’t get hurt anymore when they hit you,” Prompto said quietly.

“And where, may I ask,” he ground out, “has the energy for that been coming from these past twelve years?”

Absolute silence reigned in the car until they all heard a soft, “Stop it, please. All of you.”

Ignis looked down at Laura, tightening his grip so that he was clutching her against his side.

“Please,” he said in a strangled tone, “tell me you didn’t. Tell me that every bump and injury I have received for the past twelve years hasn’t been paid for with your life force.” His head shot up to Prompto, then Gladio, then the back of Noct’s head. “And the rest of you?” he added incredulously. “How could you have let her do this? How could you think that this is what I would want?”

They hadn’t asked about the specifics of the spell when she’d proposed it, and honestly, it wasn’t until she’d almost fallen into the campfire that any of them had really cared. They’d just wanted Iggy to be safe and whole, no matter what, and she was always invincible anyway. It’d been real fun in that camper later that night discussing how she was even more secretive than Iggy, and she was probably in worse shape than she’d been letting on. Sure enough, as they’d all taken shifts to watch over the two of them and make them meals that first day, they’d seen her using Iggy’s little body as a fucking cane to get around.

“No,” she answered. “It wasn’t my life force; it was yours. I set up a reserve for your energy, which would lie dormant until you were hurt. It would protect you from most of the pain, heal you, then slowly build up again.”

Iggy closed his eyes and looked away from her. “Is it still there?”

“It dissolved on its own sometime when you were sixteen.”

The muscle in his jaw twitched as he let out a sigh through his nose.

“Please don’t be angry with me. I just couldn’t send you back to them without protection. And if I hadn’t done it, you wouldn’t have been able to help me align in time to be strong enough to use the Crystal’s powers in Longwythe. I might’ve lost one of you.”

One of them could’ve died that night? Well, damn. That was news to Gladio.

Ignis’s eyes flew open at her words, his mouth falling open as he whipped his head down to stare at her. They both met each other’s gaze in silent, serious communication.

Gladio thought the moment seemed too private and looked away.

***

Seriously, Gladio didn’t see why everyone thought it was necessary to meet them for assignments. Dino could’ve given them the location for the gemstones he needed over the phone, but no. They had to drive all the way to Galdin, up to Longwythe Peak, then back down to Galdin to deliver the goods. It was a damned waste of time that had cost them a full day and a half when Cor was waiting on them for far more important shit.

He hoped Iggy planned on sending that asshole copies of their gas and caravan receipts.

But it was probably best that Ignis and Laura got to sleep that extra day. Laura hadn’t even stirred when they parked at Galdin, and Iggy had motioned for them to go ahead and grab the assignment and the keys to the camper while he got her up and walked her to the chairs out front. Despite Iggy’s curt and somewhat demanding attempts to persuade her to stay awake long enough to eat, she had remained passed out ensconced in that bunkroom until they left the next morning, where she stayed awake just long enough for him to awkwardly offer her extra space again before conking out.

It wasn’t until Noct had pulled the Regalia onto the dusty shoulder, the gravel cracking under the weight of the tires, that Laura opened her eyes and sat up.

“We’re here?”

“It’s where Dino marked the map,” Noct said. “Just gotta find the stones.”

“And it’s stinkin’ hot,” Gladio complained.

“Yeah,” Noct agreed.

The second the wind had stopped blowing down his open jacket and across his bare skin, that ridiculously bright sun beat down on him, cooking him inside his uniform. He could feel beads of sweat popping out of his skin beneath his leather pants and under his pits before he'd even undone his seatbelt. Gladio flapped his jacket over his abs a couple of times as Noct put the top up, but it didn’t make a difference. They were about to get out and walk in it anyway.

As they got out of the car, Iggy turned to Laura, blocking the door. “This shouldn’t take long. We’ll return within the hour.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t work like that,” she shot back, scooting across the seat and slipping past Ignis, who reluctantly stepped to the side and shut the door behind her. “I can’t protect any of you from the car.”

“You’re not in any condition to protect anyone at the moment.”

“Come on, guys,” Prompto cajoled. “I hate it when you fight. Can’t you just make up or something?”

Ignis pulled his posture rigidly straight and stared down his glasses at Prompto, who shrank back at being on the receiving end of his pissy mood. “I would suggest that you leave that between us.”

Gladio examined Laura as they began walking across the scorched dirt. She seemed a little slow on her feet, but alert enough. She could kick his ass on a good day, and fuck, he kept forgetting she wasn’t the girl she appeared to be. Iggy’s bad temper made sense in the grand scheme of things, but she could take care of herself. He decided to step in.

“Let’s just get this over with.”

Iggy pursed his lips together and nodded sharply, giving Laura a stern side-eye. Eager to end this before Cor called them again and demanded to know just what the hell they were doing, they picked up the pace out to the small boulder that stuck up out of the ground up ahead. As they drew closer, Gladio kept his eyes on the swivel for any danger, but it looked like there was nothing with teeth or fangs interested in guarding the dull, rough chunks of garnet tucked between the crags. He wondered why the hell Dino didn’t just drive his own happy ass up here and get them himself.

“Got the goods,” Noct called, bending to pick up the stones while the rest of them watched his back.

“That was easy, huh guys?” Prompto said enthusiastically, pushing a little at Laura’s shoulder.

She gave him a polite smile. “Yeah.”

“It’s nice to not have to kill anything!”

“Agreed,” Laura sighed.

Gladio rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well I don’t. Hope we make it to this base in time to do it tonight. Been itchin’ to dismantle some MTs.”

Before he’d finished his sentence, the familiar percussive roaring of a Magitek engine in the distance reached their ears, almost like Bahamut had heard his prayers and sent him a load of toys to play with. They all turned in a circle, searching for the source of the sound. Wherever it was coming from, it was approaching fast, but Gladio couldn’t pinpoint the location standing in the giant bowl of rocks that was Leide.

“Not again,” Prompto moaned.

“Looks like you’re gonna get your wish sooner than you thought,” Noct said, nodding toward the road.

The bulky hunk of metal hovered into view over a rocky plateau and predictably headed for the largest, most obviously identifiable object within a hundred-mile radius—the Regalia. This wasn’t the first time they’d been tracked since they’d fought their way through the ramparts. It seemed like rumor had gotten back to the Empire about the group of Crownsguard rookies causing trouble throughout Leide in the King’s old car. They’d been lucky so far, as they’d left no survivors in Keycatrich to report to the human division that one of the young Crownsguard was actually the Prince of Lucis.

The payload doors slowly creaked open to reveal a squad of MTs, which leapt from the ramp created by the open door, slammed to the asphalt below, and began setting up a perimeter around the vehicle.

“Welp, guess we better get movin’,” Gladio said with a grin.

Iggy looked over at Laura. “Stay here,” he ordered.

Gladio chuckled. He knew where this was headed before the scowl had a chance to finish spreading over Laura’s face.

“Fat chance,” she retorted, picking up the pace to keep up with them. “It’s what? Twelve MTs? Think I can handle it with you lot.”

His tone grew more commanding. “I must insist. You’re in no condition for a fight today.”

Maybe it was guilt keeping him from recognizing the snake pit he’d just fallen into, but for a genius, Iggy could be bone-headedly stupid sometimes.

Laura’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Excuse me? You insist? I’ll not be mollycoddled. I may not be able to take the base with you, but I’m old enough to handle making these decisions myself.”

“Apparently not, as you always seem to be on one foolish errand or another to incapacitate yourself.”

“I’d rather be incapacitated for a bit than see one of you lying dead any day,” she snapped.

“Guys?” Noct cut in. “Can we just get our car back?”

Iggy huffed a sigh, but they both went quiet as the five of them silently trotted to where those fuckers had taken up a patrol around their car. Laura seemed to be keeping up with them all right, so Gladio put her out of his mind and concentrated on the fight as they approached. The hefty weight of his sword burned down his forearm in a familiar, satisfying way as he swung it in an arc to cleave an MT’s head in two before flinging it out to his left to chop the arm off another that was headed for Noct’s head.

Damn, it felt good to move again after all that camping and driving!

Cutting down the Nifs was easy work with five against twelve; they just didn’t move as quickly as a sabertusk or pack a punch like a dualhorn swinging its head around. By the time Gladio had finished off his third, the squad lay in dozens of twitching, sparking pieces across the pavement—and all without a scratch on the Regalia.

“Nice work, Gladio,” Noct said, slapping at his arm.

Gladio hefted his sword over his shoulder and grinned. “Back atcha, kiddo.”

Prompto toed hesitantly at one of the sickly green faceplates, tilting his head down at the glowing red still fading from the MT’s eyes. He shuddered and looked up at them. “What are MTs, really? They give me a kinda creepy feeling. Something about the way they move.”

“They’re empty humanoid soldiers. Soulless. Merciless,” Iggy replied. “Robotics, essentially.”

Gladio stopped when Laura halted next to the car and turned to face them, her expression blank and faraway. A cut on her cheek was dripping a thick, white, pearlescent fluid like a shimmering tear, but she ignored it. Was that her blood? Was she bleeding? Gladio kept forgetting she was an alien until weird shit like that just . . . casually happened.

“No, not soulless,” she said in a small voice. “Has Lucis done no research on them? Their minds are deadened, but they were sentient once, I think.” She closed her eyes and folded her arms over her middle, shivering. “Whatever they were, they’re daemons now, shoved into that robotic body and programmed to take orders.”

“Think my dad was more concerned about holding up the Wall than doing much research. How can you tell they’re daemons?” Noct asked.

Iggy stepped forward and approached Laura carefully, removing his glove and reaching a tentative hand out to cup her cheek.

“May I?”

Laura looked up at him, tilting her head in a silent question. When she nodded, Ignis cradled her cheek in his palm and gently brushed his thumb over the trickling fluid. He pulled his hand back and stared at his thumb curiously.

“M’fine,” she said when he rubbed the fluid between his fingers and looked up at her. “It’s just blood. Not human, remember? It’ll be gone by tonight.” She turned to Noct. “Their minds are identical to the daemons we fight all the time—teeming with the same slimy, black, oily substance we see when we kill them. I’ve never seen anything like it before coming to this planet.”

“What is it, you think?”

She shook her head and opened the car door. “I don’t know. It feels so wrong and abhorrent that I’m afraid to look directly at it telepathically.”

They all got back in the car and shut the doors behind them, and as Noct turned them around to head to Galdin, Laura let out a sigh.

“It’s been three days since . . . how much longer will you need to recover?” Ignis asked curtly.

“A few more days. I haven’t been able to get the sleep I’ve needed lately.”

“I see.”

Without exchanging another word, Iggy raised his arm and leaned toward the door, and Gladio didn’t need to keep watching to know that Laura would tuck herself into Ignis’s side and fall asleep before they’d even gone a mile.

After delivering the gems and refueling, Ignis insisted that he take over the wheel for the trip back north.

“What’s wrong, Specs? Don’t like how I drive?”

“I should like to resume our regular routine.”

“Yeah, but you drive too slow. I got a need for speed.”

“A need to test our mortality, more like. Yet the differences in our driving has nothing to do with fondness for the accelerator but my ability to keep my eyes on the road.”

Noct let out a half-hearted chuckle, but it was enough to prove he was trying to let things go back to normal, even if everyone in the car was well-aware the effort was forced. “What can I say? You got twice as many as I do.”

“And yet you somehow manage to spot twice as many places to stop.”

“Yeah, well,” Noct yawned, “the car gets boring after a while. Wake me the next time we pass a Crow’s Nest, ‘kay Specs?”

“Something to look forward to, Highness.”

***

Gladio let out a long sigh and tensed his leg muscles, wishing he had a little more space to stretch out. He would’ve preferred sitting in the back seat had it just been the four of them; he wouldn’t’ve had to shove himself between the door and an armrest that way. Prompto and Noct had just recently woken up and were grumbling quietly about finding more food, but Gladio was ignoring them in favor of his book. He’d have to put it away soon; the sun was just beginning to set, which meant Iggy would need an extra pair of eyes on the road in case any daemons popped up.

Which might’ve been why Iggy was sitting straight up in the driver’s seat, tapping impatiently on the steering wheel and staring ahead with an intense expression.

Laura suddenly leaned into the space between the front seats, placing her chin on Gladio’s shoulder. “Still working on the tea book?”

“Yeah. Tried to find your tea in here earlier but couldn’t.”

She hummed. “The gyokuro? It might be under a different name on this planet. Lemme see?”

“Gyokuro,” Iggy said under his breath, his eyes still locked on the road but his tone colored in wonder. “Tea that tastes like mushrooms.”

Laura turned her head in Iggy’s direction. “Yes,” she said softly, but he didn’t say anything more.

When Gladio handed her the book, she sat back in her seat, turned to the section on tea types, and flipped through each page at a rapid pace. She did this for about twenty seconds, flipping through all one hundred pages of the chapter as her eyes darted rapidly from page to page. When she finished, she handed it back to him opened to the page he’d been reading.

“Sorry, out of luck. Doesn’t look like they’ve invented shade-grown tea here yet. I’d give you what I have, but it spoils really quickly. Best to keep it in the null-time pocket. I’ll tell you what though, it’s yours. Just ask whenever you want some.”

“You sure?”

“Course I’m sure! Gladio, you have no idea how much tea stuff I have. I think I have enough types to blow your mind with a different tea every day. What do you say? New morning routine? If we’re not rushed one morning, I can even teach you a new style of brewing.”

“Hell yeah, let’s do it,” Gladio said with a smile, but as he looked back at her and saw up close that translucent, waxy skin and those dark circles beneath her eyes, he added, “when you’re feeling better.”

“How much stuff can you keep in that armiger of yours anyway? It really isn’t anything like ours, is it?” Noct asked.

“I don’t think so, but then I don’t really know that much about how your armiger works. Mine isn’t even called an armiger, actually. I guess I just call it ‘The Pocket,’ but it’s not a name I use often because I never really talk about it with anyone. It’s null-time, just like yours appears to be, so food doesn’t go bad. Accessible anywhere—that sort of thing. Does make things like aging teas and raising levain difficult though.”

“Seems like you can put anything in there. We can carry a lot, but it’s not unlimited. And it kinda depends on me to make adjustments to what can be inserted.”

“Yeah,” Gladio grunted. “Noticed it’ll take Prompto’s camera but not our phones.”

“Hey! It was hard enough adding the food and clothes and stuff! And you guys didn’t exactly pack light.”

“Lucky Laura didn’t add much,” Prompto said.

“Ahh, yeah, space in mine is pretty much infinite. I collect a lot of things in my travels, and I need it. I later connected it to an energy source that has a tendency to get bored and create more space for fun, so it gets even bigger on a whim.”

Before Gladio could even ask what the hell that was supposed to mean, she turned to him with a smile.

“You know, maybe you should start a tea farm when this is all over and invent your own shade-grown tea—like a hobby. I think you could probably achieve a similar flavor with Lucian varieties. Maybe if you—” She leaned over him and flipped several pages. “—crossbred the Cibum cultivar with the Boletus, perhaps add in a bit of the Herba over the generations, I think the flavor profile would be similar.”

Huh, he’d never given any thought to pursuing his hobbies back home. Officially earning his title as Shield had taken up most of his time, and it wasn’t like the load had gotten any lighter since. But maybe if he was creative about it, he could do both once they’d gotten the city back on its feet. He could even help people.

As King Regis had gotten older and his job centered more around keeping the Wall intact, his dad had had hobbies—like calligraphy and even painting now and then. Maybe crafting the perfect cup of tea could be his. He could work with Lucian farmers to see to the trees, and maybe he could have a tea shop or something someone else could run. He could source teaware from local potters, display and sell art from local artists, even provide a space for local musicians to perform. It’d give people some jobs, and he could do something he actually chose for himself at the same time.

“Pardon me,” Iggy said, interrupting his plans, “but did you just read that entire book?”

“Not the whole thing—about a quarter of it.” Ignis looked over at the two of them from the corner of his eye, then returned to watching the road. Laura pointed at her head and added, “Photographic memory.”

I have a photographic memory,” he said irritably, “and I assure you I cannot do that.”

“All right, flash photographic memory then.” Iggy sputtered in response, and she laughed merrily. “Stop trying to compete with another species. It’s not fair, Ignis.”

“Oh, snap! Are you jealous, Iggy?” Prompto teased.

“Seriously though, Princess, is there anything you’re not amazing at? It’s getting kind of annoying.”

Her voice grew quiet. “There are a lot of things I’m not good at, actually.”

Damn. It seemed like every time he asked her a personal question, he made her sad.

“The worst one being figuring things out in time,” she continued. “I’ve had seven thousand years to learn things, which makes me seem smart to you guys, but really, it just makes me an encyclopedia. Though my experience learning things the hard way helps me out a lot, it still doesn’t mean I’m a good strategist.”

Her eyes flickered to Iggy, who frowned sharply.

She suddenly shifted to a bright tone, her accent flipping like a light switch, “But I’m bad at other stuff, too. Like maths. Oh gods, was I terrible at maths in school! We ‘ad this teacher that’d give us ‘omework every day, yeah? And I’d trade wiv my mate Shareen—my French for her maths. We’d copy off each other all the time. Only way I made it through school. Well, actually I didn’t. Never did get my A-levels. Left school when I was sixteen to move in wiv a punk rocker.”

“Am I to understand that you cheated your way through your education and then dropped out of school?” Ignis asked, clearly appalled.

“Uh oh,” Noct chuckled. “I think you just broke Iggy.”

She let out another laugh and slapped his shoulder. “Yep! Keep tha’ in mind the next time you call me Your Majesty or a goddess, will ya?”

“You are a most dichotomous creature,” he replied, shaking his head.

“And some of the arts I’m pretty bad at too,” she continued. “I can sing al’right, but any sor’ of instrument? Buggered. I was forced to play violin in secondary school, then forced to stop after a year.”

“Iggy plays the violin really well, don’t ya, Ig?” Gladio said.

“Well, I make do.”

“Bullshit. Guy could’ve been a prodigy if it weren’t for having to take care of that useless bag of bones back there.”

“Hey! I’ve got muscle, and I’m useful enough to take you on,” Noct retorted.

“Oh yeah? Keep count of your Nifs tonight. We’ll see who’s more useful.”

“You’re on.”

Gladio looked over just as Laura leaned forward again, her chin resting on the edge of Iggy’s shoulder. Gladio couldn’t make out the words she said, but he could hear her low, almost seductive tone as she murmured something into his ear.

Iggy’s mouth fell open a little. He took in a stuttering breath before replying, “W-well, I’m out of practice, and I’m afraid I was never very good to begin with.”

“Somehow I doubt that, but it doesn’t really matter as long as you enjoy it.”

“Yes, but I wouldn’t want to inflict it on someone else.” When he turned his gaze away from the road for a second to see her pleading, hopeful expression, he added, “However, if you’re that keen to ruin your evening, perhaps we can arrange to borrow a violin at some point.”

She hummed in response and gave him a warm smile before turning to Gladio. “But why am I always the one answering questions? Seems like I’m the only one we ever talk about.”

“Cause you got enough weird to fill up all of Lucis, Princess.”

She punched him on the shoulder. “I wanna know what you boys are bad at. Come on! Out with it! What was your worst subject in school?”

“History!” Prompto and Noct called out immediately together, giving each other a fist bump behind Laura’s back.

Prompto added, “Yeah, we had history together, and it was sooo boring! He had that droning voice that’d put me to sleep every time! Thought I was gonna die in that room.”

“After that, we had this teacher with this hideous wig, and we’d try to get paper balls stuck in there when she wasn’t looking,” Noct said. “And every time a war came up, she’d glare at me like it was my fault. What about you, Gladio?”

“Dad would’ve killed me if I’d done bad in any subject. Uh . . . I was pretty weak in orchestra, I guess. Played viola in the same community class as Iggy for a couple of years. Outside of school? I sucked at sewing.”

“Dude! When’d you take up sewing?” Prompto asked. “And . . . why? I can’t picture that.”

Gladio smiled to himself. “Around the time Iris turned eight and got into fashion. Took a class with her so she’d have someone to go with and so I could spend more time with her.”

“You adore her,” Laura said with a soft smile.

“Yeah, she’s a good kid. It’s rough being so far away from her right now, but I’m glad she’s safe.”

Gladio hoped he’d hear from her soon; he hadn’t since Insomnia fell. Dustin would take good care of her—he was one of his dad’s best Crownsguard—but Gladio was eager to get this base handled so they could get to Lestallum and see for himself that she was safe. As much as he tried to shove it aside, he had to accept that he was head of House Amicitia now—he was no longer Marquess Gladiolus, but Gladiolus Amicitia, Duke of Myrl, so Iris, and even Jared and Talcott were his responsibility.

Fuck, that was a terrifying thought. His old man hadn’t been around much their entire lives, so Iris was tougher than she looked, but with the way things were working out, he was gonna be even more absent. Gladio’s first duty was to Noct, no matter what, and the only blood fami